In travelling to new places, one might reasonably assume that the strangest experiences will be those had in completely unfamiliar environments; that being fully encased in the unprecedented is what would form the strongest impression of having strayed far from home. But this isn’t always true. When you’re in a place totally different from your personal norm, without any means of escape, there’s no choice but to adapt to your new surroundings as quickly as possible. I find that, even in the most foreign of circumstances, it doesn’t take long to acquire a surface-level understanding of what’s happening (though gaining a deep one is a very different matter). For better or for worse, the foreign can’t stay foreign long when you’re stuck right in the middle of it.
Instead, I find that perhaps the strangest travel experience one can have is when you’ve adapted yourself as much as you possibly can to a foreign environment, and then some odd, senseless, little piece of the world you’ve left far behind comes trickling back into your new surroundings. Suddenly, the process of cultural acclimatization you’ve been working so hard at comes to a screeching halt. The invasive bit of your world seems bizarre in its present context, but also in its own right. It serves to highlight just how very unlikely it is that you should be where you are, and also how very strange it is that these people from such a different world should have any contact with yours. That the contact should be in the form of such a silly little fragment of your world is just the icing on the weirdness cake. In short, both worlds, and so all the world, are briefly shown for what they really are: intrinsically peculiar.
That isn’t to say that all worlds are equally strange. America, by virtue of producing so much, has pumped a gigantic quotient of oddity into the world, which is a fact that’s been mulled over, and sometimes lamented, by countless writers before me.
Take WWE. In case you don’t know what that is, the letters stand for World Wrestling Entertainment, and the further one ventures into the deepest, darkest, most thoroughly forgotten corners of Riwar, the more significant the clashes of these large men (and women) in tights become. Back home in America, I only vaguely knew what WWE was. I thought it was goofy and mystifying, to the extent that I thought about it at all, but it was only in the remote villages of the Khasi Hills that I learned of the epic struggles of John Cena, Triple H, and Roman Reigns as they pretended to hurt each other in improbable ways. If a single T.V. is to be found in a Riwar village, one can assume that it will have a gaggle of Khasi males, from six to sixty and beyond, transfixed before the screen as muscle-bound Pharengs who almost certainly haven’t heard of Meghalaya slam into each other for the enjoyment of enraptured villagers the world over.
Once, I found myself hanging around in the house of the headman of Suktia village. It had been raining heavily almost non-stop for a few days straight. This meant there was no signal for the house’s satellite T.V., the only one within a twenty-house radius, which was a big problem as ‘Wrestlemania’ was on later that night.
But then there was a break in the clouds, and the first thing the headman did was turn on WWE. A tag team called ‘The New Day’ was fighting ‘The League of Nations’. The New Day were three large muscly black guys who showed up to the match inside a giant cereal box. The cereal was called Booty O’s. The League of Nations were a bunch of big, very serious, vaguely fascist-looking dudes, led by a huge redheaded Irishman named Shamus. The New Day popped out of their cereal box and tooted trumpets and assorted jazz instruments at the League as a sort of preliminary bombardment of annoyance, and then the match proper ensued. The League fought hard, but couldn’t overcome The New Day’s dazzling psychological tactics, which mostly consisted of banging on cymbals and waving their butts from the sides of the ring. At the time, I wondered if I should have explained to the assembled War Khasis that this absurd spectacle was pure fantasy and that America really wasn’t that much like the images on their screen. But in the end, I had to admit to myself that America is more like tag teams bursting out of cereal boxes and shaking their booties than you might think (and this isn’t necessarily something I’m embarrassed about. To paraphrase Vice President Mike Pence: ‘That’s what freedom looks like.’)
As this typically apocalyptic clash of WWE tag teams played itself out on the T.V., an old man walked up out of the jungle and came to the house. His clothes were soaked and ragged, and his legs were covered in bruises, scratches, and cuts. I could see in his face that he was deeply exhausted. He had just been out collecting a variety of rare herbs somewhere on Suktia’s land. The man, not knowing the weather would clear, and probably assuming it wouldn’t, had left early in the morning and climbed down into a difficult patch of jungle, all in the pouring rain. That herb wasn’t going to pick itself, which meant a long, wet, dangerous, tiring, day. But coming back into Suktia, and seeing that the downpour had, at least for the moment, subsided, his first thought was to go to the nearest house with a T.V., and, despite being beat and bloodied and filthy, his priority was to watch three muscly Jazz tooters burst from their cereal box and triumph over The League of Nations.
And if WWE, in its singularly American weirdness, can bring a bit of joy and entertainment to an unimaginably hard-working agriculturalist like the man from Suktia village, then I’m all for it.
Foreign media has a way of seeping into unexpected places. The O’ Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack album is a perennial favorite at Sohra’s top backpacking spot. An acoustic version of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is almost as much a part of the ambient noise of a Nongriat jungle night as the gurgling of the nearby river. Strange bouncing buses full of hard partying 15 to 80-year-old drunks thunder disconcertingly along Meghalaya’s highways blasting techno-trance remixes of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball.’ In walking from Shnongpdeng village to Sohra, I watched parts of Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer no less than three times.
Hindi media, also, filters into the remoter parts of Riwar. It’s often the last thing to remind one that these far-off places are still, technically, part of India. I’ve always gotten the impression that many city and small town folks in Meghalaya feel superior to Indian popular movies and music, but villagers seem, generally, to have less affected tastes. Not knowing Hindi, they’ll still listen to a Bollywood song if they like the tune. A friend in Sohra who used to download music onto people’s cell phones claims that not long ago villagers from many miles around would come to his shop and indicate which Hindi song they wanted to download by reciting the song verbatim, having memorized the whole thing without understanding a single word.
It’s a universal fact that there really isn’t anything like a proper, purely entertaining masala movie (either of the Hindi sort, or of the south Indian bug-eyed car-tossing hero variety). It may not be the best movie ever made, but it fills a certain worthy niche that no other form of entertainment can. One night, after ten hours or so of dangerous hiking, I wound up in the small house of an extended family of villagers who were watching, of all things, the Sharukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit film Dil To Pagal Hai. Now, this ridiculous, quintessentially late 90s Bollywood family romantic fantasy is not what I’d call great cinema, but following a day’s worth of physically brutal, mind-numbing adventure, there was really nothing in the history of film that I would rather have been watching.
Every once in a while I would feel the need to tear myself away from the musical goings on and stretch my legs in the village. Outside the house, ash was falling from the sky. A huge shifting cultivation fire was burning on the next slope over. The crackling sound of trees being consumed echoed through the night and across the valley of the Muor River. The fire was so close to the village that the whole ridge the settlement occupied had taken on a fickle, unearthly glow, which changed in seconds from yellow to orange to red. The air reeked of burning plant matter. A few houses downhill, several local animists had gotten together to perform some kind of ritual. Low rhythmic chanting from many unseen mouths, accompanied by a slow beat on a traditional percussion instrument, wafted softly through the village, the unintelligible music just barely loud enough to be heard. When I asked the next day what the music was, my hosts, Catholics all, denied any knowledge of the matter, merely hinting that there were a few families in the village that clung to older ways of thinking.
Out in the glowing night, the soft pagan music combined with the crackling of the burning fields, but to these two tracks was overlaid the dulcet notes of Lata Mangeshkar and Udit Narayan singing ‘Koi Ladki Hai’. Standing outside the house, I could look inside and see Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit dancing in the rain, and then, gazing out over the roof towards the not-so-distant ridge opposite, I could also see a vast, catastrophically beautiful arch of fire, as an area the size of a village was reduced to ashes.
I felt like a citizen of the world.
Going back inside, the Khasis in the house eventually grew tired of Dil To Pagal Hai. For a while, they switched to ten-year-old bootleg DVDs of long forgotten WWE clashes. Then they shifted to a locally-made Khasi language film. Now, I’m all for Khasis having their own film industry, but this movie didn’t look too promising. All I remember about it was that it had a genuinely offensive comedy subplot involving a racist stereotype of a Bangladeshi illegal immigrant who wound up with a roasted masala corn cob up his rear end.
To my knowledge, the movie wasn’t nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars that year.
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