‘Slap’ is one of my favorite Khasi words. It means ‘rain,’ and if you’ve spent any time in Meghalaya during the wet season, ‘slap’ will be a familiar sound: it’s the noise hard rain makes when it hits the ground. During those long soggy monsoon days when all of Riwar slows down in the endless downpours, the Slap, and what the Slap’s going to do next, when it’s going to end, and how tired everybody is of it, are constant topics of conversation.
Trapped in remote villages, unable to walk more than a few meters outside because of biblical weather conditions, I’ve spent entire days hanging around on the floors of Khasi houses with the extended families I’ve been so graciously taken in by with nothing to do but tend to a fire for hours on end. The script, in Sohra Khasi, for one of these long rainy days might go something like this: Wan slap! (It’s raining!), di shya (drink tea), bam kwai (have kwai), slap slap slap! (rain rain rain!), di shya, bam kwai, Oh Slaaaaaaaaaaap! (accompanied by dispirited nodding by all within earshot), bam ja (eat rice), bam suk! (eat well … usually meaning eat more), bam kwai, bam kwai, Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! (utter despair) di shya, bam kwai, bam ja (meaning it’s dinner time), Slap! Kwai. Slap! Kwai. Slap! Kwai. Tiah Suk! (Good night!).
Repeat the next day.
The rainy season comes in two great acts. More famous is the second, when the sky is so thoroughly saturated with moisture coming up from the Bay of Bengal that week after week will disappear into a steady, solid, grey, downpour. It varies widely from year to year, but usually by July a continuous uplift in the atmosphere has established itself over the southern escarpment of the Shillong Plateau, resulting in an endless stream of water being pulled first into, and then laboriously over, the valleys and canyons of Riwar. The ‘Abode of the Clouds’ sobriquet (the literal meaning of ‘Meghalaya’) applied to the region is more than earned during this time. If it’s not raining, it’s so foggy that just breathing feels like inhaling liters of H2O. But if the clouds do break and the sun happens to shine through, the air is so hot, humid, and heavy, that one begins to wish it would cloud over, cool down, and start raining again.
This is the time when records are broken. The weather station in the town of Mawsynram once recorded 84 feet of rain in a single year. One time Sohra reported three feet of precipitation in the space of a day. But the numbers mean less than you might think. Locals often criticize these readings and then claim that the particular spot they inhabit on the soaked wall of the Khasi Hills is in fact the most rain pummeled. It’s impossible to say if this is true; there are only a few weather stations in the area, and as the smallest local variation in the shape of the land can drastically affect the amount of precipitation received, it’s unlikely that the stations are located exactly at the points where the most rain falls. Only God knows which place he chooses to make soggiest.
The height of the monsoon, the middle of the second act, is characterized by steady hard rain, rarely accompanied by harsh winds or lightening, as though the forces of nature have finally settled down and firmly decided what kind of weather they wish to inflict on the good people of southern Meghalaya for the next few months. But it’s during the first act that the forces come to this decision, and it is not without some difficulty. As the dry season slowly transitions into the rainy, clouds build day by day, but the process is one of starts and stops, of mostly cloudy days where rain seems imminent but never materializes, and mostly sunny days where short lived, localized downpours appear out of nowhere. Over weeks and months, the temperature slowly gets hotter, and the sky slowly gets grayer, but cooler, dryer masses of air still sometimes reclaim their position high above the Shillong Plateau and must be forced out of place by bodies of much warmer, wetter, air being driven up from the south.
By the middle of spring, these two forces become locked in battle every night. At the edges of Riwar’s canyons, currents of warm moist air are forced up into cooler air high in the atmosphere. Mountains of cumulonimbus clouds build up practically from the ground itself, rapidly forming into violent, terrible, lightning-crowned storms. The war for the possession of the sky is manifested in one great tempest after another, until the wet air from the south has fully established itself over the plateau, and the monsoon proper begins.
I found myself revisiting Rangthylliang during a year when the springtime battles for the atmosphere were unusually intense. I had hoped to go out into the jungle to visit some of the village’s living root bridges, but thus far this had proved impossible. A weather pattern of near constant storms had settled over the village and wouldn’t budge. For 48 hours, a continuous cycle of hard rain, lightening, and wind, had set in. Riwar storms don’t sweep quickly over an area in the way the thunderstorms caused by a fast-moving cold front do. In Southern Meghalaya, they develop over a high point in the topography, resting on top of the land until the energy in that area is spent, forming a kind of temporary meteorological extension of the hills that climbs far up into the atmosphere.
With the deluge pouring on and on outside, Morningglory, John Cena, and I had nothing to do but sit in a hut. The power was sporadic, and doing anything, even visiting a neighbor, often meant braving a wall of water and wind. There was the occasional short window of sunshine, just enough to get our hopes up that the storms were coming to an end, and also just enough to charge the atmosphere even more, ensuring that the storms got even worse later on.
The hut had been commissioned by Morningglory and put together by John Cena and a few other villagers as a sort of prototype homestay. The idea is that this kind of locally made structure will be what the tourists Morningglory hopes will one day flock to his village will sleep in. The hut was built from bamboo, local wood, and grass. As per traditional Khasi constructions, it didn’t use any metal or nails, the various parts of it being held together with tightly wound and tied bamboo strips. At one end of the cozy building was a small, raised, bed, just long enough for me to fit in, again made from wood and bamboo. In the center of the hut was a small fireplace, sunk about an inch into the bamboo thatch floor, which consisted of a couple of bricks meant for propping up wood located in the middle of a base made from the ashes of fires past. By adding a little bit of water, the ashes had been made into a paste, and with each additional fire this ash-plaster had been spread smoothly over the base, so that the floor of the fireplace was given a new layer at each new burning. Hanging above the fireplace, suspended by a rope, was a bamboo kindling rack, always filled with spare wood. Even if the kindling came directly from the soaking outdoors, it would soon dry with the heat coming up from the fire below.
The three of us spent hours sitting around the flames with the wind and the rain lashing the little hut. Every once in a while, when the downpours seemed to be slackening off a bit, we would begin to plan an excursion to the root bridges in the jungle. But then the rain would kick up again in full force, and our plans would wash away in the flood. With nothing better to do, we consumed huge amounts of Kwai. A mouse or small rat was living somewhere in the walls, and the three of us spent much of our time trying to flush it out. I think John Cena wanted to eat it. In rare dry spells, visitors would stop by, and then wish they hadn’t when the rain started up again and they couldn’t leave. Slowly, we accumulated more and more stranded villagers around the fire, and over the course of the day the limited floor space of the hut would gradually disappear under wet Khasis.
But, so far, despite my not being able to do what I had come to do, I was reasonably happy. The hut was a perfectly fine place to wait out the endless storm. The traditional construction methods had proven more than adequate. Only a little bit of water had gotten in. My only reservation was the concrete outhouse, which had also been built recently. This was close, but could only be reached by crossing a stream, perhaps twenty feet in width, over a narrow bridge made from three bamboo poles, two to walk on, and the last to hold onto for balance. If it wasn’t raining, the streambed would be dry, but if it had been (and mostly, it had) then the stream would be roaring, the angry waters nearly reaching up to the bridge. One morning, I awoke to find different bamboo poles in place, and learned that the bridge had been washed away during the night.
The outhouse was located only a few feet from the edge of a thousand foot drop off. When in spate, the stream plunged over this precipice in a great cascade, the place where the water leapt from the Earth only a few feet to the right of the outhouse. With the addition of the constant distant thunder reverberating across the hills, answering nature’s call during my time in Rangthylliang had the quality of a really weird, vaguely unpleasant (though interesting) dream. I was willing to put up with surreal death-defying outhouse visits, but Morningglory should probably come up with different bathroom arrangements for his later guests.
Finally, all three of us grew sick of sitting indoors chasing the rats in the walls (as oddly satisfying as that was). We decided to defy the storms and venture out for a walk. I grabbed my wide umbrella I had bought in Sohra, while Morningglory and John Cena donned rain-proof Knups. Knups, as you might be wondering, are an ingenious piece of Khasi tribal tech, shaped rather like the carapace of a tortoise shell, which are traditionally made from two layers of interwoven bamboo and cane sandwiching a third layer of waterproof palm leaves, though these days the leaves are often switched for rain-resistant synthetic material.
As well prepared for what the weather gods might throw at us as we could be, we headed outside. At first, there was only light rain and mist, but ten minutes out the door it began to pour, though Morningglory and John Cena seemed barely to notice.
We headed in the general direction of a hill that looms over Rangthylliang. This is a prominent feature, visible from some distance in clear weather, as it protrudes a few hundred feet out of the top of the comparatively flat tableland around Pynursla. It’s said to be full of coal, and until recently was the sight of large amounts of both legal and illegal mining, with a long, intersecting network of tunnels having been dug into it. The interior of the feature was so heavily excavated that the hill began to resemble a great black Swiss cheese. Then the tunnels started to collapse, which caused the entire prominence to begin to subside and fall in on itself. Locals claim that the summit of the hill is now noticeably lower than it was during their childhood.
As we reached the coal-filled mound and started climbing up, we could look into numerous holes recently dug into the side of the feature. While industrial mining has ceased in the past few years due to a ban handed down by the national government, local, illegal, rathole mining continues. Peering into the unstable tunnels dug out with hand tools, one could only marvel at the risks coal poachers would take to access the center of the mountain. Now, as the whole scarred little ridge became saturated in the rain, each one of these illegal tunnels vomited rivers of dirty brown and black water into the nearby jungle.
We had hoped that the weather would, if not clear entirely, at least improve, and that by climbing the hill we would get a view out over the nearby countryside. But as they say, if you don’t like the weather in Meghalaya, just wait five minutes, then you’ll really be sorry. As we neared the top of the hill, the rain having alternated for the last hour between several kinds of intense, extreme, and apocalyptic, the clouds miraculously opened for all of forty-five seconds, giving the three of us a fleeting hope that we might walk home in sunshine. In that brief window, we could stare up into the blue sky directly at the center of a circling system of towering storm clouds, which we seemed to be floating amongst even though our feet were on the ground. But as quickly as this window appeared, it closed again, dark mist enveloping the hill. A strong wind kicked up, and a light rain started pelting us. I found myself not holding my umbrella overhead, but directly in front, against the wind, and wondering if the thin metal ribs were going to be able to take much more abuse.
Now the wind abruptly changed direction, coming in from the side and nearly ripping the umbrella from my hands. It was even stronger now, but also cold…colder than anything I had felt in months. It seemed like the temperature had dropped twenty-five degrees in a matter of seconds. Then I heard what sounded like rocks hitting the ground. I felt a painful impact on my leg, like getting shot with a paintball.
‘Hail! Hail! Run!’ shouted Morningglory.
Suddenly the ground went white as millions of chunks of ice, some more than an inch-and-a-half wide, came hurtling from the sky. The chattery sound of the innumerable freezing pellets impacting with each other and with the ground drowned out every other noise. We ran along looking for cover, but the top of the hill had largely been stripped of vegetation due to the mining. There wasn’t anywhere to hide from the ice bullets; when they hit the ground, they bounced right back up in our faces. My umbrella wasn’t much use. As the hail rebounding from the ground blasted my lower body, strong gusts of wind seemed to come in from all sides, turning my umbrella inside out several times. Trying to brace against the wind somehow resulted in getting hit in the face with hail. There really wasn’t anything to do but trudge on through the plummeting ice, cursing and shouting along the way. I wished I had a knup. My Khasi companions were still getting hit in the legs, but their homemade rain gear seemed to be holding up much better than my store-bought umbrella.
Finally, the ice bombardment became too intense to keep moving forward. John Cena and Morningglory crouched down on the ground, their knups held tightly to their backs, looking for all the world like two frightened, shaking, turtles, with hundreds of white icy pellets bouncing off them. I followed suit, clinging as closely to the ground, and hiding as much of myself under my umbrella, as I could, which kept me out of the worst of the wind, though ricocheting hailstones continued to hit me in my legs and back.
And then, as abruptly as it had started, it was over.
I distinctly heard the sound of the colliding ice-pellets moving off to the north as the hailstorm pushed into the valley of the Pynursla river. The air warmed up just as quickly as it had cooled down. The sun shone for a few seconds. I looked ahead, and saw an arm tentatively extend out from under John Cena’s knup. Slowly, he picked up a particularly large hailstone, examined it for a few seconds, and then popped it in his mouth.
‘Babaang!’ (tasty!), said he.
And then everything was all right. We all stood up and headed back to the hut, discussing meteorological phenomena on the way. It started raining again in a few minutes, in what would have been a heavy downpour anywhere else in the world, but in Rangthylliang was but a drizzle.
But the storms weren’t through with us yet. While for a few hours the weather seemed like it was improving, night swept in soon after we got back, and the temperature dropped with it. The sky worked itself into a fury once more. An almost continuous, intensifying, rumbling advanced towards Rangthylliang. Due to the giant gorge only a hundred feet away from the hut, whenever lightning struck nearby, the sound would reverberate off the nearby slopes, which resulted in each roll of thunder lasting for what seemed an eternity. As the storm got closer the rate of nearby lightning strikes increased until there was never any quiet. Each procession of echoing thunder followed so closely on the cacophony which came before that one wouldn’t have time to die away before another began.
In the hut, our mood slowly changed as the weather outside grew more frightening. At first, we enjoyed ourselves as we had dinner around the fire and dried out after our hail-in-the-face excursion. The last few days had been characterized by one thunderstorm after another, so at first this new atmospheric disturbance didn’t seem remarkable. But then the lightening became more and more frequent, and also closer. Suddenly, there was a snap, as though outside the sky itself was being ripped apart. This was followed instantaneously with a thunderclap so loud that it seemed like a cannon was being fired right outside the hut. I felt it in the pit of my stomach. In that same explosive instant, the little light in the hut went out. Another crack, just as loud, followed immediately. The flash came perhaps half a second before this second thunderclap, but in-between the lightening and the thunder, I heard what sounded like an electrical current being discharged somewhere close by, right outside the hut.
All three of us knew that this storm was something above and beyond the usual Riwar springtime tempest. It was time to start worrying. Thunderclap followed deafening thunderclap. John Cena had had enough. He curled up in a blanket next to the fire and pretended to go to sleep. He stayed there, flinching at each new burst, well into the night.
‘Is this normal?’ I shouted over the storm to Morningglory.
‘No,’ he shouted back. ‘The worst I’ve ever seen!’
A great flash, along with the sound of the electrical current outside, presaged another burst of thunder. Morningglory and I flinched and put our hands up to our ears. The cannon went off again.
‘I think God is mad at Rangthylliang!’ said Morningglory. ‘He’s punishing us!’
Another flash, flinch, and crash.
‘What did you do?’
‘I don’t know!’
‘Maybe this is for something our ancestors did!’ Morningglory added.
A bolt hit something only meters from the hut with a tearing sound, the noise arriving at the same instant as the electrical discharge. John Cena curled up even tighter.
‘Or maybe you did something!’ said Morningglory.
‘Well, whatever it was, I’m sorry.’
The wind was blowing furiously now, forcing the palm leaf and bamboo walls of the hut inward, and the wood that made up the beams to bend audibly. Cold rain flew in sideways through whatever openings it could find with such force that there was no avoiding getting sprinkled. Hail, once again, started falling, striking the side of the hut with a sound like the building was being pelted with stones. The wind invaded every inch of the little building. We all crowded as close as we could over the red embers of the disturbed fire, its flames whipping around in circles, trying to keep the wind out of it. I think all of us were wondering if the hut was going to be able to stand up to the punishment being dealt to it.
For hour after hour, the storm raged on. It wasn’t going anywhere. As Rangthylliang is situated on top of a plateau, its buildings might as well be lightning rods. Bolts were landing all around, the explosions of electricity so close that we could feel them through the ground. Fearfully we all shifted our gaze from the fire to the roof, worried that at any second the ceiling of the tiny building would disintegrate in a great burst of white light, and that that might be the last thing we would ever see. Morningglory and I tried our best to appear calm and collected, though after a while the tattoo of deafening thunder was so constant that we were both reduced to sitting hunched over, staring into the fire with our hands at our ears. There was no use removing them. The next blast was never more than a few seconds away.
Through the night, the buzzing sound of an electrical current that accompanied each lightning bolt, and which always came just before each crack of thunder, continued. But while the thunder seemed to come from every direction, the noise of the current always sounded like it came from the same place: the yard outside. In the middle of the storm, I briefly opened one of the hut’s little windows, the wind at the time blowing against the opposite wall of the structure. Looking out over the wind and rain lashed open area in front of the hut’s small porch, I could see everything illuminated in a weird, constantly changing, blue, purple, and white flashing light. Lightning bolts were still coming down close by, and at times the world around lit up so brightly that an image of the yard in front of the hut was burnt onto my retina. Several of these close strikes would occur within seconds, so that I wound up with several different versions of the same image overlaid onto my field of vision. Everything was bright, but next to impossible to focus on.
Across the yard there was an electrical pole. Each time a lightning bolt would land in the vicinity, sparks would fly out of the transformer at the top of the pole, accompanied by the sound of an electrical current. I realized now that each time the lightning struck, the powerline was surging. A little fraction of each bolt was passing just a few meters outside. Mightily disconcerted, I closed the window and went back to sit next to the fire. Then I put my palm to the floor, and at that moment jumped with surprise. An electric shock passed through my hand. It wasn’t strong, but it was enough to startle me. I wondered for a little while if the night was going to end with a burst of electricity. The floor of the hut was now covered in a thin layer of rainwater, so if a strong current came out of the electrical pole, I theorized that it could travel across the rain-soaked yard, and into the hut. After the fact, I’m not sure if that’s how it would work, but at times like those, the mind wanders.
On and on the storm raged. That night Rangthylliang received more rain than my hometown does in six months. I think that, if I were to put together all the close lightning strikes I had experienced in my life up until that point, they would not be one tenth as numerous as what the three of us trembled through in the hut.
After what felt like four or five hours, the lightening became less frequent, and the rain settled down … somewhat. It kept precipitating for the rest of the night, just not as hard. The thunder grew more distant, but it never stopped. None of us could rest easy. We all dreaded the return of the sky’s cacophony.
Now we could go outside now to collect firewood, though it had to be dried over the hot embers for a while before it would catch. The power was still out, and would be for, I was told later, several weeks. But we could still see with the surreal blue and purplish illumination of the lightening, though the bolts were now striking farther away. It seemed that God had sent the storm off to punish some other village for a while.
The little traditional hut had stood up remarkably well. Many of the other houses in Rangthylliang had not. The next day, we walked around the village and saw the damage the storm had done. Many-a-roof had been smashed or lifted off the buildings they had once covered. The village school, we were informed, had been directly hit by lightning. Lots of trees and branches were down.
The three of us felt bad for the poor folks in the village now getting pummeled. We suspected none of them would get a wink of sleep that night. But we also couldn’t help but feel relieved that our atmospheric troubles had, for the moment, passed on.
And then the next night the weather did the same damn thing.
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