By Jug Suraiya
We were in Meghalaya, ‘The Land of Clouds’. So what would be more appropriate than that we take a walk through the cloudscape.
In Meghalaya, nothing is easier to arrange. From the state capital of Shillong – a bustling city whose population has grown from some 30,000 in the early 1960s to some six million now – we took a taxi to Cherrapunjee, 50-odd km away.
Cherrapunjee, as everyone knows, has the distinction of being the rainiest place in the world. Of recent times other places have challenged Cherrapunjee’s title, but with a recorded precipitation of 13,472.4 mm in 2010, Cherra (or Sohra, as it’s now locally known as) stands by its world’s-wettest claim.
At some 4,300 feet above sea level, Cherrapunjee is a little lower than Shillong, which is situated at 4,900 feet. The drive – along a winding, narrow but surprisingly well-paved road – takes us through dense forests which suddenly open up to gently rolling hills like the swells of a sea drowning in its own greenness.
And suddenly, in the wink of an eye, the green is gone, the hills are gone, the world has gone. We have been enveloped by a drifting cloud. Our taxi driver is barely able to see the ghost of a road a few feet from the car’s blazing headlights. But he is an experienced hill driver, well-versed in the ways of clouds, and his confidence in being able to navigate us safely through near-zero visibility communicates itself to us.
We seem to be cocooned in cool cotton wool which muffles sound. We see cloud. We hear cloud. We breathe cloud. We are cloud.
Our car noses its way slowly down the driveway of a small resort hotel which has a glass-fronted semi-circular façade. We order masala chai and wait for the clouds to pass. We’ve been told that from here we’ll get to see the most spectacular view that Cherrapunjee has to offer: the Seven Sisters waterfalls, seven cascades of water that plummet down from hundreds of feet into the giddy depths below.
Will we get to see the Seven Sisters? It depends on the whims of the clouds that surround us. And clouds can be very whimsical indeed. Sitting and sipping masala chai and waiting to get a view of the Seven Sisters, I think of the whimsicality of clouds. In the English language, which was born in a cold climate, clouds by and large have negative connotations. In idiomatic English, a dark cloud represents gloom, which may or may not have a silver lining of hope.
But in the lands of sun, which is what India mostly is, clouds are not a bane but a blessing. Clouds give us shade from the fire of the summer sun. Most importantly, clouds are the harbingers of rain, the life-giving rain that revives the scorched earth and makes it yield up its secret of grain and grass.
Yes, for all their whims and vagaries, clouds by and large are a good thing for us. And we share a certain affinity with them.
Clouds are invisible air made visible, the intangible made tangible. In that they are both aetherial and physical, clouds are like us: beings made up of mind and matter, imperceptible spirit and perceptible form, suspended between earth and sky in splendid isolation, belonging in part to both but wholly to neither.
Then, suddenly as they came, the clouds part, like a curtain swept aside. The Seven Sisters spring into full view, seven milk-white spumes plunging down forest-cloaked cliffs into the dizzying gorge below, the falling water turned by alchemy into swirling smoke. It’s one of the most breathtaking sights I have ever seen. Thunder claps its giant hands to applaud the show.
The clouds let us look at the Seven Sisters for almost a full 15 minutes. Then like a veil being drawn across the face of a beautiful woman, made all the more bewitching because of the transience of the glimpse that we have been given of her loveliness, the clouds cover the scene again.
“Strange things, these clouds,” says another visitor, looking out at a world vanished into whiteness. “Very strange,” I agree. In fact, almost as strange as we are, travellers between two worlds, I tell myself as I take my leave of the clouds.