“I’m Taller Than You” – Conversations Over Breakfast in Meghalaya
She’s beautiful. She glistens in the warmth of the morning light as if she was like a sunkissed carpet of grass decorated with tiny wildflowers. They dance in the soft October breeze. Some of them are painted pastel purple. Others: yellow, pink and lily white. In a far corner, a herd of cattle lazily walks across the sweeping grasslands. It’s as if they are all enjoying the warmth of the autumnal sun. Monsoons have passed by. A year has gone by since I last saw her.
I try to snap a photo of her without her new friends – a yarn of wires which carries hydropower electricity from one house to another. To me, they spoil her beauty. But for her, they bring a shining light in many moonless nights.
I live in a metropolis, hardly passing two hours without my smartphone. She’s not me. She’s carpets of green in monsoons. She bears yellow flowers in hazy autumns. In winters, her skin is exposed to the cold dew at dawn. In summers, she weeps with little or no water. She’s every season. She’s beauty. She’s calmness. She’s serenity the city people long for. In her, I’m lost.
Upon the hill, Sahid talks to a cowboy, who brings us a jug of fresh milk. For five minutes, we’ve been walking around the village, looking for milk. We had no luck in two households. There are 14 of them here – 14 households. The valley is dotted with more rocks than houses, which are guarded by a bunch of no-name flowers. I sit on one of the smaller rocks and call Nathan. Today, I’ve turned twenty-five.
I’m halfway to thirty and my sunburnt skin still yearns for the soft rays of the morning sun. I watch clouds pass by as if they were candy floss or castles where fairies live. Last night, as we lay next to each other, Sahid told me that sometimes, only sometimes, clouds resemble wild animals, like roaring lions or dinosaurs who found the world too harsh for them that they decided to bid adieu. And sometimes, clouds are like the innocent face of a toddler or the playful smile of a four-year-old you never had.
He makes me chai. It resembles a mud-colored puddle fed by monsoon rains. In other words, it’s the right color of chai. Two years ago, on a crowded street in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, I was treated to the best cup of chai in my life.
My friend’s chai is hardly second to the one that the Delhi chaiwala offered me. It’s full of doodh (milk). There’s not a drop of water. It’s sweet, with the right amount of sugar. Doodh is boiled with tea powder and crushed ginger until its wonderful aroma fills the thin air of the kitchen space. It warms your heart even before you take a sip. In many parts of India, chai is a religion.
Sahid gives me a cup of chai, and another to our caretaker. Our caretaker is a young mother. She holds her toddler on her back, wrapped in a piece of cloth. It’s a DIY baby carrier. She wears a pair of long, monochrome palazzos, and a t-shirt with long sleeves. Her attire is completed with a piece of cotton clothing that is tied into a knot around one of her shoulders, which hugs her body like a cylinder. It’s part of the traditional clothing worn by Khasi women of Meghalaya.
I take a dry cake and dip it in my chai. Freshly brewed chai is best enjoyed with dry cake or PRAN Toast (it’s a bread-like biscuit, which Sahid bought me). PRAN comes from Bangladesh and tastes delightful when they are dipped in hot chai. During our cuppa, we talk about many things, mainly sweet nothings.
“I’m taller than you,” I tell him, an argument we’ve been having ever since we met in real life. He stands up and asks our caretaker, “didi, who’s taller?” I stand up next to him, gleefully, and hoping that the caretaker would tell it’s me. I’m 5’7”.
In Sri Lanka, I’m considered tall. A tall girl! In university, I was the tallest in my class. In school, I was only second to a 6’2”, who now plays as a goal shooter for the national netball team of Sri Lanka. Back then, being tall felt like the only standout feature about me. I no longer feel the same.
“You,” she points to Sahid. “No waayyyy,” I leave a cry. We argue again for a few minutes. I give my caretaker a handful of Toast. Her decision, however, does not change. Facts are facts. I’m still taller than my friend. The opposite.
Today, on my 25th birthday, I have two breakfasts. My second breakfast is another cup of chai. There’s a thick layer of froth, foamed by fresh doodh. I drink the rest, carefully leaving the milky froth. It hugs the porcelain walls of my English teacup. “Why do you leave it? Have it! I made it especially for you,” Sahid says. “I always leave it,” I tell him, only to gulp it down the next minute. It’s creamy and I look at her again, as I sip the last.
It’s now mid-noon and the sun has abandoned her. Her hair is covered by a layer of white clouds with patches of grey. Winter is settling in. Down the hill, a group of male workers is building a houseboat for future visitors. She receives many visitors now, from India and the far corners of the world.
An hour ago, I let my feet kiss her soft powdery beach. I took a dip in her cold, teal-colored layers, hoping for the hiding sun to reappear. I hopped on a canoe to see her flowing waters gush down a mossy rock path, where it creates half a rainbow, delighted by the peekabooing sun.
She’s everything. Isn’t she? She’s lively. She’s lovely. She is gloomy. She’s cheery. She’s happy. She’s sad. She’s love. She’s Asia’s second-largest river island. Her name is Nongkhnum. She sits in the West Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. Meghalaya, whose name translates to the abode of clouds. Every season, she sheds her layers and wears something new. Every season, she takes weary city souls to her hands and holds them under her starry skies.
Every season, Nongkhnum laughs.
Like it? Pin it!
Airbnb: Nathan and I use Airbnb to book local-run homestays and other unique accommodation options. Sign up using this link to get up to 34% off your first booking.
Booking.com: Get AUD 25 off when you book using this code.