Of Waterfalls and Rainbows…

 

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Cherrapunjee

Some questions out of the blue, especially from children, jolt one awake. And inevitably, answers have to be found which leads to another stream of thought, altogether.

Which is the tallest waterfall in India?, asks my fourteen year old. I am brought up short- everybody knows about the Niagra and the Victoria Falls, the big names, but neither are in India. My memory comes up blank and I can hardly blame the head injury- after all, one can forget about things if only one has known them in the first place. I am forced to admit, with much reluctance , that I do not have the faintest idea.

But we live in enlightened times- our dear friend, the teenager Google, is close at hand. My generation and the subsequent ones too, have become accustomed to confide our biggest morbid fears (am I having a heart attack? palsy recovery chances? pain top right abdomen-cancer?, death, dying, afterlife? symptoms clinical depression?) , to ask our silliest doubts and seek advice on anything real or imagined, under the sun (health, sex, relationships, God, religion, spirits) from Dr. Google, who by now probably knows more about ourselves and our secret inner lives than we ourselves do.

Anyway, coming back to the important matter at hand, we find out that the honour of being the tallest waterfall of India goes to Thosegar Waterfalls, Satara district, Maharashtra, a segmented type waterfall, falling from a height of 1600 feet. But it is another name on the page which catches my attention- Nohkalikai Falls, Cherrapunjee, East Khasi Hills district, Meghalaya, which at 1115 feet is the tallest plunge type waterfall in India.

The name, the place, the thunder of water falling a thousand feet down- I am transported to that wet day in April, a lifetime ago, when I was blessed to see four rainbows in a day!

But first, a story. Not any story but the legend of Nohkalikai Falls.

Translated from Khasi, the word Nohkalikai means the jump (Noh) of Ms (Ka- The female gender prefix in Khasi) Likai.

Most legends of East India are tragic- this one is no exception. Ka Likai was a young woman belonging to the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya, who was left destitute when her husband died. She had a little daughter, whom she loved more than life itself. Eventually, and reasons are not given here, Ka Likai remarried. Maybe he was handsome, maybe he whispered sweet nothings in her ear, maybe she needed a baby sitter, or even maybe she foolishly hoped (as many women do) to “find happiness” with him.

One thing that the legend does tell is that Ka Likai did not love her daughter any less. And that this caused the new husband a lot of heartburn. So much heartburn that he decided to do something about it, rather than just sit around.

Now Ka Likai worked as a porter and would reach home tired at the end of the day. One day, at home as usual, Ka Likai found the house empty. Neither her husband nor the little daughter were around. Since both were missing, the tired Ka Likai thought, much like any average mother would have thought, that Papa must have taken the little one out for a treat. Food was ready in the kitchen- a meat dish, as is usual in the North East. Ka Likai could not  quite identify the dish, which tasted  somewhat a bit different from their usual fare, but as she was too hungry and tired, finished her meal.

It is also customary in many parts of India to chew betel leaves, with all sorts of garnishings, after food. Ka Likai went to get the tray of betel leaves and to her shock found there, among the betel leaves, a tiny finger- the finger of her little girl!

A lot of answers must have flashed in her brain then- like a puzzle being completed when the last piece is put in place.

The horror then dawned on Ka Likai. Mad with anger and grief, she took out her sharpest “Wait” (chopper) and ran out in search of her husband.

She ran and ran but unfortunately she did not find him. And in the end finding herself at the edge of the waterfalls and too desperate to think, she threw herself down the precipice.

And from that day, the waterfall came to be called Nohkalikai, and the sorrow of the grieving mother Likai, who unwittingly ate her darling daughter, touches our hearts across centuries.

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(Image courtesy- Wikipedia)

The name Cherrapunjee is proudly etched in the memories of generations of Indian schoolchildren, over the past many decades, as the wettest place on earth. However, since perhaps a year or so ago, this distinction has gone to an upstart, the neighbouring Mawsynram, also in Meghalaya. Still, Cherrapunjee remains unchallenged in its world record of having received the highest recorded rainfall in one day in one place [1563 mm in 24 hours on 16th June 1995].

As we neared Cherrapunjee, the car travelled more through clouds than through plain air. The fine day which had dawned down below, receded more and more into the background. At Nohkalikai, visibility reduced to a few feet. The thunder of the falls was audible; but where are the falls? We, plains people, hailing from a land bordering the Arabian Sea, a stone’s throw, so to speak, from the Equator, looked blankly at each other. I noticed the tiny droplets of moisture condensing on the eyelashes and each strand of hair on the children and worried that they may take ill. The driver, in his dual role as our guide, shook his head sorrowfully.

So in the end, we never saw the Nohkalikai Falls, after all. But we heard the majesty of its sound; The water cascading all 1115 feet down the precipice.

But then again, coming down the winding road, originally constructed by the British many centuries ago, I saw rainbows, not one but four, bridging the East Khasi Hills across the narrow valleys. Beautiful, ethereal and majestic!

If only I could have taken one home; to hold on, while drifting between lucidity and unconsciousness. But ignorance was indeed bliss and that is another story for another day.