I arrived at the guest house to the sound of the girl behind the desk whistling Christmas tunes. I could write this about almost nowhere else I have been across India, and not just because it is only now December.
Talking about the variety within India is like talking about the weather in England – safe, true and endless. Yet just as throughout the changing seasons the weather in England remains English, there is much that remains very similar throughout India – all the more so to the first time observer.
However sometimes changes are stark. I travel between 100 and 200km a day, to feel the change in one day indicates quite a sharp change.
I remember being struck by the sharp divide from prevalent English to Hindi as I entered Maharashtra.
Also the Himalayas unsurprisingly too stand tall in my mind – mountain and valley are different worlds yet change on a knife edge.
The starkest line to me is countryside and town to city. Of course London feels different to the rest of the UK but in India the big cities feel like a different country and a different century. Mixed up with this is of course wealth but it’s not that familiar inequality of Buckingham Palace with a beggar in front rather there is London with Londinium alongside.
And then there’s here, Meghlaya, one of the tribal states of the north east that cluster around the Brahmaputra plains of Assam.
The North-East is that bit of India, often forgotten by Indians and foreigners alike that reaches over Bangladesh – a single arm of land amidst foreign countries. As I cycled along this stretch, tea plantations, military bases and nature reserves sprawled alongside.
Assam itself feels different from the rest of India. Cleaner, calmer, more culturally relaxed I would say. Neat fences of latticed twigs in the villages, grass on the verges, ducks in the rivers that split from and rejoin the Brahmputra. Assam’s capital, Guwahati is in fact my final destination from where I will fly home. But not yet.
Turning at a right angle to the Brahmmaputra, an uphill cycle on brand new roads took me up into the hills and here, in this tribal state of Meghlaya the change is unmissable.
Tribal might be misleading – a little like calling Wales a tribal state. There’s a different heritage and very localised identity but it doesn’t mean everybody carries spears! Shillong is as advanced as many a bigger city.
But spears could hardly make it feel any more distinct. Sitting a little adrift from the Himalayas, above the plains of Assam and looking upon Bangladesh to the south, this hill state, ‘the Scotland of the East’ is home to big lakes scenic hills and a mindset totally different from most of India.
I arrived on a Sunday; many shops were closed and Christian singing accompanied me up. India is approximately 80% Hindu; in Meghlaya about the same percentage are Christian. Schools named after saints and a cathedral signpost the missionary impact. Listening to locals here talking about the rest of India is like listening to Europeans visiting India – the same gripes, disbelief and somewhat confused fascination. Here football comes before cricket.
Perhaps the most noted feature of Meghlaya, one I learnt before I got here, it is matrilinear: children take the mother’s name, historically property passed through the female line and the man would come and live with the woman’s family.
It is dangerous to know one unusual fact about a place, naturally my mind starts to ascribe it as the cause of all differences. Nevertheless whether this alone is the cause or not, undoubtedly women appear more free here.
Women are more visible and more willing to engage with me, a lone male. Cycling up the hill women would say hello and wish me luck rather than snatching a furtive glance or simply being invisible. The timidity that I’ve often found elsewhere is absent.
Here women comfortably and confidently go out to bars and cafes, girls and guys together. There is even some limited public intimacy. And dating isn’t this clandestine affairs that it is elsewhere.
There are women working as waitresses here too! Elsewhere In India the restaurant and lodge staff will all be men and boys. Here too women are expected to study and strive for a job.
It’s not that women don’t have jobs elsewhere. In rural West Bengal the women toil in the fields alongside the men. Building projects often have women carrying rocks gravel or cement on their backs or heads, or I may see them alongside 40 other men and women weeding and sweeping the ground by hand in preparation for tarmac.
Nor is it true that nowhere else in india is there this freedom – The affluent in the cities probably have a similar freedom – women in professional jobs in Delhi or Mumbai. But the entire state of Meghlaya has only 3 million people. There are cities in India with a similar population that feel light years away on this measure.
India is a solar system – the years of development seem to have different lengths in different places; the atmosphere of each planet can differ dramatically from place to place; and the size. But still something holds them all together.
Meghlaya orbits fast but far from the centre. It feels like visiting a planet with a similar atmosphere and gravity to home. But it is still orbiting the same sun.