Friday, 17 October 2014

The Spirit of Madhabkunda

Madhabkunda waterfall, Barlekha, Moulvibazar.

Madhabkunda Falls.

“Shhh! There need be silence,” she says, “A white chicken will meet its death.”

If there is any kind of water-spirit lingering beneath Barlekha’s renowned Madhabkunda waterfall in Moulvibazar District, what kind of spirit would she be? The gentle falls and cool, dark pool certainly look like a place where a spirit might dwell.

Perhaps she’s benign and helpful, a sort of Bengali pari related to the ones people talk of that sometimes clean the house during the night. Perhaps she’s mischievous like a prai of the old Khasi belief. Prais make people sick. Do you think the Madhabkunda spirit might dance mystically to the rhythm of water falling, in secret, long after the crowds have gone home – under the wild, full moon’s charms?

Such a spirit would know things. Ancient local knowledge tells, for example, that where lightning touches the ground from stormy sky the earth reached is tainted. To the words of a reem, in an old Khasi ceremony, a sacrifice is needed to heal such a place. “A white chicken will meet its death,” she says.

In Madhbob Kundo Punjee, the Khasi village across the stream adjacent to the falls, the villagers can vaguely speak of it. But they’ve forgotten their old ritual’s words. They’re 50-50 Catholic Presbyterian now.

The gate to Madhabkunda Eco-park.

“Roll up! Roll up!” she says. “Get your clothes, plastic dolls, toys, chip packets and chanachur! Stock up on cold drinks or bottled water – my waterfall’s charms might make you thirsty. Fried snacks can satisfy, souvenirs bring joy!” The spirit of Madhabkunda is not shy of modernity.

The pathway to the falls.
She allows the bonanza bazaar noise before the gate. She knows the worth of a waterfall to city-dwellers in a flat and crowded land. She values marketing, surely.

And the buses and the hired CNGs duly arrive, carting tourists in from the highway through the sculpted rounded landscape of tea garden hills – families, college winter picnicians, elderly, young, everyone... The spirit of Madhabkunda spies as passengers queue along bus aisles in anticipation of that first step into the air of the car park. “Let them eat and shop on their way to the ticket window,” she says. Let beauty, as it does, attract all comers.

She’s allowed them a pointed, triangular gateway of red brick – with iron gates to be locked each evening. Across the gateway is written in Bengali “Forest Division. Madhabkunda Eco Park.” The ticket collector sits on a stool just inside.

The spirit of Madhabkunda is hardly an environmental zealot unaware of the need for paved paths, metal railings and revenue. She must be of the spirit type to hear the rattle of currency in the prefix “eco”. The spirit consumes the convenience of rotundas and cafes – she calculates the contribution of painted stork statues. This spirit has seen the rise of this country’s middle class joy seeker – and she’s joined them.

A kitchen in Madhab Kundo Punjee.

She’s watching too – she must be – as the kettle boils on an old wood-fired stove in a Khasi kitchen on the other side of things, a room in smoke-stained blue that feels like it belongs in the snowy, dark winter of some faded Taiwanese hill town.

In the punjee.

She’s listening I imagine, further uphill as I speak to Wanbor Longdohgiri, the 32-year-old Montri – the headman of his village. He’s been the Montri for two and a half years now. His older brother held the post for nine before he retired. Another villager was then elected but it didn’t work out. So they chose him. “It’s like the work of ten people,” he says.

Montri Wanbor’s life is filled with betel business and minor village concern now. There are no land disputes in Madhob Kundo Punjee and he’s yet to face anything major – but they’re hoping for that bridge across the river which their MP was talking about last year, because at the moment everything has to be hauled in by hand – stone-hopping across the stream.

“Take a raw chicken egg,” she says. “Put rice grains upon it and cut it open in a dash. Then let it fall on that leaf they call the sli lemet.” The Spirit of Madhabkunda must remember the old healing.

Montri Wanbor "looking wise".
“If my father was alive he could do it,” says Montri Wanbor. “From the way the egg falls on the leaf he could read the problem.” If it was a normal sickness the efforts of a traditional healer wouldn’t help... but if the sickness was caused by a prai...

I want him to smile for a photograph. She knows. He’s the Montri so I ask him to “look wise.” She hears. It causes laughter as he tries to imagine what a wise look might look like. The camera clicks. No doubt she’s laughing with us.

Madhabkunda waterfall is a Facebook star.

“Now concentrate!” she says. It’s not the only photography going on. In the late afternoon the young lads are lining up, finding space. Watch them perch on the slippery rocks that edge the waterfall’s pool. In best checked shirt one outstretches arms as if to hold the sky. In the glowing white purity of nearly-brand-name sneakers he falls slightly backward while tilting head and smiling, as if fashionably struck by lightning.

Facebook posing at Madhabkunda.

His friend’s smart phone captures each post-able “Been to Madhabkunda” still. The water spirit must welcome each electronic click – as her waterfall’s fame grows. 

Another one, another pose – he makes a half-crouch this time, a resting of the chin in photogenic contemplation upon the hand. Sunglasses are on. Then sunglasses have retreated to rest atop the head. They are here. They are here now, looking cool.

With thousands of faces in hundreds of thousands of poses the spirit of Madhabkunda must be a social media champion. Her waterfall, whose pose changes only periodically with rain, is a perennial super-liked Facebook star.

A house in the punjee.

And, just an aside, perhaps those lads are seeking young ladies with those poses; but perhaps in the waterfall background, unseen, she is already there.

Take care with your belongings – a group was hijacked along that short path that very afternoon. Don’t leave anything behind. Take care when swimming. Don’t swim. “Two to three drown in that river every year,” says Montri Wanbor, “but we Khasis always swim and it’s never happened to us.” Is the spirit of Madhabkunda one to immorally takes sides or is it that the locals understand better her river’s tricks?

The path to the falls at Madhabkunda.
Families are enjoying their leisure time in eco style: sitting, walking, wandering and talking. In the socialising is the rekindling of the bonds of human affection. A young couple are hoping to make memories, learning what to expect from days shared of which they yet hope there will be many. Babies are being carried – heads bobbing, eyes gazing. Grandparents take their time...  Bangladeshis all – the nation is carving out a better future. It’s an accessible, more upwardly mobile sort of a waterfall that she has. The Madhabkunda spirit is on the move.
Madhabkunda and the hint of a rainbow.

But what sort of spirit is she really? Is she a benevolent pari or a malevolent prai? She remembers the wilderness. She’s hostess of the Eco Park. She’s observed the future coming. Every day she watches crowds leaving. And just maybe she dances under the full moon. Ancient, modern, pleasure, accident, crime, ritual, photo, plastic doll souvenir and chanachur: in that busy place the water spirit bears witness to humanity, all.

With the fortune of a waterfall in a flat land as her treasure, she’s built herself half a rainbow – you can see it just above the pool. “Shhh! The future is on its way,” she says, “and it’s featured on Facebook.”

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: The Spirit of Madhabkunda

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