One of the most iconic scenes from the Academy Award winning movie Parasite depicts a woman sitting at the back of a car and talking over the phone about how the rain the night before had been a blessing. In contrast, for the man sitting behind the wheels, the downpour had not been a welcome sight.
Strictly and exclusively from a geographical perspective, I found myself on both sides of the coin recently. A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in the comfort of my home in Guwahati and hoping for the rain to bring some relief from the heat. Then, a week later, I got stuck at the hill-station of Haflong amidst a series of brutal landslides due to incessant rainfall.
The monsoon that has been sweeping across Assam since mid-May has derailed the lives of nearly 7.12 lakh people. In Dima Hasao district alone, the damage that has taken place will require months of work to bring back some semblance of normality. The New Haflong Railway station got buried by a mud slide hours after my failed attempt at catching a train to get home to Guwahati. Railway tracks hung suspended in the air like hanging bridges as the ground underneath slid off. The few exit points from the town of Halfong connecting to the National highway got cut off by debris from a massive landslide.
The Maibang tunnel on NH 27 also got blocked, severely restricting movement in the district. The town has been, for most part, devoid of power, internet and mobile connectivity. The supply shock has meant prices of day-to-day commodities in the market have soared.
“My friend, you are one of those few visitors who has seen not just the beautiful side of Haflong but also the dark side. You now know how difficult life can be out here sometimes,” said a young man, as I sat down to have a cup of tea at the local market near my friend’s place where I had been provided a safe haven.
This is not a one-off incident in this part of the state. Every monsoon, it is basically the same story – just to different degrees. Domestic tourists flock to admire the beautiful blue hills of the hill station during the winter and fall, to experience the essence of the festive season, to bathe in the natural pools of Jatinga or to scale trekking routes to capture picturesque views.
However, there is an ugly side to the region which the people of Dima Hasao have to live through every year.
“Don’t worry brother, sit here and relax for a month,” the young man said, before he darted off in the rain.
I learn that a few kilometres away from where I sat, there was an exodus of people carrying gas cylinders, documents, food supplies and anything they managed to salvage towards areas deemed to be safe.
They have been rendered homeless as the land underneath their homes sank. Some children will not be able to go back to school anytime soon as there is news of school infrastructure getting buried underneath rubble. Even the local cemeteries have not been spared by the ruthlessness of Mother Nature.
People have found relief, and the youth to some extent, entertainment with the arrival of Chinook helicopters airdropping supplies to critical areas. Many homes have had to turn to solar power to navigate the dark.
“Find a job and settle here. There is no way out!” quipped my friend’s hepa (father). As I and everyone in the family chuckled at his humor, a question loomed at the back of my mind – one that often haunts a large population of Assam – is there a way out for the people who live each day at the mercy of nature?
As the assault of the rain subsided a little and I hopped into a Tata Sumo to get back to my cozy home in Guwahati, it occurred to me that there are tangible lessons to be taken away from the people of Haflong.
It is rightly said that unity lies in adversity, and there is a strong sense of camaraderie amongst the people of this region. I witnessed families opening their doors to give shelter to individuals who lost their homes, a newly-wedded friend – whose wedding was the reason for my visit – working around the clock to help people in need, and a caring family making me feel completely at home in the midst of one of the worst monsoons they have experienced in the past decade.
“Visit us again during the winter. Haflong has so much more to offer. This was just bad timing,” were the words they parted with.
I made a silent promise to return.
Puberoon Sarmah, from from Guwahati, Assam, works as a Senior Analyst at a financial institution in Hyderabad.
All images have been provided by the author.