Importance of institutionalizing an idea
By Patricia Mukhim
The Cherry Blossom Festival was conceived by the Mukul Sangma led MUA Government. This concept amongst others was institutionalized by the present MDA Government and the Festival, especially the one at Ward’s Lake was conducted with finesse. It brought together some of the best writers and scholars from the State and the country. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s magnum opus – Funeral Nights – a book that takes the readers through the rites associated with funerals and the all-pervasive sense of what this entire night vigil actually means to a Khasi. There was Shekhar Gupta of ThePrint in a tete a tete with David Laitphlang which was very engaging. Shekhar has edited the Indian Express and now runs the online news platform – ThePrint. He is usually too busy to even take calls but that he spared time to come to Shillong for the event shows that he has a healthy respect for the organizer/s mainly Mary Kurkalang of the NGO- Khublei. Mary has been organizing Litfests across the country and even abroad. That a homegrown youth now based in Delhi could put together what must have been a highly challenging programme of hosting celebrities from cinema to literature is a matter of pride.
Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah enjoyed their stay in Shillong and visited Sohra, Mawlynnong, Pynursla and other places besides. Naseeruddin was in conversation with our own theatre actor of acclaim, Lapdiang Syiem. We had a very engaging discussion on, “When words grow wings,” moderated by this writer where two eminent writers of children’s books, Bijal Vachharajani and Parismita Singh; a bookstore cum café owner, Raman Shresta of Gangtok and Badapbiang Dkhar a legal eagle cum activist whose mission is to take books to the villages and get children to develop a reading habit, all engaged in a very interesting discussion.
The panel discussion “Travelling Green” had Zorba Laloo whose labour of love over six years resulted in the book, “Meghalaya Rivers,” ecologists Varun Goswami and Divya Vasudev, Naphibahun Lyngdoh a young archeologist and Laurige Boyer a French gentleman living in Meghalaya since 2007 with Mary Kurkalang as moderator. What was stimulating about this discussion was that tourism was linked to the environment and how to get tourists to respect the places they visit and not just tick them off their bucket list as another destination visited. Zorba Laloo and his team comprising Aaron Laloo and other like-minded colleagues have been organizing treks for school students and other interested visitors through their adventure company, Campfire Trails. This trek is meant to inculcate in young people a healthy respect for the environment.
Varun and Divya both working from Shillong said they felt young citizens should be encouraged to start movements for environment conservation and also be informed that this state is the home of the fast disappearing hoolock gibbons. Varun said escapades away from Shillong should form part of the adventure tourism perspective and those who promote tourism should actually know what they are getting into and not just entering the space blindly. To this Zorba Laloo also added that most people who promote tourism or are working in the sector have no real love or understanding of what a tourism experience is all about. “Campfire Trails is the first group to promote river canoeing because Meghalaya has the highest rainfall but no one ever spoke about rivers and their tourism potential in Meghalaya. Zorba and his team have had several foreign travelers come to Meghalaya for kayaking.
What impressed me the most was that Meghalaya also has a young archeologist in Naphibahun Lyngdoh. She said she dreamt of becoming an archeologist at the age of three and now at 28 she has achieved that dream. She organizes heritage walks to places in Meghalaya which are historically and archeologically important. Its so wonderful and inspiring to know that these national treasures exist in our midst. The State needs to nurture and promote these gems so that they add value to Meghalaya; to India and the world.
Laurige Boyer who probably understands better than any of us about the importance of homestay experiences observed that those running homestays in Meghalaya need to understand that guests want a home-like experience in that they can have free access to the kitchen and see how local cuisine is cooked and what ingredients make up a particular dish; what local spices are used etc. Laurige pointed out that Meghalaya should reduce the use of plastic bottles; encourage people to carry their own bags and that tourists should stop polluting the silent spaces with loud music. He shared his experiences of taking French travelers to Nongnah village for survivor classes. When Mary asked him if foreign travelers are better spenders than Indian ones, Laurige said he finds that both categories spend more or less the same, depending on what there is that attracts them.
There was a little of everything at the Litfest from discussions on books to poetry reading from our young and aspirational poets to artists echoing their angst, to music and performances. Shillong could not have expected better than this. Truly the organisers and event managers deserve a standing ovation.
The Ward’s Lake wore a festive look during the Litfest. Whoever did the decoration deserves applause. The gatekeepers were very strict and did not allow people to carry cigarettes or booze or plastic bottles inside. That’s one reason why the Lake despite having hundreds of travelers had no brawls. What was perhaps overlooked was that the checking at the gate took a bit long and that resulted in a long queue outside. The Wards Lake had never had so many footfalls as it had this time hence the organisers need to take note of this. We should either have many more entrances or expand the present ones to allow for a smoother experience.
The sales counters inside the Ward’s lake too were quite enticing. Those Garo wood sculpted figurines were to die for. So too were the other items on display. What a way to showcase our cultural and civilizational strengths. I met quite a few visitors who just waxed eloquent about how wonderful it was to visit Shillong. They included Devdutt Pattanaik the mythologist, speaker, illustrator and author, known for his fictional writing on Hindu sacred lore, legends, folklore, fables and parables. Interestingly his work focuses largely on the areas of religion, mythology, and management. There was Kanishka Gupta the literary agent in conversation with Namita Gokhale. Our own Janice Pariat was drew out Amitav Ghosh on The Nutmeg’s Curse (a pre-recorded one) which helped us get an insight into the great writer and understand Janice Pariat’s own literary persuasions too. This Litfest created space for every art form, from literature to poetry, to conversations by visual artists to the environment and music and what have you.
What was a trifle sad was the brawl at Polo where the musical concert was held. That was bound to happen because the crowd was expected to swell up. After all we have been homebound for nearly two years and rock concerts are part of our DNA. If the organizers failed to gauge that human response then they need to learn from the NH7 events which were always held away from Shillong city because of their ability to anticipate the number of attendants. In any case major events should not be held within city limits because the rest of the citizenry is held captive by the serpentine traffic jams. So let’s hope some lessons are learnt!
But the purpose of this article is to point at the need to institutionalize good governance practices irrespective of which government initiated it. The Cherry Blossom festival has gained momentum over the years and the Japanese Government is committed to creating tourist footprints from Japan to Meghalaya. This will see an all- round growth in tourism and the hospitality industry. Our young people studying hospitality and tourism management across the country will then find opportunities in their own state. This is important and adds value to the tourism industry because these professionals will know how to manage it more efficiently and also train others in the trade.
What Meghalaya needs right now is a Tourism Policy which should not be undermined by a Mining Policy. Meghalaya will have to choose between mining which devastates the environment and will hasten climate change and tourism which will leave the environment untouched.
Hopefully, this aspect will be debated on Meghalaya’s 50th year and it is the people of Meghalaya and not just the Government which should be actively engaged on this issue.