* Meghalaya has natural advantages that help in the cultivation of a variety of spices and herbs — from turmeric, ginger and chilli to bay leaf and black pepper
* The piper longum is native to the Northeast and is hotter than the black peppercorn used in most other parts of India
* The climatic conditions — humidity, moderately warm temperature, severe cold winters and high rainfall — help it grow in profusion
To mark New Year’s Day, when we take stock of all that has changed — or hasn’t — I decide to take a trip down memory lane, just some miles off Guwahati, a city that is surrounded by surprises.
Having lived in a village before I moved to a city, I have always been curious about exploring little hamlets. Guwahati is enveloped by tiny villages, some swept by change, others left the way they always were. Many villages — as in most parts of the Northeast — have not seen any development over the decades.
The villages are largely connected to the main road by kuchcha roads. You can see lush green fields and forests as you drive on the highway, and hills and hillocks at a distance. The villagers lead a sustainable life by taking care of farms and livestock that keep the kitchen fires burning.
Many such villages around Guwahati are in Meghalaya, with which Assam shares a border. The Meghalaya government recently announced that it would connect the villages to the main road for the benefit of villagers, as well as tourists. The plan is still to take off.
I start from Guwahati, and suddenly find myself on an elevated road, going towards the hills and forests, with streams gurgling nearby. Rays of golden sunlight play hide-and-seek with the trees. I pass by villages which look calm and laid-back. There is little of the hustle and bustle of the cities.
My destination is a village called Jaluk Paham in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills. It is just 22 km from the Guwahati-Garbhanga Forest gate border (in Meghalaya). Since the track is off-road, going past the Garbhanga forest range, one can only travel by motorcycle or trek up to the village. No roads are marked, so this is not a place where you can find directions on Google Map.
After entering from the Lokhra forest gate in Guwahati, I travel some 2-3 km before the road is taken over by a dirt track. On my faithful motorcycle, I traverse through the narrow track which winds its serpentine way up.
It is an adventurous ride through the woods and scenic surroundings. The problem is that there is no one around to tell me how far I am from Jaluk Paham. After about 16 km, a distance that takes an hour, I reach Garbhanga Chowk, a small market with a few shops. The stores open only in the afternoon, after the shopkeepers have finished their daily work on the field, and shut by the evening, when the villager is ready to call it a day. From Garbhanga, which has a forest range office and a primary school, I take a track through the forests to Jaluk Paham, about 6 km away.
Jaluk Paham is in the Jirang Block of Ri Bhoi district. I reach my destination — the rough motorcycle ride from Guwahati has taken two hours — and look around me. I see a primary school and a block development office, but progress seems to have bypassed the village.
There is a blanket of silence around me. I can occasionally hear a child play, and the sound of a barking dog. I strain my ears, and can then hear the khot-khot sound of a handloom at work and the ripples of a stream flowing below.
The village has one shop that caters to the people’s daily needs; it does not have a hospital, post office or bank. People have to go to a small town 22 km away for most things essential. The villagers tell me tales of people meeting untimely deaths because of the lack of basic medical facilities. There is no electric supply either, and villagers use solar panels to light up a bulb and for lanterns.
There are some 24 families in the village of 120 people belonging to the indigenous Mikir tribe. The villagers depend on farming and livestock to sustain themselves. They do step farming (jhoom kheti) for cultivating rice, which is for their own consumption. Because Meghalaya society is largely matrilineal, women play an important part in the fields and in tending cattle. And, of course, they look after their homes, too.
But the people of the village may soon have access to gold — in the shape of peppercorn, which grows in abundance in the region. Meghalaya has natural advantages that help in the cultivation of a variety of spices and herbs — from turmeric, ginger and chilli to bay leaf and black pepper. Except for bay leaf, which is a minor forest produce, the other spices are cultivated. Chillies are grown all over the state while black pepper grows mainly in the Khasi hill districts.
Jaluk Paham is blessed with vast and varied water resources — rivers, reservoirs, beel, lakes, swamps, ponds, mini barrages and low-lying paddy fields, which are like shallow pools. The nature-rich region and Mikir Hills in Assam are home to a wild variety of pepper.
The piper longum is native to north-east India and is hotter than the black peppercorn used in most other parts of India. The fruits and roots of this plant are used by traditional healers in Meghalaya for the treatment of a variety of diseases, especially respiratory problems, abdominal pain, fever or flu and jaundice.
The pepper grows naturally and wild, and has done so for generations. The climatic conditions — humidity, moderately warm temperature, severe cold winters and high rainfall — help it grow in profusion. Almost all homes have black pepper vines growing on mostly betel trees. The spice gives returns every year, though it takes four to five years for a plant to bear fruit.
But the people of Jaluk Paham complain that they do not have access to markets for their produce, and so are forced to sell to middlemen in the local weekly village market at very low rates.
The situation, however, is changing. Zizira, a Meghalaya organisation which is promoting organic farming and selling the produce to bigger markets, has begun sourcing black pepper directly from farming families in villages such as Jaluk Paham, especially since pepper there is grown without the use of pesticides. Villagers may start getting an average rate of ₹170-200 for a kilo of pepper.
The people of the village may have struck gold — or black gold, as pepper is often colloquially called.