Amid the clouds

Amid the clouds

The ironies strike thick and fast. First, for a place that had, till some years ago, earned global recognition as the wettest place on earth, there seems to be scant respect for the rain in Cherrapunji. Life in this Meghalaya town in the monsoon hardly misses a step as schoolchildren, labourers, traders, even cattle, go about their business—the rain is a fact of life that tempers daily existence, but rarely disrupts it.

The second paradox is more startling, even shocking. Despite the 11,430mm average rainfall it records annually, Cherrapunji and the nearby Mawsynram, with an even higher annual rainfall, suffer from a shortage of drinking water, especially during winter. The hard rocky soil does not retain water. Even after a very heavy spell of rain, it takes hardly more than half an hour or so for the water to drain away. While that frustrates what little effort there has been at water harvesting, there’s no waterlogging, or even slush. For a visitor, it makes the rains truly enjoyable, unlike in the plains.

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I have been visiting Cherrapunji for a decade now. The first time I went was in 2000 on an assignment for Outlook magazine, where I was working at the time. Like everybody, I knew about its reputation as one of the wettest places. But more than the statistics, what struck me was the nature of the rains: It usually does not pour in torrents; rather, the rain comes down as a fine drizzle enveloping everything like a mist. Since that first visit, I have gone back six times. According to meteorological reports, this year has been rain-deficient. But during my week-long stay in August, it hardly felt any less wet.

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What draws me to Cherrapunji again and again is its striking skyline. Thanks to the topography, you get almost a 360-degree view of the sky. Because the hills rise suddenly and steeply from the Bangladesh plains and since there are no high mountains beyond, the view is unobstructed. My current project is inspired by the Cherrapunji sky—in the monsoon it takes on a surreal look that’s almost philosophical.

As told to Amrita Roy.

Photographs by Swapan Nayak

Swapan Nayak is a Kolkata-based freelance photojournalist with more than 15 years experience. He is currently working on communities and landscapes in eastern and North-Eastern India.