I sit in the principal’s office of the Don Bosco Catholic School in Cherapunjee and wait for him to introduce me to the class I’m going to talk to today. The school and church are in the heart of a Khasi village and the priest is Khasi, so I look around the office searching for some glimmer of the old faith among the iconography, but see nothing. There are plenty of crosses; I’m glad only one is a crucifix as I’ve always found them a bit morbid. A serene Madonna and child sits in an altar, a beautiful and comforting symbol of what is good about the church. I focus on that. There are also several vases of plastic flowers, a bronze plate with three engraved pinecones, a small flag of India and a small TV.
Outside, next to the school, the brand new Don Bosco Shrine has recently been erected. With chandeliers, stained glass windows, and a ceramic mosaic of Jesus, it probably cost more than the annual income of several village families put together. Surrounding the church’s compound are homes without water or electricity, entire families crowded into a single room. There is no hospital, although the Ramakrishna Mission does provide a free clinic for the people. The Don Bosco Shrine is kept padlocked except for mass.
In the classroom of around 60 students, I ask how many are Christian and all but a handful raise their hands. Then I ask how many have parents or grandparents who follow the old faith. Maybe 10 students raise their hands. We talk about the sacred groves of their villages, and I ask them to write something about them and this is where the stories pour out. In the myths and legends, the family traditions, some of the old ways live on. But they are like shadow figures flickering in and out of imaginations that would rather be listening to rap music than telling me about the forest god or river goddess.
When I leave the classroom, I wander outside. One of the sacred groves borders the church property. Even though Cherapunjee is advertised as the rainiest place on earth, massive cumulus clouds billow in a sky blue as a robin’s egg and the sun seems to follow me wherever I go burning my neck and shoulders. A graveyard decorated with crosses sweeps down to the very edge of the sacred forest and I wonder how many trees were cleared to make room for the graves. I wander around and notice that some of the grave sites also have bowls and plates that I imagine were once filled with food offerings to keep the soul from getting hungry on that long passage to the other world. Ah. So when it comes down to matters of life and death they still make sure to cover all bases.
These virgin groves are the most alive places I’ve ever been. The whirring, buzzing and vibrating of a million insects reverberates through the air. It’s the only sound, but it’s loud as a chainsaw.
The afternoon is getting hotter so I seek the shade of an old church at the edge of the property erected in 1906 by the Salvatorians–Order of the Sacred Heart. One of the priests told me earlier that it’s now only used to house the dead before burial. But the stone entryway is cool and it feels good to sit on the cement steps. Two of India’s feral dogs, known as Pariah dogs, race by, nipping at each other. The incessant buzzing continues to make the world vibrate. I feel perversely pleased to see a pile of steaming buffalo shit in front of the door.