The above books are on such different subjects that any kind of correspondence between them seems to be unlikely, but you’re wrong. I’ll return to this presently, but first let me say a few words about Binoo John’s book. Binoo is a journalist based in New Delhi. I’ve written about his book on Indian English before (see How Indian Trains Got Their Toilets), but Under a Cloud is a travel book. Binoo made the journey from Delhi to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya state in India’s Northeast. His destination was a village in the hills called Cherra (also called Cherrapunji), which every Indian knows receives the highest rainfall in the country. However, I didn’t know it also gets the highest rainfall in the world. Binoo spent a few months in Cherra (and the neighboring village of Mawsynram), and the book is the result of his explorations. Here are the rainfall statistics:
Lying in the shadow of Cherrapunji, at the same height of around 6,500 feet, Shillong basks, well, in the wetness of rain. Shillong at 2,193.8 millimetres a year gets as much rain as Mumbai (2,397.3 millimetres), which is flooded during the southwest monsoon, more than Calcutta (1,600.8 millimetres), and three times that of New Delhi, which gets an annual average of 706.4 millimetres.
Of course, these are all little footnotes to the big story of Cherrapunji, which got an average annual rainfall of 12,054.2 millimetres from 1973 to 2001.
Binoo has a penchant for historical research and delves into the archives dating back to the British period. He finds that the largest earthquake in recorded history occurred in that region in 1897 (see The Great Assam Earthquake of 1897), but mercifully there was not much loss of life. He also traces the rise of Christianity in Meghalaya, the efforts of the European missionaries to win souls, the conflict of Christianity with the native animism, and the role of the earthquake in hastening the spread of Christianity (the earthquake was a punishment for their paganism, said some missionaries). He also describes the day that saw the highest amount of rain fall anywhere on earth in recorded history in a day: an astounding 1,563 millimetres between June 15 and 16 in 1995. Fortunately, Cherrapunji is a plateau on a cliff, and so the water flows down to the plains of Assam and Bangladesh, creating flood havoc there but leaving Cherra itself more or less unscathed. Of course, living in such a wet place has its drawbacks: clothes are hard to dry, for example.The umbrella is not of much use in rains of this intensity; the locals use a bamboo rain shield that works better. And it pours and pours only during the monsoon months; the winter is wholly rain-free.
Enough! Let’s now get down to brass tacks. One word of caution: don’t read further if you plan to eat soon. You’ll need a strong stomach to digest what’s coming next. Binoo observes that the Khasis of Meghalaya are fond of pork, which is almost a part of their daily diet. The Nagas too are fond of pork, I know, and so this may be a characteristic of the tribes of the Northeast. Over now to Binoo:
To get out of the jam of buses and jeeps parked perpendicular to each other normally takes thirty minutes. That time, I realized, could be usefully spent staring at the snouts of pigs, freshly killed and laid out on tables in a row of blood-lined shops in Bara Bazaar.
The pigs looked as if they were alive. Actually, they had all just been suffocated to death, the way the Khasis like their pork, which, they will tell you, tastes better with no blood let out. Sometimes, a red hot iron is shoved up the rectum and the insides fried live; in other cases the pig is suffocated by shoving a wooden rod with a bulb of cloth tied at the end, into the throat. It is impossible, they say, to slit the strong neck of a pig. In all these shops, pig blood is sold separately, hung up in polythene bags just above where the pigs are laid whole and neat as if they haven’t suffered the most painful of deaths. Rice cooked with pig blood is a Khasi delicacy.
No Khasi has yet bothered to find out whether such killing is inhuman or whether pigs deserve a better death. Pigs don’t come under human rights either. The driver explained the procedure to me with a naughty smile on his face. He acted out with his one free hand how the iron rod is shoved up the backside of a pig. He had a pig-killer’s smile and a deadly grip on the steering wheel.
A red hot iron rod thrust through the anus into the intestines, all to kill the pig without spilling blood so that it will taste better? If you think that’s mind-boggling cruelty, read on. I’ll now switch to Infamous Murderers, a collection of grisly murders from ancient times to the present. The third chapter is titled “Who Killed Edward II?” and begins thus:
Edward II met an appalling end in Berkley Castle in 1397. He was 43, constitutionally strong, and his murderers — there must have been more than one of them — tried several different ways of killing him before he eventually died. The road to this terrible death was a long and complicated one, involving power struggles among nobles, personal rivalries, personality clashes, heterosexual and homosexual love affairs, and an adulterous queen who was ready to depose her own husband out of revenge.
Edward was held a prisoner in Berkeley Castle under conditions that would have killed most men, but he had an exceptionally robust constitution and just would not die. “In the end, he was held down and a red hot poker inserted into his bowels — a slow and agonizing death that would leave no outward mark on his body.”
I was left wondering what fiend in human guise could have devised such an unspeakable way to kill a person — or pig. The book has a poem by Thomas Deloney on Edward’s death. This is the part (with modernized spellings)about the red hot poker:
Loathing his life at last his keepers came,
into his chamber in the dead of night:
And without noise they entered soon the same,
with weapons drawn and torches burning bright,
Where the poor prisoner fast asleep in bed
lay on his belly, nothing under his head.
The which advantage when the murderers saw,
a heavy table on him did they throw:
Wherewith awaked, his breath he scant could draw,
with weight thereof they kept him under so,
Then turning up his clothes above his hips,
to hold his legs, a couple quickly skips.
Then came the murderers, one a horn had got,
which far into his fundament down he thrust.
Another with a spit all burning hot,
the same quite through the horn he strongly pushed,
Among his entrails in most cruel wise,
forcing hereby most lamentable cries.
And while within his body they did keep
the burning spit still rolling up and down,
Most mournfully the murdered man did weep,
whose wailing noise waked many in the town,
who guessing by his cries his death drew near,
took great compassion on that noble peer.
And at each bitter shriek which he did make,
they prayed to God for to receive his soul:
His ghastly groans enforced their hearts to ache,
yet none durst go to cause the bell to toll:
Ah me, poor man, alack, he cried,
and long it was before he died.
Strong was his heart and long it was God knows
ere it would stop unto the stroke of death.
First was it wounded with a thousand woes,
before he did resign his vital breath.
The poem does not spare the reader; the description of the horrific mode of death is as graphic and rich in detail as a modern police report, and perhaps because of that, and the deep sympathy for Edward that runs through it, the overall effect is strangely moving. There is a poetic cadence to centuries old English that our modern language lacks, but I suppose they’ll be saying that a few centuries hence as well.
And now that I’ve introduced you to this method of killing man or pig that would never have occurred to you but did occur to fiends in human shape in lands flung as far apart as England and India, let me depart. Life is full of horrors, but we must learn to look them unflinchingly in the face.