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ITM 2015; Meghalaya’s mega event

Patricia Mukhim

The International Terra Madre a movement that promotes the philosophy of ‘Slow Food’ which is not necessarily a counterpoint to the fast food culture that is taking over the global cuisine but is more concerned about reclaiming our food biodiversity, is set to take Meghalaya by storm next month. The 4-day event (November 4-7, 2015) will culminate in the celebration of food and tastes from across 40 villages of Meghalaya and Nagaland. This last event will be held against the backdrop of the Mawphlang Sacred Grove and will showcase to an international audience numbering about six hundred or so and others coming from different parts of the country, the rich agro-ecology of the North Eastern Region of India. Visitors comprising mostly indigenous peoples from across the globe are converging here because they believe that we as a people have something distinct to offer them. They are coming with a lot of hopes and expectations that we have some key messages to give to the world for a more sustainable future. What is Meghalaya’s message to these visitors?

Since the event is held in Meghalaya it has been named the International Mei-Ramew (the hyphenated Khasi words mean Mother Nature as much as Terra Madre does). To host such a mega event requires both human and financial resources both of which have been managed with the expert guidance of former Assistant President IFAD, Phrang Roy who is heading the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), headquartered at Shillong. Naturally the Government of Meghalaya is a major stakeholder here since this event will also give a big boost to tourism and also put Meghalaya on the tourism map of the globe. No amount of advertisement could have got Meghalaya the attention that it has on account of the International Mei- Ramew Fest. And indeed each time one mentions this among friends and acquaintances the next question is, “When, where and what would it take for us to be there?” There is a general buzz in the air and this is likely to scale up as we get closer to the event.

Interestingly, while the rest of the world is all agog about the event, there are still many here who have not heard enough about the IMR and would like to know more about it. So how should NESFAS get the story out? The reality is that NESFAS has a very small band of dedicated workers who are trying to put together this humungous event. They cannot be burdened with creating a publicity blitz. Yet this is also the reason why most local people do not yet feel a sense of ownership of the IMR, when in fact they should proudly do so. After all, this is about Meghalaya and its people and their ability to host an international event! It is no mean feat. So NESFAS must get the good news out and fast. The other day while attending the 83rd anniversary of the Air Force at the Eastern Air Command I shared with a few officers about the IMR. They were very excited and wondered how they could be part of it. Earlier while at the Assam Regimental Centre for another programme I shared the same story. They too were interested but none of them knew how to get in touch with NESFAS. I hope that in the flurry of activities that are sucking up the energy of every member of the team, they do not forget that the public of Shillong are their most ardent fans.

I ask myself ( as a media person who is now quite long on the tooth) whether we are able to see the impact of this significant event and whether we need to tell the story loud and clear but all I see is a fascination for bad news, sad news and failures. Politics consumes our energy. Stories such as the one I am talking about today are billed as “soft stories,” to be covered by one of our female reporters if we have one. Our male colleagues are too busy chasing politicians and political stories because that gives them a sense of importance, even if there is nothing exclusive about the stories. And then we also have hang-ups about anything positive appearing in our newspapers. Perhaps we need to ask the readers whether their reading tastes veer around news that is all about doomsday predictions! The answers might surprise us.

Yesterday I visited the Sung Valley below Puriang, about 7 kilometers from Mawryngkneng. This is a valley that produces the best upland rice in terms of taste. There is no road to cover the 7 kilometer distance and only a tough Willys Jeep of the (2nd World War variety) can make it through this treacherous track. Yet people go about their farming with a smile, each passer-by stopping to speak to the other and enquiring about each other’s welfare. This place is known for its fertility and one could see tomatoes being grown over hundreds of acres. The tastiest guavas grow here and if one visits the Mawryngkneng market on Iew Pomtiah, their weekly market day one can pick up loads of guavas at a very decent price. But they don’t get too far because in Police Bazar all one gets to see are imported guavas that take a hell of a long time to reach here and don’t have the scent or the sweetness of the local ones. If only communication was better and people could transport their organically grown fruits to the city we would be a healthier lot. In fact the Sung Valley is a food bowl for much of East Khasi Hills. But many of us have perhaps not heard of this place although we might have frequented the fanciest locales of the world. Indeed Indians (and Meghalayans, particularly politicians) know more about London, New York and Bangkok than their backyards!

There is much to learn about Meghalaya. For instance the blue flowers that dot the hills and valleys around Mawiong-Sung and are called Jakhei by the local people only flowers once in twelve years. It last bloomed in 2003. Between October to November is when the flowers bloom. After that the plant dies off and does not resurface until after 12 years. I wish we had a stamp made of this rare flowering plant species or that botanists from our local universities would take some interest to research and inform us as to why the 12-year cycle happens with this particular plant. In fact this is a good story to weave around our tourism narratives and the flowers would make an attractive picture for our tourism fliers and folders.

So far as NESFAS is concerned it has been doing a lot of work with creating school gardens so children learn not only to eat but also to grow what they eat. This is also meant to address the nutritional needs of children which Government supplied midday meals have not been able to provide. Their band of social work graduates and researchers have been working relentlessly with farmers in the villages of Meghalaya and Nagaland for now (NESFAS hopes to extend its reach to Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura and the tribal areas of Assam as well), in what can be described as a cross- fertilizing teaching- learning experience. The core idea behind NESFAS and Slow Food is to rediscover those crops, vegetables, herbs, fruits, seeds, nuts and the huge varieties of mushrooms et al that the younger generation has forgotten about or is beginning to forget. To survive climate change and its vagaries, agro-ecologist feel that we need to go back to nature and this is what NESFAS is trying to do in this verdant biodiversity hotspot of the world.

As of now we are told that several international chefs are in town to understand the local cuisine and to try and weave something more daring out of the tried and tested culinary arts that we are familiar with. Taste is something that tempts. A spice here and a herb there could alter taste considerable and make that difference between a passionately cooked food and one that is put together as a matter of duty. The Italians believe passion is what drives the world. No wonder the Slow Food Movement originated in Italy and Carlo Petrini its founder can talk animatedly for hours on the philosophy of food!

As we gear ourselves for this world event, NESFAS deserves a thumbs-up for attempting a bold, brave and audacious initiative!

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