“Don’t take anything from the forest. The ones who have taken even a single leaf or stone suffer misfortune. Even death,” warns John Starfield Myrthong—referred to as just Starfield by his friends—almost philosophically as he takes me through the sacred forest of Mawphlang village, a major tourist attraction in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. Said to be protected by a deity named Labasa, this sacred grove is known for its tales of punishment, trees with human-like faces and a ‘strange magnetic pull’.
Short and athletic, Starfield is a local guide from Mawphlang, loved by his friends and elders of his village. And yet, he is unlike any other tour guide I have come across. With a gift of the gab and a distinct—albeit familiar—boyish charm, Starfield is just 22 with the wisdom of a nonagenarian, and a demeanour that appears straight out of a boisterous movie role. He is also a fourth-standard dropout, a circumstance that was shaped by limited financial resources—something many young boys go through in the state where the trend has accelerated over the last four years.
However, Starfield refused to let this define his life.
Six years ago, the only English words this boy knew were “hello”, “welcome”, “come here” and “bye bye”. This was before one of his friends gave him a DVD of Home Alone, the movie that initiated Starfield into Hollywood. Soon, he was binge-watching Hollywood movies, downloading the subtitles, and practising accents with the sole purpose of learning English.
For Starfield, learning English means a better status in society, earning respect of the villagers and, of course, furthering his career as a tour guide, a profession that requires for him to interact with at least five visitors every day. “For most boys my age, the only options are farming, getting a government job like the police forces, or becoming a tour guide,” he tells me. Rising unemployment and migration of youth to cities such as Guwahati and Shillong is a major issue that is affecting the state’s politics. The government has expressed concerns about decreasing employability due to reasons such as lack of industrialisation, the small service sector, and an under-developed agricultural landscape.
Starfield’s foray into the English language also comes from his love for war and action films such as Hitman, Rocky and Rambo. His favourite film, though, is Titanic. “I think it has a very interesting story of struggle and love. It stars my favourite actress Kate Winslet. I don’t like [Leonardo] DiCaprio that much,” says Starfield whose heart beats for action stars such as Sylvester Stallone and Jackie Chan. His favourite genre is boxing. “I used to do boxing at one point,” he tells me.
As a boy, Starfield would guide the tourists without fee to hone this new-found language skill. “I was well-known as the kid who talks a lot. Some gave me a packet of biscuit for accompanying them, while a few others would give a little money. I never asked for it,” he says. He would try to talk to every new person who came to Mawphlang, from tourists to truck drivers (from whom he picked up some Hindi). Now an experienced tour guide, Starfield is fluent in English, Hindi and a bit of Bengali, earning up to ₹10,000-₹12,000 per month, “more than many who completed school”.
Becoming a tour guide was not his dream. Starfield wanted to become a cop or a marathon runner. In 2012, he won a championship of marathon, which he thought would help him get into the police force. “I was counting on someone I knew who knew a minister, the way to get such a job, but was disqualified at the interview level,” says Starfield, who was asked for a bribe to get ahead, but he couldn’t afford it. Almost every young boy in his village wants to get a government job, he adds. “That is the only ticket to a respectable life. The only rich people here are the government officials,” he says.
As Starfield’s life plays out—one trek at a time—the glue that holds it all together is the slow, comfortable life of Mawphlang, away from the “selfish and political” city life. “We eat good food here, breathe clean air and diseases are rare. The only ones who die early are the ones who drink too much rice beer. Even some drunkards live well into the 90s,” he says. Starfield never completed his studies, but he urges other kids to contribute to the village. “I want to teach kids from poor families how to earn money their own way. A lot of young boys come to me to learn Hindi and English. I help as much as I can,” he says.
Starfield—who claims to have accompanied Bollywood personalities such as Farah Khan for treks—ultimately draws his wisdom from the mountains and forests he grew up in. “Our life is much more difficult than the ones who live in the plains, but it also teaches us. When you walk in a forest, the right path often leads through stones and an upward climb to the hill. Here, you will find your way only if you work hard for it.”
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