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Tony Jarratt – India

By Simon Brooks



Right - Jrat going native in Meghalaya

I first met Tony, or ‘Jrat’ as he was most commonly known, in 1983/4 whilst caving on Mendip.  We got along well right from the start sharing a common interest in caving.  Moving to Derbyshire in 1986 I saw him less frequently, usually on forays south both to drink in the Hunters (AKA The Centre of the Universe) and of course to go caving.   It was in Jrat’s shop ‘Bat Products’ in 1990 that I met one of my cave diving colleagues, Rob Harper, who said he was interested in going somewhere different to explore caves and he asked me.  ‘Where would you like to go to find caves where no one else has been.  Meghalaya in northeast India I replied.  There is a 1km long river cave there and rumours of lots more, the only problem is that I is essentially a no go area regarding access.   Rob contacted me again a month and insisted that I should go to Meghalaya and take him with me.  Suffice to say after much letter writing etc 20 month after that we were in Meghalaya for the first time exploring some fine new caves.   When we returned the Meghalaya trip was hot news on Mendip and subsequent years saw large expeditions finding more and more cave.  Jrat had plenty of experience in International Cave Exploration and liked the sound of Meghalaya.  In 1997 he joined us for the first time and immediately fell under the spell of India and Meghalaya.

Unlike the more traditional expeditions we arrived in Shillong the capital of Meghalaya and went straight to the home of Brian Kharphran Daly our contact in Shillong.  Brian is the secretary of the Meghalaya Adventurers Association with whom the Meghalaya, Caving in the Abode of the Clouds Exploration Project had been working in partnership with since 1994.  As we sat in Brian’s sitting room discussing and planning the next months cave exploration and drinking bottles of ‘Asia 72’, or was it ‘He Man Bitter’, I can’t remember.  Jrat in a well ‘Asia 72 state’ beamed across the room and said.  “This is bloody fantastic, here we are in a little known part of India sitting in Brian’s front room with the cream of Indian caving discussing the caving activities for the month ahead”.  Jrat was hooked.  Needless to say Jrat went on to perform faultlessly later that evening when on returning to our hotel it was noticed that Jrat was missing.  “What” I exclaimed to his erstwhile minders (who for the purpose of today will remain nameless) “you have lost him, what am I going to say to the British Deputy High Commission”, Anyway, a quick search outside on the streets of Shillong soon found Jrat.  Who was sat down next to a small fire of street debris with a bunch of bemused Meghalaya Wino’s sharing their hooch whilst an also bemused pair of Indian Military Police Officers looked on not really knowing what do.  Apologising profusely for not taking good care of our colleague we rapidly removed him and took him back to the hotel.

This ability for Jrat to engage with the local people was a key feature of his time in Meghalaya.  In the Jaintia Hill on the Shnongrim Ridge where Jrat spent the last 8 expeditions exploring the many caves Jrat liked nothing more than to join the locals on reconnaissance trips looking for new cave entrances.  Jrat fastidiously collected much information about the caves, legends attached to each cave, who the guides were etc and as a result he became very good friends with many of the local Shnongrim Ridge inhabitants.  Each year they would welcome him into their homes.  Jrat responded by always welcoming them to join him and others around the campfire a share a beer (or several).  As the evenings grew old the discussions switched from caves to local legend and folklore and then onto the surreal.

It was this genuine interest and love for both the land and the local people of Meghalaya that endeared Jrat to Shnongrim Villagers and the many other people he met during the course of each caving expedition.  In 2004 this mutual respect was superbly summed up in a letter that was written to Tony Jarratt (or Mr Tonny as he was know) and the expedition team by Menda Syih (Propastor of Shnongrim Village) on behalf of the villagers, who said:

“Sirs, We would like to express our gratitude for your coming to our place and for your ability to mingle with us as friends.  So before you leave this place we have nothing to give you but only these few words “We wish you a happy journey and reach home safely.  Give our regards to your family members and friends.  We do hope and pray you come back next year.  Thank you.” 
Jrat was fascinated with the Shnongrim Ridge as a caving area having been involved in its exploration right from the very start.  As each year’s caving expedition uncovered yet more wonderful cave passage and new caves, not to mention the linking of one cave to another.  Jrat was convinced that many could be linked to create the magical 100 km long cave system.  As blank areas on the map become filled with cave Jrat always had a long list of ‘caving things to do’ that he would present me with at the start of each expedition.  These lists often became the focus of much of the exploration activity and lead to some impressive finds.  By the end of the 2008 Expedition (the expeditions and Jrat’s 8th year on ‘the Ridge’) one of the cave systems, the magnificent Liat Phah – UmIm-Labbit had grow to over 30 kms in length and is indeed a fitting tribute to the inspiration and motivation that Jrat provided to his fellow cavers on the Meghalaya expeditions.

Jrat eagerness to collect the local names for the caves and any legends etc associated with them did also have a downside.  Namely that at the end of each year we were always updating the Cave Registry of the Caves of Meghalaya.  Depending on whom Jrat spoke to or shared a beer (or several) with around the campfire the spelling of names would change one way one year and back again the next.

Living in Derbyshire and having an interest in farming in Devon I would often call in at the Hunters on my way down to Devon in order to see Jrat and discuss and plan future activities in India.  The discussions in the pub would invariably continue at Jrat’s home.  A process that was facilitated by reasonable quantities of beer (often India Beer brought in for the occasion by either Jrat or myself) or whatever else Jrat had lying around – we weren’t fussed.  Needless to say our social gatherings often concluded in the wee hours and always resulted in a ‘later than planned’ start for both of us the following day.  Jrat was frequently late opening the shop and I was late in getting down to the farm.  So much so that if the farm was aware I was stopping of in Mendip to ‘Discuss Cave Exploration in India etc’ then they always made sure someone else was available to feed cattle or see sheep as I clearly could not be relied on.  The positive side to this was that forays to India were always well inspired, planned and though out.

Jrat’s timing as always, was par excellent.  During his involvement in India he inspired everyone and effectively ‘saw the ridge out’ as we went there in 2000 and our last year on the ridge was this year (2008) as next year we move on to pastures new.

Jrat both inspired and touched all whom he met.  This was due to his single-minded energy and enthusiasm and the way in which he respected and got involved with everyone especially the local Meghalaya people.  I will now read the following Message of Condolence letter from our friends in Shillong that is indeed a fine testimony to Mr Jarratt’s life and the fantastic contribution he made to caving in India.

The message of condolence from Shillong was then read…