Personally I think that if one wishes to delve seriously into the phenomenon” of Shillong and the history of the people who live, or have lived here, we have to try to understand the impact of Modernity on the (pre-modern) societies that lived on this Plateau. Modernity is a term loaded with implications. Modernity here, as I take it, is a “project”, which came with the Colonialists, with the British. Modernity, for this purpose, is the creation of a modern, oft “alien” culture, within the civil settlement that has come to be called Shillong.
However, there is a lot of phobia here around this term “pre-modern” which is often times as good as saying “pre-colonial”. In many cultures the world over, and indeed in most parts of India, vast repositories of knowledge are dedicated to the study of all-manners of anti-Colonial/post-Colonial works, or works that explore the ‘after effects’ of Colonialism. However, in Meghalaya (dare I say North East in general?) this rather old theme has still not really caught on. The answer why this is so is, probably, connected to our favourite activity – Church. From the few articles that I have read along a Post-Colonial perspective, originating from here, it seems obvious that only certain things can be weighed up. The erstwhile foreign government and its policies (of education, administration etc) can be targeted. It’s still a bit taboo but fair game now (you will have people to defend you now). However, European missionaries and their works are, strictly, off-limits except if you happen to be European. Then that’s fine.
I am troubled by how people talk about the past. Our “pre-Modern” forerunners are still considered by many of their living descendents today to have been bumpkins, always “in the dark” (kiba sah ha ka jingdum). My own family history bears testimony to that. Blood relations, clan families split along religious or sectarian lines, forced by external forces to maintain distance and separation. Fear and suspicion narrowing minds on all sides. Various religious congregations still actively pursue this agenda which is essentially a Colonial one: namely to demonise the “tribal” past and to only consider history from a European starting-point. Without romanticising them, it seems clear, today, that the “tribal” ancestors had their own “light” (jingshai); an intelligence and local knowledge which had evolved over centuries and which was particularly suited to a particular locale.
With the urban settlements established by the British (Sohra, Jowai, Shillong etc), a new knowledge system came up here as well. Very quickly, it must have become apparent to many “pre-Modern” locals that things needed to change for the future. They were, more or less, excluded from this “brave new world” by virtue of being born into a different culture, a different “race”. However, another access route to Modernity was available and that was by entering into the folds of the Church.
The Church ostensibly did not discriminate and accepted all who were willing to ‘change’ (this is debatable, of course). This non-secular path led to a place at the table of the “new” and “enlightened”. Services like education and medicine were/are the missionary’s forte. Clinics/dispensaries and schools are always the first to be set up in any mission-field. It’s a tried and tested formula and many, especially, elderly people speak fondly of their first encounters with this new “faith”. Material conditions inevitably changed and the Church was crucial in that transformation, especially beyond the European-dominated urban wards. The “good life” awaited those who gave up their “barbarity”; they could become ‘made’ men/women, working in offices, hospitals, schools: new symbols of social status and indications of upward mobility. Reconstituting the materialism within “spiritual faith” must surely be the urgent task today for us. People did not simply convert because of a ‘calling’ or ‘enlightenment’; they converted because they benefitted materially from conversion.
The sad thing here, though, is how we have come to demonise the pre-Modern in our embrace of the Modern. I am not advocating for a return to the ”noble savage” way of living. People back then, must have surely taken up the many new ways of living and embraced technology, “civilisation” because it made their lives more comfortable. However, we must surely maintain some reservation with the assumption that all ‘new’ things are good things.
Perhaps, some people might have qualms with my closely identifying Church with Modernity. It is, in this instance, a lens to work with and might have aberrations. However, it is misleading to dismiss the impact they have had on us, working in tandem. Much of our ”natural” Conservativeness in this society could be due to the fact that most of our encounters with Modernity are given to us directly by the Church or ”reviewed” by it, before our eventual consumption. Along simple lines, the modernity experienced by many in this society is a Conservative one because it is intimated to us by the Church and its auxiliaries. Forgive me for equating Church with Conservativeness but I have yet to see otherwise. For me, Khasi society today and Church are often inextricable. Which is why I am dismayed but not surprised when people can go around calling ours a “Christian state”. In our experience of polity, it really could be justified. Our premier politician – whom many still try to futilely ape – JJM Nichols, was a pastor.
Again, the main reason for this Church-Modernity lattice could have been because “development”, in particular, ‘tribal’ development was not really a major concern for the British authorities who first came here. They did not care about us. Yes, I said it! The Church in that sense did contribute quite a lot towards that eventual upliftment but it was always with an agenda. Either they have entirely denigrated the past or sought to control it. This is extremely problematic. On a final digressive pathway, I want to recommend to people that we should not be offended when others go around agitating for a Hindu state/nation. What would Hindu Rashtra look like? Maybe something like a Christian Rashtra. Both, it seems, are already here.
Flow, river, flow
Your rage isn’t over yet
Flow because you’ve always flowed
Flow because it’s you
Flow by the bucketful, by the mug
By the drop
Come together and flow
Trample the bridges and levees
That stand in your way
Smash the tyrannical dams
That want to trap and use you
Swallow up the pride of men
Flow, river and carry the plastic bags,
Chemicals, faeces and dirt
Of this town
Spit out idols onto your banks
Let men know that you are forever
That Time and weather feed you
Show men the trickling erosion
Of your tongues that lap at cement foundations
Show us the might of that patience
Which carves out canyons from solid rock
Swiftly run, like your brothers and sisters
Like Godavari, Narmada, Tsangpo
Cut down temples, towns and high tensions
Deposit refuse and rot on backyards
Remind us you’re a God.
We went out for a drive yesterday and stopping by a Mawiong shop – for cigarettes – I saw again the once-familiar blue fluorescence, emitted by one of those bulbs that is meant to attract insects. I remembered then my father’s mosquito zapper, which shone similarly. I remembered fiddling with it after his funeral. I then became morose with these thoughts. It’s funny how the mind works. How it can leave behind the chatter and wander off into a blue aura. How it can colour memory and animate the dead. Yet it is also the thing that reminds you that none of its figments are real.
How can it do this? Teleporting me to my father’s death-bedside, while my friends drink in the car. How can it show me these things now? The image of his body in a suit – eyes shut – with some hideous cotton up his nose. It is still, seen through curtains, which I dare not part. It is still, seen in no one’s company but my own. It is an image, which has lost some of its details over the years but not its power. It still breaks my heart.
Slowly, I’ve seen the unruly co-opted –
The locality boys I was afraid of –
The boys who smoked bidis
Under the bamboo groves;
They are now buried under
Employment, ”adulthood” and Church.
Why was I so scared of these men
Who are now as docile as hens?
These men aren’t so tough
They could have used that boldness, that wit, that rough.
Now, all they can do is mouth psalms and anecdotes
About great, ‘white’ men
Who lived over there, back then;
Men like Abe Lincoln and Churchill –
Monuments you can no longer interrogate –
Because they’ve changed to clean marble
And that’s what the ”world” wants.
It also wants lads like these,
To exhaust their power and youth,
To rebel and wear down, to become depressed;
To come back like some biblical son,
Work a decent job, rear a decent family;
Then die, decently;
How I hate them for giving up
But they don’t know this!
The road to Tyrsad is horrible. Potholes lie in wait for you the moment you get clear of Mawphlang. I suppose proper roads are only for the tourists who frequent the much-hyped Sacred Grove, located on the outskirts of Mawphlang village. The valley in which Tyrsad is situated is wide, long and very picturesque. It looks like a fairly rich growing ground as well. I see lots of fat sacks along the roadside filled with potatoes or something of a similar shape. This rustic beauty, the sight of hard working people and the smell of cow dung in the morning make me forgive the back-breaking journey.
The moment we reach Tyrsad, my companions get down for a quick peg of whisky at one of the many roadside joints. I wonder how many people knew of the tiny rooms beyond the main eating area where customers could enjoy a drink with their meals. A small boy, maybe the owner’s son, brings us our order – he looks like he’s got a head for business. This is all hush-hush of course; ostensibly they are solely a restaurant catering to tired drivers and hungry travellers. It is too expensive to acquire a legal license and too much harassment. There are many places like these along the highways; you just have to look for the signs.
We get back into the car and start out again. We’re going downhill, to Mawsynram. At Weiloi village, you see it! Lum Symper – erstwhile mountain-god, now customary picnic-spot. You understand in a way why the ancient forerunners would have held it up in such spiritual regard. It towers over the surrounding plateau, your eye always on it.
We have to travel down the back of a mountain which slopes, sometimes too rapidly for our liking, towards the plains of Bangladesh. The bottom of the ravines are hundreds of feet below us and morbidly we wonder if they would even bother fetching our corpses or simply let them decompose out in the open. I used to be scared of cliffs, I’d imagine earthquakes and landslides pushing me over the edge but when you’re sharing such stories together with people, somehow it is easier to admire the sublime scenery rather than the tragedy of an accident.
I’ve always liked linguistics. It’s hard not to when your grandfather was a linguist, you grow up into it. The sounds of those names we encountered on the way, names of places like Phlangwanbroi, Trongpleng, Kenbah Malai fascinate me because they force me outside the standard Sohra dialect, which we use in Shillong, they make me re-see the world, re-assess versions of culture. Kenbah Malai – what does that mean? (“malai” is most probably borrowed from the Bangla). Perhaps the very incidence of this name shows our assimilation of many cultures into ours; which we now take for granted, perhaps we don’t honour them enough nowadays.
At Mawpen, we are told that a big meeting is underway. A Revival Service which, I believe was called by the Presbyterians. This explains why the villages all looked deserted. I didn’t want to offend my friends so I withheld vocalising my grievances. It should have been fine though, since all the while we’d been debating about tribal identity and culture. We never halted at Mawsynram. My friends asked for direction and we sped off further downhill. I hadn’t asked what we were going there for. I like long drives. After yet another hour, we finally reached our destination.
What can I say about the place? Pomblang looks like any other village along the Mawsynram-Balat road. If you didn’t have work there, or had family there, you’d most probably drive on by. It’s a nice enough place with kwai (areca nut) and orange orchards sprouting their wares, all around, in the warm weather. We ask for a particular person’s house and meet his grandmother, his aunts and their numerous children. Inside their home, prominently displayed on the wall, I see a programme- leaflet of upcoming church services. There is also a picture of Jesus next to that of a political candidate. I mutter to myself – Messiah.
I remember a friend once telling me that travelling – on an empty stomach – to West Khasi Hills on a Sunday was risking starvation. He’s absolutely right. I’m extremely hypoglycaemic as I sit down in their living room. My lovely hosts seem to sense this and bring us each a bowl of jadoh (meat cooked with rice) almost immediately. They’re all smiles and I can’t understand what they’re saying in the local tongue but it’s really nice to hear. It gets me thinking about the pre-eminence of the Sohra dialect, about the economics and politics behind its stature. I don’t want that those village kids should ever lose their mother tongue, the language of their village just because they have to come to Shillong to eke out a living. In the city, we talk about outsiders coming and stealing away what is precious to us but maybe we need to be more careful with such thoughts because at times we’re the outsiders.
Slowly I realise, in the ensuing conversation, that the man whose house we’re in, is actually in jail and that my friends, who themselves had spent a month in the slammer, had gone all that way to tell his family that he was doing well, and to brief them about certain things they needed to do to speed up his release. I didn’t know what to feel at this point. What are our reactions when we know of or meet such people? Fear, loathing? Or do we dismiss them entirely? Throughout my formative years, I’d always thought that these people were hooligans and troublemakers. It may be true but is it really so simple or easy to pick up a gun?
Mere troublemaking and extortion were not what lured so many young people into the folds of armed outfits. They believed in something, maybe it was a wrong belief but they followed it through. If you never met one or talked to one, you’d most likely imagine them to be complete monsters. Personally I respect their courage but there is no doubt, in my mind, that they’ve been used. Many coming out of poor villages like this pawned, sold out and moved around by various forces beyond their control. I suppose that’s why these villagers are wary of strangers.
Ka Akor Khasi ka mut
Ia kiba nabar nion kput;
Ka Akor Khasi ka ong
Ban thom bor ka long;
Ka long ban bamsap
Katba phim shah lap –
Lada phi shah kem
Wat nym sngew rem –
Leh kum mynshwa
Tangba bam kham duna;
Ka dustur rim ka hikai
Ban thok bad siklai,
Ban tuh bad lute na u paidbah
Namar phim iohi iano ka ktah;
Te leh hangamei bad leh sarong
U kristan u ia syriem bad u chnong:
Ka niam kam mut eiei mynta
Ha ka juk jong ka nga, nga, nga.
Pynhikai ha la ki miaw kine ki akor thymmai:
Im tang ha ka mynta, shadien, shakhmat wat phai;
Lada phi pule lyndet ia kine baroh,
Phin plung ka met phin sngaid ka kpoh;
Te hikai ha la ki ksew kine ki rukom,
Phin kiew kyrdan, phin kiew burom.