Modernity with Motives : Conservatism in Shillong

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.

 

If You’re Going To Kill, Strike!

Brave new world filled with Facebook bravado;
A time to rejoice in the self, commend the genius flow,
A time to run and hide behind bold words,
A time to skip along and be free to hurt;
But the brave stop and tremble before God
They dare not strike him with their sword;
The brave still fear and some walls still stand
Instead they attack politicians, editors, anyone at hand;
Then make their way to sacrament, to sacred bread
Still worship at the temple, still must bow their proud heads.

Wan Phai Ban Pynbha Biang

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Sa shi sien, la kha biang ia me, la kynmaw ieid biang namar ba ki wah ki la rngat bad ki miet, kjam. Mynta ki sla ki la iap bad ki lum, syllen. La dei ka por wad jingkyrmen biang. Kumta hi ha ki sngi kha. Man u snem u wan noh ha PB, bad ki briew kim klet ban wan mane ia u. Ki wan dem ha me uba sympat ia ki nongkhayi; ha iew.

Ki thrang ban iohi ia ka jingwan arsien jong me. Kumno men wan? Kum ka eriong bad leilieh? Kum ka wait bad sum? Kum u jumai bad ding? Ne kum ka Pyrem bad ki sla jyrngam? Kum ka Erbatemon bad um pjah? Kum ka Jingkmen bad ki kot thymmai?

Wan, wan ban pynbha biang. Tangba lada me wan, kyrsiew shwa, kum ia u Lazarus, ia kito ki ba shah thang im ha ki por iakhih ki sengbhalang. Kyrsiew ia baroh kiba shah thombor tang namarba ki pher na ngi. Kyrsiew ia kito kiba pynrit mynsiem ha khmat kiba heh, kumjuh kiba shah bein tang namarba kim mane ia me. Kyrsiew khamtam ia ki dohnud maw jong ki nongbud jong me. Pynum ia u thah uba sop ia ki mynsiem jong ki.

Wan, wan ban pynbha biang. Ai biang ha ka Elaka Sutnga bad Elaka Narpuh ia ki tyllong um ba khuid, kibym ai jingpang ia kiba dih ne sum ha ki. Kumjuh ha Byrnihat bad Nongtalang.

Lada me wan ban pynbha shisha, pynbha ia kine ki khlur rit bad ophisar kiba shong ha khmat iingmane. Pyni ka dur shisha jong me ha ki. Ba me kham ia jan bad ki nongkhrong ban ia ki saipan, ba me shong bad ki nongdiekwai, ba mem pat ju poi sha Times Square, ba mem shym beh ia ka burom ne spah hapor ba me dang im ha pyrthei.

Lada me wan shisha, wan biang na trep na sem mrad; wan biang kum u nongpynim jong ka shnong ka thaw; u nongpyrsad mynsiem ia ka imlang sahlang; wan biang kum u nongpyllait im ia ki mraw.

Yo, God

Yo, God I’ve got a question for you.
Are you Jew, Muslim, Christian or Hindu?
Do you hear when they talk or are you blank as my wall?
Are you small and compact and sit inside a room,
Or is it a tomb that houses your presence?
Can your essence be spread by just one faith,
And can they teach hate for the ones who can’t understand?
God, are you man, transgender or animal?
Do you have mandibles, fur or down?
Are you a clown? A non serious god, an old uncle who lives down the street?
Do your feet rise above the ground, or are you like us:
Not far from the dust and dirt and piss and cigs ?
God, don’t stay with the Big; come out of those stuffy spots-
Those churches, ‘gogs, mosques and temples- run outside, quick!

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May You Profit From Death

U Blei u la iap bad dei ma ngi ba pyniap ia u. Ngi pyniap ia u khyndiat, man ka sngi sha Lumchnong, sha Nongtalang, sha Byrnihat, sha Shallang. Kat shaba leit ka tuid ka snam jong u, bad ka ai skai kum ha Lukha, ha Umtru, ha Umtyngar.

To ngin ia dwai, khapbrip khmat beit, wat phai sha ka mon ne sha ka diang, pyndem khlieh bad shu dwai beit. Phah ki jingdwai, ki jingtieng, jingsyier jong phi sha U Blei u ba la iap, U Blei uba la dam. Dwai ba un pynriewspah ia phi na ka jingpra jong ka met jong u. To phin iai nang kiew nang roi na ka jingiap. Amen.

Khwad

Yesterday, I accompanied my pastor friend to a small War village for a programme he had to preside over. Khwad falls within the Mawkynrew constituency and, it meant for us, a 35 minute trek down a cliff with a friendly guide and his son. There had been thick fog all around, making driving there a slow and frustrating task. When we reached the village, we were greeted with curiosity and smiles like coming back home after a long holiday. Water and bananas greeted us as well, for which we were very thankful. Our host was a 25 year old church elder whose speech was slow but well-paced.

When the sermon started, I suddenly realised I had not attended one in 6 years. In the city, I felt tired and sad going to church, I felt like it was merely one van to beat the air with but there I felt comforted. It was comforting to hear the villagers poking fun at pastor, to see them come to church in dirty clothes, to see children think of church as a big room to play in, to hear chicken fighting outside and pigs oinking their disapproval. Where is this in Shillong? We talked more about the land, the plants and animals, the distance from “civilisation” than about God, because as my friend said it correctly, that is where God truly resides, in what the people love, what they care about, what they tend to, what their children are ensconced in.

It took us an hour to make it back to the road where the car was parked. Sweat drenching our clothes, thoughts running wild within us, we reached the summit and looked back down at Khwad so far below, feeling both pride, and disbelief at those people who settled there so long ago. The sun was out by then -brighter, it looked, than ever before – the clouds had been dispersed.