Ksan I

Ah, Hussain, is he dead then ?
Have all his struggles come to this ?
Crying in the dark, covered in mud and piss ?
Is this his body then ?
Is this what becomes of men ?
Did he hold another man’s hand in fear,
The same man whom he would often jeer?
Did he pray to his God or his owner ?
As cold water slammed every corner;
And as every corner turned tomb,
He must have clawed against his doom;
But he drowned in that hell pit, screaming
While above him, all around, the world was teeming:
There’s no good times in a mine, no good times in a mine.


Vodka and Ramadan

So Ramadan 2016 had just started and I was in this really shoddy bar which didn’t look so shoddy from the outside. I was once again fooled by that bright coloured pre-fabricated panelling which is ubiquitous these days. I stepped into the dive, sat at a table and ordered vodka with some lime slices. It was a little after 3 pm on a Thursday in Calcutta. This is probably one of the joys of urban existence that I have somehow got around to cherishing: the empty bar. To sit in a quiet, undisturbed space with only the background banter of waiters with booze on call – these are the hallmarks of civilization! After a near hour-long dip into this oasis of tranquillity, I was joined by other weary travelers. A couple, the man had a skull-cap on and his companion was a woman, probably out on a date. They ordered some food and the man asked for a beer. I did not really give any of this much consideration.

In another half hour or so, another couple walked in. The men glanced at each and apparently knew one another. They exchanged a bout of words which I was not able to discern. I took all this in with long sips of vodka. After some time, I noticed that the men seemed to be annoyed with each other. It is that strange malaise which afflicts men in bars whereby they start shouting incoherently about something, their eyes wild and unfocused, their heads bobbing side-to-side. Sometimes there is foam at the mouth but rarely.

At first I was bemused and unable to understand what exactly was going on. Then it began to dawn on me. The man with the ‘topi’ was obviously breaking his fast before time and this somehow irked the other man. The fact that he was doing so with beer must have been a further point of anxiety. I suspected the other was also Muslim and as I mentioned earlier acquainted with the ‘offender’. It was quite interesting listening to them. The aggrieved party told the other to at least hide his ‘topi’ if he was going to insult his faith when he came to such places, the offender countered the attacker by asking him why he was there himself if he was so pious. The man maintained that he was there to simply keep his lady friend company. The women, I could see, were enjoying the show while merrily chomping down on chicken legs. They were both non-Muslims, I suspect.

“The one above knows”, said the attacker as he pointed to the sky. “So let him judge”, was the reply. Now when I think about it – why did that man have his skullcap on? Did he simply forget to take it off in the excitement of going on a date? Or did he do it intentionally? Was it some sort of a performance on his part? Maybe he just naively assumed that no other Muslim would bump into him in such a place and at such a time in the year? These deductions were quite fascinating to think about and I began to also construct a life for him beyond the bar. I was a little drunk and imagined him as a rebel who drank regularly, smoked weed openly and dated only girls outside of his own religion. Later at home, I re-read an article about how a Muslim man and a Hindu woman had been too frightened to register their marriage for fear of repercussions, somewhere in rural UP.

People cannot believe there is any love in such unions, they believe only in agendas. We have become objects with no will outside of stereotype. Worse is we submit ourselves to these ideas eventually, even when as children we fought hard against them. We slowly subdue ourselves and perpetuate the crude sketches, lewd jokes taught to us by our parents, who in turn learned it from theirs. We have invented and sustained a tradition of hatred.

Could our hero in the bar shake aside such reductions? Would he enthral his detractors with his wit or show up their poor reasoning with his own? Or maybe he is just lying drunk in his bed at home, having nightmares about the argument in the bar and acknowledging his fault? Maybe he will turn as well, in his pursuit of becoming ‘respectable’ and ‘grown up’? We will never know for sure.

The Khasis as Hindus

Perhaps this article is ill-timed. Perhaps in the current scenario with various Far Right groups actively seeking a Hindutva agenda it is not the best time to be writing things which they could use for their own benefit. This is particularly true after the recent maiden procession carried out by the RSS in Shillong which has evoked so much reaction. However, these events cannot forestall the need for articulation. It waits for no one. With this in the background, I would like to present an argument that has been brooding in my head for a while now.

I have often heard it repeated over and over again especially by the Christian clergy and its fraternity that Khasis were/are not Hindus. They often say, in a very vague language, that essentially we worshipped One God (U Nongbuh U Nongthaw) through His “ambassadors” here on Earth. So in a sense ‘Lei Shyllong and other ancient deities might be suitably placed within a pre-Christian monotheism. This seems contradictory in more than one way. The most obvious is that it seems the Khasis are the only ones who profess this. Other tribes around us who have undoubtedly influenced and been influenced by the Khasis worship multiple gods not a God – these are full framed figures, resplendent in their distinct tribal garb, not simply allusions to a one Universal. This aspect is something we need to interrogate further because this pre-Christian “Christianity (monotheism)” appears to be revisionist. The frequency of the articulation of this idea among the Christians – especially Catholic priests – seems to betray its origins and motives. After all, it is much easier to convert people by drawing comparisons to that which they are already acquainted with: that the introduction of new gods is in reality just a change in nomenclature and ritual, that essentially they have always been worshipping the same God.

I am personally interested in the fact if the Khasis claim to be a matrilineal culture/society, why is U Nongbuh Nongthaw (The Keeper/ Creator) a male deity? Shouldn’t ‘he’ be a ‘she’? I realize that this is not necessarily an air-tight hypothesis but humour me. The Pnars and Bhois, interestingly, seem to place more importance on female divinities – the goddess Riang Khangnoh, goddess Myntdu, goddess Lukhmi are far more popular than any male counterparts. And they are not simply goddesses of the homestead either, they can wonder outside from spring to spring, blessing the families that stay along their path, they can serve as guardians (‘lei khyrdop) protecting Jowai like Myntdu does and they can also guarantee a good harvest like Lukhmi. They seem to have more character, more nuance than the Nongbuh Nongthaw. To simplify the pre-Christian era has been one of the major projects of the missionaries of various faiths. These include the Christians and the Hindus as well. Both have, in their own manner, drawn attention away from the differences and harped on the similarities that were allegedly shared. The Christians have been vague about it while the Hindus have embraced the ‘nitty gritties’ of the idiosyncratic Khasi myth pantheon as their own.

When we talk of Hinduism we have been warned time and again about the dangers of ‘centralizing’ it: that there are, in fact, many Hinduisms. This is a convenient starting point for interrogating the Hindu processes that went on in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills before the coming of Christianity. To simply state and defend the “Khasis were not Hindus” tenet with no evidence except popular belief is bad science. On the contrary, there is substantial material evidence to support the claim that they were, indeed, Hindus. In Syndai, you will find a large Ganesha sculpture – among others – of some age carved into a large rock; the local people call it ‘U Khmi’ (interestingly the word means “earthquake” in Pnar). Dawki has a number of old rock carvings which seem to be influenced by Hindu traditions. Legend has it that the Kamakhya Temple in Assam was originally a sacred Khasi site – a point acknowledged by temple management in publications – where a type of mother goddess supposedly resided. She was called “Ka Mei Kha” by the Khasis, which over time morphed into Kamakhya. The phonological shift is noteworthy. Nartiang and Iale Falls were important locations for Shakti human sacrifices. The former is still an important shrine for pilgrims to visit. Mahadek,also known as Laittyra, was called that because of the presence of a Mahadev temple within the village. Mawsynram still draws a decent number of Hindu pilgrims who suffer the horrible roads in order to perform puja at the mawjymbuin cave, which they consider to be a shiv-ling. Interestingly, these sites are all near borders – either with Assam or Bangladesh. There are undoubtedly other similar sites and shrines throughout these hills and valleys which await re-discovery.

Beyond the ostensible spaces, there are also a number of cultural borrowings that seem to have been directly influenced by Hinduism. This should not surprise (nor anger) us. The North East is basically a land bridge (possibly one of the most important in history). Materials, skills, ideas have flowed through this region for a very long time from East to West and vice versa. The fairly recent isolationism and the subsequent xenophobia should not fool us into believing otherwise. Many important festivals like Behdeinkhlam, Lukhmi have strong links with larger Vedic currents. The references to Lukhmi/Lukhimai are quite clearly to a ‘tribalised’ Lakshmi. During Behdeinkhlam, the rot (tower-like structures made of wood, bamboo) must be cast away after the religious festivities are over. This is interesting because the worship of the (non-Classical) Hindu deity Jagannath (Odisha mostly) also involves similar structures which are called rath (chariot). Note the similar names. The casting away of the rot is akin to the casting away of the idols at Durga Puja after their roles as ‘cleansers’ have been fulfilled. Even the ritualistic animal sacrifices at Shad Pomblang might be re-seen in the light of other festivals like Gadhimai, Bali Jatra and others. When I was to be married, there was some discussion about putting up banana stalks in front of the entry way which is a very common Hindu practice – this in spite of the fact that my in-laws’ household is almost exclusively Christian. This ultimately did not happen but it was interesting nonetheless.

As I had mentioned earlier, this piece might be misconstrued for obvious political purposes. I am not interested in privileging the mainstream Hindu tradition over the smaller traditions. Further, I hope the reader does not think that I am attempting to locate a “centre” from which all Hindu authority stems out of (which is what Hindutva groups seek). This automatically assumes the position that the ‘tribal’ people are always the ones who “take” ideas and concepts and divorces them of a knowing and conscious exchange with Hindu “missionaries”, maybe even resistance to them. The control room is not in Gujarat, Maharashtra or Ayodhya. If anything, we see the reverse, that in fact, Hinduism has always been shifting and ‘de-centering’ itself according to contexts and areas. The question “were/are Khasis, Hindus” is inextricably linked to the notion of who a Hindu is in the first place. The flexible and assimilative nature of Hinduism ensured its success from Cambodia and Bali through to Kabul etc, it spread through a huge geographic expanse. However, this strength, this mutability is also what permits the Far Right groups to go about proclaiming everything and everyone as being Hindu, everything from “proper” religions like Buddhism and Jainism to smaller belief systems like Niam Khasi (Meghalaya), Donyi Polo (Arunachal Pradesh) and Meiteism (Manipur). Their success in redefining the latter practice as their own is something the Niam Khasi followers should be wary of. Ultimately, religion is less important than politics.

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.


Roadtrip: Shillong – Tyrsad – Pomblang

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.

Akor Thymmai

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.

Shillong Memories: Contending and Contentious

I recently sat down to rest at the side of the Shillong Centenary Monument, the one opposite the State Central Library. Next to me was an old Bengali man who was drunk. We started talking about the town and the incidents in the past, meaning he started talking and I tried to understand what he was saying. What little I could comprehend painted a picture of Shillong that I cannot truly imagine today. He spoke about how Police Bazaar looked back in the day, maybe similar to how parts of Laban or Mawkhar still look like today. How the Governor’s Residence looked like without the road and walls around it today, he talked about personalities long since departed. He described the geography and history of the place in a ‘warm’ manner and that is probably the greatest gift any narrator can have.

However, as I say that, there were also some things which I find hard to accept. The main one being his assertion that the communities of various localities never had any problems amongst themselves prior to the Anti (Assamese) Language protests in the 1950s. We know that many different communities once lived together in areas that are today considered strictly tribal or non-tribal neighbourhoods. Areas like Mawkhar, Mawprem, Mawlai once had fairly large non tribal populations. Today only few such families/individuals (who had already integrated fairly well) call these places home. I run the risk of categorisation but it is not my intent to delve deeply into the singular lives of individuals here. My personal reservation with the statement, that prior to the 1950s all was hunky-dory between the communities, is because it seems to be based on a heavily romanticised version of Shillong history. Everyone is suffering from this, regardless of race. This imagined harmony is at odds with the grim picture of a reality in which people who supposedly “lived together peacefully” picked up daos, brands, crowbars and decided to do away or expel their former neighbours forever.

We can always blame the Reorganisation of the states, we can always find an external bogeyman to hate but the truth that confronts us says something more: If we lived in “peace” why was it so seemingly easy to kill and cast out our erstwhile neighbours? If today, we can forgive what happened back then, we should also ask ourselves what were the reasons for them happening in the first place? It is quite clear that there were real human tensions back then. People had insecurities and fears back then, as they do today. The Language issue was the explosion, it was not the pressure that led up to it. For this, we would have to dredge through the (romantically) mired past. I would wager, even, that it was not only the British/Europeans who were at fault as many in the Right like to point out. The Divide and Rule policy was hardly anything new if we confront things from a non-nationalistic perspective, especially in this part of the world. We, also, cannot simply blame “dkhars” for all the problems of the world. They cannot carry all our sins on their crosses. We would see the collusion of a number of interests if we truly sought out facts.

Perhaps in our attempt to cover up the trauma of those years of strife and friction, we divide history into easily workable blocks: in this case, pre- and post Language agitation. Pre-agitation might very well have been a time of building and working together but it is erroneous to assume that there was always “peace”. In side houses or taverns, in the tea shops or offices were there no complaints or hate mongering against the other communities? The stereotypes and crude racial caricatures that we use today must have had origins in that past. These are the same insensitive images that make violence acceptable and casual. We can attack, more efficiently, that which we consider inhuman. We can justify causing them pain, because it is not our pain.

I was once privy to an odd event at a dinner. There were two young people at the table – an Assamese and a Bengali- along with the older Khasi host. I cannot remember the exact topic of conversation but suddenly our host became very emotional upon her vivid description of the burning down of some non-tribal houses at Garikhana. She turned to the Assamese and Bengali, asking them to forgive her community. I was amazed at the spectacle, as were the two non tribal friends. Isn’t that the way forward: reconciliation with the past? Confronting those memories head-on would take time and strength but they have to be revisited if we are to go forward. We should not be naive and think that since certain things occurred in the past, they must be buried deep down. They can happen again if we are not careful. The current atmosphere of taut nerves does not give me hope. Only a new politics can address the mistakes and prepare us for the future. We must make an attempt at histories without too much bias. We must revisit why Nongmali is called by that name, who taught many of the residents of Mawkhar breadmaking, who helped raise the foundations of many socio-cultural organisations/institutions we have today and so on. The shared histories are definitely there. Whether they were truly filled with peace is a different matter altogether but perhaps we can find it, for the future generations, by looking back (with a brave eye) and not grounding ourselves in the baseless and supposedly grand.