Where are they ?

Where are the wild things ?

Somewhere in a ritual or habit.

Wild, still.

Inspite of the communal hunting.

Our nets and drumming cannot herd it.

We never kill it all.


Wild grizzly freedom is out there in the courage I never had to turn wild.

To turn tiger, jackal, no, rodent.

My heart is smaller than a mole’s. I am not half as bold.


For I fear and love the dark spots under the trees.

The same ones in broken down houses.

In unoccupied hospital rooms.

Something dwells there.

Something still dwells inside me.

And thank god, for that.

For a useless solitude.

After Lit Fest

​Everyone’s horny.
After a few,
Some want to get into bed,
Some into each other;
There’s always a busy drunk,
Someone always loses a bag
I do a dangerousrunacrossthestreetforcigarettesat12o’clock;
I promise myself I’ll stop. Always.
After a few,
Men and women call you beautiful;
Old poets need attention,
Young poets want to beat up old poets
It’s always the same.

Women drinking in Bars

I found myself – yet again – in a packed dingy bar surrounded on all sides by a blanket of noise, cigarette smoke and general ‘run-downery’. This dive, started by a Chinese gentleman – whose portrait hung over the payment counter – was in an old market area of Calcutta – Chandni Chowk – an area where Parsi traders once plied their wares alongside French and Syrian merchants. It is one of many spaces in Calcutta that oozes out History with just a little light tapping at the, apparently, hard surface. Bars are great at offering us those much needed oases for pensive Romanticizing. As I walked and interrogated the market area around me, a swell of Time swept over me. My mind started to over-excite itself with figments of this and that. The bar conveniently offered its (relatively) inner calm for me; to weigh and sort out the thoughts which had been percolating within for the past two hours. I went in hurriedly.

As I sat down on a hard, worn down chair I remembered similar ‘austere’ bars of my hometown. Shillong establishments of old – but ill – repute like Ambassador, Golden Dragon came up. I remembered the loud, smoky camaraderie and the (frankly) stupid (but useful) ideas we often threw at each other. All these things have added layers to my life and I smiled to myself (psychotically) as I sipped the vodka, drawing out the incidences once again in my mind. The bar had wooden booths built along the sides of the wall. They were far more spacious than those we, in Shillong, are used to. There must have been about 10 in all. Out of them came the unfamiliar and pleasant sounds of women chatting. I say unfamiliar because in Shillong you would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling a woman in a dive bar. Women, generally speaking, are routed towards fancier joints. Places like Pinewood, Cloud Nine and the like are considered ‘women-friendly’. Women can be free and ‘modern’ within such spaces. The rest of the drinking establishments of Shillong are quite clearly a ‘no go’ for women. Especially for ‘respectable’ women.

I had once walked into a bar with some friends only to be told that they would not serve us booze. The reason was because one of my friends had come with his then- girlfriend. We made a show and protest, deliberately trying to upset the men who were already drinking and stormed off after that. In hindsight, there have been many similar incidences like that. But then again we live in a society which has a terrible sense of business; where empty moralism trumps everything else. Must be one of those “salient features” of “tribal” society that I have heard so much about.

A few years ago, there were indeed a number of Shillong bars that permitted women to engage in the wonderful societal event called drinking. However, a slew of molestation/rape cases and a murder quickly led many authorities to point towards the bars as the progenitors of the root problem. It is a fairly common but no less idiotic declaration, in other parts of the country as well. After that, all the bars were ordered to close down by 9 pm and gradually, over time, the curfew was relaxed. However, bar management (probably with directives from the police) had somewhere along the line decided that women were a great liability to their continued business operations. The outcome was that women could not drink as freely as they once did and many bars openly turned them away. This situation still holds true even today, some 5 or 6 years after the murder of that unfortunate woman.

For women, every space is contended space. Even as I sat in that Calcutta dive, I felt this. Ostensibly, it is wonderful that the city of Calcutta seems to have such a nonchalant attitude towards women drinking in bars. It comes out favourably when you compare this to the terrible persecution, women in similar situations, often face in Bangalore, Delhi, etc. By many progressive meters, Calcutta is India’s most ‘civilised’ city. However, the fight for “spaces” is not over by any stretch of the imagination. While we may applaud the permissiveness of Calcutta, we must also note certain things: how drunk women are looked at by the staff and management, how women are usually expected to be accompanied by male friends, how they are hidden away – in their booths or special rooms – from the “serious” drinking lot, how they are talked to, so on. Women should never be complacent. A rape, murder or similar tragedy along with Right wing opportunism (whether political or social) could undo decades of progress. Women themselves must defend these hard-fought ‘battlegrounds’ because fortunes can change in the blink of an eye.

The issue is, of course, not simply about a woman’s right to drink openly. It is about expanding the rights of women to do anything they wish to do. It is imperative to “perform” publically against the idiotic patriarchal ideas and practices which characterize most Indian communities. As I sat thinking about these things, with that glass in my hand, the various unfortunate situations which plague women in Shillong came up as well. Being able to drink in cheaper places, like those in Calcutta, ensures that women of every social stratum can enjoy themselves. In Shillong, sadly, this is not the case. If women want to drink, they have to pay through the nose.

Perhaps, a look at how rural communities of Meghalaya ‘handle their drink’ would be beneficial for urban dwellers. My friends and I once had a wonderful sing-along with a group of inebriated ladies in a village beyond Smit. So here is a little secret: We did not rape them, we did not succumb to the ‘beast that lies within all men’; we joked and croaked out popular tunes over the hills, enjoying one another’s company. On their part, the women did not run away at seeing, similarly inebriated, creatures. They saw the fun in the situation and made use of it. To imagine men as “beasts” or bestial, is probably the most harmful thing that we could do. We are not challenging ourselves as human beings, to be very honest, when we assume such things.  

Hiding women away from society, making “harems” (in which ever way) for their ‘protection’, does nothing but create more insecurity. Along the lake garden walkways at Rabindra Sarobar, I would see women moving about at 10 PM or so. This is a victory in a sense. Do the (middle class) Khasi parents encourage their daughters to participate in any activities after 6 PM? Do they encourage their daughters to walk around and explore Shillong? Sure, they might buy them a car and teach them to drive but that is hardly a “public space”. One should not be so surprised then, when women are turned away from bars, because in many ways we – as a male dominated society – are encouraging the recession of their public roles in a myriad ways. As a final invocation to Shillong youths, I would like to say: relax, turn “tribal” again, enjoy your soma. Cheers.

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.

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.

Shillong, Our City

Sometime in the late 1800s the British rulers decided to shift their base at Sohra to a new one under the watch of Lum Shillong, a mountain to the north of the Sohra station. It was a faithful decision and today we enjoy (or bear) its consequences. The British were quick to initiate the installation of a number of civic bodies and institutions to ensure that their lives up in these hills were comfortable and “civilised”. They brought a good number of sepoys, sweepers, clerks etc to facilitate this. Traders from elsewhere also followed them in, seeking the good favours and good transactions that the British were able to foster. These people came from all over, from different races: from Nepal to Dhaka (Dacca), from Rajasthan to, even, China. Slowly but surely they started to build and mould this city into the face we see today. Whether that face is pleasant or hideous is a different matter entirely. But the main point is that the face of Shillong is multifarious, the origins of Shillong are as well. You’d be hard-pressed even in metros to observe this singular variety. However, like any diverse society, there are many who seek to propagate a polarising politics and more troubling, a single universal identity- in this case based on ethnicity.

The biggest threat today is amnesia. We have accepted without question and research, the stereotypical assertions about nationhood, identity and consequently, politics. Much of this has come down from the British or influential wannabe sahibs of the past decades. Our identity has become crystallised and that is why answers to questions relating to authenticity and purity (Khasi blood) remain elusive. It is best not to solidify but to resolve through fact finding and, indeed, soul searching. The ones who have concretised their identity have done so with much confusion and unanswered questions. This is perhaps one reasons why they lash outward, away from their selves.

As I write this I remember one of the murdered men who lost their lives during the ILP ‘game’: Brisheshwar Das. A tea seller who could have been any one of us; struggling, endeavouring to achieve, at times having to be an engine, at other times, maybe, a clown with his friends. He was killed in cold blood and it is our collective shame, a burden we cannot shrug off. I look at the hue and cry Khasi newspapers make over the terrorist Islamic State in the far-away lands and I feel bitter. They never gave Das’ story the space and gravitas which it deserved. They never went in to analyse the ‘how’ and ‘why’. They never showed condolence perhaps because they secretly knew what most of the people in this place feel like : that his life was mere collateral. I feel sick to my stomach when I think about the hypocrisy when we shout about Assamese or Delhiites or the Sangh associates or whatever, hurting or insulting “our” people. It seems that to murder and to injure is fine as long as we do not do it to “our” own!

We must realise one thing: this is OUR city. Let us shout it out! It does not belong to the KSU, the Church, the Congress ‘jhamela’ etc, it does not belong to a clan or family. We may refuse to accept it but the fact is – we built it, together, tribal and non tribal alike. It is not fair nor even historically correct to assert that this as a Khasi city, or that everyone who is not one should always feel a stranger in the very place they grew up in. All sides have been equally guilty of the impasse though and it is wrong only to blame Khasis. A lot of dialogue must be encouraged but very little is being done currently to counter this ethno-fascism. Political parties and their pressure groups are the worst. They come along and make a boundary dispute between two neighbours, a fight between Karbi and Khasi etc i.e. a fight between races. Perhaps (for all my dislike of the Congress) this is one important reason why people vote them in? Maybe people see it as the only party that can rule across cultures and communities? Forget the promises of development which are always tooted, in Meghalaya (and North East) they are possibly the only party that can govern, pan-state. Their roster maybe be filled with controversial people but it is a cross section of the state and this city. Regional parties today seem more like district parties, unable to spread or garner support beyond a few administrative blocks. Alternatives hopefully will emerge sooner rather than later.

Let us relook at Shillong as a British invention. The British never really intended for dkhars or Khasis to enjoy the fruits of the civilisation they brought in. We hear about “European Wards” but do we realise the intrinsic racism of this grouping, the discrimination in our own land? It was not in Laitumkhrah or Mawlai or Nongthymmai or Mawkhar that the supposedly “civilised” resided. The British had no intention of sharing, not if they had their way. But times changed and realities did as well. The empire weakened and our people were set upon the first steps towards the clerical life (that “lovely” mode of being that we all still wish to enjoy). Now, as a “tribal” people, we can boast much and there is very little we cannot achieve if we set our minds to. The point is that: we are here today, because of others aiding us along the way. I am not painting people in a flattering light, don’t get me wrong, I just want to acknowledge the little tasks, performed daily, that have led to this moment. Shillong city as we know it today emerged because everyone, from Bihari labourer to Nongstoin mason, Chinese restaurateurs to Tibetan businessmen, pitched in. We built it; an inch at a time over these hundred odd years. No one has the right to take that away from us.

A Very Brief Foreword on the Shillong Writing Scene

This article was first published in the blog “Cultural Cartographies of Media” on 3rd October 2013.

We are now at a stage when we should earnestly talk about a Shillong canon. Enough time and creativity has passed through (and from) this hill-station. From the outset though, precautions must be raised because our goal should not be to make this canon “exclusivist” or to establish one standard for writing from this place. One problem with many canons – Western or otherwise – is that they tend towards discrimination between high and low, between popular and elite art forms. A canon can be used to formalise personal bias, thereby making it seem authoritative and definitive. The goal of this foreword is merely to muse upon those writers belonging to, coming from Shillong (or Meghalaya, more correctly); those writings either about our cultures or experiences (whether reflecting or fracturing them). In this instance, I seek to analyse, not to rate.

There is a change in the atmosphere of Shillong. There is no denying the social aims of this new batch of young potentials. What characterizes this generation are the numbers. Never before, have we witnessed such large numbers of Shillong youth venturing outwards to carve niches for themselves. In so many ways, they are a brave set because they refuse to let a not-so-small matter of ‘where you’re from’ stand in the way. One feels they would be as comfortable in Shillong as in Delhi or London. This, perhaps, is their strength in this age – their ability to take indigenous sensibility and couple it with the westernised worldview that they grew into. A worldview taught and strengthened first in the non-vernacular schools (which now are the rule), and later engendered and personalised by American films and culture.

In the world of our parents, knowing how to read and speak English was a symbol of prestige; it denoted your education and afforded mobility up the social stairway. Nor can I claim otherwise, even today. Outside the middle and upper class, English is still a much sought-after hope. English, after all, means power. Once it was the language of the British bureaucrats and was then handed over to the Indian babus. Amidst the chaos of Partition, accession, insurrections, English has been constant. Within the Shillong upper-middle class, it has become customary, mandatory even, to use English with proficiency and wit for a range of situations, it has become second-nature for many tribal people residing in urban places.

For our parents, self wholly constituted of global parts was a remote idea. The internet and cable TV have helped speed up the globalising process. And after all, our own relations were from the older ways of being, i.e. from and of the village, so the posturing in European garb and mien were not entirely convincing. Change was slow and resistance quick to keep pace with it. A delicate reconciliation with tradition, with old people was necessary. Now, the old folks are dead or dying and the posturing-programming is imposed upon the children completely, who often take it in uncritically.

Above all else, the younger people are thoroughly professional. They know what they must do to attain what they want. They desire. And, perhaps, it is not unhealthy, not at the moment anyway, not at this start. With increasing interest, I have noticed a small Renaissance flower here in these hills. In the last two years, we have had a bevy of films, have had considerable musical success as our bands and choirs spread out, we have also had a resurgent visual arts culture and emerging autuers committed to writing. And it is to this that we now turn.

Many people, I am sure, would not make too much of an issue if I point to the breakthrough success of Lunatic in my Head by Anjum Hassan as a major touchstone in the recognition of a Shillong canon. Let us not forget though, that there have always been people writing in this culture since the introduction of the Roman script here (some 200 odd hundred years ago). Perhaps, it is better put in this way, that Anjum Hassan was the first writer in English, to breakthrough to mainstream success, hailing from Shillong. She has managed to capture the imagination of both the reading and writing public. She is important because she ignited the imaginations of the current generation about the possibility of self-expression. For all our English loving ways, we had to wait for a fairly long time for a writer of this criterion to be heard. Considering our ‘privileged’ status as Scotland of the East, we’ve had to wait for a while for someone to show the difference between syntax and story. To enter into “polite” society, correct syntax is somewhat of a prerequisite for admission. Often the English might make no sense at all, it might be mundane, boring but if the tenses are observed and grammar proper, all the rest can be forgiven. The repetition of the rules rather than originality of thought have a strong hold on expression. It is like we have an invisible ‘White’ schoolmaster, looking over our shoulders, whose approval we long for.

Since Anjum Hassan, we have witnessed a slew of promising energetic writers come out. Apart from the many poets, some of the prose writers that come to mind as I write this are Mimlu Sen, Janice Pariat, Ankush Saikia. Each one of these writers is nuanced, writing in markedly different styles. They are all united, however, in that they write of the urban Shillong and that they all write in English. These two features are indicative of their class perspective. The danger of recollecting memories into writings is if we tend to think they are devoid of class considerations. Places, tales, happenings are seen through such lenses. The medium too denotes a certain privilege. These new writers point to a healthy creativity in our society but it is a problematic creativity. It runs the risk of becoming irrelevant to anyone but a certain group of people. In relating tales of a Shillong to an outside audience, longing to glimpse ways of being from here, writers run the risk of being exploitative even – perpetuating a pseudo-tribalism, exaggerating false anxieties, expressing a Romantic “noble savage” existence which might not even exist in the lives of people. Writing about the North East along the lines of the “girl, gun, guitar” stereotype is to belittle its multiple complexity and complex multiplicities.

One cannot really blame these writers for writing in this manner because they grew up with it, they were taught it from infancy. The callousness of various governmental and social organizations has led to this privileging of English over the vernaculars in the state. Some might argue that many of the writers in Shillong are non-tribals, or from other places, but a quick look at the history of Khasi writing shows us that non-tribals (eg. BK Sarma, Amjad Ali) were at the forefront of many literary and literacy projects initiated in the past. Perhaps along with fiction, more socially relevant genres like journalism should also be pursued with equal enthusiasm. Outside of the various Churches, most of whose works are non-secular, hardly anyone translates into vernacular. A person who translates well (or transliterates) is as good a creator, at times, as a novelist or poet. Many vernacular writers are instead keen to have their works translated into English in order to share their work with the world. This can, however, create a dependency on the outside audience which might be to the disadvantage of the vernacular at home.

I lament the quiescence of the indigenous art scene. The wonderful artisans have been sidelined for the most part, because they are too “local”, too specific, difficult to market outside. The government is quick to foot Shillong Chamber Choir’s bills and to promote them but what about Garo, Pnar, War, Bhoi, Tiwa, Maram art forms? These for the most part have been left to their own devices, left to become “modern” through the efforts of individuals only. Even in our overwhelmingly (callow) Romantic writing scene, Bevan Swer attempted a Khasi poetry with a Modern sensibility, years before anyone else. I remember when, back in 2001, being a young boy of 13 or so, I was “forced” to attend my grandfather’s (I M Simon) book release ceremony. I was sceptical, even back then, about any events involving large hall spaces, because they seemed to have a nasty ability of attracting the most long-winded and lob-sided speeches within a 10 kilometre radius. My grandfather’s book was a collection of short stories in Khasi and he had been working on it for a while. When it was finally completed, he was delighted, the publisher was delighted, the Khasi authors were delighted. These along with few family members and few friends made up the audience at the book launch. It was small because the readership was small.

I understood the problem then as I do now. Tribal authors usually find themselves in a tight spot because, on the one hand, English-writing is en vogue and readily sought after by publishing houses (major or minor); and secondly, their popularity is dealt a reeling blow by the fact that most Khasi authors usually find themselves consigned to educational institutions. We are taught to learn them by rote but not how to appreciate them. They are not experienced, enjoyed in real life and that is the real tragedy. They are no longer in the public eye but have been relegated to the too oft-hidden places of study. Couple this with poor distribution and you have, in effect, another instance of exclusivity. Works become available only to those who can afford to pay or are lucky enough to get a chance to study. In this age of globalisation, to consecrate a literature, to frame it, is to kill it. Many tribal languages are moribund because they cannot breathe, because we do not experiment with them, because we don’t enjoy them. Khasi has the other disadvantage of having custodians who fascistically dictate diction, survey syntax.

The new Shillong canon is not in want nor afraid of limelight. Unlike their predecessors who wrote and were relegated, this new breed is trying desperately not to follow suit, but to trail blaze. These authors know how to pursue and spear their targets. Aesthetic judgement aside, they are dedicated to their cause because this is now considered legitimate, albeit still thankless, work. In that way, they are quite professional. This is a source of strength as well as a source of worry. On the positive side, these writers are now determined to write, which is no mean accomplishment. When one decides to be a full-fledged writer one forsakes many things crucial for, well, being a ‘’normal’’ person. Writing is a cruel taskmaster, who lords over its unfortunate vassal and whips them occasionally to inspire them; but when it refuses to talk to us, we beg for the whip. This is true both for the old school and the new. But the new, does gets paid better and is more likely to be appreciated, if not in the local place, outside. The negative side of the new Shillong canon is that the writers might very well be too professional. In the bid for outside recognition – that glorious term that brings to mind many English students fluttering their eyelids, grimacing and making swinging gestures with their arms – they run the risk of being irrelevant to the people of the very place that created them.