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.

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

Look East

Look East but not if this highway brings middlemen and murder;

Look East but not for the sake of nation or Delhi;

Look East but not if this highway takes from you, your health;

Look East but not for the sake of anything but your village;

Look East but not if this highway brings dust and drunk driving;

Look East but not for the sake of companies or tycoons;

Look East but not if this highway takes from you, your rice fields;

If these should happen: look west, look south, look north,

Look anywhere but east.

Taxi Ride

An elder gets into the cab, hauling her heavy bag into it. I move aside, making room for her. She rummages through it and brings out coins for the fare. I’m always drawn to such old people, who still have to worry about livelihood and cannot afford to rest in old-age leisure like many others.
-Mei, phin leit shaei?
-Polo, nga sah ha Polo
And we start conversing. She tells me about her being punished by the Governor’s gardener when she and her friends used to steal sohkhlur from there as children. How they would say sorry one day and be back at it the next. She chuckles.
She goes on about her father’s house which was made of thatch in Laban and how she misses it.
As we drive past Secretariat, she expresses her amazement that all those buildings could have come up in, what was once, thick forestland. She manages to draw a map of Shillong in every sentence and I try to envision all of it in my head.
In Keating Road, a beggar man comes up to our car and asks for “tea money”. She explains to him that she has no money either in proper Hindi. As he moves sadly away to the next car, she heaves a heavy sigh, looking back at him.
I pay for her and she is so grateful it startles me. I can not help tearing up as we separate and I thank her profusely, which must have startled her in turn.
She was just telling her story.

I have come to realise that such profound warmth and empathy for fellow sufferers is not alien to the poor and as I walked through the detritus of PB- that place with its SUV driving crooks and self-indulgent brats- I could not help but tremble as I thought of that old soul, walking down Jail Road, trying to navigate home.

Tribal Writes Back | Guwahati

That Ganeshguri giddiness. That time once when a scrolling LED sign, screening useless info, astounded a child’s mind. This was the nineties, when the French Motor Company  was at the edge of the city, the same place where I saw the Fiat Uno for the very first time, when I saw something different from either Maruti or Ambassador. It was a time when the Ganesh Mandir at Khanapara, then by the highway – not under a flyover – waited for our Christian children’s coins. Maybe it was an old hangup from olden days, or maybe it was just fun tossing money in there, throwing around cash. That time of auto rides when no Mawlai ones plied the road. That thrill of polluted air through the hair. That joy of unpacking a toy at home. My father’s home where we spoke Khasi. A school vacation home, a home where I first saw MTV, a home with fans and marble floors, a home with mosquito nets over the beds where I was a tiger in the City Zoo, a home with foul tasting water. Everytime I breeze through Guwahati onto the airport, I try to recollect the name of that neighbourhood where that house sits in, now someone else’s home. Now, offering someone else those things.

Sarong, Haba Nga Khmih Ia Phi

Shapoh ka bos SPTS ki rung khrui ki nongbylla, ha ka por hynniew baje mynmiet. Ki dur ki thangiong bad ithait. Ki jain ki sma syep, biri, kyiad bad ki ia phuh samrkhie hapdeng ki. Ki ia “jokes” hapdeng ki. Napoh ka bos SPTS nga iohi ia ki kong die jhur, harud surok. Ki khun ki iarap katba ki lah, wat la ki dang lung ialade kum ki jhur. Ki stad kloi ha madan, ki nang ia ki buit iew bad ki ktien khayi.

Kong, Bah, Hep dei phi ba tei ia kane ka shnong! Dei ki ksah jong phi ba pynieng ia ki paia, dei ka mynsiem jong phi ba pynim ia ka bad ka mon jong phi ba ai bor ia ka. Kane ka nongbah ka skhem ym da ki kti u sahep ne DC ne ministar, hynrei na ki jong phi.