“Backsliders”

What makes these buggers tick?

You’d think they’d be a little more grateful;

Us, giving it to them.

Why go there, when they’d lose all this?

The electricity, quinine and Handel.

 

The jungles aren’t any safer than our jails,

Plus the cholera, humidity and snakes.

But they’re ultimately savages, the rational doesn’t hold.

I suppose they like it out there… makes them feel something;  

 

Anyway send the garrisons more guns;

Bibles and cheap booze to the civil stations.

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Laban in Winter

I

I remembered you for your whitewashed walls and the old trees which grew in the old gardens;

This was the old world, before colour, and as a child I hated the monochrome ekra;

I shuddered behind feeble old people in their twilight chairs –

Which they had us push out into the winter-sun’s verandah;

I remembered your old people smell and the old people love for young kisses –

That world is gone now,

My grandfather is gone

And most of his nephews.

All that’s left is men stumbling in bars, secretly whispering desires to other men.

 

II

At kha-ieid‘s – under an old conifer with spiky cones – once I found a baby sparrow

I tried to protect it from the hounds –

Uncle Eric’s best mates.

Into the temple of my palms, I took it.

Suddenly from deep within me

A sudden impulse – to crush it into a feather ball – arose.

What stopped me, I wonder,

Was it the thought of blood that calmed my systole,

Was it the eventuality of squirming that blunted my lust?

Whatever it was, it quietened my mind;

I don’t know if the chick survived the season

But we both made it through that hour.

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.

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.

 

Wah Umkhrah | In Flood

Flow, river, flow
Your rage isn’t over yet
Flow because you’ve always flowed
Flow because it’s you
Flow by the bucketful, by the mug
By the drop
Come together and flow

Trample the bridges and levees
That stand in your way
Smash the tyrannical dams
That want to trap and use you
Swallow up the pride of men

Flow, river and carry the plastic bags,
Chemicals, faeces and dirt
Of this town
Spit out idols onto your banks
Let men know that you are forever
That Time and weather feed you

Show men the trickling erosion
Of your tongues that lap at cement foundations
Show us the might of that patience
Which carves out canyons from solid rock

Swiftly run, like your brothers and sisters
Like Godavari, Narmada, Tsangpo
Cut down temples, towns and high tensions
Deposit refuse and rot on backyards
Remind us you’re a God.

The Unruly

Slowly, I’ve seen the unruly co-opted –
The locality boys I was afraid of –
The boys who smoked bidis
Under the bamboo groves;
They are now buried under
Employment, ”adulthood” and Church.

Why was I so scared of these men
Who are now as docile as hens?
These men aren’t so tough
They could have used that boldness, that wit, that rough.
Now, all they can do is mouth psalms and anecdotes
About great, ‘white’ men
Who lived over there, back then;

Men like Abe Lincoln and Churchill –
Monuments you can no longer interrogate –
Because they’ve changed to clean marble
And that’s what the ”world” wants.
It also wants lads like these,
To exhaust their power and youth,
To rebel and wear down, to become depressed;

To come back like some biblical son,
Work a decent job, rear a decent family;
Then die, decently;
How I hate them for giving up
But they don’t know this!

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.