The northeast was, so far, the only region (broadly speaking) of India, that I had never travelled to. So, when an opportunity in the form of a generous travel grant from the Sahitya Akademi came my way, without any second thoughts I decided to travel to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.
|The Umiam reservoir, on the way to the airport|
The northeast comprises of seven different states. So why did I zoom in on Shillong, Meghalaya? My interest in the Khasi tradition and practices (for the Khasis are a dominant group in Meghalaya) was sparked by a paper written by Tiplut Nongbri on the Khasi kinship system. I had studied this paper as an under-graduate student of sociology. The nuances, workings and politics of the matrilineal system had fascinated me.
Secondly, I decided to travel to the northeast because I had a feeling that, if not all, at least a few of these states, shared many things in common with Goa and trying to understand these commonalities could give us Goans some fresh perspectives on our own problems. This was a hypothesis that I wanted to test.
Like Goa, many of the states in the northeast were not a part of the Indian Union in 1947. All of these states though larger in area than Goa have very little representation in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha (Meghalaya can be a case in point: Lok Sabha – 2 seats, Rajya Sabha – 1 seat). I also wanted to know, first hand, whether being on the geographical fringes of the country, do the people of the northeast also feel that they are on the political fringes of India? A question that Goa faces time and again. I must concede that such issues are not overtly discussed and they surface only sporadically.
What I intend to do with the experiences and inputs received during my stay in Shillong is to produce a narrative that, while briefly acquainting the reader with the Khasi literature, politics, literati and the socio-political realms, will also try to place Goa in a comparative, if not a centrally dominating frame.
|The teashop I would frequent in the morning|
Since the money for this journey entirely comes from the tax-payers’ (one half was provided by the government and the other half by my parents who by the way, pay taxes!) the reader would, I hope, find a sincere and serious effort done by a very young writer.
After approximately six hours and changing as many as three flights, I finally started descending into Meghalaya, flying above a thick blanket of clouds. There wasn’t a more fitting way to enter a state that boasts of being the Abode of the clouds!
Since it was late afternoon by the time I reached my hotel, I decided to spend my time exploring the city. Two of the most crowded areas of Shillong are the Police Bazaar and the Bara Bazaar (also known as Iewduh), separated by walking distance. This is where the mass of humanity throngs for anything ranging from groceries to medicines to a quick cup of tea or coffee. The central part of the city is a junction called the Police Point. From here, the streets radiate out in all directions. One can find transport in the form of cabs and buses here proceeding to other parts of the city.
|A house with the old-style half-timber architecture|
The main area of Shillong is heavily concretized. I was a bit disappointed as the types of houses and buildings that befit a cold-clime town (or a city) like Shillong were hard to find. The half-timber architecture was rare and I had to walk some very confusing alleys and streets to locate some of these houses. Most of the streets of Shillong are interconnected like Panjim. So if one keeps on walking, say about for an hour, one would reach the same spot from which one had started the walk! But stick to the streets that are interconnected, seriously!
Due to the influx of people from other parts of India to Shillong, the demographic character is rapidly changing. In order to get a feel of the change, I will reproduce some excerpts from an essay by Bikika Laloo Tariang in her book Shillong Vignettes: Not Your Regular Travel Guide: “The Bengalis and Assamese are scattered all over the city…owning pharmacies to running publishing houses, they are everywhere! ...The ‘Khar Madras’ [South Indians] are mostly concentrated in the teaching, computers and nursing professions. …Many of the North Indians serve in the University in various capacities. There are a lot of Punjabi goldsmiths. …The Marwaris own many of the big cloth shops in the fashion market of the city…The Nepalese, Tibetans and Bhutanese are concentrated in the Mawprem and Barapathar areas. …Think Bihari in Shillong and one has visions of daily wage labourers and milkmen. …And there are many many Mizos mostly concentrated in the Madanrting and Happy Valley areas.”
But this is not a journey of hardcore travel writing per se, so I’ll stop right here. My intention was to meet writers and academics, understand them and their culture and in no circumstances and in no way be judgmental of them. I spent the remainder of my days in Shillong interacting with the literati.
‘Scripting’ a New Understanding
If you speak to a Khasi writer about the Khasi Language and literature, the first thing one will hear is that, initially Khasi had no written script.
The issue of the script came up during my conversation with Dr. Streamlet Dkhar, the representative of the Sahitya Akademi in Meghalaya and also a professor of Khasi at the Department of Khasi, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). All the while when she was speaking about the script for the Khasi language, the much boiling Romi-Nagri issue was always at the back of my mind.
|Dr. Streamlet Dkhar|
Dressed elegantly in a light purple jainsem (a traditional Khasi garment, 2 ½ meters in length draped and pinned on both the shoulders), I met Dr. Streamlet in her office which provided a view of some trees from the window. She informed me that way back in 1813, the Serampore Baptist Mission tried to make the Khasis write in the Bengali script. But this enterprise proved to be unsuccessful.
I asked her why the effort ran into troubled waters. A relationship based on trust could not be established by the Bengalis with the Khasis. A Khasi is hard pressed to trust a Bengali because a Bengali is viewed as a cunning person. The written version of the Khasi language was primarily required for the purpose of trade. The case of the Khasi language is interesting and might potentially give us some insights on Konkani written in Roman script because the Roman alphabet is used in writing the Khasi language.
Thomas Jones I, head of the Welsh Calvinist Mission, arrived in 1841 and introduced the Roman alphabet to the Khasi language. The people took to it as if it was the most natural thing to do. The distrust of the Bengali was the reason why the Roman script received acceptance.
While discussing the issue of the script, the focus shifted to Goa. Dr. Streamlet, being associated with the Sahitya Akademi is quite aware about the Romi-Nagri script controversy. She informed me that last year (she could not remember exactly when) she attended a meeting in Panjim which discussed the abovementioned controversy. “Is there anything wrong, in your opinion, if a language has two or more scripts?” I asked.
“There is no harm,” she said, “as long as your language spreads far and wide.”
“Scripts only represent the sounds of a language,” Dr. Sylvanus Lamare told me when I placed the Romi-Nagri issue in front of him. Dr. Sylvanus is the Principal of St. Edmund’s College, a beautiful campus perched on a hillock in Shillong. He was also a member of the General Council of the Sahitya Akademi a few years ago.
Seated in his impeccable and organized office, Dr. Sylvanus told me that the Sahitya Akademi has enough funds for Konkani which can be utilized for the publication of books thereby reducing the financial strain on the authors.
|A street vendor selling momos|
When we talk about government bodies funding the publication of the books, in the case of Konkani, a very important issue needs to be addressed: that of Konkani in the Roman (and also other) scripts. Since the government only recognizes Konkani written in the Devnagri script, wouldn’t it leave out a large section of writers in enjoying what is proverbially known as a piece of the pie?
“The Konkani board [of the Sahitya Akademi],” maintained Dr. Sylvanus, “is not insisting on utilizing the fund allotted by the government.”
The Khasi Literature
Mrs. Sweetymon Rynjah, an elderly matriarch with a wizened face and a short stature is one of the widely respected Khasi writers in Meghalaya and is also considered an authority on matters Khasi. She has so far written 10 books. I paid a visit to her house. Since I had to run a lot in circles and make innumerable phone calls to get to her house, seeing me she clapped her hands in glee and her face broke into a warm and welcoming smile.
|Mrs. Sweetymon Rynjah|
It was Mrs. Rynjah who first introduced me briefly to the literature of the Khasis. Since script was introduced fairly recently, the written word is only about 200 years old. Rabon Singh was the first Khasi writer. Mrs. Rynjah provided a small biographical sketch of Rabon Singh and laid emphasis that in his writings, the Khasi ethics and etiquettes are abundantly found.
Since Khasi literature is predominantly based on folklore, I asked Mrs. Rynjah why folklore is so important to a Khasi. “When a man can’t write, Nature becomes his first tutor. So, Nature was used to learn and teach,” she explained. Further she added that because stories were woven around mountains, rivers, lakes etc. the children who heard these stories would never forget to narrate them to their own children.
The element of fear also needs to be added when we are trying to explain why folk stories keep on being told time and again. “The Khasis believe that something bad will befall them or their families, if the ethics and codes embedded in the stories are violated,” Mrs. Rynjah explained.
The ‘Seng Khasi’ was an organization established immediately after the coming of Christianity. The indigenous population (who did not convert to Christianity) realized the threat posed by Christianity to the indigenous culture. To counter the effects of Christianity, the elders of the Seng Khasi organization began publishing the oral tradition, as Dr. Desmond Kharmawphlang, Head, Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, NEHU, informed. He also felt that the effort of the Seng Khasi in documenting the oral tradition was quite “revolutionary”.
|With Dr. Sylvanus Lamare|
Novels in Khasi literature are relatively recent. Dr. Sylvanus disclosed that novels started appearing from the 1970s onwards. Since the Khasis are a “people of music”, there is a lot of poetry available, though with a rigid metre and rhyme scheme. “But nowadays people prefer to write poetry in English and not Khasi,” lamented Dr. Sylvanus.
Though dramas are staged frequently, they are not published because, traditionally, the dramas have no scripts.
Myth and Reality
Being a student of history, I am always very curious to know how myths are analyzed and historical data is culled out of them, how they give a community a common past and identity and their impact on present day politics. Why are myths so important and necessary to the Khasi community?
“If you want to keep the race alive, you cannot allow the myth to die,” Dr. Sylvanus said.
“Myth is important,” Dr. Desmond agreed, “because of two reasons: due to its cultural association and due to its religious association. Both these factors combine to give a sense of identity.”
|Dr. Desmond Kharmawphlang|
When folklore is analyzed, Dr. Sylvanus is of the opinion that reinterpretation using modern theories kill the essence of the stories. The myths and folklore cannot fit into any particular theory, he said. On the other hand, academics like Dr. Desmond are engaged in bringing a theoretical understanding to the study of folklore. “I don’t see anything wrong in new methods. These new approaches will only add to the study,” Dr. Desmond, who uses psycho-analytical approaches in his own work, opined. Along with theories that come from the West, scholars like Dr. Desmond have also developed their own methodology in trying to study and understand the cultural phenomenon.
But what I really wanted to know, where myth was concerned, was that whether the telling of myths has any political ramifications. I put forth this question to Thomas Lim, editor of Meghalaya Times. Thomas Lim is an ebullient person, always ready to break into a charming smile. He boasts of having a sizeable collection of Konkani CDs. “I don’t see it [myth] playing a part in politics,” he said.
Before travelling to Shillong, I had done some reading and had also zeroed in on some issues on which I would dwell upon. The acceptance and impact of Christianity was something that was not on my list.
|With Rev. Lyngdoh|
But time and again I found myself speaking about Christianity with nearly everyone I met. I never had made a conscious choice to talk about Christianity but the issue of Christianity snuck up on me. It was really not possible for me to ignore the impact of Christianity owing to my own position as a Christian. The feeling I got from interacting with people is that there is an overwhelming acceptance of Christianity but there is also a strong resistance to the changes that Christianity had and is ushering in, though on an intellectual level.
On my visit to the All Saints’ Cathedral, five minutes’ drive from the Police Bazaar, I had the opportunity to briefly interact with Rev. P. B. Lyngdoh, the vicar as well as the Principal of the school that is run by the Church of North India. The congregation is Anglican.
The All Saints’ Cathedral is a very beautiful building surrounded by well manicured lawns and a garden. The architectural style is that of the half-timber variety and the wooden interiors are neatly polished. The church has four stained-glass panels which form a part of the altar.
Rev. Lyngdoh was a busy priest, but it was my good fortune that I could briefly interact with him. On asked why Christianity spread so much in Meghalaya, Rev. Lyngdoh pointed out, “The Khasis believe in one God. The indigenous Khasis still expect a Messiah. So when the missionaries came, they told the people that the Messiah had already arrived!” He also pointed out that there were some similarities between Khasi religion and Judaism. On the other hand, Dr. Desmond told me that, “The Khasis collectively are not waiting for a savior.”
|The All Saints' Cathedral|
I told Mrs. Sweetymon Rynjah that many argue that the coming of Christianity brought in changes in the traditional Khasi society. At this point she clapped her hands to emphasize her point, “Christianity or not, nothing has changed!” Mrs. Rynjah also claimed that evangelization was a failure.
On a visit to the Don Bosco Center for Indigenous Culture’s (DBCIC) museum, I had a chance to interact with Sr. Bernadeth Kropi, Deputy Director of the museum: a truly modern and impressive seven storeyed building, each for the seven states comprising the northeast. The coming of Christianity brought with it education, she explained. The scope of getting government jobs also increased due to education. To the formulation of Sr. Bernadeth, Dr. Desmond’s “healthcare” can be added as well, which reached the remotest of remote areas. “Christianity did provide an opportunity for upward mobility and Khasi religion is steeped in ritual and ceremonies like Roman Catholicism,” Dr. Desmond said, a Roman Catholic himself.
But conversion is not a very simple issue to discuss. It can be best described as a touchy and sensitive topic: a part of our history that is fiercely contested. A growing trend in Goa is trying to see conversion as something demonic and an attempt is made to stigmatize the present Catholic population. Against this background I wanted to know, if put on a scale, what will outweigh what: the good or the bad consequences of conversion to Christianity. Dr. Sylvanus said, “The good things are more than the bad things.”
|With Sr. Bernadeth|
I was fortunate to get the perspectives of such a wide spectrum of people. An Anglican priest, an indigenous lady writer, a Roman Catholic nun and a professor and laypeople. Club them all together and one gets a picture of how a community is trying to negotiate its way in an ever changing society.
On the Publishing Scene
Since literature cannot flourish without a strong network of printing and distribution of books, I wanted to find out about the publishing scene in Khasi and English. Sumar Sing Sawian is a veteran writer and journalist. He is also the author of a very well received book, Golden Vine of Ri Hynñietwerp, The Khasi Heritage.
|Sumar Sing Sawian|
“Almost all the writers face financial difficulties in publishing. The government is not of much help,” he said while playing with a kwai (pán for a Khasi) between his fingers. But on the other side of the issue is Mrs. Minimon Laloo, writing from 1989 onwards, who has published a staggering 54 books so far and three are in the pipeline. She maintained that she has never faced any serious financial difficulties in getting her work published.
Shillong is the place where much of the market for books is concentrated.
At the beginning of this essay I had mentioned that I wanted to find out whether people of the northeast felt that they are on the political and geographical fringes of the country. My thinking was moved in this direction by an article on the northeast that I had read, an excerpt of which is produced below (curiously this article also mentioned Goa):
India’s eight troubled north-eastern states are geographically remote and economically underdeveloped. As a result, they remain little understood and often ignored by the rest of India. For half a century, the region has spawned rebel groups and violent conflicts that have claimed thousands of lives. Complaining that their states are being exploited for their rich mineral resources but being ignored developmentally, the insurgents are fighting for more attention and, usually, for sovereignty… Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya are relatively insignificant in national politics, because they lag far behind the larger, more populous states in their capacity to influence national elections and therefore the formation of India’s governments.
Bad results in state election for India’s biggest party in THE ECONOMIST: 13 March 2008
Sumar Sing Sawian agreed that the people felt that they are placed on the ‘fringes’. “People feel that the Centre does not fully understand the situation prevailing here,” he said. The government at the Centre is not doing much. The northeast cannot trade freely with Bangladesh and Southeast Asia. And the foreign tourists are not easily given permits to visit the northeast, Dr. Sylvanus informed.
Another interesting issue also came my way while discussing the politics of the northeast. Thomas Lim enlightened, “It is a practical requirement that the people [of Meghalaya] vote for a national party.” The funds that are required for development need to come from the Centre and as such a cordial understanding is required between the state government and the central government.
Goa and Meghalaya has an absence of a strong regional party. One reason can be the practicality of voting for a national party and second, the regional parties have failed to make good their promises.
In Shillong we are all good looking,
Dressed all hip, our lives all rocking
Excerpt from In Shillong by Bikika Laloo Tariang
I think it is a part of travel that a traveller gets a culture shock. While walking on the streets of Shillong and in the most chaotic and dirty bazaars, one couldn’t miss the presence of extremely well-dressed girls and women. I kid you not when I say that it seemed as if the latest cuts from Paris, New York and Milan had directly landed in Shillong! A girl in fishnet stocking in the middle of Police Bazaar completely stumped me!
I wanted to know what makes the women of Shillong put so much effort and thought in their attire. The timing of my visit coincided with the celebrations of “days” in colleges as well as the Durga Puja celebrations.
“Shillong is a very fashionable place,” explained Thomas Lim. And with a hint of mischief and a sly smile on his face he said, “You’ve come at the right time in Shillong!”
Generally this well-dressed outlook is reserved for Sunday Church and parties. Just like in Goa. And what about the dressing sense of men in Shillong? Well, I guess men will always be men! No culture shock necessary there!
Returning home without tasting and sampling some authentic Khasi food was something that I did not wanted to do. So I searched a restaurant that served only Khasi food in a Khasi neighbourhood called Mawkhar.
|With Thomas Lim|
I went in and sat down in this narrow restaurant. The seating arrangement is such that all have to sit facing each other in two rows. There were only three people, besides me: a mother and her little girl and a young man of around 25 years.
I ordered BEEF and rice. Everyone stared and started murmuring with each other. The waitress was smiling…she seemed a little embarrassed, too. Finally the young man who was sitting in the opposite direction asked, “So…are you Christian?”
I said, “Yes. Don’t you find people like me frequenting this place?”
“We hardly have any…” he said. The surprise was very palpable.
I was in touch with the Shillong Chamber Choir for over a month before setting out for Shillong. This group had created waves in the national media after winning last years’ India’s Got Talent show. Unfortunately, due to some urgent work the entire cast and crew were out shooting in Bombay. I could not meet the charismatic leader of the choir, Mr. Neil Nongkynrih. But I did enjoy the friendly communications with the publicity managers, Rishila and Kynsai.
Home is a place one can get to anytime one pleases. Being in Shillong was like being home. Almost. Whilst taking my leave from Thomas Lim I was categorically told that the next time I am in Shillong there is no need to check into a hotel. “You now have a home here,” Thomas Lim said. 3000 or so kilometers away, I know I have another home…I just hope that I can go there one more time!
I would like to thank the Sahitya Akademi for the generous travel grant which enabled me to travel to Shillong. Thanks to my parents for the rest of the money! But most importantly thanks for your emotional support. Dev borem korum to Willy Goes and Fr. Kelwin Monteiro. For your time and inputs thanks to Dr. Streamlet Dkhar, Dr. Sylvanus Lamare, Dr. Desmond Kharmawphlang, Rev. P. B. Lyngdoh, Rev. Spencer Reade, S. S. Sawian, Mrs. Sweetymon Rynjah, Sr. Bernadeth Kropi of DBCIC, Mrs. Minimon Laloo, Rishila and Kynsai (Shillong Chamber Choir) and finally to Thomas Lim. Thank you to Larissa, my very concerned travel agent. Thanks to the President and members of the Dalgado Konknni Akademi for providing copies of Konkani Literature in Roman Script – A Brief History by Olivinho Gomes and Mando (Goenchem Lok Git) by Tomazinho Cardozo &Joaozinho (Johnson) Carvalho to be presented to the writers and academics that I met in Shillong.
Interesting books for travel in Shillong and rest of Meghalaya:
Lonely Planet: India by Sarina Singh et al (Eds.) (13th Ed.) (London, California, Victoria: Lonely Planet Publications), 2009; pp. 1244, Rs. 1350/- [ISBN: 978-1-74179-151-8]
Shillong Vignettes: Not Your Regular Travel Guide by Bikika Laloo Tariang (Shillong: Self Published), 2009; pp. 155, Rs. 300/-
Khasi Traditional Dancing Ornaments by Sweetymon Rynjah (Shillong: Ri Khasi Book Agency), 2011; pp. 76, Rs. 85/-
Shillong and Sohra: Tourist Paradise by Emanuel Paul Philimon (Shillong: Mrs. A. S. Wahlang Publishers), 2010; pp. 43, Rs. 35/-
Golden Vine of Ri Hynñietwerp, The Khasi Heritage by Sumar Sing Sawian (Guwahati: Vivekanand Kendra Institute of Culture), 2011; pp. 91, Rs. 250/-The North East Umbrella: Cultural-Historical Interaction and Isolation of the Tribes in the Region (Pre-History to 21st Century) by Marco Mitri and Desmond Kharmawphlang (Eds.) (Shillong: Don Bosco Center for Indigenous Culture Publications), 2011; pp. 198, Rs. 150/- [ISBN: 81-85-408-00-54]
(A version of this essay was serialized on Gomantak Times, dt: October 11 & 12, 2011)