Not long ago, I used to read stories which started with a magical sentence:”Once upon a time there lived a King….” I would have liked to start this post with the same line. But somehow I was in Shillong and though I had no chance of meeting the king, I had missed the opportunity of meeting a Village Head as well. This particular Village Head works as a Librarian in one institute, but due to lack of time, I was not able to interact with him. As the line ‘Once upon a time” always takes me to a strange imaginary land, so were my days in Shillong. The State of Meghalaya is an area which includes Khasi hills, Garo hills and Jaintia hills. There are as many as 17 different tribes in Meghalaya but these three are the major tribes. Shillong the state capital is in Ease Khasi district. I interacted mainly with Khasi people and to some extent Garo people during my week long stay. Hence I use the term “Khasi –Garo Kingdom”.
I had to rush towards Shillong without having time to refer to Wikipedia. I had come here with almost a clean slate. The experience added many new dimensions about Geography, History, General Knowledge, Tribal life and culture as well as Nature. I always prefer learning from fellow human beings than from books. Here there were about 150 people from all seven districts of Meghalaya, who were eager to teach me and answer my queries with lot of patience. This proportion of 150 teachers to 1 student was extremely advantageous for me. I had ample opportunity to ask many questions, so I was not bored at all; and there were many to share the burden of my constant questions.
‘How to reach Shillong’ was the first question I had to deal with. Initially I planned to take direct flight to Shillong. When I talked to an official I was told that one could never be certain about the scheduled flight (from Guwahati to Shillong), so it was better to get down at Guwahati. Guwahati- Shillong distance is about 100 kilometers by road and a vehicle would come and pick me up at Guwahati airport. When we left Guwahati, at Jorbat, while reading shop boards, I felt that something strange was around and I started asking many questions. On the left side of the road, all shops said “Jorbat, Assam” and on the right side of the road, the shops declared “Jorbat, Meghalaya”. So, here too there was the BORDER again!
On our way we stopped at a roadside hotel at Nangpoh and I was enchanted by the beauty of the hill stretched across the road. The hills borrowing the blue tint from the sky were always there around me for the next few days; my association with them grew strong. I became so fond of these hills, that when someone asked me, “What did you most like in Shilling?” - I amused all the people around by saying “the beautiful hills”.
A Khasi woman officer had come to receive me at Guwahati. She told me that Guam means betel- nut. There used to be (and it still is) a big betel nut market in the city – that is why it is named as Guwahati. Here people constantly eat betel leaf with betel nut and lime – this is called “Kowai”. After every couple of hours, people keep on eating it. Men eat Kowai and women to eat Kowai – there is no gender discrimination in Kowai consumption. When people purchase Kowai from unknown shop, a piece of ginger is added into Kowai. The ginger is supposed to act against evil wishes (if any) of the giver. The shopkeeper when sees unknown customers, adds a small piece of ginger without feeling offended, s/he does not at all feel insulted by this custom.
Maybe because people are always consuming Kowai here, they do not talk much. The work goes on peacefully. I had met six people from Meghalaya in one of the training programs earlier – they never talked much there too. One of them said, “Now you know the secret of our silence”. He also added that when they had come to Hyderabad for the above mentioned training, they had come prepared with the stock of Kowais for a week or so. Generally for ten rupees you get ten Kowai. Whosoever purchases it, purchases for all accompanying him or her. I did not see any of them purchasing them individually or paying individual contribution towards it. As the team wanted me to test Kowai, I consumed it on two different occasions. The betel leaf was very strong and within an instant it turned into fiery red. It was indeed difficult for me to consume half betel nut at a time!
Khasi, Garo and Jaintia all are matrilineal communities. That simply means’ girl child’ is not ‘unwanted’ here like most of the other communities, on the contrary they are welcome. However that does not mean that women do not face any problems here. The assets are in the name of women but the practical control is with the brother or maternal uncle – again a man. The youngest daughter of the family gets the right of inheritance – she gets the estate and she had to look after her parents and if any brother remains unmarried. Here daughter does not go to her in laws after marriage, but the son-in-law comes and resides with his in laws. I met two highly educated Khasi women – one has two sons and the other has three sons. Both of them worried about ‘who will take care of us in old age’ – as according to the custom there sons would go and stay with their in laws. Initially I thought they were just joking, but it seems that there was some ingredient of truth in it. Because another woman said, “Not all the girls are youngest daughters. Why don’t you ask your sons to marry eldest daughters? Then they would come and stay with your family.”
The society has different tradition and culture and it does not demand strict relations between marriage and progeny – ‘living in relationship’ is accepted by the society. A 21 year young man living with a young woman with their child is not an uncommon scenario here. It made me re-think about who is backward and who is progressive!! I found different perspectives about this practice though. Those Khasi who never adopted any other religion – they call themselves as ‘Niyaamee Khasi’ - accept this custom as part of their tradition. But those who have been converted (especially those who adopted Christianity) find this immoral – this is what I observed; there might be exceptions to what I have observed.
Generally when I travel to different areas, I understand different languages by context. But here I was not able to catch a single word either from Khasi or Garo. When people around me were speaking those languages, I was to sit like a dumb person. Both these languages have a rich legacy. However Khasi, Garo and Jaintia languages are written in Roman script – they do not have separate script. People say that Khasi language has many Hindi, Bengali and Nepali words – but I could catch only one word i.e. Raastaa (Road).
Ribhoi district of Meghalaya is adjacent to Guwahati (Assam). The language spoken in Reebhoi area is Bhoi which is similar to Khasi (this is my impression, I might be completely wrong) – so some people in Assam can understand Khasi language. Khasi and Jaintia speaking people too understand each other’s languages – but Garo belongs to Bodo language group; which neither Khasi nor Jaintia can speak fluently. Today the dialogue between these language speaking groups is through English. How they used to communicate in the past is a mystery to me.
I tried to learn few sentences in Khasi. “Ngam bam ja” means “I eat rice” and “Ngam lah kren Khasi” means “I cannot speak Khasi”. I cannot say that I have forgotten these sentences, because I hardly learnt them. “Bah” is used (here h is silent) as a synonym to Mister and “Kaung” is used to address women. Yumiap, Thubru, Tengaman …. these names were difficult for me to pronounce and to remember. I am sure when people from this area visit Delhi, Mumbai, Pune (lot of students from Meghalaya study in these cities) they would certainly be facing such difficulties.
Everybody likes to be loved by others – this urge takes various forms – from individual to my village; my community; my religion; my country etc. Whenever we visit new areas, people generally ask, “Did you like our people/our land/our society? What did you like most?” I have been asked this question in Bihar, in Karnataka, in Rajasthan, in Kerala .. everywhere. Shillong was no exception to this.
For me the most fascinating aspect of Shillong (it is unfortunate that in spite of such natural beauty I remember this human behavior!!) was NO HONKING by drivers!! Even when caught in traffic jam, the drivers used to wait without blowing the horn of the vehicle! I asked Gideon (our driver) about not honking. His reply was very simple. He said, “Everybody wants to reach their place, there must be some reason why the traffic is not moving. Why blow horn?” I respected his wisdom. Even on my way from Shillong to Guwahati, there was a traffic jam for couple of hours and hundreds of vehicles were stranded. But nobody was blowing horn. There were police personnel – where they were there because Independence Day was approaching or they are usually there on such occasions – I do not know. I thought of inviting these Shillong drivers to Pune and Delhi so that here people learn to drive without honking. But who knows; instead of Delhi and Pune drivers adopting good practice, the drivers from Shillong might learn the art of and the fun in honking!!
(I have still too many things to share about Shillong. Maybe, I will write another post sometime later!!)