The Potency Of Places

Khabar, August 1, 2009.

According to a recent UNESCO report, “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing,” India tops the list of nations with the most number of dialects on the brink of extinction—as many as 196.

Khasi is one of them.

This is the language spoken by about one million people in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya. It’s also the name of one of the three dominant tribes that call this hill province their home (the other two being Jaintia and Garo).

The cover of the August 2009 issue of "Khabar."
The cover of the August 2009 issue of “Khabar.”

The report is an overview of the world’s cultural indicators. Its eye-opening maps, compelling charts, and sobering statistics, must come as a wake-up call to all linguistic groups, hitherto unaware of the rapid erosion of their native tongues.

Mine, isn’t among the endangered languages on that list.

Yet, I can’t help feeling chagrined because of the fact that Khasi—is.

I’m almost Khasi, but not quite.

Hypothetically, I could answer the question, “Where are you from?” in a couple of ways, depending on which cultural norm I subscribed to.

If I were to identify myself with my parentage (Bengali Brahmin, in my case) and the language I grew up speaking at home—as is the practice in India—I’d have to say that I hail from West Bengal.

However, were I to lean the Western way and forge an identity on the basis of my birthplace, I’d have to declare that I’m Khasi.

So, it’s not an inaccuracy to say that my roots are in Meghalaya.

The word, “Meghalaya” translates as “The Abode of the Clouds” in Sanskrit. This is not without a reason.

Cherrapunjee (now Sohra), located roughly 35 miles from the state capital, Shillong, is reputed to be the world’s wettest place, receiving an annual rainfall of around 470 inches a year.

The effects of this heavy precipitation are felt in its immediate vicinity. Regardless of the season, the clouds are a near-permanent fixture of the state’s geography.

Come most afternoons and you’d see a sluggish convoy of pillow-like, off-white clouds, scudding across the horizon. Post-noon, as if prompted by a celestial clock, they’d emerge out of hiding, play peek-a-boo for a varying length of time, until they settled down snugly over the hilltops, draping them in a blanket of dense, milky fog.

In 1979, when neighboring Assam was rocked by the so-called “anti-foreigner’s agitation”—a student-led movement directed against its economically-dominant, Bengali-speaking residents and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—Meghalaya too, felt its repercussions.

Between then, and the late 1980s, another, and a far darker “cloud” also hovered on the sky—that of political turmoil and social unrest.

But the Meghalaya I know and remember, is one that wasn’t polluted by the black carbon trail from cars, trucks, buses; marred by insurgency; and hit by climate change.

In my memories, the time I spent there are the most carefree of days, filled with sunshine and warmth.

In terms of its administrative structure and its political fabric, Meghalaya is similar to the rest of the country. But culturally speaking, it stands in a league of its own.

Its people have a distinct “Englishness” about them, a trait that permeates nearly every aspect of its society—from the architecture of its buildings to its school system to its peoples’ love affair with Western music.

The climate, the flora, and the topography of the land also blend in harmoniously to reinforce its reputation as a “Westernized” outpost on the fringes of India. Summers are pleasant. Winters are cold to chilly.

With 42 percent of the state covered by forests, it’s hardly surprising that most parts of Meghalaya are woodsy. Gurgling streams, dancing waterfalls, and grassy downs dot the terrain. Vibrant flowers (including 325 species of orchids) abound; the air, always saturated with the captivating scent of pine.

Little wonder that it was christened “The Scotland of the East” by the British colonizers.

Perched on a plateau nearly 1,500 meters high, Shillong (population: 260,000) is ringed by several low hills, three of which are revered by the Khasi—Lum Sohpetbneng, Lum Diengiei, and Lum Shillong.

The city itself, is named after the tribal deity, Shyllong.

Back when I was growing up, no building in Shillong had more than five floors. There weren’t any neon-lit signs that spelled the names of big businesses and global brands.

The state had its share, albeit small, of industry and commerce. But life, on the whole, wasn’t commercialized. Goods were highly affordable. One didn’t have to sweat over making money. Day-to-day living was a joy.

Shillong’s downtown, curiously named Police Bazaar, was where the action was. Congested, compared with the rest of the town, it was the local version of New York City’s Times Square and Fifth Avenue rolled into one.

It was the port of entry for tourists, who arrived in buses as well the prime shopping hub for everything from groceries to clothing. This is also where Shillong’s handful of movie theaters and restaurants were clustered.

Packed into Mawprem’s chaotic jumble of shops was the nondescript store, “Mahari & Sons,” one of the oldest bakeries in the area, reputed to have supplied bread to the British army in the 1930s.

A destination for epicureans, its look and location, I always felt, was incongruous with its gourmet glamour. One of its specialties, the “chicken patty”—a fluffy pastry dough, stuffed with a filling of finely minced, delicately seasoned chicken—was a treat.

At a time in India, when meat enjoyed the status of caviar among large sections of the population, “Mahari & Sons” sold well-cured sausages and salami, whose taste still lingers in my taste buds. Today, it’s expanded into a supermarket.

The roads were skinny. Luckily, they didn’t have to bear the burden of heavy traffic. Flanked by an archway of foliage that created the impression of a Gothic vaulted-ceiling, they’d leisurely wind up the contours of verdant mountains.

Quaint little houses, with smoke curling up their chimneys, would peek out through gaps in the shrubbery lined-fences.

At the end of a steep road, there stood a lovely, elongated, two-storied building. A metallic gate that opened into a sun-lit, concrete courtyard ushered one into a serene, I-shaped corridor.

At its far end, was a wooden, three-legged table, covered with white linen, where sat an old-fashioned school bell, ever ready to be hefted from its station by a redoubtable Irish nun and tolled sonorously.

Girls, in perfectly-starched white shirts, grey pinafores (or skirts), and blazers would then, shuffle in their seats, awaiting the start of the next class or file out of the classrooms, as noiselessly as possible, and proceed to their next activity—physical exercise, singing, dancing, or art lessons.

This was the milieu in Loreto Convent, Shillong—Meghalaya’s finest academic institution for young women.

Opened in 1909, the school celebrated its centenary celebrations, earlier in May. Along with an emphasis on academic excellence, it also focused considerable attention on the social grooming of its students, much like a European “finishing school.”

We, the Loreto girls, even as five-year-olds, knew it was bad manners to eat with our mouths open. We said “thank you” to anyone who offered us help or a gift. We tried to be, almost always, on time. We also bowed and curtseyed like the von Trapp family children in “The Sound of Music.”

Shillong has enjoyed a formidable reputation for its K-12 set-up. Its convents—both for girls and for boys—were regarded as some of the best in the nation, for their strict discipline and the exemplary set of values they inculcated.

At home, I led a cloistered life. When I wasn’t at school, I was home, sweet home. The house in which I lived was just as delightful, pretty as a picture-postcard.

The structure of most independent bungalows in Meghalaya was nearly identical, invariably all wooden, with sloping tiled roofs, a patch of well-manicured lawn, a chimney, and a driveway.

The government-provided residences, reserved for the states’ politicians, judges, and administrators—members of the elite Indian Administrative Service —were the grandest in town, though most others weren’t unattractive.

“Ekanth Cottage,” the mansion in which I grew up was a spacious five-roomed mansion that sat atop a little hillock, overlooking the Shillong racecourse—called the Polo Grounds—and the local golf course.

Spread out across a vast, pine cone-sprinkled compound, it was framed on one side by a semi-circle of tall, coniferous trees. The other, offered an uninterrupted vista of the valley below, which rose to meet the lush, rolling hills on the opposite horizon.

Those of modest means didn’t reside in commodious, colonial-style manors. If their homes fell short on floor-space and grandeur, well, they more than made up for that through ample rustic charm.

Simple articles such as a flower vase, a set of red and white checkered curtain, a wooden cross, above the mantelpiece, a faded area-rug, imparted a coziness that conveyed a wonderful sense of gracious hospitality.

A distinctive feature of the tribal households, and especially those of the Khasis, was its squeaky-cleanliness, which often manifested in the luster of the hardwood floors.

The people of Meghalaya are gentle, courteous, and soft-spoken. They’re a hardworking lot, without being brazenly ambitious. Which is why, it was rare to see a Khasi, a Garo, or a Jaintia pursue a career in engineering, medicine, academia, law, or the civil services.

The higher echelons of the bureaucracy were comprised of men (and very few women), who were born in the rest of the country. These officials served in Meghalaya neither because they harbored hegemonic aspirations nor had they any interest in subjugating the locals.

They were selected to do these jobs by an impersonal entity called the “Civil Services Examination.”

Unlike in most parts of India, where the male child gets preferential treatment, Meghalaya’s tribal society is matrilineal, a system that grants special status to girls. The youngest daughter of the family inherits all family property and is entrusted with caring for the elders and unmarried siblings.

The people of Meghalaya are very musically-inclined—to rock, funk, and blues. One of the reasons a road trip through Meghalaya won’t feel like you’re in India is that you won’t hear Bollywood songs, blaring from loudspeakers.

You’d hear a snatch of a hymn, wafting out of an open church door; or a deep male voice, singing “Love Me Tender” to the strumming of a guitar, up on a balcony.

Unsurprisingly, Shillong has earned a new moniker today—“Rock Music Capital of India.”

In a New York Times feature on Shillong, Somini Sengupta writes:

Many theories are offered for Shillong’s fascination with rock and the blues. Some argue that the area’s indigenous Khasi traditions are deeply rooted in song and rhyme. Some credit the 19th-century Christian missionaries who came from Britain and the United States, introduced the English language, hymns and gospel music and in turn made the heart ripe for rock.

Some say the northeast, remote and in many pockets, gripped by anti-Indian separatist movements, has not been as saturated by Hindi film music as the rest of India. Others speak of that ephemeral quality of rock ’n’ roll, able to seep into young, restless bones anywhere.

Each time I think of Shillong, a face floats before my eyes: Irene was a white-haired lady who sat in the foyer of Loreto Convent, a sweet person in a sweet place. It’s time to go back to visit.

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