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The Potency of Places

Alakananda Mookerjee Email Alakananda Mookerjee
August 2009
The Potency of Places

According to a recent UNESCO report titled “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 is 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 UNESCO publication 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 those interested in linguistic groups and the rapid erosion of native tongues.

Mine is not one of the languages on that list. Yet I can’t help feeling chagrined because of the fact that Khasi ? is. The reason? I am almost Khasi, but not quite.

Hypothetically, I could answer the question, “Where are you from?” in two 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 would have to say that I hail from West Bengal. Were I to lean the ‘Western’ way, however, and forge an identity on the basis of my birthplace, I would have to declare that I am from Meghalaya, and thus I could say that I am “almost Khasi.” It’s certainly not an inaccuracy to say that my roots are in Meghalaya.

The Abode of the Clouds

The word ‘Meghalaya’ translates literally as “The Abode of the Clouds” in Sanskrit. And 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.

No matter what season it is, the clouds are a near-permanent fixture of the state’s geography. Come most afternoons and you’d see a slow-moving convoy of pillow-like, whitish-grey clouds scudding across the horizon. As if prompted by a celestial clock, they would 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, the far darker ‘cloud’ that hovered on the sky was 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, and buses, wasn’t marred by insurgency, and wasn’t hit by global climate change. In my memories, the times spent there are the most carefree of days, filled with sunshine and warmth.

The land

In terms of its administrative structure and its political fabric, barring minor variations, 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 outer fringes of India. Summers are pleasant. Winters are cold to chilly.

With 42 percent of the state covered by forests, it is 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, and the air is 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 surrounded 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 Shyllong, a tribal deity.

The town

Back when I was growing up there, 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 struggle-free and hence, enjoyable.

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, in the sense that 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 ‘cinema halls’ and restaurants were clustered.

In the locality called Mawprem, in a chaotic jumble of shops was the nondescript store, Mahari & Sons, one of the oldest bakeries in the area, reputed to have supplied breads to the British army in the 1930s. A destination for epicureans, its look and location, I always felt, were incongruous with its gourmet image. One of its specialties, the ‘chicken patty’—a fluffy, pastry dough stuffed with a filling of finely minced and delicately seasoned chicken—was a special treat I got from my parents, every so often, for no particular reason. 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 has expanded into a supermarket.

Going to school

Roads were skinny. Luckily, they didn’t have to bear the burden of heavy traffic. Flanked on either side by an archway of foliage that created the impression of a Gothic vaulted-ceiling, they would 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 corridor. At its far end was a wooden, three-legged table, covered with white linen, where sat an old-fashioned school bell, always at the ready, ever prepared 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 to their seats to await the start of the next class or file out of their 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 this 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 at ‘home, sweet home.’ The physical house in which I lived was delightful, pretty as a picture-postcard. The structure of most independent bungalows in Meghalaya was nearly identical. They were invariably wooden with sloping tiled roofs, a patch of well-manicured lawn, a chimney, and a driveway. The government-provided residences, reserved for the state’s politicians, judges and administrators—members of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS)—were the grandest in town, though most others were not unattractive.

Ekanth Cottage, where 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, pinecone-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 did not reside in commodious, colonial-style manors. If their homes fell short on floor-space and grandeur, they certainly made up for that through ample rustic charm. Apparently simple articles such as a flower vase, a set of red and white checkered curtains, a wooden Cross hanging above the mantelpiece or a faded area-rug imparted coziness and conveyed a wonderful sense of gracious hospitality. A distinctive feature of the tribal households, and especially those of the Khasis, was their squeaky-cleanliness, which often manifested in the degree of luster of their shining hardwood floors.

The people

The people of Meghalaya are gentle, courteous and soft-spoken. They are 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 had men (and only a very few women then) who were born in the rest of India. These officials served in Meghalaya not because they harbored hegemonic aspirations or because they had any interest in subjugating the locals. They were selected to do what they did 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 keen on music, with a preference for rock, funk and blues. According to Shillong residents, nearly one out of every four people there either sings or plays a musical instrument. One of the reasons a road trip through Meghalaya won’t feel like you’re in India is that you won’t hear Bollywood music blaring from loudspeakers. You would hear a snatch of a hymn, wafting out of an open church door or a deep male voice (with shades of Elvis Presley), singing “Love Me Tender” to the strumming of a guitar on a balcony. Unsurprisingly, Shillong has earned a new moniker today—“Rock Music Capital of India.”

In a New York Times article 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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