Words and images from home and away
In a long tradition of British exploration, Richard Eilers reported in the Guardian (1 February 2013) on ‘India’s undiscovered gem: the hills of Meghalaya’, an enchanting idyll where ‘women own the land, Christianity dominates and the landscape is straight out of the Hobbit’. It seems that simply going places still equates with ‘discovering’ them.
William Makepeace Thackeray (grandfather of the novelist) was appointed resident collector of Sylhet, on the south side of the Khasi Hills, in 1772. ‘Here was virgin soil’, wrote his double-barrelled biographer Francis Bradley Bradley-Birt, ‘upon which had fallen to him the great task of imposing the first imprint of British rule’. The more ‘impenetrable’ the jungle and ‘wild’ the region, the more the Hill peoples are seen as backward and the achievement of British adventurer pioneers is heightened and exaggerated. Meghalaya may not appear in the 2010 edition of Frommer’s India, but this doesn’t mean that its three million or so inhabitants are waiting to be discovered. They’re just getting on with their lives.
But the article did pique my interest ahead of going back to the Khasi Hills after nine years, and I looked forward with a mixture of apprehension (the white-knuckle road trip up the mountain from Guwahati to Shillong) and excitement (renewing old friendships and making new ones, launching the book, and visiting Cherrapunji again).
I remembered my terror as the tyres screeched on every blind bend on the trip up to the Hills in 2004. We broke down twice, nearly crashed three times, and the driver got us completely lost before eventually finding the hotel in Shillong. This time my hosts had commandeered a car and driver for us for the duration of the trip. Maybe it was the fact that his wife had just had a baby, or perhaps we snuck in under the protective shield of three-hours of Christian rock blasting from the CD player, but Satosh proved to have a very safe pair of hands. We had inadvertently chosen to travel to Shillong the same day that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had scheduled a visit, but despite the traffic scrum getting out of Guwahati airport and the dust and mayhem from major road works the entire route of National Highway 40, we arrived in good shape.
That first refreshing drink on arrival after a long trip sticks in my mind from travels over the years. In 2004 I stayed at the Pinewood Hotel (a Meghalaya Government Tourism Development Corporation undertaking), whose deceptively charming Raj-era exterior betrayed inner decrepitude—no hot water, a rock-hard pillow, and a pitiful coal fire that barely heated the room as I shivered in near zero temperatures. But I do remember the first refreshing beer on arrival. As the rest of the hotel was seemingly caught up in the high drama and heightened security of hosting a visit of the Chief Ministers from the seven states representing the North Eastern Council, I enjoyed a cold Kingfisher at the deserted cane-panelled bar with its tartan tablecloths, Seagram’s Blenders Pride coasters and Royal Stag serviette holders, with a muzak soundtrack of instrumental arrangements of 80s pop classics—“Hello”, “Careless Whisper”, “Woman”, “Message in a Bottle”—rendered on the pan pipes.
Shillong seemed even more sprawling than I remembered it, bursting at the seams in fact. We parked ourselves at a private guesthouse this time, run by a Khasi Master Feng Shui Practitioner and her Tennessee-born part-Cherokee partner—hence the eclectic decor of Indian, Chinese and American furniture and objets d’art. We were entertained with stories from her early years at Dr Graham’s Homes in Kalimpong, her career as an Indian Air Lines air hostess and later stints in Italy, China and the US, along with the couple’s acute observations on local affairs.
Saturday was a day-long symposium on Culture, Mission and Khasi Life at the Aurobindo Hall, linking the themes of the book with a range of issues of importance to Khasis in the light of Christianity’s disruption to Khasi cultural roots.
Professor Desmond Kharmawphlang—poet, folklorist and Head of the NEHU Department of Cultural and Creative Studies—spoke about the collection and codification of Khasi oral literature. Phrang Roy, slow food advocate and former Assistant President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, gave an impassioned manifesto on traditional indigenous knowledge, cultural practices and food production, and such issues as the repatriation of indigenous crops from seed banks. Local food, Phrang argued, improves the health and well-being of people in ways we have forgotten, and local food production has the capacity, in fact, to defend the land. R. Jennifer War from the MLCU Department of Allied Health presented findings from a study of attitudes to sexual health among Khasi youth. Prior to an education program, 41% of women and 25% of men surveyed believed women were to blame for rape. There is no tribal word for the term, while the male and female genitalia are respectively ‘bird’ and ‘snack’. Dr Larilin Kharpuri (MLCU Department of Environment & Traditional Ecosystems) discussed the impacts of mining on biodiversity, and Mebanda Laka Blah spoke on climate change and rural Khasi communities.
I was sorry that journalist and activist Patricia Mukhim was unable to attend, although we caught up with her later in the evening over dinner. I briefly met Patricia in Melbourne in September last year when she shared the stage with Marcia Langton discussing indigenous rights in Australia and India in an event co-sponsored by the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne. For Mukhim, the ‘destructive spree’ in the north-east can be tracked to Christian insistence that severed the relationship between the Khasis and their deep-rooted value systems of reverence for the earth.
Following the symposium was the book launch. After the national anthem, presentation of bouquets, and introductions from VC Dr Glenn C. Kharkongor and Professor David R. Syiemlieh, I had the opportunity to express a few words of thanks for all those who had assisted me in the Hills during my visits. It was a strange feeling bringing this history book back to the Khasi Hills, when TJ had himself brought a book in the 1840s, with profound consequences. I was presented with a ceremonial scarf (the white silk Ryndia) as a token of esteem, which was a moving moment for me. His Excellency R.S. Mooshahary, Governor of Meghalaya, then gave an extended oration ahead of launching the book, in which he shared his thoughts on Khasi culture and history. The subtext of the speech was that migration and differing religious viewpoints have long been a part of Indian history, and are effectively a parable for the contemporary challenges of assimilation and coexistence within the rhetoric of building a modern and inclusive India. Easy to wish for, harder of course to achieve.
The book was then launched, or should I say ‘released’. During the speeches it sat wrapped up like a birthday present on the dais. When the Governor had finished his oration, he ceremonially unwrapped the book and held it aloft to the applause of the assembled crowd. His speech was very generous to my work, and he gave it his imprimatur as a unique and dependable contribution benefit students and researchers of Khasi society. ‘I was expecting to see an elderly gentleman from Australia’, he noted, ‘because of his wisdom, because in India we associate wisdom with age. So here I see a young man, and an equally young lady, who have wisdom concealed in their faces’.
But there were ancients too in the room, and I was amazed to shake the hand of a Church elder who claimed that his grand maternal uncle was with TJ when he left Cherrapunji. His companion S. J. Khongee, the self-appointed office bearer of the Rev. Thomas Jones Grateful Society, presented me an extraordinary photomontage of TJ depicted as Khasi hero.
I wonder what Shillong will be like on our next visit. The new road from Guwahati will no doubt make that trip more amenable, though the ripple effect on an already groaning infrastructure is less certain. When I visited in 2004 there was little choice aside from the Pinewood. In 2013 there were dozens to chose from. The Shillong Times (10 March 2013) reports that Meghalaya’s first 5-star hotel is to open there next year, boasting 200 rooms and up-to-date facilities, and construction proceeds despite the complaints of local residents of the effect of the development on their neighbourhood. But in the scramble for investment and development, has the ‘Scotland of the East’ become the ‘Sodom of the East’ as some would claim? Improved roads and classier hotels come at a cost. What will more tourists bring to Shillong, and what can Shillong give them in return? The majority of rural Meghalayans still have no electricity, and voices from the regions also question the Shillong-centric nature of development in the State.
More pertinently, what will be the social, economic and environmental costs to the Khasi Hills of India’s broader national strategic interests and priorities? Intensive and environmentally destructive coal and limestone mining practices scar the landscape. Rivers are polluted, groundwater reserves are depleted, and deforestation threatens species diversity. As explorations proceed into uranium deposits in the region, and the issue of whether uranium mining should go ahead is hotly debated, evangelising roadside signs sponsored by the Uranium Corporation of India assure locals that radiation occurs naturally in the environment.
Mebanda Blah’s view of the doubly-marginalised Khasi (both local and global) was echoed many times through our visit. Khasis travelling in other parts of India are treated like tourists or foreigners in their own country. There is a vast gap between the rhetoric of inclusiveness and the realities of tribal society. ‘Every Christian feels proud to be Indian’, asserted the Governor, in the same spirit perhaps that Mebanda Blah’s father Toki claims that ‘just because I am different doesn’t mean that I am not an Indian’. And as Australia and India head towards wrapping up a uranium deal, the challenges and realities of globalisation come into greater relief. ‘If an Australian sneezes’, concluded the Governor with a knowing smile, ‘someone in India catches cold’.
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