Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Doomsday Earthquake that never happened

This article was also published by the Shillong Times on November 17, 2010.
Every time our grandmother tells us the story of the devastated earthquake that rocked the Khasi Jaintia hills, she always ended it on less tragic and a much optimistic note by telling us the story of the image of an earthquake in Syndai (ka dur u Jumai). The story says that in the village of Syndai about 20 kilometers from Amlarem on the Indo-Bangla border, there is this representation of an earthquake. Now in the many visits that I made to Syndai and the cave, I tried to locate the image from the many sculpture in the village, but I was not able to decide for myself which among the sculpture is the earthquake’s image. The matter was made even more difficult by the very fact that perhaps Syndai is the only village in the Khasi Jaintia hills which has many sculpture including the famous Rupasor bathing ghat carved on a single rock.
The two likely candidate of the legendary image is the cone-head figurine of Lord Ganesh near the Syndai cave and the sculpture of an elephant in the Pubon River. The Khasi Pnar legend of the earthquake also says that after the great Khasi Jaintia quake, to ensure that similar quake would not trouble the people anymore; God detached all the nine fingers of the earthquake except its pointer finger. The one remaining finger was saved for the earthquake to rub lime when it eat bettle-nuts and pan-leafs. If this part of the legend is taking into consideration then the most likely candidate of the Earthquake image of Syndai is the limbless elephant image in the Pubon River, but Syndai has many more sculpture some still covered by the shrubs at Rupasor.
I must also thank whoever started the doomsday prediction for the mere fact that it has made me realize the richness of our Khasi Pnar language. From the many discussions that I had, I learned that only in the vicinity of Jowai, earthquake is known by many names. The Pnar call it ‘u Khmi,’ the Khasi of Puriang call it ‘u Khynniuh,’ and the War Jaintia call it ‘u Kynjun’ and ‘u Khmai.’ I am sure other Khasi dialect would have another name for earthquake and we still say that Khasi language is not as rich as other languages.
The interesting thing about the doomsday forecast is the fact that the traditional image of the earthquake is integrated in the predicted story. The image of a personified earthquake which has a figure of its own; perhaps shaped in the human form or a demon is still lingering in the mind of the tribal people. Or maybe the personified earth quake is also influenced by the Biblical stories of the Almighty God intervening in the history and always side with the faithful.
Local people who have the benefit of reading the vernacular papers were fed with the detail description of the forecast; from the earthquake with 30 kilometers long tail to the detail account of the event which was predicted to start from the War Jaintia area and of course will only hit the Khasi Jaintia only. One can sympathize with the lack of knowledge of the poor villager who started the entire ruckus (unless she had at some point of time watched the movie ‘2012’ and with the invasion of satellite TV, one never know), but to think that the clergy, the church elders and the vernacular press too were part and parcel of the whole commotion is something beyond one’s comprehension. I have nothing to comment on the part played by the section of the clergy and the church elders, but my indignation is against the media particularly the vernacular papers.
My first question to my esteemed colleague in the media fraternity is; are we ignorant of the fact that till date there is no method or device available that can predict the occurrence of the earthquake? Can we allow ourselves to be dictated by the church or any institution without questioning the reliability of the source? Can media persons like the clergy and church elder get carried away in something that cannot be tested and prove beyond doubt? Are we not supposed to cross check and ascertain the fact before we publish any report? What happened to the rule number one of reporting that one must be able to separate fact from fiction? Are we not supposed to report the truth and nothing but the truth? One would expect an upright journalist to ascertain that anybody who made prediction has earlier made a similar forecast that came true and has ample prove to that affect, but sad to say nothing of that sort happen. The media published the story and the write-ups related to the so called ‘prophesy’ like it is the gospel truth which came straight from the mouth of God. The blame for the entire commotion should lie squarely with the media for creating undue fear psychosis in the mind of the people. The media are responsible for bringing the earth quake to the public domain.
We have stories of parents asking their children studying in Shillong or Jowai to return home without fail latest by Sunday evening, and then there are also stories about people shaking hands and biding goodbye to each other like they are not going to meet again in this world. The people at Moowakhon village made a makeshift tent house in the open field which is in accordance with the disaster preparedness procedure. Then we have the Office of the Deputy Commissioner Jaintia hills who asked his disaster management team to be prepare in case of an earth quake. On Saturday people were seeing buying enough rations to last for few days and torchlight sold like hotcake. People in the village made makeshift tent under the bamboo plantation because it is belief that in case of an earthquake it is safer to be beneath the bamboos plants. Other are heard busy preaching to the non-believers ‘to repent for the end is neigh.’ The preachers are certain that they themselves will be save because they has accepted Jesus as their savior while those who have not will not be safe by the earthquake. So, this earth quake also has prejudices and discriminates between the believers and the non-believers.
On Sunday evening, faithful gather in their houses to pray till the appointed time, but before stroke of midnight mobile phones started to ring. I received a call to conform if it is true that the earthquake has hit Nongtalang? Then one of my relatives received a call informing her that Dawki is leveled to the ground and turned to rubbles.
In the cyber world; there is a group of young people using the modern technology available and started a discussion group about the prediction on the Face Book page. I was invited to the discussion and most of those joining the face book group are young people and very few took the issue of the predicted earthquake seriously. Some students who are obviously studying elsewhere in the country jokingly thank heaven for he is not in the Khasi Jaintia hills.
Now the question is should we let those people involved in creating the fear psychosis (especially the press) escape scot free? We should remind our journalist friends that reporting is like a double-edged sword, while one is free to report any news; one is also equally responsible for one’s own report. Freedom and responsibility is like the two sides of the same coin. Imagine the loss of the parents who has to summon their children to come home for fear of the impending earthquake. I know of students who had missed their selection test because they were not able to arrive on time next Monday morning. Who will compensate them for their loss? I am sure readers would have many more stories about the Prophesy.
The doomsday prediction is an evidence of the fact that no matter how educate we are, our belief in the personified earthquake is still deeply entrenched in our mind. We seldom use our rational mind and reason before we belief anything, we easily get swayed away by anything especially if it has even an iota of connection with our church or our faith tradition. The entire earth quake drama also speaks volume about our tribal mindset which; like many first nation people, in our effort to move forward we are trapped between tradition and modernity

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