Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Traditions and Modernity: Beyond Superstition

The recent infamous attacked on a family alleged to be “the keeper of u thlen” (nongri-thlen) at Mawlymbnang in the East Khasi Hills District, again brought to light the dichotomy between traditions and modernity that exist in the Khasi Pnar way of life. I don’t think it is a clash at all but the truth is that the mystery exists and the society is caught between traditions and modernity. The truth is what has happened in Mawlymbnang is the reflection of what is happening in the society, it is the manifestation of a society entangled in a tribal culture and tradition and the modern way of life.
U Thlen, the Taro, ka Bih etc has been part of Khasi Pnar beliefs system which has been inculcated in the mind of the people from one generation to another. We grew up believing Nongshohnoh exist when our parents in an effort to make us stay put at home; would tell us of the Menshohnoh who is lurking around the locality to catch us. We were given strict instruction not to partake food share by certain family in the society because they keep Taro, ka Kymbad, ka Bih etc.  My grandfather died when I was one year old, I was told that Dr. Norman Tunnel of the Welsh Presbyterian Hospital, Jowai diagnosed that the cause of his dead is due to cancer, but friends and relatives believed that he died from ‘Kymbad’ (ka Bih) the symptom of which is similar to cancer. In this case it is obvious that the Khasi Pnar did know about cancer and maybe cancer in the mouth, throat and the many part of stomach is known as Kymbad/ka Bih in the local parlance. The only problem is that the sickness is believed to be the curse of certain family and the family was blamed for causing the same.
In the Khasi Pnar Society, family of patient who suffers from a chronic ailment is often advised to take both allopathic and traditional shamanist treatment. It is often concluded as (ioh dei ba leh ki briew) it could be the spell of someone’s evil eye, or the curse of some evil person, so it is important to take necessary precaution by consulting a local shaman as well as taking allopathic medicines. People are in a dilemma and because it is a matter of life and dead; they neither have full faith in the allopathic medicine nor in the traditional treatment. There are many cases of patient with orthopedic problem who would simultaneously consult a qualified orthopedics as well as a local herbal medicine practitioner to save them from the predicament.      
In matter of bad health people always take the help of both world of medicine, in fact frail as any human, the Khasi Pnar too; consult any available healing system be it ayurvedic, homeopathic etc to get themselves cure. I know belief is personal matter; it is within an individual right to choose what to believe and not to believe hence it comes as no surprise to know that even practicing Christians sometimes perform sacrifice if that is what it takes to cure the person. My take on the issue is not to denounce this incident or any such incidents as superstitious act, because it is too complex an issue to understand. But would rather like the educate Khasi Pnar to look at the wisdom behind these legends and beliefs and interpret them in the new light.
Rather than looking at the traditions and beliefs as superstitious we can examine these issues in a much broader sense with deeper insight and try to understand and see the relevance this Khasi Pnar wisdom in the modern day context. I am not condoning the violence and madness that has happened in Mawlymbnang and other villages, such act of vandalism need to be condemned in the strongest term, but my call is to try and understand these legends and folktales in the light the modern world and to see its relevance in our world today. We also know that there are folk beliefs which have positive impact in our life if we only have time to study them carefully. On a closer look; we sometimes realized the profound wisdom of our ancestor even in those act that we initially denounced as superstitious.  
We have barely crossed this year’s halfway mark yet; I consider 2013 a spiritually fulfilled year because I was able to fulfill my long cherished dream. I was able to visit the two sacred groves and probably the biggest sacred forest in the Khasi Jaintia, the Raij Tuber Sacred forest in Chohchrieh village and the two sacred forests in Raij Chyrmang, the Khloo Langdoh in Chyrmang and Ka Khap-yaba in Iongnoh village.  In my visit to the Khap-yaba sacred forest very recently; I was not only amazed at the sheer size of the forest but was equally surprise at the fact that the forest was really free from any human interference. The forest was thick and green and there were no sign of human activity anywhere. The reason is because the people who live in the vicinity of the forest believe that the goddess Khap-yaba is very powerful and it punishes those who trespasses its territory and transgress its domain. We were told that the local seldom wander to the forest and if they have to do so, they would always pay obeisance to the goddess Khap-yaba. I then realized why it was very difficult to convince the two young men to take us to Khap-yaba, and when we reach near the forest, they told us that they would not go any further and even refused to point their fingers towards the forest. Before that we also passed through the hut of an old lady and when we told her of our intention to visit the forest, she read us the do’s and don’ts and advised us to ask forgiveness for trespassing into the goddess territory. Sacred forests are considered sacred because it is believe to be the dwelling place of the gods and goddesses, on a cursory look; some would consider this superstitious but it is this belief system that has help keep our sacred forest. In the tradition of keeping sacred forest, we can see the wisdom of our ancestors, their profound understanding of how the nature work and the need to protect and preserve it.      
In the same way let us examine other Khasi Pnar traditions and legends and try to interpret its relevance in our day to day life. The ‘keepers of thlen’ are those, whose greed has overtaken their sane self, they are those people who would do anything to garner more wealth. They would exploit people even force them to do odd job and pay them a very small return for doing so. They would go to any extend to exploit both human and nature for their own selfish gain- these are the modern day Nong-ri-thlen, because their only concern is to get money and more money. The ‘Nongshohnoh’ are those who work for the Nongri Thlen and would go to any extend to serve their master even if it means taking somebody’s life for money.
The keepers of ‘ka Taro’ are those who are envious of others. Their hearts is full with envy and are incessantly jealous of their friends, neighbor and relatives’ success, beauty and wealth. They would secretly wish to possess their friends and neighbours unique character albeit with evil design. And when they were not able to achieve those qualities, they would curse their friends and neighbours.  
The ‘Badon bih’ are mean, close-fisted people they are so stingy that they would reluctantly part anything with others. Even if they would have to provide food to others, they would do so with grudge and would even curse those with whom they share their food.   
Culture and traditions are not something that we can just wish away, the legends, the belief systems was imbibed in our psyche for generations, it will take time if not impossible to rid off the same from the person. The way to the future for the Khasi Pnar Society is that we take the best of both world and move forward. The Khasi-Pnar tradition and modern way of life can go hand in hand; the two can co-exist albeit with new interpretation of the legends and traditions. Then only we’ll realize that u Nongri thlen, u Nongshohnoh, ka Taro, ka bih et al are alive in every age, caste and creed and the Khasi-Pnar wisdom is ever-relevant; it lives beyond race and time.   


C is for calm, clamp and change

So much has happened in the state during the last fortnight or so. Incidentally all important incidents revolved around words which started with the alphabet ‘C’. To punish drivers parking their cars in the no parking zones, police in Shillong came up with the idea of using clamps to fix on the errant drivers’ vehicles; then there was the three day literary festival named CALM and perhaps in the last fortnight the state has witnessed unprecedented movement for change that has not been witnessed before. Change has happened in the state. The three agencies involved in bringing the changes are the youths, the honourable court and the CBI.
After attending the meeting convened by the Deputy Chief Minister to appraise the stake holders about the new Meghalaya Mine and Mineral policy which the cabinet approved recently, I can only say that all the environmentalists who attended the meeting were a disenchanted lot. The policy seems tailored to benefit the miners. Protection of the environment appears to be of no importance to the government. In a shared taxi on our return journey to Jowai, disappointed, I said to Arwat (a fellow environmentalist) that it seems like we are fighting a losing battle and we will not be able to protect the environment. I told him the story that while in Manchester in the year 1989-90 an Indian friend from Haryana who chose to stay back in England called me ‘bewakuf’ because I told him that I will go back home to India. I told the lad from Haryana that if I stayed back in England there is very little that I will be able to contribute to the society but if I go back home I can help bring change in my hometown and perhaps in the state. I returned home with hope that perhaps I can contribute something to help build a better and a happier community. I told Arwat that perhaps I might have been wrong. Now part of me tells me that it is useless; all my efforts are futile. There is nothing I can do to change the way things are in the society here. But Arwat was much more optimistic than me; he believed that this is the most exciting time to be alive in the Meghalaya because change is beginning to happen now. Have things really started falling in place and is change indeed happening?
I was only able to attend the last day of the three day literary fest called ‘the Shillong CALM 2012’ which stands for Creative Arts, Literary and Music festival. Not happy with the kind of publicity CALM received, the first thing Sambha the organizer of the CALM festival said to me (in Pnar) when I met her at the venue of the fest was, something like, ‘Did you see the kind of publicity festival received?” I think she meant the Chetan Bhagat show which closed with almost no interaction with the audience. What I should have told Sambha is ‘all publicities are good publicity’ and I am glad they have decided to continue holding the Fest and that next year the Shillong CALM 2013 will held in the month of May.
Words will be inadequate to describe the experience I had on November 3 the last day of the fest. I can only say that if the previous two days are as enlightening, exciting and entertaining as the last day then I know I have missed a lot by not attending the previous two days of the festival. The last day started with a programme in conversation with Prajwal Parajuly author of upcoming book of short stories ‘The Gurkha’s Daughter’ who was introduced by Babatdor Dkhar of North East Monologue as the widely acclaimed upcoming English writer from the country. It was a very interesting conversation and Prajwal was honest and entertaining with his answers. The one thing that struck me about this young man was his humility. He was eager to talk to anybody who approached him. While watching him taking a back seat and listen through the M.J. Akbar talk, I couldn’t help but think that Prajwal could one day become much more famous than M.J. himself.
The next programme was for me the best part of the day, it was a talk chaired by Ananya Guha and the talk was by individuals from the two ends of the age spectrum. The first person to take the podium was Jerry Pyrtuh a 17 year old poet who is still studying in class XI at Umshyrpi College Shillong. Every one present was mesmerized by Jerry’s talk about his book of poems ‘The Mystifying face of time’. Audiences were left spellbound by his command over English language and all appreciated his book. Then there was the forever young retired teacher, author and singer Kong Cassadra Syiemlieh who shared with the audience her upcoming book ‘The west wind of popular music’ which looks at the connection between the lyrics of some of the all time best English songs with poetry. Kong Cassandra is 73 years old but the enthusiasm and joy in her face looks like she is ready for another book very soon. CALM fest also saw another Khasi Pnar artist Pauline Warjri of the Aroha choir launching her music book. Music is in the air and with Toshan making it to the finals of the India’s Got Talent show, Shillong is indeed set to be the music capital of every genre.
Another C is for culture and round about the same time, Shillong also witnessed the annual autumn festival organized by the MTDF which culminated with the Pomblang syiem or the Nongkrem dance. But the two Cs that have become the talk of the state are the CBI reports which are the outcome of a court order in connection with the illegal appointment of the Lower Primary School teachers in the Khasi and Jaintia hills. The lesson for politicians here is that young people are not going to take it easy anymore. Young men and women of the state are fed up with what is happening; they seem to say enough is enough; we can’t take it any more. Unlike their predecessors they are not going to eat the humble pie anymore. They are ready to fight and they will leave no stone unturned to fight for their rights. Politicians or bureaucrats will not be able to fool the young people anymore; they have now taken the mantle upon themselves to clean the system and will even seek redress from the court and the CBI or any agency if need be, to clean up the system.
The youth of the state are leading the change that is happening in Meghalaya. Gone are the days when politicians and bureaucrats on the pretext of recommending play favourites and get their own people appointed for the jobs available. The way ahead is merit and no nepotism and politicians who the still have the audacity to say that they simply recommend names for appointment and have done nothing wrong, should be punished for abusing their power and position. The uneducated politician should remember that the candidate cannot canvass for appointment to the post either directly or indirectly and by doing so the candidate is liable to forfeit his/her right to apply for the post.
Something is really happening in the state. The ground beneath is shaking and all these changes happened not because Mukul Sangma created 4 districts in one go, but because the young people are restive and are not going to lie low anymore. They want change and they are the catalysts of change and if change is to happen, it should start from each and every one of them. Meghalaya is happening now, these changes are happening not because the government is introducing some mechanism to change the system, but because the youth has decided to take upon themselves the responsibility to bring change. The RTI and the Court case were taken up by young people from Jaintia Hills and supported by Agnes Kharshiing. CALM was organized by Sambha Lamarr a young lady; I know this because she is my cousin. MTDF too is being led by the ever young RG Lyngdoh, DD Laloo, Larsing Ming and others. I think Arwat is right. This is the most exciting time to be alive in Meghalaya because change is beginning to happen in the state. Young people are standing up to expose corruption by various VEC’s implementing MNREGA in their respective villages. Young people are making their voices heard by opposing the setting up of more cement plants in Jaintia hills. Rina Bareh a young woman from Umlong village cried at the hearing conducted by the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board against the dorbar shnong’s decision to allow setting up a cement plant in the village and selling the community land to the cement companies. This was another sign of young people making their feelings heard. They are not going to be cowed down so easily. So politicians should stop their empty rhetoric because youths cannot be easily fooled anymore. Mr. Chief Minister, are you listening?