By Janet Moore Hujon
The wind rush of leaves gusts through the word ‘Pynursla’. ‘Pyn’ (to cause to happen), ur (fall) and sla (leaf/leaves). I’d like to think that when the Khasis named this green part of our world they looked at the dense forest cover, wondering at the power able to strip the trees of all those leaves – a power not human, infinitely more awesome.
Pynursla is just one fragment in a poetic narrative expressing a tribal vision. ‘Umphyrnai (clear, sparkling waters), Demthring (where the stork alights…to rest), Lukha (the waterhole of fishes), Kyrdemkulai, (the ‘pounding of horses’ hoofs’), Mawmihthied…. the list is endless. I remember Mawmihthied with a touch of poignancy. On the way to Sohra was this small huddle of homes whose inhabitants witnessed rocks and boulders sprouting living roots. Can you beat that? Humans and stones sharing a need to put down roots? Although I never verified this miracle, the evidence of plant life clinging to near-bare stone walls, assures me that Nature’s creed of perpetuating life, made the impossible possible. So why yearn for blood from a stone when one can have roots?
Naming a place supposedly instils a sense of mastery in the giver. Hence British imperial authority and ownership was stamped on ‘Victoria Falls’ even though the falls already possessed a far more evocative name – Tokaleya-Tonga: “the Smoke that Thunders’. “…The naming of a thing gives you the wonderfully reassuring illusion that you know it”… says Mark Cocker in ‘Crown Country’, then he immediately counters, “You don’t”… In being descriptive, a Khasi place name proved a useful landmark for the wayfarer who was made to feel he ‘knew’ it. But central to the Khasi practice of naming a place, (as can also be seen in Tokaleya-Tonga), is a reverence for the invisible being of a place which our ancestors could only intuit. They knew they could not ‘know it’ and even less master it.
Khasi place names therefore commemorate the miraculous and generous in Nature, calling upon us to swear on the stone (Mawsmai) to not forget this. I am therefore appalled when the Minister of Forests says the government’s ‘hands are tied’ as far as reining in the destruction of forests is concerned. Apparently the Sixth Schedule prevents the government from interfering in privately owned land. But we all know that if the government cared enough it would find a way to halt this devastation. I am sure the architects of the Sixth Schedule had not bargained for avaricious live-for-today-and-to-hell-with-tomorrow politicians who collude with or turn a blind eye to the fact that the bald hills of the Jaintia Hills can now be collectively crowned the ‘Land of Dead Rivers’ while the Khasi Hills pant not so far behind.
The government’s hands are definitely not tied. On the contrary. Those ‘hands’ are freely helping themselves thus robbing us of a clean green future, while ministers feign helplessness by citing the Sixth Schedule. Enshrined in law, that unfortunate stroke of a pen has been gleefully grasped as a stroke of luck. The only ray of sunshine in all this gloom is Peter Dkhar’s move to impose the much needed ban on limestone mining in the West Jaintia Hills. He did what those in power no longer do – he listened and responded to the need of the hour. His decision is up there on my list of courageous moral acts.
But as if the current pillaging is not enough we then read that Adhunik Cements has been offered subsidies to the tune of Rs.86.09 crores. Why help to prolong the irreversible harm inflicted by limestone mining? Is it to substantiate the chief minister’s announcement that ‘The forest and mineral rich state has also taken many giant steps in the field of infrastructure to exploit its vast potential’. (ST, May 14th,,emphasis mine). Freudian slip or impending horror? Who was he trying to impress? The Asian Development Bank, other chief ministers, ‘mainland’ India? In an attempt to project themselves as brokers of power elsewhere, our ministers indulge their customary love for bombastic statements instead of quietly concentrating on protecting Meghalaya’s imperilled heritage.
So why fear the influx of outsiders? Can they do any more damage than the rooted tribal in our midst? Why panic about the fomenting potential of the ‘Red Ant’ when crimes against the environment remain unpunished, when nepotism thrives, when those who till land to live are to be made landless, when rivers are plundered, ill-gotten wealth inflated and poverty makes bleak history. The seeds for an ethical rebellion have been sown but will they ever flower?
Given this depressing scenario Meghalaya damn well needs to scrutinise an identity tottering on foundations of filthy lucre. Shouldn’t identity be about a sense of belonging, not owning? To belong is to feel at one with, to own is to gloat over the prospect of power. Tragically it is this latter sense of identity that now rides high in Meghalaya rendering barren our rivers, hills and forests. So why target the economic migrant scratching around for paltry peanuts and not skewer the baron flaunting his stolen bags of money?
If trees continue to be axed, ‘Lumpyngngad’ with its connotations of a hill cooled by gentle refreshing winds will merely function as a nostalgic reminder of a once welcome retreat from the heat of the sun. Lumpyngngad will exist only in name – the hollow expression of a jingoistic charade. Reviving traditional names to cleanse Meghalaya of any whiff of the foreign becomes a pointless exercise if the spirit and reason for the original name is not retained as well.
After all retrieving Khyndai Lad from the dusty shelf of memory has not transformed Police Bazaar, has it? Promised beautification we were given disfigurement. Once an area where nine roads met, from where routes fanned out to other destinations, Khyndai Lad today is a chaos of streets, pedestrians and cars struggling to avoid piles of stinking garbage, potholes, water pipes…. (But sometimes it’s worth it. Eaten piping-hot, Delhi Mistan’s jelebis are still the best).
The mess that greets you in Police Bazaar does not augur well for Motphran where a revamp is threatened. I have to confess that I am as guilty as the next person for not caring about the war memorial near Iewduh. But the more I have come to know about the history of our hills, the less I want to discard, especially if it is a government ploy hoodwinking us into believing that something positive is being done. The memory of the Khasi Labour Corps, those obedient servants of Empire with no choice as to the outcome of their fate, needs to be preserved. Somewhere in archival storage (in a Berlin library, if I remember correctly), their voices can still be heard.
So instead of wasting crores on a facelift for Motphran, how about first completing the beautification of Police Bazaar and then laying down cobbled paths in Iewduh for locals and tourists to enjoy an authentic tribal experience. Why let money flow only when the superfluous needs of ministers are to be met, like another palatial residence complete with barracks (whatever for?), tennis and badminton courts and a boring-well on standby – just in case. Does the minister know that pumping up groundwater will weaken the foundations on which his official home lies? This is especially precarious in earthquake-prone Meghalaya. (Just thought I’d throw that in – sorry to spoil the party).
But hope dies last, said a friend. So I continue to take heart from the outrage expressed against those who ‘pynursla’, those who want to take, take, take until one day the life and soul of this beautiful state and her people will be too tired to seek renewal.
The Amirphor blooms in the garden
Bound in the Serpent’s tightening coils
(…Ha kper ba phuh u Amirphor
Sawdong u spain u Ekjakor 🙂
(Soso Tham: Ki Sngi Barim)