Barik– more than a bus stop

By Janet Moore Hujon

She speaks like she sings – with fire and passion – and her bridled fury concentrates the distilled warning against a Shopping Mall in Barik.  You can translate her words into English but they will never have the same impact, for you cannot translate an accent – only the voice can confer that tough muscle and ardour that gives the words power. Like all other local accents in Shillong the Malki accent points to a fierce sense of local identity, and listening to TipritiKharbangar( was a powerful reminder of that. Listening to Minister PrestoneTynsong( however is to wearily acknowledge,yet again,that the status promised by money is the only identity that matters to our governments.

How on earth will a shopping mall – and that too a clone of the Delhi Saket complex – represent the State?  In willfully ignoring what is so evidently inspirational around us, it is obvious that the government has little pride in our own vibrant homeland and people.  Why kowtow to Delhi?  No wonder, despite repeated representations from our authors, our languages are still not included in the Eighth Schedule,for why would a central government, which is at best condescending towards tribal communities, pay any heed to a State that does not value its own genius?To constantly look elsewhere for a lead is admitting to not having our own sources of inspiration.

Minister Tynsong’s’ use of words like ‘history’, ‘hub’‘world class’ is just ‘appropriate’ jargon that fools nobody, and all he succeeds in doing is convincing himself but no one else.  Shillong’s old buildings like those at Barik, are part of her unique personality, crying out to be preserved.  Yet looking at the way our old buildings have been steadily replaced or overshadowed by concrete structures, is to be left in no doubt that the government is bent on nothing less than an erasure of history – never mind the environmental cost. Tipriti, on the other hand, speaks with heartfelt conviction using language that is raw, truthful and not dressed up. No buzz words, no references to history just pure naked pain, for as she points out, with self-serving leaders such as ours, we are already a lost and ravaged people –‘ngi lah long uba jot lypa’. And for decades having watched successive governments desecrate the beauty of our city and our State, we sadly have no choice but to agree. What’s so ‘world class’ about profane destruction?

And that is why the thoughtful plans for an ‘Iconic Place’ put together by Aiban Mawkhroh and Rajesh Ranganathan are so heartening. Here is a collaboration between like-minded individuals who work together simply because they see, value and want to preserve what is good.  The North-East meets the South in a partnership that India should be proud of. A green open space is what fume-choked, noise-polluted Shillong needs, not another playground for the rich where the poor can only stand and stare. Mawkhroh and Ranganathan show that Meghalaya has always had a different story to tell – one that is ancient, benign and for the common good. This is the story of our sacred groves – ki law kyntang– consecrated forests protected for centuries by our ancestors who deeply understood the need to venerate and safeguard the natural wonders of our land to benefit future generations.  That our people possessed such visionary wisdom fills me with intense pride, and wherever their genius as pioneers of the Green Movementis celebrated, that surely is an Iconic Place.

The reference to sacred groves also provides that link to our rural worlds where our weavers and artisans spin and fashion from yarn, cane, wood, and the good earth.  Safe in rural Meghalaya is the indigenous knowledge of plants for health and healing and to all these skills and wisdom we need to pay homage.  We have to urgently remind ourselves that Meghalaya is not only about the fast-paced life of the city – it is also about the abiding calm of life beyond the roar of traffic, of cut-throat city competition and the feverish search for the next best thing. Like the root bridges, our sacred groves teach us how to work in harmony with the environment and this is what Meghalaya should do –teach and not just blindly follow.

But Shillong is not only about the old and so Mawkhroh and Ranganathan want to tell another story which is about a thriving, growing culture.  To call a commercial hub or an IT hub ‘the heart of the city’, is a contradiction in terms.  The heart is about feeling, about sympathy, about empathy about deep joy.  This is not what we get from commerce.  The heart of the town should be beating with the rhythms, sounds and colours of her diverse inhabitants.  Art has always reflected society but in doing so has not been entirely passive either, and this is because artists interrogate the past and the present formulating and promoting critical thought.  In this current climate of powerless uncertainty we need more than ever to ally ourselves with those who speak for the many and not the few.  If not, we will be responsible for allowing a minority to get away with deciding the destiny and future of an entire people.

As Shelley points out in his 1819 poem The Masque of Anarchy written in response to a cavalry charge against a non-violent protest for the vote – ‘Ye are many, they are few’.  I am not suggesting that anything as bloody has occurred within our state but it is undeniable that this government has only found it too easy to trample on the heartfelt dreams and concerns of the people.  And though that involves no blood, it signifies a deep contempt for the sweat and tears of all who imagine a better world.  Hence it is no less an act of destruction. Artists should no longer be just a backdrop to the cultural picture of Meghalaya but should be given centre-stage to tell the ‘Other’ stories of our people.

To deny ourselves the sustaining life of the imagination is to deny that we as human beings are so much more than just money-making junkies. It is to music, to words, to painting, to sculpture, to ART that our tortured selves turn to both for release and deep joy. Tipriti invokes the old Khasi adage all too familiar but ever fresh and poignant because it contains an eternal truth – ngi dei ban ri khop ia ka sap.  Yes we need to hold close our deep yearnings and gifts for artistic expression – whatever form they take – in order to nurture the life of the spirit which, carried in our hearts, will persist long after we are gone.The protection and platform envisaged by the architects will ensure that.

The new Barik can become not only the heart of Shillong but the heart of Meghalaya and Shillong will emerge to become a beacon and not just a faint smudged footnote in history.

A special request – save the old steamroller stationed in the PWD complex – it is a museum piece.

(Email: [email protected])

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