Soso Tham – Poet for our troubled times

Look East, look West look South look North

A land beloved of the gods

(Ka Persyntiew, The Flower Garden) 

When I first read these words, I realised with a shock that for the first time in my life I was given permission to be proud of my homeland – I had come home.  For who could turn away from a landscape that breathes and instills tranquility: 

On distant peaks they linger

Those children of the gods

Their eyes rest soft on earth’s great rivers

As they listen to the Riyar’s song

(Pyrthei Mariang, The Natural World)

Who could abandon a land where 

Peacocks dance with wild abandon 

Wild boars rolled in cooling mud

In deep dark pools Sher supple dart

Under sheltering fern the doe lies quiet

(Ka Persyntiew, The Flower Garden) 

Tham then reinforces this sense of belonging by precisely locating his people within certain named boundaries: 

Pleasure garden fruit and flower

Where young braves wander, maidens roam

Between the Rilang and Kupli

This is the land they call their own

 (Ka Persyntiew, The Flower Garden) 

His certainty is unshakeable and deeply reassuring.  As a tribal growing up under the shadow of being defined by the mainland as an inhabitant of vague peripheral frontiers, this clear assertion of belonging to a certain place freed me from a crippling cultural yoke. His land is my land too – one that I could also call my own. But this is ‘owning’ that is not proprietorial – it is more about belonging to the land as one belongs to one’s mother.  Intangible but undeniable, it springs from a place deep within me nourishing my being and quietly shaping my worldview. 

But restful and affirmative though Tham’s words are, reading them today cannot dispel a rising sense of foreboding, for we are now brutally forced to revise our memories of the hills and rivers we once knew. Extractive industries built on the sale of forests, coal and limestone have altered the topography of the land bringing easy money to a few who, without raising a drop of sweat through honest toil, enjoy an easy lifestyle:  

The blacksmith’s wares in full display

But was hammer strike on anvil heard?

(U Lyoh, The Cloud)

 Tham clearly does not paint an ideal world.  His descriptions rising from deep despair are often fired by intense rage but remain sharply focused. In his depiction of the corrupting effects of greed we are made to see the reason for and the ominous significance of those menacing beasts and fiends that haunt Khasi mythology and imagination– the sun-swallowing hynroh and the insatiable Thlen.     

Slow inch by inch the toad consumes 

The sun gripped tight in her clamping jaws 

(U Lyoh, The Cloud)

He gorges on from dawn till dusk…

…helplessly caught in the grip of greed

 (U Rngiew, The Dark One)

 Tham was evidently concerned about the tendency to ignore the signs on the land. He bemoans the fact that 

Signs once clear on boulder rock 

Remain unread, obscured, weed choked…

Yet hilltop stark and sheltered shade

Wood and Stone still speak to man

(Ki Symboh Ksiar, Grains of Gold) 

Tragically this ongoing ecological destruction mocks Tham’s breathtaking vision of a future where his homeland will once again stir into life with renewed faith and confidence in all she stands for: 

Then once again will forests roar

And stones long still shake to the core

(Ka Persyntiew, The Flower Garden) 

And if you have tears, prepare to shed them now, for with such ruthless exploitation, will there be any more forests, boulders or stones left to produce this resounding applause?   

It is no coincidence that today Shillong, of all places, is suffering from a shortage of clean drinking water, because if we continue to abuse the earth that nurtures us then yes 

The nine clear springs will soon run dry…

Demonic howls will rent the skies…

(U Rngiew, The Dark One)

In our quest for speedy ‘development’ we are severing that fragile symbiotic thread tying us to the rest of the living world.  By not listening to Nature we are ultimately signing our own death warrant:  

When man ingests all that he can

That day will be his last on earth

(U Rngiew, The Dark One)

That is why my blood ran cold on reading that the government was prepared “to spend Rs 7000 crore to remove obstacles (hills) needed to enable landing of larger aircraft…to connect Shillong [Umroi] to metros”. (Shillong Times, July 9, 2018).  I immediately recalled Tham’s words – instructive and prescient:

Our hills were our guardians in the past

Who will keep us from harm in days to come?

(Ka Aïom Ksiar, Season of Gold)

Should it not be a matter of grave concern that ‘our guardians’ – Nature’s equivalent of ‘U Kñi U Kpa’ (the Maternal Uncle, the Father) – are now dismissed as ‘obstacles’ because they stand in the way of that enterprise labelled ‘development’? Positioning the word ‘hills’ within brackets to clarify who these tiresome delinquents are, serves to emphasise even more the developer’s view of hills as a mere pesky inconvenience. 

What a change of perception in a relatively short space of time! To think that it is now so easy to sanction the destruction of these timeless hills, which define the beauty and life of our homeland, just because Meghalaya wants to connect to the metros. We call ourselves a hill people and yet we do not think twice about razing these ancient landforms which have given us our distinct identity.  Wouldn’t the crores of rupees be more usefully spent to meet the needs of our rural and urban poor thus fulfilling the Khasi ideal:  

Equal all trade, fairness maintained

Comings and goings in sympathy in step 

Welfare and Woe of common concern

Concord’s dominion on the face of the earth

(Ka Meirilung, Gentle Motherland)

So once again that familiar rhetorical question hangs suspended in air – who will benefit most from these connections?  I am sure whose side Soso Tham would be on for it is the simplicity and contentment of rustic life that he cherishes: 

Dried fish and rice my mother served

What joy replete in humble fare

(Pyrthei Mariang, The Natural World)

Plants wild with zest our people eat

Unrivalled the taste of Ja on the hills

(Lum Lamare, Lamare Peak)

In Lum Lamare Tham wistfully returns to 

that far-off time where I learnt to sing 

Where once we were whole not broken and scattered 

He remembers 

Breathless winds cool on the skin, waters with the bite of ice

Today I find them still and quiet, listening in the lonely silence

even the waters regret the passing of 

A time [when] we felt and thought as one…

But eventually Tham’s vision transcends the rural world to which he owes his being to arrive at the following fundamental truth

We share the same sun, same water and wind

In what way then are we different from others?

Sorrow, grief, laughter, joy,

It is the same language we all speak

And as we toil to reach the summit

Those down below are human too

(Ka Aïom Ksiar, Season of Gold)

Truly a message for a divided world blinded by self-interest and insularity.  


All extracts above are from: Janet Hujon, Tales of Darkness and Light, Soso Tham’s The Old Days of the Khasis.  But I strongly urge those who can to read the original – Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiew Trep – to see how the maestro uses language to distil thought. 


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