Of mono-syllabic grunts, mysterious diseases and vanishing fishes


By Toki Blah

Readers looking for a piece of light reading liberally spiced with humour are well advised to turn away from Meghalaya dailies, both English and vernacular. It would be like searching for water in the parched Sahara. It’s just not there. News, views and opinions usually expressed in the Meghalaya print media, are almost one in uniformity. One and all, sombre, grave and decorous to a fault. Only the sedate serious side of life is usually allowed to be printed with a definite slant of course towards tragic and developing political dramas. It’s called serious journalism with class. Let me hastily add that I have absolutely nothing against the staid and the dull. It has now become fashionable to be seen so. People sincerely believe that a furrowed brow, a perpetual frown and a long horse face symbolises intellectual poise or the ability to think. It’s become a fashion symbol, the ability  to frown, I mean. Priests of all hues; church elders;  Rangbah Shnongs, Nokmas, bureaucrats, clan elders, everyone who is someone in Meghalaya, are avid followers of the, “gotta look serious” cult. Such people prefer to walk around with a grim face; a perpetual sour expression (khmat jew eit in Khasi); and if they happen to smile at you, every muscle in the face contorts to make sure you know it’s a forced condescending smirk from a superior being to a lesser mortal. And we have the gall to claim we all belong to an egalitarian, caste free society. It’s very inhibiting let me tell you. As kids we use to run as far away as possible from such characters. At least I still do!

Beauty pageants notwithstanding, it would certainly appear that as far as Meghalaya society is concerned, the person capable of putting on the best horse face stands the best chance of reaching the top of the social ladder.  Just take a look at the composition of the State Assembly and the Autonomous District Councils. Awesome, as these are elected leaders, but frankly speaking, the only common characteristic they share are their looks! In all probability the ability to pull a long face is the only common denominator to their getting elected. Never seen anyone of them smile on the many and varied media channels. Some uncharitable, spiteful and heartless soul somewhere has described the hallowed institutions of democracy, at both state and national level, occupied by these glum sour looking souls, as a gallery of rogues. I stoutly refute such aspersions as it forms an attack on human rights. Everyone has the right to carry and present whatever face he/she was born with. Not much one can do about an ugly mug but one is simply stumped by attempts to be seen as being visually impaired as well!  Dark glasses in the Assembly simply increases that silly goofy  look. Perhaps it’s a decoy. People have been heard to ask “How can an ugly looking mug wearing foolish looking horse blinkers be associated with corruption or even considered capable of engineering horse-trading activities? Impossible!” (Why the poor horse should be linked with all kinds of human perfidy is beyond me!) Point I’m trying to make is, an uninviting face can at times be better than the best of all faked alibis. A positive life-saver in the Meghalayan political jungle. “ Butter won’t melt in my mouth” sort of expression, if you know what I mean,  wins elections, gets you into the cabinet without risk of revealing your true motives, and that’s all that really matters.

In the Meghalaya political jungle it is also wise to pretend that one’s vocabulary is as impoverished as ones demeanour. This is especially true if an elected representative has by means fair or foul, more by import of his bank balance than by desire for public service (hitting below the belt but what are thick skins for ?) managed to secure a seat in the cabinet.   Proof? Televised proceedings of Meghalaya State Assembly Sessions will confirm my statement. Look how ministers, doddering, ugly and pretty senior ones at that, reply to questions thrown at them by the opposition benches. Mono- syllables of “Yes Sir,”  “No Sir ” (“Three bags full” perhaps already given elsewhere.) echo through the hallowed halls of the Assembly building. One thought that such mono-syllabic grunts were the monopoly of rustic halfwits, but we live and learn. One appreciates Government’s need to economise but why on words alone? Why can’t our representatives also discuss need to economise on MLA spending? Trouble is such a question is capable of shutting down even the flow of mono-syllables. Dead silence would probably shroud the entire Assembly proceedings if such a resolution were to be moved. It could be the final nail on Democracy’s coffin. So why risk it?

Yet some of these Sad Sack, deadpan, innocent looking politicians can also throw a witty one now and then. A friend, a former politician, narrated the following mono-syllabic joke that happened in one of the sessions of the Assembly. The Minister for Fisheries was in deep trouble, cornered by the opposition on some questionable management of departmental funds.

A direct starred question from one of the opposition members was thrown at the Fisheries Minister. “Will the Honourable Minister Fisheries kindly inform the house as to the number of fish ponds constructed by the department during the year”.

“Eighty” came the short, mono-syllabic  and brusque reply.

“Will the Hon Minister then kindly inform the house the number of fish ponds out of the eighty that still have water in them?” came the next innocent sounding barb.

“Non-n-n-e” came the stammered but once again terse reply

With a triumphant roar of a lion that had just managed to flush out its prey, the opposition pounced with, “Then will the Minister kindly inform the house the kind of fish that is available from these eighty dried up fish ponds?”

Pin drop silence ensued. Everyone waited with bated breath for the inevitable answer that had the potential to bring down the Government of the day.

“Dried fish” came the meek reply.

It brought the house down and the minister walked home free. Mono-syllables do have tremendous value when handled by an expert.

Talking about fishes, fish ponds and farms, from Ri Bhoi district come some very entertaining episodes. It is a well known fact that most bureaucrats have farms tucked away somewhere in Ri Bhoi where they believe they will while away their time after retirement. Good idea that comes along with some very tricky management problems. One such retired entrepreneur well settled in Shillong, who invested in a 1000 bird poultry farm together with some fish ponds, narrated his farming woes which I feel should be shared with others who love mysteries or who are thinking of similar enterprises. “Its strange.” he tells me, “Every time there is the weekly market at Umsning, three or four of my broiler chicks would mysteriously die or disappear from some unseen, unknown predator. Traps to ensnare the marauder failed to produce a culprit. The fish in my ponds also simply refuse to multiply.  Meanwhile the sister in law of my chowkidar runs a Jadoh stall on market days which is fast gaining a reputation  for the most wonderful chicken curry and the best kharang (roast fish) dishes for miles around and very cheap at that. Waw ka Pap, my post retirement investment is proving to be more of a headache than the chill-out remedy I had in mind. I have suspicions but I can’t prove anything. My wife and children simply won’t leave Shillong to settle down in the countryside.  Please advise me what to do”. I left him to ponder on his fast depleting farm assets but the adage, “No fool like a retired, gullible old fool” simply refused to leave my mind.

Most urbanites who jump so enthusiastically into the world of agriculture are people who normally couldn’t know the difference between a potato plant and a stinging nettle, not even if their life depended on it. There is this story of a pretty, not so young thing that decided to stock her fish ponds with the most exotic variety of fishes. She was a firm believer that variety was the spice of life. So she went about buying all types of fish fry that came her way. For one whole year she fed them with whatever fish feed; growth hormones etc recommended. Then came the big day when the hugely anticipated fish harvest was to take place. The nets were cast, dragged ashore and lo and behold all that came out were a wriggling mass of giant Thai magurs (Thai catfish) and nothing else. Apparently the amateur fish enthusiast had introduced killer magur fry that then grew fat by feeding on her other fishes. Even fishes are keeping up with the times. In India today, some nationalist species are simply intolerant of others!

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