Friday, December 8, 2023

Importance of Vernacular Literature


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By Patricia Mukhim

The Shillong Book Fair organised by the Government of Meghalaya in collaboration with the National Book Trust (NBT) has a series of panel discussions lined up, all in sync with the themes of language. literature, the arts and cinema. The first panel discussion that this writer was part of was named, “Ink of the Hills: Regional Literature of Meghalaya. Fellow panelists included upcoming poet Rangkitbok Dikrud and Lorinda D Marak, Associate Professor, Shillong College. We spoke to a near empty auditorium which had a captive audience of a few NCC cadets and some school students who perhaps had some interest in literature. And that’s the problem in Meghalaya and Shillong. Unless there is a captive audience very few really want to listen to any cerebral stuff. Sometimes you wonder why you waste time to even join these panels. But what’s done cannot be undone; one can only be careful not to waste one’s breath next time around.
Like other indigenous peoples the Khasis relied on oral tradition to tell their stories and weave their folklores. By the time we were given our script in 1841 much had been written about us by the British colonialists who interpreted what they saw from their own lenses. Indeed, writers like PRT Gurdon are much referred to by our own historians when they have to write about that era which began from 1826 onwards. Oral history cannot be evidenced because one would have to quote wise elders or go to the Ahom Buranji which is written in Ahom language and which starts with the creation story until the end of the Ahom rule in Assam. But the Ahom Buranji speaks more about the Jayantia rajas and very little about the Khasis. I have often wondered what the Khasi past was and how to separate it from the modern construct as seen from the eyes of the white man.
Vernacular literature is important if we are to understand the past and locate ourselves in it as it was then and not a crafted glorious past which was flawless. We are, after all, fallible humans subjected to the pitfalls of human decadence as well as the highest degrees of dignity and morality which is why we have words like ‘badonburom’, ‘don akor’ ba tip briew, tip blei (civility, propriety and righteousness). These then became the standards set for measuring Khasi behaviour. Anything that falls short of these yardsticks is considered ‘khlem akor’ ‘khlem burom’ (devoid of morality and decency). The Khasis are so entrapped by the need to remain within the norms of decorum such as those propounded by Radhon Sing Kharwanlang’s ‘Ka Jingsneng Tymmen’ the moral code of conduct as espoused by Khasi elders. We could have raised questions as to who narrated these sets of behaviours to Radhon Sing but ours is a non-questioning culture.
With the coming of the British the Khasi moral code was married to the religious canons of Christianity and we can only imagine a society brought up with so many behavioural codes of do’s and don’ts. It must have been pretty stifling and mind you it is not in the Khasi nature to critique anything, much less what the ‘white man’ had brought and taught from across the seas. Hence I presume there developed a culture of subordination, of docility, of complete acquiescence to the societal and religious codes. In this stifling atmosphere it is not surprising that there were not too many poets or litterateurs and that even to this day we can only recount what Soso Tham has said and warned us against.
Literature reflects the society of the time and if that society lacks a liberal ecosystem, is inhibited and unable to express itself liberally, much less to break out of the societal shackles; if its people are all the time poised as if walking a bamboo bridge that could collapse and therefore have their hearts in their mouths, how can they even think liberally. Think of the weight of having to be careful in how you walk, talk and laugh. Women were not allowed to laugh heartily. They would be put in their places and called ‘ba rkhie shait kynshlein.’ (laughing like a woman of loose morals). There is no such regimentation for boys/men. No woman would dare break out these societal chains, much less say something irreverent if they feel the need to. Perhaps because of these shackles some of the elderly women who didn’t fit into the category of “badon burom” either because they became pregnant out of wedlock and the church disowned them or because they just felt claustrophobic, would break out into expletives to cleanse their souls.
Literature must have its readers. To read there has to be mass literacy competence which has to be evenly distributed. Now is that the case with the Khasis even today? How many really can read and understand a Khasi novel and its intricacies when life itself is like a novel gone horribly wrong? And even writing is defined by class. You have to be an educated person to write such that people would want to read you. The Khasis were, from my own observation, a non-reading community (I don’t like the word ‘illiterate’ because it is a put-down word) but they are a story-telling community. Some of these raconteurs are fascinating and can hold you spellbound. But tell them to write and they will say, “Shish phi, shano yn ia thoh? Uei u ban pule? ( How can I write? And who will read what I write?). It is this paucity of readers of Khasi literature (except when forced to in school and colleges) that some of our best litterateurs such as Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Janice Pariat and others write their Khasi tales for a world audience. And thank God for that! People know us because they read what these literary trail blazers say about us, our idiosyncrasies and often complicated love lives (Where the Light Touches); our societal faultlines and concepts of life and death and life after death (Funeral Nights).
To say that Khasi poetry has evolved over time is perhaps a misnomer. Soso Tham is still the poet we look up to as if we live in a time warp. Literature is also a reflection of cultural issues such as the relationship between reason and faith. For instance, when we write, do we dare to question our faith; our religion; our deeply embedded social norms that set boundaries on what a woman can and cannot do? In that case are writers not shutting out their reasoning powers then for fear of being reprimanded by the guardians of society? Should reason not liberate us to question everything? Recall Dante’s Divine Comedy and The Inferno where he castigates the Catholic church for its decadent nature then. Not that much has changed today across churches. But do we have a writer with the spunk to take us through the depravities of church leaders today? No we will not because this is too small a society and the chances of being trolled are far too daunting and could kill one’s literary ambitions faster than it takes to nurture them.
We truly need Vernacular literature that is bold and brazen to bring about a Renaissance in our society. For too long we have hobbled along on a past that we can no longer relate to and a future that seems distant and depressing and gets worse because of our unquestioning nature. We need to deal with the present and that means to dare to question authority and take responsibility for what’s going wrong with our politics and governance? What is literature worth if it lulls us to sleep? No, we need literature that stings and pushes us to get real and not be overly concerned about being, ‘donburom, don akor’ and being genteel little societal busybodies with no courage to call out wrongdoing! Look at how the women hawkers who were told to shut shop at 10 PM raised their voices and reclaimed their spaces and their rights! They didn’t need the lords and masters (pressure groups) of the night to fight for them. They fought the good fight and they did it without literature. How much more empowered would they be had the stories of these bold warrior women (lowly and poverty-stricken though they are) been written as they are with no embellishments! That to me would be real, solid literature; not the soft variety that appeals to a set of elite..

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