In praise of an impure Shillong

Old Brahmadev probably has walked down most of the lanes of Shillong but not too many would know his name. He would only be recognized by the bell he rings and the green compartmentalized box he carries that we all so well recognize. He and many others like him eke out a living selling a version of chana chur, supposedly a Patna original – a snacky mixture of grams, fried millets, peanuts and a few other garnishes, that for ages the locals refer to as shana. There are no second thoughts when we consume this snack – and it stands as one of the many culinary imports in everyday life in this town.

Culture, they say is dynamic, forever evolving, influenced and defined by various facets of human existence. We tend to focus on the big indicators – genetics, rituals, language, religion and other large institutions that form the so called foundation of a particular society. We somehow fail to observe just under our noses – the reason we exist – our food.Chanawallah

Almost everything on our plates has made its journey over miles of distance and transformation. The whole concept of authentic cuisine has its own condition, how far back do we have to go before the authenticity starts. Did Indians immediately consider tomatoes and potatoes as part of regular diet when they reached the sub continent’s shores from their Central and South American origins? Or did they grow (no pun intended) on us until now they are part of many cuisines.

We can step away from local ingredients and walk into the various restaurants that dot our towns and region. Puri-sabji is arguably, consumed by almost everyone who has access to it and not as an indulgence but for many, a daily routine. The humble samosa is more of an essential choice for an early evening snack rather than an exotic treat. For a region with limited dairy products, almost all the milk based sweet dishes have a Portuguese origin (a commonly accepted fact with a few arguments against it) and were brought to the region by Bengali migrants. Over the decades because of familiarity and access we view these dishes as everyday food that we do not cook at home – not as some culturally alien concept.

After a human has covered the nutrional demands, another basic need is clothing and protection from the elements. Without these, no humans will survive to form a “culture”. With clothing too, we tend to have rigid divisions of what is traditional and what is introduced. The absurd notion ignores the fact that even attire develops over time.

The ” tapmoh” is associated with the highlands of Meghalaya, as a warm covering material used by both sexes. The tapmoh also is basically tartan clothing introduced by the European colonists – tartan is specifically more famous as a (invented) symbol of Scottish identity to distinguish themselves from the English. Probably, the first khasi who laid hands on tartan would react the same way we would if someone gave us a kimono today. Almost two centuries down the line, no one bats an eyelid at this foreign import.

After food and clothing, another essential ingredient for society is communication. Let us not even start on the amount of borrowed words and even scripts that have elevated tribal languages into the modern world. Multiculture is in our food, multiculture is in our clothing and multiculture is in our language. This last sentence can also be read as – we eat everyday, we wear clothes everyday and we probably speak everyday. We consume and utilize elements of multiculture everyday and days turn to years and decades and with our short lifespans, we fail to comprehend the changes.

Hollywood Tailors, Laitumkhrah
Hollywood Tailors, Laitumkhrah

Instead, we try to define culture through static images that our brains can digest easily, and many of us exhibit paranoia at anything that seems to pollute these static images. We ignore the “everydays” and focus only on the special days, our festivals and rituals. But both are equally important. That one day in the nineteenth century, there were probably one or two gentlemen who showed disapproval when the earliest tapmohs were worn, because it was the exact definition of western wear back then. Fast forward to the present day and there is still the resistance to cultural imports, short sighted it may be. This is just an example that probably has good arguments against it, but what we cannot argue is that our nation is going through a tumultuous phase because there are people trying to define the undefinable, literally trying to write templates on how life should be lived. So it is important that we look at ourselves and the little things around us and understand that without evolution there is only decay – whether it is bodies or societies.

Keeping with the theme here, let’s avoid wrapping this article in a neat little bundle. Dear readers, it is important to sit back and revel in the organized chaos of the endless evolution of culture. It is time to shed our obsession with collective identities and focus on individual flair – for individuals build a progressive society and not the other way round.

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Silvester Phanbuh Written by:

Silvester Phanbuh has made his way back to Shillong via Yahoo!

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