A Khasi listens in on Calcutta

I am in Calcutta. At least I think this is Calcutta. I was told that I would be journeying into the heartland of the bhodrolok and the East Bengalis of Shillong coloured my expectations and bias. Upon arrival though I feel as though somethings have been missed. Like the city, the information hardly seems fresh. It is not current.

As I walked within the various bazaars and commercial establishments, besides the madding drone and unnecessary cacophony, there was something that struck me. The language of the market has changed. Hindi has removed Bangla as the preeminent language as it has removed Assamese and Khasi. Hindi might not be the language of the customers – they might still (jingoistically at times) prefer their mother tongues and good bania customer care will make it compulsory to engage with them along their lines – but it is the language of the ‘machinery’, that system beyond the customer; the manufacture, transport and taxation before a product or service is delivered up to a customer.

Hindi once upon a time shared the platform but has now nudged the others clear off it. The most obvious reason for this is probably because most of the production of goods is done in states and territories that are Hindi speaking (NCR area) or actively involved in peddling Hindi currency (like Maharashtra). The ‘ancient’ Marxist tenet is that the economic ultimately influences everything else. Language, it would seem, is just as susceptible.

Now when one needs bulk the prima lingua one must use is unquestionably Hindi. That in itself does not pose such a problem were it not for the fact that there is a political dimension to it. The case of Calcutta shows this. It becomes less about economics and more about power to shape and mould. To see two Bengalis haggling over a dinner set in Hindi is very odd indeed.

In rural Tripura, I was fortunate enough to see how people really negotiated numerous ‘spaces’ in the affairs of their lives. A Halam man might have to meet a Reang butcher and Kokburo is used, he might then need to meet a lawyer and Bangla comes out of his bag of skills as well. I do not want to glamorise, I am aware of the situation within the state especially between tribals and non-tribals. But perhaps these should not be seen merely as problems but complications – good and bad. In the case of Tripura, Bangla is on top, it is still the language of the marketplace as it is or was for much of the North East. Perhaps its ties and proximity to Bangladesh have allowed for this. The problems arise when Bangla (and the same might be said for Hindi) no longer stays only within the marketplace but follows the people home as well.

For the Khasi, this language shift (from Bangla to Hindi) is a kind of inimical reminder about what Partition did. Living at the edge of the Shillong “plateau”, right next to the economically significant settlement of Shilot (Sylhet), the Wars (a Khasic group) in particular were quick to take advantage of their strategic positions and traded in areca, oranges, other produce with the plains of Bangladesh. Later on they added iron works and limestone to their list. The latter because of factories setup by the Colonials eventually made its way as cement to various parts of Bengal. Calcutta, capital of Imperial India, would not have materialised if it were not for calcium carbonate sourced from tribal lands.

Post Partition because of border demarcations, the Wars and many Khasi states like Rambrai, Nongstoin lost many haats to East Pakistan and hence revenue. This was perhaps the most compelling reason why Wickcliffe Sing Syiem did not want his uncle to sign the Instrument of Accession on behalf of Nongstoin state. It was a business decision in its own way.

I think one must be careful in assuming total loss of agency for the Khasis though. Many elites of Khasi society still continue the limestone trade with Bangladesh but the haat as a community space has receded. The market (for limestone mostly) is obviously there but the participation is no longer as it once was. It is tighter now and closed off to all but the wealthy. It is no longer about small traders but big merchants. As far as I have seen, one need not even use Bangla in the transactions. A phone call in Hindi to the operators on the other side of the border is readily understood and deals can be closed smoothly. In this way, India oozes over international borders.

Today most, if not all, of Meghalaya’s goods and services come through Assam and yet we don’t need Assamese most of the time. It is a peculiar situation and betrays a power relationship that exists and which is lop-sided. The Khasis and others are no longer “price makers” but “price takers” (please forgive the cliché). There is an onslaught of imports from other parts of India. They no longer produce but should simply consume. No movement for “indigenous” products can succeed if it refuses to tussle with this reality: the reality of marketplace hierarchies. No ‘slow food’ slogan can undermine entrenched market politics.

I don’t know what changes first: taste or language. Probably both are altered at around the same time. The illusion of choice is one way of selling new products to the middle class. The choice though is about brands not the products themselves. It becomes a situation of “butter masala A” or “butter masala B”. Taste shifts slowly but surely from forest yam to home-grown potato and finally to Reliance, Walmart or Patanjali mash. The latter is perhaps the perfect example of how to blend politics of language and taste. Buy any product from its range and you have no doubts about it being for the Hindi reader/speaker. A company selling cow piss for consumption leaves little doubt about who it caters to. Guess if Amway can do it for the Christian market, so can they for the Hindu.

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Avner Pariat Written by:

Avner Pariat is a poet and chronicler of Khasi Jaintia Hills.

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