On the borders of identities

Armoured with a notebook, a lousy phone camera and a few overnight clothes, I nervously left Shillong alone and drove down to Topatoli in the Nagaon District of Assam, in order to re-enter Meghalaya from Raid Nongkhap,which spreads from Ri Bhoi District into Assam. I left with a thirst for narratives, of people, of nature, of existence in this space whose identity as a periphery was intensified and galvanized in the 1970s, post the formation of the Meghalaya statehood. This was when the river Umsiang was identified as a natural boundary between Assam and Meghalaya and when cultures in the region were starting to fracture, at least on paper.
It was on the bridge over the border river that I met Wonderful Muktieh.
Bah Wonderful spoke to me in Khasi and said that he was once a Tiwa but has now become Khasi. I was curious; how does one “become Khasi” over time? Seeing my slight confusion, Bah Wonderful went on to elaborate that his family had adopted the “Muktieh” Bhoi-Khasi clan name because the Tiwas were and are a neglected community in both the present states of Assam and Meghalaya. For him, taking on another tribal identity simply meant getting access to the Scheduled Tribe status in Meghalaya and hence the hope for some minuscule idea of survival in this small, yet diverse landscape of previously harmoniously co-existing tribes who are now forced into subtle competition through state governments dependency. Along with hospitals, schools and electricity came this embracing of new identities and rejection of old ones, all developing under the supposed benevolent presence of modern statehood. However, the extent to which affirmative action has helped the now Khasi and previously Tiwa people, is a question that remains to be answered.
This is Robert Lymphui- a Tiwa who remains Tiwa and lives in Jagi Road, Assam. He came down with me from Shillong since he had attended the Shad Nongkrem festival the previous day. Bah Robert told me that he would go to the festival every year to pay respects to the Syiem (Chief) of Hima Khyrim and that Tiwas, even the ones living in present-day Assam, would go gifting the Chief with a black goat for sacrifice because the areas which they inhabit still fall under the jurisdiction of the historical Hima Khyrim, even though it is now technically in Assam. As we stopped for tea, Bah Robert mentioned that he is a BJP worker and that he was hopeful about the possibilities under the Modi government. I dug more into his faith in Modi and discovered that for him, like many others, the BJP doesn’t represent totalitarian and communal politics but a refreshing vision of a future marked by “development”- development simply understood as an improvement of living conditions in places where schools didn’t go beyond the eighth standard.
The two women here are from Umtrai village and they were getting ready to go to Assam to exchange goods with a few households. The old tradition of barter survives even now and it is usually women who go down to the plains, packed with yam, pumpkin, sesame, bamboo-shoot, chillies and a few wild vegetables and bring back dry-fish, shira, onions and garlic. In times of demonetization, this seems extremely useful.
Bah Bilin Khwait was my host, who generously gave me a bed and lovely Bhoi meals of yam leaf and jajew. He is a school teacher who started the Sakhit Secondary School at Umtrai Village. Bah Bilin was the supplier of stories for me throughout my stay; I learnt so many tales of rivers and mountains and about the complex dynamics of local politics in the region. Of the many that I want to share is this anecdote of his trip to the government hospital there- a trip specifically made to irk one doctor from Shillong who had a reputation of elitism. Word went around about how this particular doctor would mistreat patients and would not even touch and examine them properly for fear of their “bad hygiene.” Bah Bilin went to the hospital pretending to be a mentally-ill person who had a severe leg ache. Through a series of mad utterances in that half hour, Bah Bilin drove her to such an annoyance that she resigned the next day and left the place forever. Soon, the village was given a new doctor, who, if not a complete samaritan, would at least diagnose patients properly. Subversion amongst madness and (un)civilization indeed.
My journey back to Shillong started with an auto ride to the village market, from where I hitched a ride from the few cars coming from Assam. After I found one almost packed and hence ready-to-leave Maruti Van, I entered and sat on the back seat. These are not official taxis but private cars who would take people into Assam at 50 bucks. Next to me were two Assamese men, Rajiv and Ali. They first spoke to me in Hindi and later asked if I knew Khasi. They apologized for not knowing the Sohra Khasi dialect well (the dialect I speak) but explained that they were both very fluent in the Bhoi dialect. Rajiv was an old man with a torn shirt and pants, who was shocked to discover that I hadn’t “taken a husband” (direct translation from the Khasi which he used) at 27. He asked if I ate beef and proudly admitted that he was Muslim himself. He had been coming every month to the Umtrai weekly market for the past thirty years to buy some Bhoi vegetables. Ali was also Muslim and came to Umtrai to sell his cow for beef. In front of us were two Bodo women who also came to Umtrai to sell dry-fish and a Karbi woman who was doing her weekly marketing. The driver was an Assamese Hindu. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a picture of any of these people because there was no room for movement in the car and I was uncomfortable with an outright objectification of them through the camera. The little white van crossed the border, packed with this group of diverse people, amongst whom, I, a Jaintia-Khasi woman was cushioned amidst heat, life, identities and togetherness.


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Gertrude Lamare Written by:

Gertrude Lamare, scholar, pedagogue and a member of Thma U Rangli Juki (TUR),

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