Early in the morning on 20 February 2021, my dear friend Prof. Aurelius Kyrham “Graham” Nongkynrih lost his spirited and dignified battle against cancer. He passed away in Bethany Hospital in Shillong, where he had been undergoing diagnosis and palliative care since the first week of February 2021.
Kyrham was a professor of sociology at my alma mater, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). The department was his second home. He had joined it as a young student in the 1980s, learning the mysteries, myths and methods of the discipline from an array of energetic scholars like Virginius Xaxa, M.N. Karna, A.C. Sinha, Nikhilesh Kumar and others. For him, the department epitomised cosmopolitanism and the free exchange of ideas among equals. He was enthusiastic about every pedagogic aspect that it undertook, first while it was located in the Nongthymmai campus and then when it moved to Umshing Mawkynroh where NEHU is currently located. The department reciprocated this affection and respect, awarding him with a PhD in 1990 and then inducting him as a member of the faculty soon after.
At NEHU, Kyrham was the quintessential colleague to his peers and mentor to generations of young people who graduated from the classrooms of the department. I fell in the awkward gap between the two, technically neither a colleague nor quite his student but it did not stop him from showering me with as much affection as he showered on his loving family. He welcomed me to his cosy home in Cleve Colony, as I joined mutual friends in stumbling in announced to his house at odd hours of the night in search of food, conversation and a warm bed on those cold Shillong winters. “Have you eaten?” he would ask me in Khasi, as he opened the door in exasperation. He always made it a point to speak a few sentences in Khasi, as if to remind me that I should have been more committed to the language that nurtured me in my childhood.
There were several reasons for doing so. I reconnected with him in the end of the 1990s, when the city of Shillong – indeed the entire region – was witness to all manner of identity based political mobilisation from below and brutal state repression from above. I would often coax him into asserting his voice in civil and political rights debates in the region. He always listened patiently and engaged with my pleas, agreeing in principle and differing when needed. His enduring passion and commitment were to grassroots development in the rural areas of Meghalaya. He never let me forget for a moment that he had huge responsibilities that he took very seriously. There was an extended kin group in Sohra and Shillong, who looked up to him as a mentor, guide and friend. He was constantly looking out for people who were trying to find a foothold in the chaotic business of life in Shillong. One was struck by the fact that everyone around him, those tending his kitchen garden, the person bringing over some lettuce to his house, the young man checking under the hood of the taxi parked outside his NEHU office, all were dear to him. He knew their stories and had at some point in their lives, supported them however he was able. His scale of political commitment was both intimate and much wider than anything I have been able to muster up in my time.
It was this sense of accountability to his family, village and region that anchored his life. He was always the sensible person exercising moderation at bacchanalian get togethers, even when some were forcibly being organised in his house. Kyrham had the disposition of a good, kindly parish priest who understood the difficulties that his parishioners, especially the troubled youth, were going through. Perhaps it had to do with his long association with the Catholic Church and their welfare work in and around the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills of Meghalaya. He worked closely with Church functionaries, making sure that those at the helm understood the importance of social dynamics in rural Meghalaya. He was close to the Archbishop Dominic Jala, whose untimely death in 2019 affected him a lot.
Kyrham was deeply conscious about his role as a public intellectual. He did not write as much as one would have wanted him to. Instead, he got involved with developmental agencies and the government whenever they made attempts to intervene in community work. This endeared him to a lot of the INGO and NGO donors, who found his candid observations and advice very useful in their work on the ground. Once, on a cold day in his office, I asked him about the long, arduous hours he spent with the developmental agencies and donors. I wanted to know if this kept him away from academic research work, as I had just transitioned into a teaching job myself and was finding it hard to juggle my other, more meaningful commitments outside academia. He chuckled conspiratorially as he opened out the packets of spicy jadoh, smoked beef and tungtap that he had – in typical Kyrham fashion – sourced from a nondescript hole-in-the-wall kitchen run by someone he knew in Mawlai.
“This is research”, he said, much to my bewilderment. “I draw from my classroom lectures when explaining to the development agencies and learn from the village when I visit”, he continued. As we ate, I learned more about how he was constantly being surprised by every visit to the places that he thought he was an expert on. Like a curious child, he laid out the intricate details of his village census – of the numbers of youth who were dropping out and migrating, of the growing numbers of landless people, of the debilitating poverty forced upon those who were ill and had no access to healthcare – to remind me that experts knew very little. “The development agencies are only going to plug a small leak in a big crack”, he explained.
It was this kind of observation that made him an irrepressible public sociologist. He was constantly making sense of the transformation of the world around him. In 2009, following my mother’s death, he came to spend a day with me in Guwahati to make sure that I was doing alright. That evening, he kept asking me about Akhil Gogoi and was unconvinced by my lack of enthusiasm for relentless, shape-shifting political mobilisation of the kind that Gogoi was becoming known for. He insisted that Akhil was the prototype for a new left-wing populism. I still recall his profound analysis that my own preference for a Leninist one-step-forward-two-steps-back type of mobilisation belonged to the past, especially since the future of work was so uncertain. Indeed, as I reflect on the various twists and turns of popular movements and political mobilisation in Assam in the last decade, I am struck by his early observations about the constantly shifting horizons for rural people from the Northeast. Young women and men could be peasants, caregivers and remittance sending migrants within the span of a year. Hence, to expect them to exercise patient determination to steadfastly hold on to a stated line of the kind one was used to in the 1980s and 1990s, showed a lack of understanding of contemporary realities for people like me.
In his passing, I have lost a teacher, a dear friend and elder brother was wise, kind and so impossibly elegant in his demeanour. His family has lost an important elder and pillar of support for many. At NEHU, students, staff and faculty have lost their beloved teacher and colleague. Our discipline has lost one of its brightest practitioners, who cared more about understanding and changing the world than interpreting it in a half-hearted manner for academic journals. Our region, Meghalaya in particular, has lost a devoted public intellectual who was committed to development, social justice and protection of indigenous rights and resources for the collective. What all of us will miss most, is a person who carried others along with him on his wondrous journey of discovery of the world.
Leit suk, Bah. Go well, and we will meet on the other side.