“So What About the Khasi Women?”

If you follow RAIOT, you know that we love Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih. We even managed to publish an extract from his first ‘novel’, when it didn’t even have a title or a publishing plan. Finally, ‘Funeral Nights’, a 1000 pages long journey of discovery into the contemporary Khasi anxieties of identity and history of a ‘rit paid‘, small community, is out and about in the world. Not wanting to be left out, we asked Kynpham for another extract and knowing RAIOT, Kynpham sent us a long ‘controversial’ conversation from the novel about matriliny.

Matriliny, that favourite slow news day story for the riewthor (people from the plains) journalists, lost utopia of the feminists and anxious hand wringing for the local masculinists. If you are a Khasi (Hynñiew Trep people) raised within the matrilineal principle and knowing that you are just one of the two communities (other being Achik/Garo) in India who follow this lineage system, you would be justified in feeling a bit of an ethnographic pressure. Kynpham has himself responded to this pressure in his poetry. Whether his justly famous Blasphemous Lines For Mother or his tragic love poem of Riti and Masudi, Lament of Riti (KA JINGIAM KA RITI), which in its Khasi musical iteration became an uncomfortable and popular anthem of community fear, Kynpham has refused to be a politically correct ‘native informant’. Like U Soso Tham, Kynpham has been an unflinching chronicler of the lives of Khasi people, A proud modernist whose roots lie in the Khasi cultural and religious revival, Kynpham’s hesitant angularity to both the local and beyond these hills, historical consensus makes him, one of the key writers of our times.

So go on, sample one of the tales of ‘Funeral Nights’.

‘Ap is absolutely right,’ Bah Kynsai said. ‘In our Christian families, na, uncles don’t have any religious function any more; that has been taken over by the priests. Sometimes we do feel like useless monoliths.’

Evening laughed aloud at that and said, ‘You see, you see, this system is faltu! You know why I hate it so much? It’s a woman-pampering system! The Khasi woman gets everything: family name, children, wealth and property … everything. And she can do as she pleases. If she wears miniskirts that reveal her bottom, it’s okay. If she wears pants like a boy, it’s okay. If she wears jeans that are so tight that they trace every part of her legs, her pelvis and her arse as if she is not wearing anything, it’s okay. If she cuts her hair like a boy, it’s okay. If she gives it the colours of the rainbow, it’s okay. If she wears ornaments in her nostrils, it’s okay. If she wears a salwar kameez that reveals her navel, it’s okay. I think even if she wears only bras and panties also, it would be okay; nobody would say anything because she’s a woman—’

‘That’s too bloody much, you bloody misogynist!’ Magdalene shouted at him. ‘You know, Evening, you are nothing but a disgusting pig!’

Bah Kynsai tried to calm them down. ‘Cool it, na, cool it! Let’s discuss the issue calmly; we don’t want another scandal, do we? And you too, Ning, temper your language, man!’

‘No, no, Bah Kynsai, what I’m saying is true! We are pampering the women too much. I have a friend who used to be very religious, okay, very regular churchgoer, but now he doesn’t go any more. You know why? This is what he said, “How can I go? In front of me was a girl wearing jeans that exposed the crack between her buttocks all the way to the hole. To my left was a girl wearing a skirt so short that even her panties could be seen; to my right was another whose blouse was so tight that her breasts looked like footballs, and so low that all her cleavage was visible. So, what could I do? How could I concentrate on what the pastor was saying?” That’s why nowadays he doesn’t go to church any more. You see, Bah Kynsai, Khasis will let the woman do whatever she wants—’

‘So what the hell do you want Khasi women to wear, you bloody Talib? Hijabs and burkas?’ Magdalene demanded. 

Donald also protested. ‘You cannot interfere with the way people dress, man! That’s moral policing and a violation of their fundamental rights! If you do that, then what is the difference between you and the various fundamentalist groups in this country that are trying to regulate even the food we eat?’

‘And so damn unfair too, Evening!’ Hamkom chipped in. ‘It’s not only girls who are allowed the freedom to dress how they please, you chauvinist pig! Have you seen the way Khasi men deck themselves up? Have you seen their hairdos? Whatever they see being done on TV, they also do. Why speak of only girls, you loud-mouthed bigot!’

But Evening was not even listening. He said, ‘Khasi women should wear only Khasi clothes—’

‘Then what about Khasi men, huh?’ Magdalene demanded hotly. ‘They also should not wear trousers and coats! They should only wear loincloths and ryndia shawls!’

‘Khasi men used to wear dhotis, shirts, traditional jackets and ryndia silk shawls, not loincloths, you fool!’

‘So wear them, you pig, why are you wearing trousers?’

Before Evening could reply, Raji said, ‘I think Ning is not against modern clothes as such, I think he only wants the girls to dress respectably—’

‘No, no,’ Evening interrupted, ‘Khasi women should wear only Khasi clothes. But that’s not the whole point. Khasi women not only dress as they please, but also behave as they please. If they marry, it’s okay. If they merely cohabit, it’s okay. If they bring a man home at fifteen, it’s okay. If they keep him, it’s okay, and if they don’t, it’s okay. If they marry one man, it’s okay. If they marry one man after another and produce twelve children from twelve different fathers, it’s okay. If they bring home a Khasi, it’s okay. If they bring home a non-tribal scavenger, it’s okay too. And Khasi women can marry anyone they please: white, black, brown, yellow and any other colours in between—’

‘Aren’t Khasi men also free to marry whom they please?’ Magdalene challenged.

Hamkom added, ‘Why all the rules only for women? Why interfere with people’s fundamental rights?’

Ignoring him completely, Evening continued: ‘And because nobody is doing anything about their loose behaviour, non-tribal businessmen are taking advantage of them, turning them into second wives and concubines, over and above their legal wives from their own communities. To them, Khasi women are nothing but trading licences and benami transactions.’

I think I have already told you about this. In Meghalaya, as per the Sixth Schedule, non-tribal communities cannot establish a trading company or set up any business without a trading licence from the District Council. To avoid the taxes and the hassles involved in this, many businessmen are simply marrying or cohabiting with Khasi women, or sometimes, even merely keeping them as mistresses. But, of course, in many cases, marriages between Khasi women and non-tribal men are the result of love and mutual attraction.

Magdalene said as much: ‘Have you done a survey of how many non-Khasi men have married Khasi women? Do you know how many of them married Khasi women for love? Do you know that the most prosperous businessmen, the most brilliant teachers, scholars, officers and scientists in the Khasi community are children of such interracial marriages? Does that sound like mere benami transactions and trading licences to you?’

‘And do you know how many bastards Khasi women have produced because of their loose behaviour?’ Evening countered, just as angrily. ‘According to the 1981 census, there were 27,072 of them in the Khasi-Jaiñtia Hills, but by 2001 the number went up to 324,864, and out of these, 108,288 were from non-tribal fathers. If we do a survey now, I’m sure the number of bastards would go up to ten lakh, and of these, I’m sure those from non-tribal fathers alone would be six lakh at least!’

‘Really! Is that true?’ Bah Kynsai was quite taken aback by the statistics.

‘Unfortunately, it’s true, Bah Kynsai,’ Raji said. ‘The surveys were carried out by SRT. But stop calling them bastards, Ning! You know damn well Khasis don’t have any issues with children born out of wedlock.’

SRT is Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai, an organisation of modern Khasis. It is actively campaigning for the replacement of the matrilineal with the patrilineal system.

‘But why is Evening saying that the number of children from non-tribal fathers would cross six lakh?’ Hamkom challenged.

‘Why?’ Evening asked scornfully. ‘Because of influx, you idiot!’

‘Mind your language, na, lyeit!’ Bah Kynsai snapped.

Evening carried on as if he hadn’t heard the reprimand, ‘And such bastards are mostly born in areas like Shillong, Ri Bhoi, where the national highway is, and in the coal belts of Jaiñtia Hills and West Khasi Hills—’

‘No, no, no, how can you say that these children are the result of the loose behaviour of Khasi women?’ Magdalene interrupted angrily. ‘Have you thought that it’s nothing but the exploitation of their simplicity, innocence and gullibility by both Khasi and non-Khasi men? You are a bloody male chauvinist, Evening! Have you analysed why Khasi women prefer non-tribals to Khasi men, if at all they do? I’ll tell you why, because most Khasi men are drunks and have no sense of responsibility whatsoever! Do you know that about 90 per cent of Khasi men who die young, before forty-five years of age, die because of too much liquor? What do they call such deaths, Ap?’

‘Stabbed by a broken glass!’

Evening snapped back, ‘And do you know why they drink? I’ll tell you why, because of the matrilineal system! They—’

Bah Kit and Bah Su were furious when they heard that. ‘How can you blame our age-old customs for everything?’ Bah Kit retorted. ‘When women dress indecently—by your standards—you blame the matrilineal custom! When men drink too much, you blame the matrilineal custom! Now I know your secret agenda, Evening, all you want to do is wreck our culture completely!’

Bah Su added, ‘You cannot say that, Ning, how can you? Who has done a proper study of the causes of alcoholism? Nobody! I know you want to turn our society into a patriarchal system, ha, but don’t speak out of hatred and prejudice; speak with reason.’

Evening did not deny that his agenda was the restructuring of Khasi society. He said, ‘Of course I want to replace the matrilineal with the patrilineal system! That’s why I have taken my father’s surname! I hate this matrilineal thing! It’s undermining our menfolk completely! Why shouldn’t our men become drunks, tell me? They are getting nothing. As Ap said, even in their own homes, they are made to feel like strangers, people who don’t belong, “who will go to a woman’s house”. And—’

‘But that’s exactly what your system will do to us women, you bloody misogynist!’ Magdalene shouted.

‘And that’s not the system, Ning,’ I said. ‘That’s the corruption in the system. In the past, because the uncles had the ultimate control over both religious and temporal affairs as far as clan matters were concerned, they also had a tremendous sense of belonging to the family, and, certainly, a tremendous sense of responsibility towards their maternal relations. Whenever they visited their ancestral home, they were treated with the love and respect due to the most important persons in the clan. Now, of course, because of our ignorance and mistaken beliefs, everything has changed, everything has been corrupted.’

‘Exactly!’ Evening declared. ‘Everything has been corrupted. The man does not get anything from his own family. Nor does he have any say in any of the family affairs, religious or otherwise, as we have seen. Family businesses are never given to sons, or only rarely. And why? Because their own families do not trust them! I have personally heard people say that if they let a son run the family’s business, ha, he might take it all away to his wife. This is the truth, nobody can deny it. So how will the society prosper? Haven’t you noticed? Because Khasis do not trust even their own sons, their businesses do not survive for more than one generation!

‘And then, when Khasi men marry, what do they get out of wedlock, huh? Nothing! Their children are not their own! They cannot even identify with them. For instance, if your son gets an award, ha, Bah Kynsai, and if his name is mentioned in the papers, ha, who would know he’s your son, huh? He doesn’t carry your name! Nobody would ever connect him with you. Now that you are alive, perhaps some people will refer to your house as Bah Kynsai’s! But the moment you die, okay, they will say, oh, this is Kong Nancy’s house! And that, after you have spent your entire life building it. Phooey, what a system! When a Khasi man dies, ha, no trace is left of him anywhere, have you thought of that? Not in his children, because they don’t bear his name, and not in his house because his wife’s clan will immediately claim ownership. The only thing that will remain is the nameplate on a tombstone. But in the case of Bah Kit or Bah Su, ha, they will not even get a tombstone because they will be cremated, and everything they stand for will turn to smoke!

Memorial for father, Mawkynrew, East Khasi Hills

‘I ask you, is that any incentive for a man to live a responsible life? If his wife knows how to respect him, and if his children love him, he may work hard for their sake. But if they treat him like an outsider in his own house, ha, which Khasi women and their families normally do, ha, then he will either leave or drink and say, why the hell should I slave for somebody else’s children? They are not of my clan, so why should I waste my life slaving for them? Thomas Laird and Paul Andrews were right when they wrote “Where Women Rule and Men Are Used as Breeding Bulls”. We are not only breeding bulls; we are also our wives’ beasts of burden! If we want our society to progress, we must change this system! If we want to stop the exploitation of our women, we must change this system! If we want men to stop drinking themselves to death, we must change this system!’ 

Bah Kit and Bah Su were seething with rage. But it was Magdalene who spoke first. ‘You know what, Bah Kit, recently a friend of mine read something to me from a book by Apol Mawñiuh, okay? The book is filled with the most extraordinary hate speech I have ever come across, ranting against women and the matrilineal system, as if they are the cause of every evil in Khasi society. Evening is speaking exactly like that fellow!’

‘Why shouldn’t I speak like Apol? His book inspires me—’

‘Inspires you with a load of dog shit!’ Bah Kit snapped back angrily. ‘How can you be influenced by stray visitors who come here and say crazy things like “Where Women Rule and Men Are Used as Breeding Bulls”, huh? Where did they say that, Bah Kynsai? Yeah, yeah, in an Australian magazine. Are Khasi men nothing but “breeding bulls”, Evening? How can you be influenced by madmen such as these? Are you a breeding bull? Are you a mere beast of burden toiling for your wife? You make it sound as if your wife is a slave master, whereas, in all probability, she must be making herself small as a mouse before you! How else could she live with a tyrant like you? And just because your children do not carry your name, are they not your flesh and blood? Do they not carry your genes?

‘Tell me, when you work as hard as you are doing, is it because your wife has forced you? Look into your soul, man! Can any woman force a man like you to do anything against your will? When a man struggles and gives his best to succeed in life, it is because of his own drives, his own dreams and ambitions, not because he’s slaving for his wife or anybody else. That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard! A man works hard as much for himself as for his family, for his wife and children. They are the flesh of his flesh, the blood of his blood. What does the name matter?

‘And no Khasi man is a mere breeding bull. You know why? I’ll tell you. While it is true that most of the ancestral wealth and property are given to women to look after—not to own, mind you—it is not because Khasis hate their sons. Khasi laws were made by men, and when they made these laws, they wanted to protect the interests of the weaker sex. I think that is the most generous thing Khasi men could have done for their society, the most humane thing I can think of. Our ancestors deserve praise for it, not anger or resentment! And they did not deprive us of anything either. A Khasi man was the master in war and peace. He was the provider and the master in his family, and the controller of ancestral wealth and property in his clan. He—’

‘That was in the past; now, he is nothing!’ Evening retorted. ‘Bah Kynsai, do you remember the story of that guy in Laitumkhrah? Because his only sister had abandoned their mother and followed her non-tribal husband to Mumbai, ha, he and his family had to stay in the ancestral house to look after her, remember? He took care of her for many years, but when she died, his sister came, and like a whirlwind, she sold off the house within a week of the funeral. And what happened to the poor guy? He had to look for a rented house in a hurry—that’s your damn matrilineal system!’

‘But was that the fault of the custom, Evening?’ Bah Kit asked. ‘The mother could have made a will in the son’s name, and he would have—’

‘Of course it was! Even though her son had taken care of her, the mother did not give him the house because she was following the custom!’

‘No, no, no, in such cases, the custom is very flexible, you dumb fool!’ Bah Kit said indignantly. ‘Mothers are free to give their houses to whomever they please. If that particular mother did not leave the house to her son, it could have been because of very personal reasons. Maybe she didn’t like her son’s wife and children? Maybe they only took care of her out of a sense of duty, resentfully, without any love? You never know!

‘But let me get back to the point: why did you say a man is now nothing? Are you nothing, then? In the past, the Khasi man was not tasked with looking after his family’s ancestral wealth and property because of the constant wars and also because he was considered a khatar bor, a person with twelve powers, the stronger member of the family. He could make his own way in life and create his own wealth. And all of us here are very proud that we have bought properties on our own, created our own wealth. And thanks to the education and skills our families made it possible for us to get, we have made our lives prosperous. Our families are thriving because of our hard work. We are not living with our wives’ families. We have our own homes. This is a matter of great pride for us. Khasi men, far from being their wives’ servants and mere breeding bulls, are self-made men. Shame on you for not being proud of that! Shame on you for being led by the nose by the likes of Laird and Andrews and Ghosal!

Youngest daughter

‘And when we make our own wealth and build houses, these are not in our wives’ names—unless yours is? They are ours, registered in our names. We can give our self-earned wealth to anyone we wish. Our custom may say that ancestral wealth should go to women for safekeeping, but it does not tell us what to do with our own wealth. We can give it to our wives and children, daughters or sons, but we can even give it to our nieces and nephews, or charity if we so wish! You cannot even think for yourself; you have to be told what you are by strays and fly-by-night operators! Breeding bulls indeed! What does a breeding bull do? He breeds with one cow after another. How many of us Khasi men behave in such a manner? Think before you speak, man!’

Raji added, ‘You know, Ning, if we think there’s a problem with the system, okay, we should not think in terms of rejecting it, because that’s impossible. We should rather think in terms of reforming and modifying it.’

…….

Evening said, ‘I don’t agree with it at all. I want patriliny. And I also want any woman who marries a non-Khasi not only to be ostracised but also to lose her clan name and her status as a Scheduled Tribe!’

‘My God, listen to this guy!’ Magdalene exclaimed, frustrated.

‘And what if a Khasi man marries a non-Khasi woman?’ Bah Kynsai asked. 

‘That’s simple,’ Evening said, ‘we continue to do what we have been doing: sanctify a new surname.’

‘And according to you, the children of a non-Khasi mother are more Khasi than the children of a Khasi mother, liah?’ Bah Kynsai demanded. ‘And that too, when we are following the matrilineal system?’

‘In the past, Khasi women did not marry outside the tribe,’ Evening argued.

‘What do you know of our history or culture, ha, when you have already thrown them away?’ Bah Kit challenged. ‘Do you know that old Khasis used to have a practice called tan kongngor?’

Evening said nothing. 

‘But that is only done in the case of the Syiem clans, na?’ Bah Kynsai asked.

‘No, Bah Kynsai. It was also a practice of forcing a non-Khasi woman to marry a Khasi man or a non-Khasi man to marry a Khasi woman. When a Khasi woman could not find a Khasi husband, ha, and when the clan was worried that the woman might not have children to continue the line, ha, they would go down to the plains to catch hold of a likely man and bring him back to marry her. But most people don’t know about it because no new surname ever came into being from such an alliance. Why? Because the mother was Khasi, no? So don’t ever say that Khasi women did not marry outside the tribe in the past, Evening! You know nothing about our past. And I, for one, like Bah Kynsai, will never accept that the children of a non-Khasi mother are more Khasi than those of a Khasi mother, just because a new surname has been sanctified for her!’

‘This Ning is crazy, na?’ Bah Kynsai added in a disgusted tone.

‘Why?’ Evening asked belligerently.

‘Why? Have you thought about what your proposal would do to our small tribe, liah? If we ostracise Khasi women who marry non-Khasi men, do you think that will stop anyone from marrying outside her community? It won’t. When people fall in love, they will marry if they want to. Your own daughter might end up marrying a non-Khasi man, then what will you do, huh? Ostracise her? We’ll just grow smaller and smaller by the day, man! Right now, we are like a mouse in the jungle of India, but soon we’ll be like a flea, and people will have to use a microscope to see us. Think before you speak, na, tdir!’

‘But some village dorbars have already implemented this thing, Bah Kynsai, you know that, no?’ Raji asked.

‘That’s because they are run by myopic, ignorant, narrow-minded and bigoted men like this fellow here, na?’ 

‘And who know nothing about our past!’ Bah Kit added.

‘Or our present, Bah Kit,’ Raji put in. ‘For instance, okay, what happens to women who are victimised by non-Khasi men and are left with bastards, huh? If they lose their status as a Khasi woman and a Scheduled Tribe, what will happen to them? How will they live? Non-Khasis who marry Khasi women are not as bad as those who merely cohabit with them, or those who merely keep them as mistresses, as you yourself said, Ning. Don’t you see that? What will you do about them, huh? 

‘And one more thing, okay, you must also define who a Khasi is. All of us, apart from Ham, know that Khasi means Khynriam, U Pnar, U Bhoi, U War, U Maram, U Lyngngam, U Diko, isn’t that so? Okay. But according to the state’s official list of tribes, Pnars (because we are so unbelievably ignorant about ourselves) have been listed as Jaiñtias or non-Khasis. So, what does that mean? It means that if a Pnar, who is one of us, marries a woman from any of the other sub-tribes, that woman will also lose her status as a Khasi. Do you see how dangerous and divisive this kind of talk is?’

‘This is too bloody much, ya!’ Magdalene cried in impotent rage. ‘Supposing I, a full-blooded Khasi, marry a non-Khasi man, okay, should that be any reason to ostracise me and say that I’m no longer of the Syiem clan? Bullshit! I would challenge that kind of bigotry in a court of law, and I would ask all Khasi women to rise and fight against this Talibanisation! It is Talibanisation, nothing less!’

‘Yeah, yeah, Mag, quite right, quite right!’ Donald supported her.

‘Say what you will,’ Evening persisted, ‘but if we don’t tame the Khasi woman and turn to patriliny, our society will one day implode!’

‘Tame the Khasi woman, he says!’ Magdalene shouted. ‘Is she a wild animal that she has to be tamed?’

‘Many of my friends would say she is worse!’ Evening replied.

At that unwarranted statement, all the men in the room spat at Evening and said he had gone too far. Some, like Hamkom and Donald, were for making him physically eat his words. But Bah Kynsai and I calmed them down.

Finally, Bah Kynsai said, ‘At this rate, we’ll never get anywhere, man. But the good thing, na, is that most of us agree that we have to stick with the matrilineal system, although we need to revitalise it.’

A wedding in Jaintia Hills

‘There’s only one thing that men who want to adopt patriliny, or patriarchy, can do,’ I said. 

Evening looked at me with renewed hope. 

‘They should marry non-Khasi women, but when they sanctify a new surname, the surname should not only be for the non-Khasi woman but the Khasi man as well. For example, if you are a Nongkynrih and you marry a non-Khasi woman, the new surname should be …’

‘Kharnong,’ Bah Kynsai said, laughing.

‘No, no, no!’ I also laughed. ‘It should simply be Nong, and it should belong to both the Khasi man and the non-Khasi woman, so that they can write their names as Mr and Mrs Nong. Their children can also be Nongs, and there will be no risk of incestuous relationships with anyone since the mother is a non-Khasi. Additionally, to prevent such relationships, the Nongs should have an alliance with the Nongkynrihs. And the new clan so created can adopt patriliny as a way of life.’

‘Hahaha, this goddamn Ap, sala!’ Bah Kynsai burst into booming laughter.

Evening said, ‘Hey, I don’t think that’s a joke, ha! I think it will really work, ya! It will; it will! And if nobody will sanctify it, we can simply opt for an affidavit in a court of law. Perfect, Ap!’

‘The only problem is, we’ll eventually end up with two kinds of Khasis,’ I said, ‘matrilineal and patrilineal Khasis—’

‘But that’s happening now also, no?’ Evening replied, his enthusiasm not a bit dampened. ‘I think we’ll do that, leh, Ap, I’ll suggest it to my friends.’

‘But it’s too late for you. You have already married a Khasi woman,’ I told him. ‘On the other hand, I, being single—’

Everybody laughed at that, and with the laughter came relief that everything had ended amicably despite the acrimonious exchanges…

Raiot

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Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih is one the most important contemporary writers from Meghalaya. He writes poems, short fiction and drama in Khasi and English. He has a total of 13 publications in Khasi. His collections of poetry in English include "Moments", "The Sieve" (Writers Workshop), "The Yearning of Seeds" and Time's Barter: Haiku and Senryu" (HarperCollins). He is the author of "Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends" (Penguin) and the co-editor of "Dancing Earth: An Anthology of Poetry from North-East India" (Penguin). His poetry has been widely published in national and international journals. His awards include the first Veer Shankar Shah-Raghunath Shah National Award for literature (Madhya Pradesh, 2008) and the first North-East Poetry Award (Tripura, 2004). He also received a Fellowship for Outstanding Artists from the Government of India (2000). Kynpham teaches literature at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India.

One Comment

  1. Robert
    August 15, 2021
    Reply

    Brilliant…..

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