By Meda Marwein
“When you hear your forefathers whisper the tales of yore
Do you dare listen?
When the song calls you home
Do you go to it and sing the last verse?
When it is time to unearth dead lore
Will your tongue pass on the deep intricate
ancient yarn that history books forgot to draw?”
Thus echoed the words of Meirad Haphisha as she slowly wraps the checkered shawl around her neck. It’s been 10 years since she last shared stories of a world, we rarely stepped foot on – of khana puriskam (fairytales) that seemed too incredible to be believed.
She looks younger than her age which is in the 70’s. Wearing a betel nut-stained smile, she puts the soot-covered kettle on the hearth and hums a familiar bedtime tune:
En noh paila jong nga
Ba dohnud ka pang,
Haba phi iam ma phi
Nga jaw ummat lang.
(Hush, my precious, stop your crying
For my heart also hurts,
Whenever I see you cry
Tears also fall from my eyes.)
Meirad lives with her seven children and 23 grandchildren in a two-storied house in Tynring, a few minutes away from Mawdiangdiang. She slowly pours tea in daisy-painted white cups and shares with The Meghalayan her origins – where she came from and what brought her all the way to New Shillong.
Her family was originally from Shyrwang, a hamlet that lies between Bynther and Kynshi, villages belonging to the newly inducted Eastern West Khasi Hills (EWKH) District. From modernisation, independence, and syiemships to the Khatsawphra kingdom and old ancient lore of Lum Kyllang and other beings, she lays bare the skeletons of people tucked away in the ‘not-so-exhaustively-known hills’, causing one to venture out into these lands without hesitation.
Two hours from the city, is a cluster of villages. Its greenery slowly recedes, making way for dusty four-lane roads and long lines of lifeless white-coloured dhabas we can’t ignore. People know these rural spaces as winding roads leading to Garo Hills or to some tourist spot. Unknowingly, an Instagram friend had gone to this part of the state where lie buried old songs of giants, magical creatures and deities we rarely speak of or have somewhat forgotten, lost in the ravages of time.
Mairang, the capital of EWKH, reeks of a rich historical legacy from being Hima Nongkhlaw’s headquarters to producing greats like the (L) Mavis Dunn Mawlong. Despite being a serene beautiful town, it has a secret of its own. Bah Ro Marbaniang, who hails from Law-ing, a few kilometres away from Mairang, speaks of the rich clans residing here that used to worship an otherworldly deity, U Thlen, which could grant them gifts in exchange for blood sacrifices.
Atop a hill in Bynther, is 88-year-old Ma Kor Nongsiej’s tin-roofed house. He lives with his two married daughters and his grandchildren. Ma Kor spends most of his time in the kitchen where the hearth burns brighter and he can read his Pateng Khristan newsletter studiously. When he is not immersed in reading, he sits with his grandchildren and tells them stories of his ancestors and the beginning of time itself.
On his agenda, was the story of a magical boulder.
From his house, one could see the alluring beauty of Nongbah Bynther valley. The scene was reminiscent of a romantic secluded picture of The Solitary Reaper painted by William Wordsworth. One could not help but hum to (L) Skendrowell Syiemlieh’s A Moina, one of Meghalaya’s influential and leading folk artistes, who lived in this region. Suffice to say he brought Bynther on the map.
“The (Late) Skendrowell Syiemlieh lived across the river,” Ma Kor said proudly as he sings the well-known A Moina song, adding, “His kids still sing too, you know.”
Coming back to the present, he says, “Where was I again? Oh yes, the rock that split in two. It was a long time back; I was a young energetic lad then. There was this big boulder here on top of a hill just next to Wah Kynshi. A mild earthquake jolted the place. Miraculously, this boulder split in half. One half stayed in place while the other rolled down the hill and fell into the water.
After a few days, crocodiles emerged out of the water and scared away the women washing clothes on the river bank. The fishes were all eaten up by these big monsters. They disappeared into thin air all of a sudden. I tell you it was the puri (water fairies) pulling their dirty tricks on us but if we go around telling all these things to the adolescent people now, they’d shrug us off and call us mad!”
Ma Kor’s grandchildren sat next to him in mura (small little round seats). Even with the fireplace smoke tearing their eyes up, they asked him to tell them another story.
He cheerily accepted this and spoke of a shapeshifter that his great-great-grandfather encountered while journeying from Bynther to Mawngap. Shapeshifters are quite famous in Khasi lore. The most famous of them is the Thlen.
While the Thlen is a demonic serpent, this particular shapeshifter is called the Burwa, said to be a man who turns into a wolf at night and devours people. Strangely enough, its weakness is ‘slake lime’. In an attempt to protect himself, Ma Kor’s great-great-grandfather threw whatever he could – the last item being the slake lime he was supposed to sell at the Mawngap market – it burned the eyes of the creature that ran away in pain and anguish and never returned.
“But we never knew who the person was. He could have been a neighbour or from another neighbouring village. He must have been cursed or made a deal with the devil… that kind of thing,” he scoffed.
Ten to eleven kilometres away from Bynther sits the ever-busy Kynshi village known for the Mawthadraishan range, the highest in the district, along with the Rupa water distillery factory and the river Kynshi, itself widely loved by kayakers and those looking for an adrenaline rush.
A quarter of the village would usually get submerged in water during the monsoon but come summer and the paddy fields would colour themselves green, with goats bleating heartily and market days smelling of delicious boiled white and green peas, including the ever-famous cooked ground beef. Despite being a lively place, Kynshi is also steeped in lores of the old – the most intriguing being the lore of the water serpent that Meirad ruminates while boiling her tea back in Tynring.
She recalled, “A few years before World War II, the water serpent would haunt the old bridge leading to Nongstoin and Mariaw when the rains came. It carefully covered the bridge with the water from Kynshi river, forcing weary travellers to make unwanted stops. Every villager had a story to tell of the water serpent that used to inhabit the river. It had to take a life or as many lives, as it could swallow before it stopped flooding the bridge and parts of the village.”
Spirits loiter around the bridge and paddy field, scaring villagers and travellers alike to the brink of no return. Meirad remembers she lost an uncle once to the flood. It was devastating for the family because he was the only boy among her mother’s siblings. He wanted to disprove the existence of the water serpent. Little did he know that he would go straight to its lair. The water swallowed him – his body was found floating in a nearby pond the next day.
“It was the sahep’s (white man) fault for building bridges and encroaching upon the spirits’ realm. While we lost countless lives to its wrath, the sahep lost none,” Meirad nervously spoke.
“But we never hear about the water serpent anymore. It was probably in the 2000s when the government announced the construction of a four-lane road. They brought dynamites and blew up the bridge and its adjoining area; the water serpent was frightened of the noise, and swam away into the deeper parts of the river, never to return.”
The water serpent’s disappearance is poetic and even ironic as it parallels the dying hearth that birthed songs and lores of the ancient world, and once infested this place. Modernisation crept in the chinks beneath wooden houses and forever obstructed the whispers of water fairies and echoing footsteps of mischievous little elves.
Urbanisation envelopes these spaces and an alien foreign culture slowly slides into everyday life. The question then arises: how can we carry stories that made us who we are today, into the future?
The hearth has no place in concrete buildings and as green landscapes grow scarcer, magic loses its sheen and the mystery fades into oblivion. The world as we know it silently falls into a slumber, leaving behind a handful of people who knew not how to pass on remnants of decaying oral stories.
Kyllang’s cries grow quieter as the ancient lore that kept him alive gets replaced by a signboard written “Way to Kyllang”, paying least attention to his origins. Instead of searching for lore behind tourist spots; we search for signboards now. The river has gone dry, with all the fishes gone. That said, within these rural settings still walks a group of grey-haired bards that speak of yore.