By Sainkupar Syngkli
Most of us know William Shakespeare’s celebrated romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, but have you heard of the love story between a man and a supernatural being?
One may not find this in novels, but in Ri Bhoi this is a belief and often, a reality. Meet the Thapbalong, an otherworldly creature, who takes the form of a woman.
Syrling, an elder in the district, is writing a book about her. He said, “Thapbalong looks like a woman with long hair that’s white in colour. She inhabits big banyan trees and always holds a baby. She can show two different faces – a lovely and an angry one. The lovely face is reserved for a man she falls in love with while the angry face is revealed to a man who disturbs the sleep of her baby in drunken stupor.”
The term, “Thapbalong Kyiad”, describes an individual with an alcohol dependence problem, leading to chaos in society where people get hurt. In the modern context, the angry face of Thapbalong is alluded to alcohol that controls human behaviour.
The supernatural entity possesses certain fascinating characteristics. To attract her man, she sings a lullaby while trying to make her baby sleep. So powerful is the effect that only the man she loves can hear her voice. Other people hear nothing. If mutual, her voice gets closer with every step he takes, believed to be a sign that he might fall in love with her.
Can one equate her with the tragic Medusa of Greek mythos? The elder said, “Thapbalong is like Medusa, who was a beautiful woman once. It was destroyed by a curse and her hair transformed into a head full of snakes.”
One man spoke about the experience of being in her world. “People may see me as a fool, but I’m happy with her. She meets me in my dreams, and is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. That said, she is prone to quick anger for simple reasons. My family has tried to release me from her grip. Since then, there has been no contact between us.”
He recalled the first time he met her through her voice and hair, which he noticed. There she was on a big banyan tree while he was on his way home from his paddy field. For curious onlookers, what transpired next was hardly surprising. Later, they told him that he ran through the tree and bushes. He doesn’t believe them because he found himself walking in a street full of gold.
In cases where the love story is a success, how does it unfold?
Syrling highlighted, “The man will live in a dream world, resembling a drug addict. Given the trance-like effect, he won’t understand the normal world. They look like fools.”
Interestingly, the elder used the word, ‘custody’ to describe her influence. Thapbalong is a persistent lover, using her power to keep her man hostage until he accepts her proposal of marriage. Men have (supposedly) died while fighting in the dream world.
For the people of Ri Bhoi, she is not just ‘make-believe’; so real is she that cases of paranormal deaths have been reported time and again. Many people have witnessed this before, with few cases in present times as well.
The horror literary canon contains similar figures – usually women forced to relive a tragic love affair or an unhappy marriage with devastating consequences – causing them to wander in an ‘in-between’ space, and on a relentless quest to find happiness, stuck on a loop. What, perhaps, unites them is their trait of not settling for less.
This likeness is observed in the Thapbalong as well. They prefer a particular type of banyan tree, known as Ri-Oh in the local language. Its scientific name is Ficus Benghalensis.
In the words of a farmer who refused to divulge his identity, “If you have this particular banyan tree near your house or a hut in a paddy field, you’ll hear her fabled lullaby. If you try to find the source of the sound, it will automatically try to come closer to you… the classic trap. Call it Thapbalong custody or love story, those under her spell can be freed through certain rituals that must be performed by the priest of the Raid or Hima. Unfortunately, very few people know the exact method of these rituals now.”
A dark humour permeates in his next words. “This might be the reason behind the increased disappearance of the banyan tree here. Most of them have been cut down in Ri Bhoi.”
Curiously, the belief that she has a good and bad face represents a certain dualism – she rewards people who are good and punishes people who commit terrible wrongs. Also peace-loving in nature, she traps people who disturb her, and it is only with divine intervention that death can be prevented.
Syrling shared the story about a man who was taken into the dream world by the Thapbalong. He went on a hunting trip when he heard a woman singing a lullaby. Unaware of her supernatural aura, the man sought its source and was eventually captured by her. He came out of the woods like a normal human being but she came in his dreams every night, seeking his hand in marriage. He accepted and went missing, only to return after a decade. The story doesn’t end there.
“He came back from nowhere and in a matter of few months, vanished again. He is yet to return. We believe that if a man cannot release himself from this ghostly love, he will disappear in an unknown land with his lover,” the elder pointed out.
In the modern context, however, how has her story evolved?
Syrling said, “Thapbalong is a spirit of Mother Nature who wants to connect with a human. Whether fact or a myth, this is universal; it doesn’t matter how we name this supernatural being. What remains true is the desire to stay connected with us. If you ask me, there is a message here… to preserve and maintain nature’s beauty. We may never know why the Thapbalong wants to marry a human or her peculiar way of impressing her man. All we can say is human-nature relationship is a deeply symbiotic one.”