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Tales of Darkness and Light

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Soso Tham

7. U Lyoh–The Cloud

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1This is the point to which the preceding sections have been journeying. Here we come upon an utterly bleak apocalyptic scene which Soso Tham fears will replace the green fecundity and harmony of his homeland if Khasis betray the Laws and Truths with which they came into this world. Soso Tham’s dramatic description of opportunist worshippers of Mammon is as accurate today as it was then. Imagery from the natural world and Khasi myth powerfully portray the dysfunctional hell to which we are going to descend as a people who are powerless to resist the temptation of worldly wealth. The poet had good reason to be fearful. Evident today are plundered forests, rivers poisoned by the unscientific extraction of coal, exhaustive sand and limestone mining, and hills bulldozed out of shape to create highways to “development” and wealth for a few — the list continues to grow.

The Cloud

  • 1 A reference to the folktale where the ox lost his upper teeth for not carrying out God’s explicit i (...)

Free of want once lived our children
Before the ox betrayed his Maker
1
Fruit ripened red, stalks fleshed with grain,
Each day brim-filled, each palm grain-full
Daylight hours of peaceful toil
Before the virtuous took flight

Courteous speech well-learnt, well-honed
Advice on restless sleep unknown
Laughter rippled, gentle ease
Beneath the solace-shade of trees,
But far away the Eagle King
Saw signs of disquiet, portents of unease

  • 2 See Chapter 3, pp. 20–21.

Before the Diengïei’s2 cover spread
Moves with stealth the reprobate
Slowly climbs the threatening cloud
Thickening smoke from pyres untended
Obscured the sun from mountain peaks
A tribe abandoned by their God

  • 3 See Chapter 3, pp. 19–20.
  • 4 See ibid.

A swarm of bees without a queen
Wandering, lost, directionless
Criss-crossing blind through open skies,
stumbling into thickets deep
Nine remain in the House of God
Dispersed on earth were the
Hynñiew Trep3
From heaven estranged — U Sohpet Bneng4 slashed

  • 5 To give birth to and thus jettison the evil he carries within himself and thus be born anew. Or, to (...)

As he swims through earth’s dark waters
Man sinks down to unplumbed depths
To black-hole dread in no-end caves
To deserts parched and wetlands rich
As far as Nine Infernal Tiers
Where all alone he seeks to feel… the spasms of a wished-for birth
5

  • 6 See p. 24, n. 2.

The serpent’s lair within a cave
Its blackness heavy with his stench,
Below — the coils of languorous power
Above stands She! — The Mother of the
Thlen.6
Just such a nest is the human heart
A place where Evil lays her eggs

  • 7 This is a reference to the old Khasi explanation for an eclipse. Khasis believed the phenomenon was (...)

God looks down and shakes his head
Sees toads and frogs eat Suns and Moons
7
Humped dwarves, Scorpions, Snakes
Infinite hordes defying count
The Age of Purity has lost her throne
Triumphant the Pasha of the Enslaved

His eyes shut-blind seamed tight with pus,
his ears no longer can they hear
His children dulled by blunted thought
For Darkness is Queen, and Ignorance rules
Fear and Unease their subjects now,
So wonder not if we should find
Devils mingling with mankind

All that remains is barren rock, fertility long since washed away
Settlers, settlements ruined destroyed
The pleasure garden once so loved
Forsaken now, she’s left bereft,
Days of peace must surely end
When the dark cloud drops and shrouds the light

Slow inch by inch the toad consumes
The sun gripped tight in her clamping jaws
While poverty, hunger, suffering, woe
Hereditary taint suck clean away… the marrow from the land.
In under-floor gloom a seed once thrived
Why now is it pale yellow in the dark?

Infernal beings deprived of sight
Collide and stumble, trample all
The race, the clan begins to shrink
The face made foul by ugliness
With honour dying in the heart
The face has lost its source of light

  • 8 “indwelling soul” is my equivalent of the phrase “ka Rngiew”, different from U Rngiew, the embodime (...)

And will so appear forever more
For the indwelling Soul has taken flight.
8
The blacksmith’s wares in full display
But was hammer-strike on anvil heard?
In murky gloom among the rafters, the intruder waits for night to fall
Is there a being more sinister than he hell-bent on chicanery?

  • 9 Soso Tham uses the word Kyiaw (Mother-in-law) but I have used Queen as that more accurately aligns (...)

Broodings foul of ill intent
Increase in strength, convene within
For verily now they are “the gods”,
Where hides the Queen
9 of the floundering bee
As sightless now he gropes his way
In a frenzied search for the Goddess Wealth

  • 10 This is the area known as Lyngngam in the South West Khasi hills where the people, also known as th (...)
  • 11 To the Khasi there cannot be any substitute for rice as a food staple. A person who goes out to ear (...)

She who flies through cave and crevice
Rustling through unsightly weeds.
To cities, plains and borderlands
10
Where man has journeyed to earn a living
Seeking out sustaining grain
Rice the lure, the face assumed by the Goddess Wealth
11

  • 12 A ravine near Sohra so deep that filling it with soil would be a nigh impossible feat. See also the (...)

No longer then can we discern
Waving palms above
Mawïew gorge12
The rising fog has brought its blight
Withering our sense of shame, of right,
Are there voids of darker menace
Than those we call the human heart ?

  • 13 Milton’s Paradise Lost made a deep impression on Soso Tham.

White ants that fly through air and light
Did once emerge from the termite’ s hole
Like fiendish scourge of hornet, wasp
Who from dark places emigrate,
But Integrity and Honour shun the confines
Of Pandemonium’s night
13

For a fistful of silver men sink their teeth
Tight the clench, unrelenting the grip
Like Mighty Mammon defeated bowed
All are seduced by the Goddess Fair
From heavenly highways lined with gold
To buried seams in Hell’s Nine Tiers

  • 14 The Khasis once used cowrie shells as currency in trading activities.

Silver cowries Her brilliant lenses14
She blinds the tempted with her dazzling vision
Tapestry threads of tortured logic
Which the gold? Which twist the maggot?
For Falsehood’s stature to command respect
She rips the mote from the eye of Truth

“Timidity hobbles adventure”, so we are told
Yet renegades run riot respecting no bounds
Hills avalanche, waterholes seethe
“Heat scorches advance, cold freezes retreat”
Rulings judgements exchanges intense
All blinded by the silver slime

  • 15 Through sheer chance I discovered that the Khasi word pdok has two meanings — the gall bladder and (...)

The scion dines with rival groups
Purse strings hang lax, no taboo restrains
Where dissension prevails and discord persists
It is there that he seeks to add weight to his gold
While Truth has her abode in the City of God
On the skin of the earth untouched by shame, blatantly bulges the purse of man
15

  • 16 See p. 37, n. 7. This line vividly conveys the image of uncontrollable greed, especially if one com (...)

Man’s greed is now a gluttonous sow
(A pouch engorged about to rip)
A flatterer adept at placating egos
Swelling the hide of the sun-eating toad
16
And when like a leech she measures each step
Souls shrivelled by fear stand mutely and watch

  • 17 Having watched the steady, repetitious, robotic up-and-down movement of a wasp’s head as it chews w (...)

The Silver Cowrie is armed with teeth
His grip a vice, does not let go,
A watchful kite who circles slow
A wasp unhurried for he knows… a bite at a
time is all he needs
17
And as tiger fierce or the great She-bear
What monstrous acts could he then perform?

When man becomes a being from Hell
Sustaining blood from there will flow
Vindications produced to bludgeon, stun
Dry lightning leaps in blinding red
Thunder bolts aim to pierce the joints
Triggering tumult in the nerves

  • 18 Lines 4–5 in this stanza refer to the Khasi’s deep belief that the only wealth which matters is tha (...)

Goodness stunted, Evil monstrous
Broken the laws of God and Man
Old voices say a time will come
When Man will swim in the ox’ s mire
And scale the tops of pepper plants
18
The Silver Cowrie is the
Thlen

Greed’s a chasm like the Mawïew ravine
A depth no one can hope to fill
Yet he who endures, strives to hold on
In whom the will to good remains
To him the vision will be tendered
Of wind-stirred palms above
Mawïew gorge

Thus as he journeys round the world
Man sinks and drowns in waters dark
His face begins to dim and darken
The rising smoke it thickens chokes
Though many a voyager may stay afloat
Far, far away let me escape !

Listen to an audio recording of the poem at
https://doi.org/​10.11647/​OBP.0137.19

Notes

1 A reference to the folktale where the ox lost his upper teeth for not carrying out God’s explicit instructions warning human beings not to be wasteful with their natural resources, more specifically asking them to cook only the required amount of rice so there is nothing left to throw out. On his way to deliver his message to mankind, the ox was plagued by insect bites, an agony finally relieved by a crow alighting on his back to peck and devour the irritants. But hearing about the message the ox had to deliver, the crow was alarmed for she feared her tribe would lose a source of food in the form of rice offerings left at cremation grounds for departed souls (See Chapter 9, verse 7). So she persuaded the ox not to carry out God’s bidding. Grateful to the crow the ox agreed. But God was enraged when he found out that the ox had disobeyed, and struck the ox a huge blow knocking out all his upper teeth.

2 See Chapter 3, pp. 20–21.

3 See Chapter 3, pp. 19–20.

4 See ibid.

5 To give birth to and thus jettison the evil he carries within himself and thus be born anew. Or, to give birth to the Knowledge symbolised by the script he had swallowed and lost in the Great Flood.

6 See p. 24, n. 2.

7 This is a reference to the old Khasi explanation for an eclipse. Khasis believed the phenomenon was caused by a giant toad or frog in the sky swallowing the sun and moon.

8 “indwelling soul” is my equivalent of the phrase “ka Rngiew”, different from U Rngiew, the embodiment of evil in Chapter 8. The word/concept is difficult to translate. It is sometimes likened to an aura or compared to the Greek psyche meaning “soul” or “spirit”. Khasis believe that every person is endowed with a vital life force that waxes and wanes in strength. It is this invisible essence which the onlooker senses, and then accordingly tenders respect or heaps derision.

9 Soso Tham uses the word Kyiaw (Mother-in-law) but I have used Queen as that more accurately aligns with an English sense of what the poet is trying to convey. To a Khasi kyiaw would make sense from the point of view of the social custom where once married the man leaves his maternal home and becomes part of his kyiaw’s home, where she is traditionally revered as the caring queen of the family.

10 This is the area known as Lyngngam in the South West Khasi hills where the people, also known as the Lyngngam, are of mixed Khasi and Garo ancestry. Garo is a language of Tibeto-Burman origin while Khasi belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of languages. Soso Tham does use the word Lyngngam, but to maintain the rhythmic pace of the line and to convey the connotation of the word Lyngngam, I have used “borderlands”.

11 To the Khasi there cannot be any substitute for rice as a food staple. A person who goes out to earn their living to feed the family is one who goes in search of rice — the only grain that can provide sustenance and satisfaction!

12 A ravine near Sohra so deep that filling it with soil would be a nigh impossible feat. See also the penultimate stanza in this section where man’s greed is compared to “a Mawïew gorge” that cannot be filled.

13 Milton’s Paradise Lost made a deep impression on Soso Tham.

14 The Khasis once used cowrie shells as currency in trading activities.

15 Through sheer chance I discovered that the Khasi word pdok has two meanings — the gall bladder and a purse. Maybe it has more? So another possible translation of this line could well be: “Man’s gall exposed on the skin of the earth”. I feel both meanings of the word “gall” feed into Soso Tham’s use of the word as conveying a totality of experience which accounts for the darkness enveloping the poet’s soul and contributing to his sense of foreboding.

16 See p. 37, n. 7. This line vividly conveys the image of uncontrollable greed, especially if one compares the size of the toad to that of the sun.

17 Having watched the steady, repetitious, robotic up-and-down movement of a wasp’s head as it chews wood to build a nest, I appreciate the economy of Khasi as a language, for the phrase “roit roit” which Tham uses to describe this process is all that is needed to convey to the Khasi reader or listener the entire concept and rhythm of the wasp’s single-minded attention to his task. In English however I have had to use more than two words to convey this effect.

18 Lines 4–5 in this stanza refer to the Khasi’s deep belief that the only wealth which matters is that of the spirit. Any neglect or violation of this cherished belief diminishes human stature to such an extent that it is possible for a man to metaphorically swim in water-hollows created by the hoof prints of cattle, or enable him to clamber easily to the top of slender chili plants. A reliable source, Bah Khongsit (see Acknowledgements) however also informed me that his father used to grow chili pepper plants which had thick roots and sturdy stems. These were vastly different from the slender chili-pepper plants familiar to most of us. Apparently it was possible to lean against these robust plants without the plant bending under pressure.

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