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Tales of Darkness and Light

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Soso Tham

10. Ka Ïing I Mei–Home

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1A more literal translation of the title is “The House that Belongs to my Mother” or “My Mother’s Home”. Here “Mei” refers both to the biological mother and to the poet’s homeland, for both have nurtured the poet’s being. With the dawn of hope and light in the preceding section it is natural that the poet now describes what it feels like to be home. He goes back in time to his childhood and to the daily rituals where the sacred codes of life are affirmed. Finally, he moves on to describe the rituals of death with reference to the concluding lines of Ki Sngi Barim, where the poet talks of arriving at the House of God — the everlasting mother of all homes and sanctuaries. But what is always characteristic and remarkable about Soso Tham is that his presentation of the most weighty and serious of subjects is endowed with an inescapable energy. Since for Soso Tham his culture is so obviously alive, he cannot but describe it in dynamic and vivid terms. Even the rendition of ceremonies for the dead is undeniably joyful.

2When a Khasi man marries he leaves the house where he was born — the home of his clan — and moves into his wife’s house — the home of her clan which is referred to as “ka ïing khun” (his children’s home) — to differentiate it from “ka ïing kmie his mother’s home. These expressions seem to suggest that in both cases it is never his home, pointing to the limbo-land the Khasi man inhabits. But others have countered this by saying that both as father (progenitor) and maternal uncle (protector and adviser) a man has a significant place in the family. This is true if theory and practice concur and if traditional reverence for the role of the uncle remains unchanged. But it would be foolish to disregard the complexities of life on the ground. The advent of the nuclear family, the need to seek a living away and often far from the traditional hearth combined with the increased obeisance paid to wealth as the only criterion for respect, are factors eroding this way of thinking and the role of protector and advisor traditionally associated with the figure of the uncle will depend on the persistence of such values. Some men in the community have voiced their discontent, feeling that the uncle/father has responsibilities but no real power in a society where women inherit property and have tangible material assets, and where children’s identity is defined by the mother’s clan. Feminists counter this argument by pointing out that only well-off women can claim to be landowners, and that to this day women are not allowed an equal voice in the decision-making process of traditional organisations — they are still denied access to the public sphere. The controversy simmers.

Home1

  • 1 The phrase “Ka Ïing i Mei” can be literally translated into “My Mother’s House” or “The House which (...)

Let me return to the field we tended, the field we owned,
Back to that world dreamed up by tears,
As does the deer at the end of her days
When weary, spent and faint with wandering
She retraces paths that once she trod.
O once again to be home with
Mei!

  • 2 Skong — Chimonobambusa callosa: a type of bamboo used as posts in the construction of houses. Lapoh (...)

There as a boy I set my first traps
There the owl called out at night
Gone the birds that soared from the gorge
And where the
Skong, the Lapohiat?2
Breathless winds cool on the skin, waters with the bite of ice
Today I find them still and quiet, listening in the lonely silence

  • 3 In her desperate attempts to escape the clutches of an evil Tiger and a tyrannical Toad, Nam — the (...)

San ka Kong Ri, pat ka Kong A3
We chanted as siblings whenever we played
Young and tender the Sun and Moon
In that far-off time where I learnt to sing
Where once we were whole not broken and scattered
In that faraway place we first learnt to know God

  • 4 Waterfalls in the Khasi Hills.

The Wahkaba roars as she has always done
The
Latara leaps with her customary joy4
The child in us is never lost
Lives on in the adult we grow to become
So I stand as before on the lip of the gorge
Then tell me why my blood runs cold?

  • 5 Among the Khasis all sisters of the mother are regarded as potential “mothers” (hence the prefix “M (...)
  • 6 Khatduh”: youngest daughter — the custodian of family rites and rituals and responsible for their (...)

A time we felt and thought as one
Sweet the call — “
Meisan, Meinah”
We stepped out then, one clan, one womb5
Birds of one colour flocking together
Gathering to roost in the home of the
khatduh6
This is and has been the life of the clan

In their grass-thatched homes the Hynñiew Trep
Held up a flare of blazing conviction
Proclaiming as they did with one strong voice
“For our numbers to increase, for our own to prosper”
Then as with bees in creviced rock
Tenderly the mother caresses, holds close

  • 7 U Kur U Kha (“kith and kin”) — One of the most sacred tenets of Khasi society is to know (tip) the (...)
  • 8 As Khasis are a matrilineal society the Ancestral Mother of each clan (Ka Mei, Ka Ïaw) is a being w (...)

All noble kings from distant lands
Seek the house where concord dwells
A kingdom honouring “kith and kin”
A land where is found “the Uncle, the Father”
7
And where can be found the Ancestral Mother?
8
Her seat at the centre, the heart of the hearth

Where from days of old, days lost to us
The wealth of clan and race took root
Where liturgies were honed, incantations intoned
And our native Creed sprang into life
A smouldering fire of enduring force
Inspiring a thirst to establish new worlds

  • 9 Cowries were once used as currency.
  • 10 These principles are described in the next section, Ka Meirilung (Gentle Motherland).

Like deer serow we were surefooted once
Over limestone rock and precipice sheer
Purses were woven for hunters of
sbai9
Who were ready and poised at the first thrust of light
Concern for the living, respect for the dead
10
Those touchstones of “greatness a clan can achieve”

Thus declared the Uncles the Ancients
Their words the Law within each clan
In ceremonies of colour, at celebratory pageants
Or when turbulent wars shuddered the land
Gathered the “Nine who shoulder the bow”
Quivers the sword, dances the Shield

  • 11 Khasi thanksgiving dances symbolically reflect this custom when male dancers move in a circle aroun (...)
  • 12 Khasis believe that a person’s health and well-being (“for the tree to bear fruit”) depends on the (...)

The role of the son is to defend
His home, his clan, ancestral lands
11
The family wealth the daughter safeguards
Tending the herds of cattle and goats
For a tree to bear fruit what name shall it bear?
So followed the rite to pour and anoint
12

  • 13 See p. 60, n. 7.

Pay heed to your forebears, your Kur, your Kha13
They have read the signs, know what perils await
Taboo and danger they observe they respect
For lightning smites, the tiger bites
He who scorns taboo is the devil’ s apprentice
Head shaven in furrows, branded with shame, relentlessly
hounded, forever exiled

A sword and shield in every home
Close at hand, companions in sleep
To safeguard family, clan and race
Rises the sword, the spear, the shield
So sparing our children a beggar’ s existence
Flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood

  • 14 Khasis who hold onto the indigenous faith cremate their dead, after which the bones of the departed (...)
  • 15 This verse shows how ceremonies for the dead are festive occasions in which the living honour the d (...)

Bones laid to rest in the Great Ossuary14
An accompaniment of drums escorting them there
Pillars of stone for women and men
Memorials erected once oblations are offered,
Out in the open in passionate abandon
Dazzling the dance of silk and brocade, joined even by gold habitually discreet,
15

  • 16 See p. 60, n. 7. Certain rites observed during the ceremony conducted for the dead clearly demonstr (...)
  • 17 The older mother, the younger mother. See p. 59, n. 5.

Distinct the clans of the mother and father
Reverential the homage to ancestors long gone
16
On burial hills “
Meisan Meinah17
Side-by-side they will always sleep
Journeying together to the House of God
United as one even in death

  • 18 The Ryndia and Dhara are part of Khasi traditional apparel. The former is normally worn by men like (...)

Thunders the dark in an uproar of colour
When a nobleman’s son is laid on his pyre
Concourse resplendent in
Dhara and Ryndia18
Ornaments worn of coral and gold
And when handsome young men begin moving in dance
Tears drop from the eyes of young maidens who watch.

Listen to an audio recording of the poem at
https://doi.org/​10.11647/​OBP.0137.22

Notes

1 The phrase “Ka Ïing i Mei” can be literally translated into “My Mother’s House” or “The House which belongs to my Mother”, but neither convey the many layered meanings experienced by the Khasi speaker. Used as a prefix when addressing a person, the honorific “i” connotes a combination of love and respect which shades into reverence, and when “i” accompanies the word “Mei” (mother), a figure central to the network of family relationships in matrilineal Khasi society, the profound sense of homage and love the child tenders the mother is deepened and consequently immeasurable. So “My Mother’s Home or House” fails to convey that felt sense of love and near-worship. As a Khasi, I feel a sense of poignancy when the married son speaks these words for he is looking back at the birth-home he has left behind. In relation to this I have also tried to recall whether daughters ever say “ngan leit sha ïing i Mei” (“I will go to my mother’s house”) with that same sense of absolute separation as is detected when a man makes the same statement. I do not think so. Given that this section of the narrative describes Khasi customs, “ïing” also has a more general application referring to the Motherland of the Khasis (The “i” in “i Mei” is pronounced as the “i” in Spanish or Italian).

2 Skong — Chimonobambusa callosa: a type of bamboo used as posts in the construction of houses. Lapohiat — Ligustrum lucidum, a wild fruit-bearing tree providing food for birds.

3 In her desperate attempts to escape the clutches of an evil Tiger and a tyrannical Toad, Nam — the heroine of one of the best-known Khasi legends — chants these magic words. Seeking the help of the cotton and rubber trees (Kya and Jri — Bombax ceiba/Bombax malabaricum and Ficus Elastica) she asks them to grow (san) then wait (pat) at a pace in tune with the rhythm of her efforts to reach the safe haven of the “Moon, the Stars and the Sun” far from the dark kingdom of menace ruled by the Tiger and Toad. See Nongkynrih’s Around the Hearth: “Ka Nam and the Tiger”, p. 49.

4 Waterfalls in the Khasi Hills.

5 Among the Khasis all sisters of the mother are regarded as potential “mothers” (hence the prefix “Mei”) and when a female sibling dies often one of the sisters takes care of the orphaned nieces or nephews. Hence the mother’s older sister is referred to as the older mother (Mei means mother, san older/mature); the mother’s younger sister is the younger or the girl-like mother (nah is short for khynnah, a word used to refer to children, to someone who is young, innocent and relatively inexperienced); the mother’s sisters all hail from the same clan, are descended from the same ancestral mother and therefore of the “same womb”.

6 Khatduh”: youngest daughter — the custodian of family rites and rituals and responsible for their continued practice.

7 U Kur U Kha (“kith and kin”) — One of the most sacred tenets of Khasi society is to know (tip) the members of your own clan — your kur — and also those of your father’s — your kha. This is to ensure that the most horrific of taboos is never violated — entering into a sexual relationship with members of your own clan. According respect to the members of your father’s clan is another sacred obligation, for without the father a child does not come into being, is never born. The root of the word kha relates to the act of birth. To try and communicate the many-layered meaning of the original word “don” (in the third line), I have used the word “found”. The literal meaning of “don” is “to have/has” in the sense of “have got” which I feel does not convey the wider cultural significance which also includes bestowed respect and which is in turn linked to self-respect. Having or being seen to have a Maternal Uncle and a Father, those traditional givers of invaluable advice and support, is a matter of family and clan pride. I hope the word found implies not only that a family knows for certain that it has guardians and mentors, but also suggests that the outsider, in this case the “noble king” can “find” or see for themselves how culturally blessed that kind of family is.

8 As Khasis are a matrilineal society the Ancestral Mother of each clan (Ka Mei, Ka Ïaw) is a being who occupies a venerated space in the psyche of all Khasis, as is the maternal uncle (U Kñi). The hearth is the centre of the traditional Khasi home.

9 Cowries were once used as currency.

10 These principles are described in the next section, Ka Meirilung (Gentle Motherland).

11 Khasi thanksgiving dances symbolically reflect this custom when male dancers move in a circle around the women attired in traditional finery of silk and gold, not to parade wealth but to display God’s blessings for which the people are thankful.

12 Khasis believe that a person’s health and well-being (“for the tree to bear fruit”) depends on the right choice of name which is decided upon in a ceremony where a priest prays and then calls out, one by one, the names chosen by the family and as he does so pours from a gourd containing a suspension of ground rice and water. It is only when this mixture of rice and water holds together in a small drop that clings to the mouth of the gourd, that the name spoken at the time is chosen to be the one favoured by God. The child is then marked or anointed with the rice-water and so are the families of the father and mother. For a description and detailed analysis of the Khasi Naming Ceremony, see Bijoya Sawian, et al., The Main Ceremonies of the Khasi (Guwahati: Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture, 2012), chapter I, pp. 1–6.

13 See p. 60, n. 7.

14 Khasis who hold onto the indigenous faith cremate their dead, after which the bones of the departed are finally laid to rest in a Great Ossuary which is the afterlife sanctuary on earth for all the members of one clan.

15 This verse shows how ceremonies for the dead are festive occasions in which the living honour the dead and “celebrate” their lives. Homage to the dead is paid in music and colour while stone memorials are powerful long-living symbols of remembrance — all, as it were, is set in stone.

16 See p. 60, n. 7. Certain rites observed during the ceremony conducted for the dead clearly demonstrate that even in death Khasis continue to foreground the sacrosanct pre-eminence of that most significant of all knowledge — knowing your kith and kin, so that the most heinous of all taboos of marrying into one’s clan is never broken.

17 The older mother, the younger mother. See p. 59, n. 5.

18 The Ryndia and Dhara are part of Khasi traditional apparel. The former is normally worn by men like a shawl, a turban, or draped round the neck to hang from the shoulders like a scarf. The Dhara is usually associated with women and is draped Grecian fashion but over both shoulders. However, sometimes on ceremonial occasions men wear it as a dhoti.

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