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A dispatch by a true son of the wettest place on earth

In this excerpt from Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih's magisterial novel 'Funeral Nights', the narrator recalls the rituals of bird-hunting among the Khasis

Representational image of Meghalaya. (Unsplash )

The fog in Sohra is probably most spectacular when the rain has stopped, the sky has cleared, but the ravines are still choked with the pure, impregnating land-cloud. The deep gorges that yawn like fiendish mouths suddenly vanish and the tableland becomes one gigantic expanse of rolling green-and-white. This spectacular vista, almost a seascape, has an enchanted quality. It makes you feel like you would ‘float on rapture’s charmed carpet’, as someone put it, if you jumped into that enormous mass of whiteness. Perhaps that was what Jiei, a Pnar from Ri Pnar, had also felt a long, long time ago.

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According to the story, Jiei, who was visiting Sohra for the first time as a carrier of his king’s tidings, found himself beset by the rain and could not leave for many days. He stayed on as a guest of the Sohra king, but he turned out to be a vainglorious, loutish sort of man who bragged about his adventures and the power and glory of his king. His king was richer and mightier than Sohra’s. His state was bigger; it extended to the plains of Sylhet. His nation’s women were more beautiful and gracious than anyone he had seen in Sohra. His people were taller and stronger. Like him, they were also more skilful and more capable, be it in the art of war or the art of peace. Since he had lived in the lowlands of Sylhet, he could do anything that a plainsman could, and better. He could do things that hill people could not even dream of. He had swum in big rivers, even in the ocean. He could swim anywhere; he could do anything.

The people of Sohra, who were generally polite and gracious to others, did not like the boorish ingratitude of the fellow, who ran them down at every opportunity even as he enjoyed their hospitality. One of the elders, who had suffered his arrogance and condescension in silence for many days, decided to teach him a lesson. He took Jiei to the edge of a vast ravine, which at the time was filled with land-cloud, and said, ‘Look at it! You said you could swim anywhere and that you have swum in big rivers and even in the ocean, which we have not even seen. Can you swim here?’

‘What is this?’

‘A river of land-clouds. Can you swim here? It’s at least a thousand feet thick, so it should support you easily.

Jiei, who had never seen such a thing before, replied right away, ‘A thousand feet! Why, haven’t I told you I have swum in oceans thousands of feet deep? This is nothing! Of course I can swim here! Are you mocking me?’

With that, he threw himself into the white emptiness and became a legend.

Taken aback, the Sohra elder exclaimed, ‘Waa, khun ka mrad! Son of an animal! She jumped! I was only playing a prank, and she really jumped!’

When Khasis are angry or in shock, they have this tendency to address a man as a woman. As the story spread, a new ridicule was born. Anyone who behaves arrogantly is now simply dismissed as U Jiei jngi lyoh, the cloud-swimming Jiei. Even I have been called that once or twice, not because I am arrogant, but because my father, who died when I was still in the womb, happened to be a Pnar from a village called Nangbah.

Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih with his book.
Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih with his book. (Twitter/@karthikavk)

If, however, I were to analyse my fondness for the Sohra of water, wind, cloud, darkness and terrorising tempests, I would say, as I have said before, that it is because I was born and brought up there. It was there that my mother taught me to talk; it was there that the paths were, which I walked as a child. The years of growing up among the sacred woods, panoramic hills and clear streams of Sohra, among warm and compassionate neighbours, were the best part of my life, despite our poverty back then. And though we left for a better life in Shillong, I find myself going back to that time again and again. My roots are still buried deep in the soil of Sohra; my trunk and branches still draw sustenance from its rugged terrain; my love for it extends to everything else that is in it. That is why my only hiraeth now is for Sohra, for I still consider myself a true son of the wettest place on earth, baptised by its wind-driven rain and its impregnating fog. Do you wonder then that I fondly call it the land of time-warped legends, the rain, the fog and the poets? It is only my mother—who wants to live here in Shillong, to be close to my two brothers and sister and her other relatives—who is keeping me from my Innisfree now.

I must add that there is more to Sohra than water, wind, cloud, darkness and terrorising tempests. A high plateau, about 4,200 feet above sea level, it is surrounded by the deep and thickly wooded gorges of Ri War. In the dry months of late autumn and winter, the scene is breathtaking—criss-crossing streams, luxuriant sacred forests and yellowing hilltops with spectacular views of Bangladesh’s watery plains in the shimmering distance. During these months, one can enjoy leisurely strolls in the hills and outdoor picnics on the edge of a cliff. Or pick fruits and gather flowers, wild plants and herbs in the forest, collect wild honey from crevice hives, swim in the hill streams, or fish with rods or bamboo cones and suchlike contraptions.

Despite all that Sohra makes readily available, my uncle, whose name was Krokar but whom we call Madeng, used to tell me, ‘When in Sohra, never be content with the surface of it, like superficial tourists. He who hasn’t trodden the rock bottom of these precipices can never claim he knows his land.’ And so, we would go down to the deep forests in the gorges to catch fish or birds, or simply to explore. Of all my boyhood activities, the bird-catching expeditions are the most deeply etched on my mind.

We used to leave home at the first cockcrow, lighting our way with flickering flambeaus. We would hurry through hills and valleys dark with the lingering night so we could reach certain waterholes or shrinking streamlets much before the birds arrived to bathe and drink at sunrise...

My roots are still buried deep in the soil of Sohra; my trunk and branches still draw sustenance from its rugged terrain; my love for it extends to everything else that is in it

At the waterholes, we first took out our cane sticks—which we had swathed in birdlime paste, except for their sharpened ends—and planted them in the soft ground just inches above the trickling water. Any wet ground that the cane sticks did not cover was taken over by very thin bamboo splits, smeared with birdlime and laid haphazardly on both sides of the waterholes. All this had to be done before dawn broke, in the light of flambeaus, so as to not frighten the bathers away. Once we had arranged everything, we would retire to a secluded spot, some distance from the waterholes, to wait and watch.

I could see everything from our hiding place. How exquisitely lovely those colourful crowds were as they sang soulfully, danced and hopped about, took their ritual dips in the pools and played and preened in the sun. There were birds of all shapes and sizes and colours, from the dullest grey and brown to such a riot of colours I cannot even begin to describe now! All I can say is that the rainbow itself seemed to me like a very dull sight when compared with the multicoloured splendour of those gorgeous creatures. And what strange hairdos some of them had! Any punk would drool with envy, looking at the jays and cardinals. Some birds, like the hoopoe, even seemed to be wearing crowns.

My favourites were the sunbirds, close cousins of the hummingbird and known locally as ki pohkait. They have long, down-curved bills with brush-tipped tongues, which they use mainly to drink nectar from flowers, their staple diet. These birds always came in large colourful swarms, but though they belonged to the same family, they never resembled one another very closely, except for the females. That was what always struck me as wonderful. There were many among them who were olive above and yellowish below, from the chest to the belly, quite attractive, but drab when compared with the others in their group with their vivid colours and iridescent plumage, vibrant beyond belief. Some were a luminous purple-blue from head to tail; others had maroon breast-bands that extended to the sides of the head, glowing green crowns, bright purple throats and yellow underparts bordered with white; and yet others had dazzling yellow flanks, red throats, bright blue wings and velvety purple crowns. One time, I saw a bird, one only, who was entirely red, flaming red, as red as the embers in a smithy. Madeng told me he was their syiem, their king. (Please note that I’m not using the neuter gender when referring to animals, birds or even insects, in keeping with the Khasi tradition.)

He also said that the more drab-looking ones, the ones with the olive-green over-parts, were female, while all the handsome ones were male. I thought he was kidding, but it turned out to be true. He also told me about how they were monogamous, like most humans, and lived in nests suspended from slender tree branches, constructed in the shape of a gourd from grass and other vegetation and bound together with strands of spider’s web. I never saw their nests and never closely observed the way they lived, but I fell in love with them when I heard about their marvellous customs.

A sunbird.
A sunbird. (Unsplash)

Another favourite of mine was a bird we called sim pyrem, bird of spring, who was draped in deep sky-blue from head to tail. He was a very rare bird, seen only in the deep woods. Watching the birds from our hidden retreat was always the best part of these expeditions. But soon, the birds were flapping their wings pitifully on our cane stalks or floundering helplessly across the soggy ground, entangled in the bamboo splits. What terrible destruction we wrought upon those magnificent and delicate creatures that never did anyone any harm! The little pools, serene until then, bathed in the day’s first rosy rays and resonating with a medley of sweet melodies, became a veritable killing field. Hundreds, thousands of them were caught, and while we boys laughed and patted each other on the back with each new catch, the men quickly strangled them, robbing the birds of life and colour. What a dreadful shame it was to strip them of all that loveliness and roughly toss their naked, wretched bodies into gaping gunnysacks! Amidst all the excitement, I felt a weighty sorrow. I used to ask my uncle, ‘Madeng, do these birds have children? What will happen to their children now?’ But Madeng would only say, ‘Het, m! You’re a pest! Stop pestering!’

On our way home, the men bragged about the birds they had caught or lamented the ones they had missed. And the thought of the chicks waiting in their nests, waiting to be fed by mothers who would soon be sizzling in our frying pans, troubled me for hours.

Funeral Nights by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, published by Context-Westland, 1,024 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>899
Funeral Nights by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, published by Context-Westland, 1,024 pages, 899

There were two kinds of birds that we loved catching because they flew in vast swarms. One was a dull brown migratory bird of the quail family, called mrit, and the other was the steely blue drongo. To catch the mrits, we went early in the morning to the sacred woods to lay our birdlime traps on their favourite fruit trees. For the drongos, because they were insect catchers, all we had to do was to identify their favourite perching trees and lay our traps there. We used to catch hundreds of them in a day and either had them for dinner or sold them. The drongos were ferocious, biting and tearing at our hands with their claws. To neutralise their resistance, we carried small round sticks with which to beat them on the head.

Sometimes, when we laid our snares on a tree, we used a songbird as bait. When the songbird—caged and hidden amidst the foliage—sang, other birds, especially his own kind, flocked to the tree and got entangled in the birdlime. Sometimes the cage itself became the snare when it was made in such a way that birds could get in but not out. Another method of snaring birds was with a spring bow made of bamboo. The snare, customarily laid on the ground in marshy places, was used mostly to catch snipes and woodcocks.

All these years later, when I look back at what we did, I find it distasteful and distressing. I no longer shoot birds with catapults; I no longer trap them with birdlime; I no longer eat bird meat, and if it were not so difficult, living among the rampantly carnivorous Khasis, I would have long ago stopped eating other kinds of meat too.

Extracted with permission from Funeral Nights by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, published by Context, Westland. The book releases today.

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