Nestled in Abode of the clouds


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Category: Diaspora 14 Nov 10

Priceless: The stories you get out of your parents in their unguarded moments. Here in the cocktail hour, in a 45-acre resort in an offshoot of the Himalayan Mountains, with a panorama of lush, misty, pine-covered hills, we meet my parents who travelled by car from neighbouring Gauhati to join us. We were reunited in time to watch the sun, an orange ball of flames, disappear into the lake, a mirror reflecting green and gold. Earlier in the day my husband and I had flown from Calcutta to Shillong, (the capital of Meghalaya state in the North East of India, bounded by Asaam in the north and east and the plains of Bangladesh in the south and west) on a small chopper plane landing in the middle of a heavily-armed air force field luxuriantly bordered by sweetsmelling heather. We were driven to our resort, 16 kilometres away, past rivers, mountain streams, lakes, gorges, ravines and valleys at dizzying speed by our taxi driver who narrowly avoided head-on crashes on cars, cyclists, and pedestrians and proudly informed us that he regularly encountered “crashes, dead drivers and passengers.”


I have a surprisingly strong stomach for this drive. My husband is always sitting in crash-landing mode. Darkness and mist merge lake, sky and mountains, wrapping them in a delicious autumnal chill. Indoors we hear the piano as if from a forgotten colonial dream, and tuck into a dinner of soup, cutlets, fresh vegetables and fragrant rice from the nearby paddy fields. The scene is set for a story. My father begins. In January 1962 tensions were building up between India and China over disputed territory in the North East Frontier Agency, (the state now known as Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Tibet. My father, then Major Mathur, an electrical engineer, was posted to Shillong, a regiment centre for the Assam and Gurkha rifles, to expand the Borjhar airfield in preparation for war. I drew my shawl closer as I listened to my parents, and finally understood why they wanted to visit Shillong after 50 years. My father continues. Tensions grew to open skirmishes “By October, 1962, tensions between India and China grew to open skirmishes. Indian troops withdrew and were stationed in nearby Gauhati.


Expecting the Chinese to attack the plains of Asaam, all the army officers’ wives were brought to Shillong airport to be airlifted to Delhi for their safety by the Indian Air force. My mother picks up the thread. “Just as the plane was about to take off, I picked up your brother, Varun, who was a year old and insisted on deplaning. I told air vice marshal Maharaj Singh that I would not leave my husband behind. If he was in danger out in the battlefield, why should I be safe? I decided whether we lived or died, it would be together.” My father adds, “She was the only officers’ wife staying in the army’s quarters. Instead of being reprimanded the air marshal commended your mother’s bravery and said that should the need arise he would personally ensure that she got a safe flight out of Gauhati.” My parents had a gift for me from their recent visit to Gauhati. My father handed me a birth certificate, which said that a “girl” had been born to Zia and Major Mahendra Mathur in the military hospital in Gauhati. Finally, proof of my birth.


Although it doesn’t explain my features, it does explain my love of mountains, mist and rain. Meghalaya literally means the abode of the clouds, describing the climatic phenomenon that brings torrents of rain to its mountainous terrain inhabited by three ancient Mongoloid tribes—the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos—who have their own language and trace their descent from common ancestors called the Ri Hynniew Trem (the Seven Families) India’s northeast remained veiled in mystery and lorded over by warring chiefs until the arrival of the British in the early 19th century. Meghalaya was declared the 21st state of India on January 21, 1972. All three tribes have a matrilineal social system in which the family lineage is taken from the mother’s side. I found this out at the spa from the masseuse whose hands are as powerful as her eyes are kind. We did not find a mutually recognisable word for “gentle” between my nonexistent Khasi, our poor Hindi and her limited English until I was black and blue. We communicated haltingly and in signs. I reflected that she must have looked like one of the midwives who assisted in my birth in Guahati.


Said to originate from Southeast Asia and Tibet, she is a typical Khasi, with narrow eyes, high cheek bones, flat platyrrhine nose, short with muscular bodies and highly developed calves. I gathered during our stay that although many Khasis are Christian, their original religious belief is monotheistic based on a belief that God, known as Blei Trai Kynrad, is formless and manifests in guises. They are not worshippers of idols or spirit but respect is paid to ancestors. There are no Khasi churches or temples since all ground is considered sacred; no saints, martyrs or priests since it is believed that each man can save himself by his own actions. There are no fixed days of congregational worship. No common book on worship. The Khasi woman enjoys a special position in society. She is the guardian and preserver of family. Her line of descent is traced by the mother.


Landed property is divided among the females alone and youngest daughter is custodian of the undivided share. She lives in the maternal house. After marriage the man goes to the woman’s house and becomes U Khun Ki Briew (the son of other people) I could not doubt the power of the Khasi woman because on our third day, our taxi driver told us the story of how just last week a woman had cut off a cheating husband’s head (in his sleep) and carried it to the police station where she gave herself up. She was arrested for a total of three days and then set free. Later, a beautiful Khasi girl from the front desk tells me that a Khasi is a deeply religious person who has an intense love of life believes that life is God’s greatest gift and he has to account for it again in the hereafter. That is why it is man’s supreme duty to preserve this life on earth as well and as beautifully as he can.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur