A matriarch of Smit's founding family looks back on how things have changed in the Meghalaya village

Smit, in Meghalaya, fluctuates between its old and new values and systems, navigating the pull of modernity and tradition. Follow Parul Abrol as she follows Smit's stories — a different world, within our own | Part 4 of 6

Parul Abrol December 27, 2019 09:38:31 IST
A matriarch of Smit's founding family looks back on how things have changed in the Meghalaya village
  • 69-year-old Kyntiew Riti Syiem was born and brought up in Smit, Meghalaya.

  • She is one of the few people who knows the history of the village, Khasi culture and traditions, and the changes that have taken place over time.

  • Mei Tew (“mother figure”) is what she is popularly called in Smit.

“How does governance work at the grassroots level in India?” To examine this question, we decided to pick one village anywhere in India, become a part of the community, see how individuals interact with various bodies of the government and examine its impact on their lives.

I knew the answers to this question would be further complicated if the village didn’t identify as ‘India’, or simply didn’t care about that label — as is the case in large parts of the Northeast. In a region where ‘the outsider’ is a constant threat to a way of life, how do locals navigate a system where ‘outsiders’ are an explicit part of governance?

It was to delve into these issues that I ended up living and working out of a village called Smit, in Meghalaya. This six-part series documents my time in Smit.

A matriarch of Smits founding family looks back on how things have changed in the Meghalaya village

Smit, Meghalaya. Illustration courtesy Satwik Gade/Firstpost

1. The Outsiders

2. Village Tour

3. Seng Khasi

4. Mei Tew

Born and brought up in Smit, Meghalaya, 69-year-old Kyntiew Riti Syiem is one of the few people who knows the history of the village, Khasi culture and traditions, and the changes that have taken place over time.

Mei Tew (“mother figure”) as she was popularly called in Smit, was my landlady there; an authoritative, immaculately dressed figure who only shed her propriety when singing along to Drake’s songs, or those of Ed Sheeran and James Blunt.

A few centuries ago, Mei Tew’s great-great-great-great-great uncle bought the land for what is now Smit, for the sum of Rs 300 (equivalent to about Rs 3,000 crore today). That ownership and a strong sense of belonging can be felt when talking to Mei Tew, who is protective of Smit and its way of life.

Any mention of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now Act) makes her angry. “I don’t think it is advisable,” Mei Tew says. “We have only one MP so we can’t protect ourselves, but don’t you think we have to? Some Tom, Dick and Harry from some other part of the world, they will come, settle here… it isn’t advisable,” she reiterates. “In the village, we are very close knit. We have to protect our culture, our people. I think if others come, it will be a mess, a real mess.”

***

Mei Tew’s misgivings come from her experiences with ‘other’ Indians.

In 1983, she went to Nilokheri, in Haryana’s Karnal district, for a training programme pertaining to her job with the government’s Industries Department.  A woman from Nagaland and Mei Tew were the only two Northeasterners there. One day, the Naga woman told Mei Tew that the others were saying people from the Northeast were headhunters and cannibals who also ate snakes. Recounting the incident, Mei Tew clearly still feels the hurt: “I said [to the Naga woman] that she should have told me right then, I would have told those people I’ll eat them first!”

Mei Tew believes people from the mainland have always had these ideas, “right from the start, since 1947”. “Those people have a very low opinion of us. Even after education, we are very simple people. But when the outsiders came and we learnt about their monkey business, then we realised that we should behave like monkeys too, otherwise we will be left in the lurch [sic],” she tells me.

She has a theory about refugees, which she explains with the example of a dog that took shelter in her home. Refugee, as Mei Tew calls the dog, was scared of everyone when she first came. But now, she has grown bold enough to even snatch Mei Tew’s pet Bruno’s food. Bruno has to eat Refugee’s leftovers.

“These people also, they will come, keep a low profile, but once they are settled, they will have all sorts of ideas to dominate,” she says, hastening to add: “I don’t blame them — please don’t misunderstand me. It is circumstances that made them so. Nobody wants them, they have no place to stay, so being a human and having nowhere to belong, don’t you think it’s a very sad thing? They have tasted the difficulties, they have seen too much. So, in order to survive, they change. But — enough is enough — we don’t want anyone.”

Mei Tew feels the influx will put the region’s close-knit tribal structure at risk and points to Tripura where outsiders outnumber the locals. She expresses the fear that Meghalaya’s locals will take up guns if the CAA is forced on them.

***

The ULFA movement of the 1990s and the severe tensions that enveloped the Northeast (including Meghalaya and in particular, Shillong) had little effect on Smit. Life continued as usual, except for one incident when some militants were trying to cross into Bangladesh (Smit is en route) and somebody informed on them. There was a gun fight and three militants were killed. It was a big event in the village because everyone was going about their business — working in the field, taking cattle out for grazing, etc — when the firing started. Everyone ran helter-skelter and there was a huge commotion until things went back to normal a few days later.

The Emergency too had little effect on Smit, beyond government employees being warned not to say anything against the regime. Mei Tew’s memories of the China War, however, are different. A little girl then, she recalled how the children were so amused when the sirens rang — they’d run out and lie down on the ground with their hands over their ears. For the elders of course, it was a far tenser time.

***

The Smit that Mei Tew grew up in, had a population of hardly 1,500. Today, the number is significantly higher, and the influence of Christianity has grown.

For Mei Tew and her family, conversion was never on the cards. “We are the custodians, we are from the same family as the syiem (village chief). If we covert, who will take forward the traditions?” During the November festival in Smit, the syiem’s importance becomes quite evident; Mei Tew’s cousin is the priestess. “The whole of Khyrem [the East Khasi principality] is dependent on us.  And we don’t have the urge to be converted. We know our roots.”

Converts or not, everyone in Smit participates in the November festival. “Almost 80 percent of the people in Smit are converts belonging to different denominations. But all of them, because the festival is here, they take it as theirs — as part of their culture. So they are the ones who support us,” explains Mei Tew.

This is due in no small part to the importance of the Khasi identity. Even the most devout Christian is a Khasi first. For Mei Tew, her tribal identity means everything to her. “How do I explain… the way we live every day is because of who we are. The Khasi foundation, philosophy, thought, we base even our religion on this,” she says.

A matriarch of Smits founding family looks back on how things have changed in the Meghalaya village

Kyntiew Riti Syiem, known as Mei Tew. Illustration by Satwik Gade/Firstpost

Knowledge of the clan is a central tenet of being Khasi, even those who’ve converted to Christianity. Every decision is based on this clan knowledge: how and with whom one interacts, and especially who one marries.

The first thing you enquire about, on meeting someone, is about their ‘kur’ or clan. The conversation continues once this information is received.

“Previously everyone knew about their kur, but now-a-days, I don’t know, even parents don’t take the initiative. But we should not get married into the same clan. That is incest. My husband’s family, previously they used to say three generations [of our descendants] should not intermarry, because of my relation with him,” Mei Tew says.

Sit has changed in other ways too. Mei Tew’s family left for Shillong in 1969, for work. She returned a decade ago, but this Smit was a different place than the one she left. “When we left, during the winters when there was frost, we’d do go to the Wah iew um (river), and break the ice on top of it to eat. Now can you imagine taking anything from the river and eating it?”

If the Smit of her childhood was one where children played throughout the village like it was one giant playground, then Mei Tew says few parents today would be quite so unguarded now. “Who will send their small children to play in that river without someone to accompany them? They may be raped or abused…so many things could happen,” she says.

Asked if there have been cases of such violence in the village, Mei Tew responds in the negative. “We are very fortunate in Smit, we still consider it safe. But people are being cautious because we have seen so many things in the newspapers. Of course, there have been one or two incidents. We cannot generalise, but we see rape and abuse in the news every day in other parts of India. My husband watches Crime Patrol on TV. I feel it is so unsafe to go out, especially to visit other parts of India.”

People in Smit still don’t lock their doors, but Mei Tew fears this sense of security may be short-lived courtesy the incursion of the digital age.

“People are using internet … those who’ve passed only Class Five or Six will see things on the internet and get ideas from there. I cannot say for sure, but I don’t think we’re mentally ready for these modern gadgets,” she says.

***

Meghalaya’s matrilineal system exists in principle, while in practice, men rule.

Mei Tew says that decisions are indeed taken by men, but in consultation with women. She explains how that works: “So my brother and my husband will sit down and discuss what the problem is and come with a solution to us. If we think it is fine, we take their advice, otherwise we will take any other decision. We take their views into consideration.”

As per custom, it often falls to youngest daughters to take care of aging parents. They remain at home, and also get a bigger share of the filial inheritance as an acknowledgement of their sacrifice. Some youngest daughters are now choosing to marry people from outside and leaving.

More disturbing changes are being noted too, such as cases of domestic violence. Mei Tew says women don’t always confide in their families, but when they do and wish to leave the husband, divorce proceedings — known as ‘bonshi’ — are initiated.

The proceedings are unusual, to say the least. Both the families are present, and the man begins by saying, “I don’t want to live with you any more, I don’t want you as my wife, so you can choose any other person as your husband” and then throws coins at the woman. The woman responds by saying, “Since you no longer want to stay with me, you may take my coin as well” and throws coins at the man. The relationship is then ended. “But it’s not as simple as pronouncing ‘talaq, talaq, talaq’,” says Mei Tew. “There are lots of deliberations between the families; you have to explain your decision to them, it’s not that simple when you want to divorce.”

Weddings are not traditionally arranged. Young people are expected to find their own partners, but as money is becoming more important, especially in cities like Shillong, the class system has seeped in along with the pre-existing clan system.

Money and modernity have eroded the Khasi way of life.

Mei Tew remembers going to the forest as a little girl, to forage for food with her grandmother. The children spent more time playing while their grandmother picked mushrooms, but they also learnt about what plants could be gathered.

More importantly, they learned to love nature. “We had to accompany her everywhere she would go, even the garden — she had a garden with potatoes and cabbage. During vacations, they would be planting potatoes before school started,” Mei Tew remembers.

Her grandmother was a great storyteller and she taught the children all about the forest, nature, even the Ramayana and Mahabharata. “She taught us values,” says Mei Tew. “She taught us everything we now know.”

In part 5, kickboxing classes

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