Six months in Meghalaya's Smit village: Time, modernity may prove most insidious incursions yet

  • Contrary to popular perceptions about village life being laidback and idyllic, I found that people in Smit were always busy, so much so that it was difficult for them to take time off to talk.

  • Everyone had some business to attend to.

  • Many locals go to Shillong for work in the morning and return to the village by evening.

“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.

 Six months in Meghalayas Smit village: Time, modernity may prove most insidious incursions yet

Smit, Meghalaya. Illustration courtesy Satwik Gade/Firstpost

1. The Outsiders

2. Village Tour

3. Seng Khasi

4. Mei Tew

5. Kickboxing Classes

6. In Conclusion

When this project began, the aim was to become a part of the community in Smit and learn about the villagers’ everyday struggles at close quarters. Was I successful? Yes, and no.

Six months is too short a period of time to gain the Khasis’ trust, and get them to see you as one of their own. But in those six months, they did become more comfortable in my presence. They learnt to see me as non-threatening, allowed me to stay and work in their village, and shared their stories with me.

I believe in slow journalism and the depth it lends to a story, in terms of understanding an issue, area, and people. What I was able to glean from my interactions with people over six months could not have been achieved over a da-tip (or two). As for what I could have achieved had the project lasted longer — the possibilities are endless. If I had spent more time in the fields, or in the other activities the villagers are engaged in, my understanding of the community would have definitely been better. I would have learnt Khasi properly, and would have been able to converse with people who didn’t speak English or Hindi.

However, the six months levied a personal toll. Having absolutely no one to talk to, early sunsets, unending rain (what else could one expect in ‘the abode of the clouds’?), no sign of the sun, cold evenings — all made me unwell, and my weight dropped by 8 kg.

I’m encapsulating a few of my observations from these six months here, to conclude this series.

Change has come to Smit, slowly but surely. Illustration by Satwik Gade/Firstpost

Change has come to Smit, slowly but surely. Illustration by Satwik Gade/Firstpost

I found that people in Smit disliked Indians from the mainland; for a long time, they’ve felt discriminated against, and were now responding in kind. My landlady Mei Tew told me: “The British came so long ago but [at least] their description of us was accurate. North Indians treat us as if we are head-hunters and cannibals.”

The discrimination and racial slurs they face has made them hostile to outsiders. In the six months that I stayed in the village, I couldn’t find anyone who would agree to take up a cleaning job at my house. Some would disappear after negotiating rates. Even when people were nice to me, there was little interest in interacting beyond work. This is true more for the village than urban spaces like Shillong.

During my initial visits to the market to buy vegetables, I’d be asked to pay an exorbitant price. I accepted that being cheated was part of the process. Over time though, once they got used to seeing me at the weekly markets, they’d ask me where I lived (I got brownie points for being in Smit, and not Shillong like any other tourist), and the prices came down a tiny bit. And then, one day, two young women from whom I bought fruits, offered me kwai (betel leaf/nut) after I’d made my purchases and turned to leave. It was a sign of acceptance, and respect.

But I was told over and over how odd it was for a single woman from the mainland to be living in a village of Khasis. My landlady, the cousin of the syiem and highly respected in the village, told me that I received permission to live and work in Smit so easily because I was staying with her. She also told me, as did other journalist friends, that I was safe only because it was her place. Otherwise, I might have expected to be harassed by drunken Khasi men coming to my door at night. Assamese or Bengali drivers prefer not to go towards any Khasi villages after dark because of local enmities. Thankfully, I didn’t have any untoward experiences of this type.

***

There were things about the village that really surprised me.

Contrary to popular perceptions about village life being laidback and idyllic, I found that people in Smit were always busy, so much so that it was difficult for them to take time off to talk. Everyone had some business to attend to. My landlady’s son has two chicken coops and a pig sty. Plus, there are a lot of fruit trees on the property. He used to be up by 5 am, and I would always find him engaged in some laborious task, along with a helper. This was true for the other people I knew as well — everybody was always busy.

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

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

Many locals go to Shillong for work in the morning and return to the village by evening. Buses ply the route; they are cheap, but take ages to reach Shillong as the driver and conductor are busy stuffing more and more passengers into the vehicle. The frequency of buses is also poor. Private shared taxis fill the gap: you might have a Maruti 800 with 4-5 people in the back and three in the front (excluding the driver). It isn’t comfortable, but there’s no other choice, unless you have a vehicle of your own.

Being close to a town has its own effects in the long term, and not all of them good.

Agriculture takes the first hit, with hybrid seeds, fertiliser and pesticide companies targeting the new market. Tragically, I found the malaise of hybrid seeds has also reached here and some of the old varieties have completely died out or vanished. Bantei, a carpenter by profession and founder of the Riloom Foundation, told me, “We don’t have the indigenous variety of cabbage left, the one I ate as a child. I asked around so much but nobody has it. Everyone has shifted to hybrids.”

In 2019, due to erratic rains, many farmers lost all their crops, be it tomato or vegetables. Bantei says the hybrid seeds cannot withstand the fluctuations of the weather. Local varieties of tomatoes and vegetables fetch a greater price in the market than the hybrids because the former taste far better. Cabbage from Smit fetches a higher price than that from Assam. The difference in quality is enormous.

Modernity’s effects are evident in more ways than one. Adivasis in many parts of India, even today, avoid using chemicals on their crops because the Earth is our mother, and one cannot feed her poison. But the more people move away from their traditional values, the greater is the effect seen in the food they produce, what they eat, and how they live.

Community kickboxing classes offer a chance to beat gender stereotypes. Illustration by Satwik Gade/Firstpost

Community kickboxing classes offer a chance to beat gender stereotypes. Illustration by Satwik Gade/Firstpost

***

Meghalaya’s matrilineal society had bred the popular myth of women’s powerful position in the state. The reality is far different.

Real decision-making power still stays with men. In homes, the most powerful person is the maternal uncle — his word overrules even the father’s. Mei Tew says that the women are consulted but mostly, it’s men who make the decisions. In the autonomous council system, women don’t have representation as candidates. (They may vote though.) At the dorbar level, women are actually barred — it is a man’s field.

Domestic violence is not unheard of. My landlady’s Catholic house help Bun is about 22-23 years old, and a mother of two. A couple of months ago, she gave birth to twins. Neither infant survived. Her alcoholic husband came and went according to his whims. After the twins’ death and her husband’s absolute lack of support during the heart-breaking time, Bun finally threw him out of the house. She lives independently now, but divorce is not an option because she is Catholic.

Alcohol, brought here by outsiders, is another problem. Traditionally, Khasis only consumed rice beer, in small quantities. According to Seng Khasi followers, the British used alcohol and the Bible to buy the compliance and loyalty of the Khasis. But alcoholism is a major issue, as is drug use, since the proximity to a city makes access easy. All of the Northeast is now fighting against these two ills. Shillong-based psychiatrist Dr Pakha Tesia says he sees at least 2-3 patients from Smit, for addiction-related issues.

***

Not all is lost.

In spite of religious differences, and new values being introduced in the community, one thing stays — the pride and assertion of Khasi identity. A young boy, Dapuson, who helped me with translations on ground, said, “Our religion says that we should not believe in anything except the church and the God, but my Khasi identity is very important for me. Who am I otherwise? Roots are important.”

And being Khasi, in addition to other identities, means that the entire village is very close knit.

The entire village comes together to make the annual November festival a success. To prepare for the celebrations, first the roof of the palace (a giant hut) must be repaired. The sordar arranges for drums to be beaten all over the village, to call for everyone to lend a hand in repairing the thatch roof. No matter which religion they follow, everyone comes to help fix the new roof.

During the festival, the syiem’s wife — the priestess — blesses the villagers. She prays for good crops, and success in all the other things that people do. Everybody in the village is part of it — although only non-convert Khasis can take part in dance. But the village comes together as one and presents a collective face to the world during the festivities. A successful festival, after all, is a matter of pride for the entire village.

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Updated Date: Jan 01, 2020 00:08:36 IST