Holiram Terang, Karbi politician and legendary activist for Karbi autonomy movement remembers his days as a boarder at the famous Rama Krishna Mission School, Sohra in Khasi Hills, Meghalaya. We hope to publish a sequel to the piece about his two years in a Christian residential college soon.
I was the second child of my parents. My father wanted me to study in a “good” school after standard III. So he asked a relative, my mother’s cousin, to get me admitted to such a school. The cousin who was a big shot at the time, had his daughter, of my age, admitted earlier to a convent in Shillong, supposedly the best in this part of India, and the younger son to a Christian missionary school, another one of “best” schools there. He got me admitted to a school in the Khasi Hills but it was not in Shillong.
I was admitted to the Rama Krishna Mission School, Cherrapunji (Sohra) in 1966 in standard IV. RKM, Cherrapunji had two sections in the middle level of the high school (std IV to VI) – Khasi and Bengali. Only the higher classes had a section taught in English. It was in the Bengali language section that I was enrolled. Before that, that is up to std III, I had studied in an Assamese medium school. I don’t remember how, but I did quite well in RKM. I was the only non-Bengali in the class. The higher classes had other students besides Khasis and Bengalis. I remember Mizo boys staying in the hostel. I also think there were girl-hostellers who stayed in Sohbar and came to school in the school bus. The majority of the students were, of course, Khasis and day scholars.
There was a small shrine in the Ashram, the part where the monks, “Brahmachari Maharajs” and “Maharajs”, stayed attached to the hostel. I learnt to do the “aarti” in the small Puja room of the hostel. Initially, I couldn’t simultaneously move the lamp around with my right hand and ring the bell with my left. Bur after a while, I got the hang of it and could do both at the same time. Since home was a long way and there were problems, internally at home and externally in the tumultuous Khasi Hills back then, I had to stay in the hostel even during long vacations with the monks. A few times I stayed in the Sohbar ashram of the RKM, by the river there, bordering Bangladesh. This ashram is much older than the one in Cherrapunji.
For the journey to Shillong on the way to Cherrapunji we had to start from home when the cocks started crowing in the morning. With bags packed and the holdall kept ready the previous day, we – me, my older cousin, and another traveller moved ion bicycles from Satgaon to Tumpreng, about 7 kilometres away. Then we crossed the river Kopili on a ferry and rode another 8 kilometres to Hojai to catch a bus to Shillong from Nagaon. The Assam State Transport Corporation bus used to leave at 1:30 in the afternoon. Travelling on hilly and winding roads with few stopovers and the one-way traffic being regulated, the arrival in Shillong was around late evening. The journey the next day to Cherrapunji used to be on a private bus. Sometimes we got to sit in the front of the bus. But sometimes we had to sit in the rear on wooden planks with no backrest, which was really interesting. When there were more goods to carry, a part of this rear section used to be filled with the excess goods by removing the wooden planks. I also remember travelling on jeeps mostly from Cherrapunji to Shillong. Many a time, I remember making the journey by standing on the coupling that joined the main vehicle with the trailer. Early morning, cold and misty, I used to enjoy such rides. But now, I shudder even thinking about it. The thing that scared me the most on these journeys was seeing the bus driver steering the bus with one hand while asking for ‘kwai’ from a ‘kong’ with the other. I always tried to take my eyes and my mind off of the driver but they always returned to the driver because of the narrow roads, misty with very low visibility and the deep gorges beyond.
I think I learnt a few things there which have stayed with me throughout my life. Discipline was inculcated at home from a very young age, but it was properly honed in RKM, Cherrapunji. We had a roster of duties to clean the floors, walls and also the toilets which were of the old style and not the modern sanitary ones. Older boarders had to tend to the kitchen garden and the cattle as well as serving food in the dining hall. I had also picked up the Khasi language there. There were hymn books in Khasi and they were sung regularly in the evening prayer. Having already known the Bengali version, understanding Khasi became easier. The numerous Khasi friends in both the school and the hostel helped in almost making me a native Khasi. We had some unexpected off days during the rainy season as classes were cancelled due to heavy rains. On such days we used to play football in the small foreground of the hostel and I enjoyed playing heavily drenched. The main playground was a little far away, behind the hostel. With a lot of stones jutting out in the uneven playground, I used to get injured very often. So I stopped playing football after a while and have never resumed since then. But I still enjoyed watching the football matches near the market on Sohra weekly market days. I think the teams played for a cash prize.
I was in Cherrapunji for three years. It was in my 2nd or 3rd year there that I was taken to a camp in Bamundi, Kamrup, Assam. It was winter and we had to get up at 4 in the morning and practice various exercises, with a bamboo pole (lathi), big knife (chaku) and other such weapons. We were trained to attack and also to defend. The camp must have been for about a week, I vaguely remember. But one thing I remember for sure was the salute with the right hand on the chest singing, “Namaste sada vatsale matribhumi…” So I definitely think it was a RSS camp, though I was not aware of it then. Was I scared? Did I enjoy it? Well… I don’t remember.
When I finished my class VI and came back home I told my father that I was not going back there. He was, of course, worried and insisted on my going back there. He might have had some reasons for that. Maybe it was because the school fees wasn’t too much, or maybe it was because I did well in the school even though it was a Bengali medium school and I had never learnt Bengali till then, coming from an Assamese medium school. But I stood my ground. I too had my reasons; I don’t know whether I spelt them out to my father. But later in life, I realise, one of the reasons could have been that there wasn’t a single person who could speak my mother tongue, Karbi, and not even another Assamese speaking fellow. It was a long long way from home. The longing for home, I think, was more intense during the long school vacations. But one other reason, which I told my friends during my youth, was that the Maharajas were planning to send me to RKM Narendrapur in West Bengal after finishing my class VI in Cherrapunji. Narendrapur was really far far away. There was no hope of coming back home soon and I probably would’ve ended up becoming a Maharaj. I think this was the last straw. Being proficient in offering “aarti” did not mean that I was an automatic candidate to be a Maharaj. That was it. So I put my foot down.
And the stalemate between me and my father continued for a while which almost cost me a year of education. Ultimately, my father relented and I was admitted to a school in Nagaon.
Thus, there ended my tryst with the RSS and a Hindu school. I learnt much later that the Ramakrishna Mission School in Cherrapunji had produced such luminaries as Prof. G G Swell. But by then I had moved far away from Cherrapunji.