Going to Jirang when I was a child was one of the most exciting things for me, if not the most. Every winter, we took a trip there, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes a whole month or more. It was a process, it included taking a taxi or a bus to Iew Mawlong, a two minutes walk there, to the bus stand (which changes every now and then) and finding seats in front because I always got sick. Sometimes it would be me, my two maternal cousins – Kongieit and Kongieit, my aunt and my mother, sometimes, instead of my mother it would be one of her brothers (my uncles).
Now, when we go to Jirang, we skip the whole process, we just drive there in our Maruti 800. Both of them are fun, although I miss the sitting with my uncle or mother in a bus. We drive through Mairang, to Nongkhlaw, and then go down a steep and winding hill, to the gentler slopes in the north. But of course, I never thought of it as north, it was always, sharum Nongkhlaw, we don’t use North-South, we use shaneng (uphill) and sharum (downhill), like Tzeltal, a Mayan language, spoken in Mexico. Although in Tzeltal, uphill and downhill are slightly differently from Khasi – uphill is used for South and downhill is used for North. Anyway, I digress from my story, one can read more about these ways of talking about space in Levinson and Wilkin’s (editors) book on Spatial grammars.
Back to going to Jirang. It was always an adventure, the journey was always part of the holiday. It wasn’t always smooth, no my watch once fell off the bus once, my first watch! The driver had to stop the bus and everyone had to wait. And of course the car sickness. We always packed plastic bags for me to vomit into. And the smell of makyllain! I used to hate it, in the bus, it made my head spin and there was always someone smoking a makyllain in the bus, especially near Mairang or Nongkhlaw, after the tea breaks. When we reached, it was almost always dark. You can smell the difference between Shillong and Jirang. Jirang smells like the earth leaks out its aroma, heavy and comforting, it smelled like the forest around and the ground, Shillong, depends on where you live but where we lived then, it smelled musky or crisp.
When we reached, in my younger days, before my mother’s family built a slightly more modern house, we had a bamboo hut, with a roof made of long grass. My memories of the old place are vague, but the important thing is the smen(fire) and the pong. In the old house, the fire was in the middle of the kitchen, around which everyone sat. It had a woven platform over it, hung from the ceiling. There you kept food and smoked the meat. In the new house, the smen was in one end of the kitchen, on the sides were pickles heating in the fire and soot covered kettles. The pong is a bamboo structure attached to the kitchen, with a low bamboo wall. On one side is a bamboo structure, rising a little from the floor, where we kept the dabors and the soaps and buckets. We always showered in the pong, with the sky above and the other kids. It is an experience that I’m so grateful to have had.
We speak Mnar in Jirang, a language so different, mutually unintelligible from Khasi. My training in linguistics tells me this is a different variety of the Khasian languages. There are several of them. While we share so many of the ways in which we talk about the world, about our experiences of it, languages are also different. To call a language a language and to mark variances as dialects, is a political process and very often do not do justice to the variants. If we look at Norwegian and Swedish, they share many more similarities than Standard Khasi and Mnar, and yet they are languages, because they are spoken in different countries. So for historical reasons and political reasons, Standard Khasi has become “the Language”, and all the others, dialects. However, the grammar, the phonology of languages like Pnar and Mnar (and I suspect several other “dialects”) differ from Khasi to a point where a linguist would classify them as different languages. These discussions happen between linguists and one can find them in several papers and theses on these languages. It is also sad that such a process limits the studies of the variances, which is an important part of understanding who we are. Attached to a language, is a wealth of information – folk stories, medicinal knowledge, information on language contact, to name a few.
Back to Jirang, we always wake up early there. My aunt wakes up at 4:00 or even earlier, to go to the field. Sometimes we went along, ‘lih-sut’. To harvest and clear the fields. We’d walk to the jungle (thick jungles) and in my head, it was always far away. Each of us got a basket on our backs, with a rope that goes over the head or the shoulders. We kept our knives, packed rice in leaves and whatever else we needed for the day. When we reach the field, there is a tiny structure generally, where we keep our ‘prah’ and get to work. In the afternoon, my aunt would make a fire, cook some jew-jhit (a sour, reddish vegetable) and then we sit down to eat. Nothing tastes better than food cooked over fire. Then we work for some more, and head back home. On the way, we might get some jew-syioh, or synsar as it is called in Khasi and some wild vegetables. I’ve never met animals in the jungle, but I know people who did. My aunt met a Bengal tiger face to face when she was a child and the stories send shivers down my spine. She was very brave and got home in one piece, and in a terrible fright. But that is a story for another piece perhaps.
We also had to fetch water, from ‘u-am – masculine, singular-water’. The source of water is masculine in Mnar, though water itself is feminine. We took our phiangs (water pots)with us and went to fetch water. On the way, we cross some neighbour’s huts and we always stopped by to chat. The whole place is hilly, going to the toilet was going dowhill a bit. Going to ‘u-am’ was going downhill, then uphill a little. While going downhill, we cross a small jungle, where I first saw a coffee seed. My cousin showed it to me way back, when she was little too, and I wondered how she knew such things. In that little forest, which was behind my grandparents’ and now aunt’s house, were many pineapples and tympew. At the watersource, the water trickles through a thick bamboo stick and collects in a little pool. Beyond the water source is where the big jungle is.
We have several cousins in Jirang and playing with them is always such fun. You never play only one or two people. You always played in huge group. We played with big seeds I remember. You hold the seed between your big toe and the one next to it and hopped around and shot it with your toe. I might be wrong about the particulars of the game, but it was fun. We also carved houses into the sides of the lane. You see most pathways were cut into the mud, so there is almost always a bit of a mud wall on the side of a street. We used to cut into them and make houses, complete with rooms and if you were good enough you could also cut the furniture into it. There was always something to do in Jirang. Like going to different markets on different days of the week. I was too young to go to the markets further away and I always felt so jealous of my older cousins, because they were grown-up enough to do that. But I did get to go to the one in the village, Io Mnar. The markets were on Tuesdays if I remember correctly. It was the most exciting thing. The shops are all small structures of wood or bamboo. We have people selling and buying from the surrounding villages as well. I always got some puffed rice with jaggery. On the road to and from the market, there were several places where spirits lived, in a dense growth of vegetation. In Jirang the spirits live in the rocks and streams and particular locations. One should be careful where one stands for too long.