All Khasi Women Need Representation
By Laiamon Naomi Nengnong
I would not be writing this piece, had it not been for an unforgettable scene from the recently produced, Iewduh, a movie in Khasi, that centred on many characters in the backdrop of a marketplace here in Shillong. The scene was of a woman, Priya, orphaned by her relatives, who lived with her abusive husband and children in one of the shacks in the market. She set herself in flames one night, after becoming sick and tired of his continuous abuses, in a way to ‘assert freedom’ from the circumstances she had to live through daily. The scene, fictional as it may be, made me realize that the representation of this woman’s life is not far from the reality of experiences that certain women from this place go through.
More often than not, writers who write about Meghalaya, or about the Khasi society only glorify or romanticize the picturesque beauty of this place (which is undeniable), and the system of lineage that exists here. As a Khasi and a woman, however, I cannot help but opine that there is a lot that is being neglected in such narratives. These narratives can be seen as consisting of one side of the story. But it definitely is not everything in the picture. As much as I cannot comment in the way a sociologist perhaps would, I have only stories that would show the different intrigues to the stories of different women that deserve more representation in art platforms.
Three years ago, after encountering a long line of household helpers, Theiieid* entered our lives. Born in a poor family who could barely support her schooling, she stayed at home to help her old mother, in all the years before she worked for our family. She is the only girl amongst her siblings, and that by tradition makes her the inheritor as well as the caretaker of her mother. She had a live-in relationship with a man for three years before being pregnant with a baby boy. People have asked her why she took so long to be legally married to the man, but in a family like hers, it seems quite difficult for a Presbyterian girl to marry a Catholic man. The relatives, of both sides of the family, will not like it if the member of their family has to “follow” anyone into becoming a member of a church different from the one they have been brought up in. Theiieid often tells me of her past: the tumultuous relationship she had with her now ex-boyfriend. When she was pregnant, she found that her ex-boyfriend was cheating on her with girls who were also helpers. She read their text messages, found their missed calls, and had even reacted in anger by throwing his phone so that he would not be able to contact them anymore. After the birth of her child, her husband fled. What is really appalling to me is the fact that the ex-boyfriend’s mother suggested her son should leave Theiieid once she has the baby rather than before the birth, in a way to show her sympathy for Theiieid’s situation. When Theiieid and the man were still together, the ex-boyfriend’s mother often invited them to stay over at her home. Condescending on Theiieid’s family background, the latter found it suitable for Theiieid to wash all the family members’ laundry, cook, clean, and finish her duties faster than any bonded servant. She never condemned her son’s acts of cheating or being a burden to Theiieid’s family when he barely brought a penny home and contributed nothing to the financial situation they were in. When he felt like leaving her stranded, to settle with another woman, his mother expressed no disapproval and was never apologetic about it. Theiieid, for the sake of her family’s survival, handed her baby under the nurture of her mother while she earned to feed her family. Years on, Theiieid meets another man and planns to get married next year. All seems well for her as this new man in her life shows affection for her son, and his family is quite accepting of the fact that she has already had a son from a previous relationship.
My mother told me once, that she met Kong Deng,* a housekeeper who had worked when mother was a teenager. Having read Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, the story of Kong Deng just reminded me of Tess, a victim of circumstances whose wheel of Fate kept turning against her. But Kong Deng’s story did not start with her. It started with her aunt, Bih* who became the guardian of Kong Deng and her five other siblings after the death of their mother during childbirth. It is to be noted that as per the matrilineal system strictly adhered to by the Khasis in the rural areas, as well as the towns in the olden days, Kong Deng’s father, having been a man who married into a family and settled in his wife’s house while his wife was still alive, owed no responsibility of taking care of his children when his wife was dead. So Kong Deng’s father left his children to remarry. Kong Deng was still a toddler when it happened. The entire village knew about the mistreatment of these children by Bih. There was a rumor spread that Kong Deng was a thief and a gossiper as a child, and so at a young age, she was sent to Shillong to work as a housekeeper. In Shillong, she met a good-for-nothing boy named Nah,* and on knowing this, Bih quickly arranged for Kong Deng’s white wedding in the village. A day after the ceremony and celebration have been done, the police made an appearance, handcuffed Nah, took him back to jail for stealing.
Time went by and Nah returned from jail to Kong Deng and made life even more difficult for her. He regularly beat her and even tried to kill her by cutting the skin of her entire body with a blade and horrendously pouring salt and lime on the cuts and disposing her unconscious body in the jungle for dead. On the night this happened, a Nepali man found her, took her to shelter and nursed her back to health. Kong Deng later on left Nah and re-married. They settled in a place that is still an outskirt to Shillong and very far off from the village. Her new husband was a kind man but he became terribly sick and Kong Deng was forced to become the sole bread winner of her family. Her husband’s family was never accepting of her, and always blamed Kong Deng for her husband’s plight. A day came when Kong Deng and her children made a trip to the village to visit Bih. Evening dawned fast and travelling back to Shillong would have been cumbersome. Bih refused her niece and the children a place to stay. Eventually, a next door neighbor took them in for the night and Kong Deng and her children travelled back home the next morning.
One may wonder, if Bih was so crude to her niece, how would her relationship be towards a daughter-in-law, perhaps, or a son-in-law, people who married members of her own family? Her eldest son Heh* was married and had three children. Heh ill-treated his wife and his children, beat his children for trivial reasons, screamed at his family whenever he wished, came home drunk every night and usually threw the food he brought on the kitchen floor, for the children to pick it up because it was their dinner. His wife knew that he was a serial cheater. He had all this authority because he had carefully planned to be the provider for the household and let his wife stay at home to take care of the children, keeping her preoccupied enough to never look for a job. Heh’s acts of mistreatment were all because of Bih’s insinuations. Bih always made her son feel like he was giving away to his children too much. He had bought a car which was used to run a taxi business. On the event of Heh’s death, Bih took the car away along with crockery that she felt her son had bought for this family. After her son’s death, even these material things did not belong to his widowed wife and his children. During funerals, the Khasis have a way of gifting money to the bereaved, as a way to show deep condolences. Bih took the chance of collecting this money and kept it all in her pocket. The car was sold off after a few months of the demise and not a penny came to Heh’s children.
In these stories that I have related, the kinds of abuses are diverse, and the abusers are not gendered. Despite the prevalent view that our society adores women so much, there is a flip side especially when economically disadvantaged women, orphaned women, widowed women are concerned. These women have only been silent sufferers. Whatever be the root of these abuses, I hope that with the increased representation of stories like these, our society would know better, be better and act better.
*All names in the article have been changed to common Khasi nicknames.
Picture Credit: Sankirang L. Khongwir
Laiamon Naomi Nengnong is from Shillong, Meghalaya. She finished her college education with a major in English from St. Mary’s College, Shillong and completed her Master’s degree in North Eastern Hill University. Apart from her interest in literature, she is also a pianist and music teacher, with a Grade 8 certificate from Trinity College, London. She also loves traveling and playing a few adventurous sports. She is dedicated to exploring pockets of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills that are well known to only locals of the different areas, especially for being the backdrop to the folktales and legends every Khasi child grew up on. Her other engagements include volunteering as an English teacher for the under-privileged students in a Free Tuition project by the Women’s organization of a local church. She is currently teaching English and Communication Skills at Synod College, Shillong.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.