Introduction to "Tales of Darkness and Light" by Janet Hujon
Tales of Darkness and Light: Soso Tham’s Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiewtrep: The Old Days of the Khasis (Translation and Commentary by Janet Hujon, 2018)
Then will the rivers of our homeland tear the hills apart²
The year is 1935. The event, at least for literature in Khasi, is momentous. A man diminutive in stature but with a voice that cradled the vast soul of his people had decided to do what he knew best. He completed a classic in Khasi literature and the Shillong Printing Works published The Old Days of the Khasis (Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiew Trep).³ Soso Tham came in from the wilderness to carve in words the identity of his people—he made us see, he made us hear, he made us feel and he made us fear.
In a land still under British rule this legendary schoolteacher expressed a weary frustration with the English texts he had taught his students year after year. He declared that from now on “he would do it himself”. And so he did. An oral culture for whom, in 1841, Thomas Jones of the Welsh Presbyterian Mission had devised a script, now had a scribe whose work expresses a profound love for his homeland and an unwavering pride in the history of his tribe—a history kept alive in rituals and social customs and in fables and legends handed down by generations of storytellers.
Soso Tham refused to believe that a people with no evidence of a written history was without foundation or worth. He set out to compile in verse shared memories of the ancient past—ki sngi barim—presenting his people with their own mythology depicting a social and moral universe still relevant to the present day. For him the past is not a dark place but a source of Light, of Enlightenment. It may lie buried but it is not dead, and when discovered will provide the reason for its continued survival. Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiew Trep is the lyrical result of dedicated devotion. It is an account of how Seven Clans—U Hynñiew Trep—came down to live on this earth. Tham tells us how
Groups into a Nation grew
Words ripening to a mother tongue
Manifold adherents, one bonding Belief
Ceremonial dances, offerings of joy, united by a common weave,
Laws and customs slowly wrought
Bound this Homeland into one⁴
Not content to be the passive, unquestioning recipient of literary output and thought imposed by a foreign ruling power, Soso Tham decided to write in his native Khasi and about his own culture. Although he had embraced Christianity and imbibed Hellenic influences through his reading of English poetry, writing in Khasi expressed his resistance to the dominance of English—for surely, did not the Muse also dwell in his homeland? Creativity, he declared, is not the prerogative of any one culture. With the Himalayan foothills as a backdrop, winding rivers silvering the landscape, and hollows of clear pools and hillside springs, Tham points out that Khasis too have their own Bethel and Mount Parnassus and their own sources of inspiration from which to drink like Panora and Hippocrene in ancient Greece. His dalliance in the literature of distant lands had led him home.
But in throwing off his colonial yoke to mark out an independent path, Tham did so with no trace of chauvinism. His affinity with the Romantics cannot be ignored. While he worked on his articulation of a Khasi vision, Tham remained alive to the gentle unifying truths of human experience and this can be seen in his translations of William Wordsworth’s poems into Khasi.
For reasons of accessibility the nightingale (The Solitary Reaper) becomes the local “kaitor”,⁵ the violet (“Lucy”: She dwelt among the Untrodden Ways) becomes the “jami-iang”,⁶ and isn’t it just serendipitous that Wordsworth’s Cuckoo should so fit Soso Tham’s like a glove? This is because her call is heard in the Khasi Hills as it is in the Lake District. So when Tham addresses the bird as “queen of this land of peace” I feel he has not mistranslated the line “Or but a wandering voice?” but has chosen instead to give this spirit of the woods “a local habitation and a name”. The Khasification of the cuckoo is complete and a mutual recognition of the need to cherish what we have is established. Perhaps Wordsworth did us a favour, for without his poem Khasis may have never benefited from Tham’s translation thus opening our ears and hearts to this denizen haunting our woods.
Poignant sadness in the face of beauty lost or just out of reach, so moving in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, is also felt in Ki Sngi Barim: inevitable perhaps in a piece recalling the past amidst a perilous present. Keats is therefore a gentle presence in Tham’s work, for listen:
High on the pine the Kairiang sings⁷
About the old the long lost past,
Sweetness lies just out of reach
And such the songs I too will sing⁸
Stars of truth once shone upon
The darkness of our midnight world
Oh Da-ia-mon, Oh Pen of Gold
Put down all that there is to know
Awaken and illuminate
Before the dying of the light⁹
Furthermore, scenes from a Hellenic past in Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn dovetail neatly with the Khasi homeland where forces of nature each had their own deity. Ki Sngi Barim testifies to the ancient Khasi belief that the green hills, forests, valleys and tumbling waterfalls are guarded or haunted by their own patron deities and spirits. Reverence or fear has traditionally served to protect the natural world. Soso Tham himself might well have asked:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities of mortals or of both
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?…
With their own world of sacred ritual and sacrifice Khasis would also have understood:
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? ¹⁰
Discovering the resonances between the English literary canon and Khasi poetry has undoubtedly been a source of pleasure because for me they underline the human stories we all tell. But this was not necessarily Soso Tham’s intention. What he wanted to do was to correct a gross misconception that still scars and skews the way Khasis look at themselves vis-à-vis western culture. His aim was to rebuild and restore cultural pride. Recounting the carefully laid down rules of social conduct, the heated durbars where systems of governance were debated and established, and the fierce fighting spirit of fabled warriors, Tham challenges the derogatory labelling of his people as mere “collectors of heads” or “uncouth jungle dwellers” incapable of sensitive thought and action.
Once Great Minds did wrestle with thought
To strengthen the will, to toughen the nerve
Once too in parables they spoke they taught
In public durbar or round the family hearth
In search of a king, a being in whom
The hopes of all souls could blossom and fruit
Boundaries defined, rights respected
Trespass a taboo remaining unbroken
Equal all trade, fairness maintained
Comings and goings in sympathy in step
Welfare and woe of common concern
Concord’s dominion on the face of the earth¹¹
What the poet constantly underlines is that a homeland and a way of life that has survived for centuries cannot be dismissed as insignificant—his ancestors were accurate readers of the writing on the land heeding the lessons and warnings inscribed on “wood and stone”.12 It is this wisdom that accounts for the continued existence of a unique people who, until relatively recently, lived life in tune with their natural surroundings and in sympathy with one another. This is why when Soso Tham renders in words the inspiring beauty of his homeland he does so with profound love and reverence, declaring with absolute conviction:
Look East, look West, look South, look North
A land beloved of the gods
With a pride so touching in its childlike certainty he expects no dissent when he asks:
Will the high Himalaya
Ever turn away from her
Pleasure garden, fruit and flower
Where young braves wander, maidens roam
Between the Rilang and Kupli¹³
This is the land they call their home¹⁴
To fully appreciate why Soso Tham is the voice of his people, one needs to know how Khasis respond to the world around them, and we must profoundly reflect upon this if we are to piece together again the shattered vessel of our cultural confidence. Here I recall what was for me a blinding flash in my understanding of the workings of my mother tongue. Years ago while we were travelling on the London Underground, my cousin made the following observation about an elevator carrying the city’s crowds. In Khasi she said: “Ni, sngap ba ka ud”. This would be the equivalent of saying: “Oh dear! Listen to her moan”. Simply because the old grimy elevator had been assigned the status of a human being and specifically that of a woman—“ka”—I immediately empathised with “her” suffering. In English the elevator would normally have been referred to as “it”, and I am convinced that my imaginative reaction to it would have been bland if not altogether non-existent.
On that day I rediscovered the creative roots of my mother tongue. I was reminded that not only do Khasis see living beings, natural forces and inanimate objects as either male or female, but they also endow them with human qualities and feelings. It is this innate poetic tendency that makes the world come alive for every Khasi and no one exemplifies this better than Soso Tham. So when he writes about the great storms that batter Sohra, we are left in no doubt that here we are dealing with a living breathing entity, human in essence but with far greater power to awe:
So the waterfalls threaten and the rivers they growl
They sink to the plains and they smother the reed
They banish wild boar who have ruled unopposed
For that is the way our mighty rains roll
Rivers turn to the left and advance on the right
They collide with and devour whatever’s in sight
Small islands appear as rice fields are sunk
The might of the Surma gives the Brahma a fright¹⁵
Tham’s words beat in time to the tempo of the natural world with which he so closely identifies, so that the storm lives through the poet and the poet lives through the storm. The poet is the storm. The vivid description provides an insight into what informs the hill person’s view of the natural world—this being the ability to respond with both awe and enthusiasm to the might and capriciousness of Nature. For a Khasi to underestimate the significance of perceiving, evaluating and identifying the effects of the natural world on them would be dangerous if not fatal. Yes we can delight in the Khasi flair for storytelling seen in Tham’s descriptions of gentle charm, sweeping majesty and lively engagement, but it is more important to heed the passages inspiring fearful dread. In a land burgeoning with promise and flowing with contentment the sonorous toll of doom is never ever totally muted. Then and even more so now that sense of foreboding cannot be ignored.
In the process of translating I came across the word “tluh” which Tham used in connection with his first poetic breakthrough when he was translating the English poem Drive the Nail Aright Boys into Khasi. I had to look up the word because it does not form part of my everyday use of Khasi. When I found out that “tluh” is “a tree—the fibres of which are used to make ropes, or improvise head-straps, strings”—I felt both enlightened and apprehensive. I felt enlightened because I realised that a whole world of Khasi knowledge and expertise lay in just that one word. But elation was soon replaced by dread.
In his book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees Roger Deakin mourns the fact that “woods have been suppressed by motorways and the modern world, and have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape […] The enemies of woods”, he says, “are always the enemies of culture and humanity”¹⁶… and this is what made me apprehensive. Had I not come across the word “tluh”, I would never have discovered the world to which it refers. How much more do I not know? How much more have we lost? I therefore marvel not only at our poet’s appropriate choice of image but I also value the lesson he points us towards.
Today the Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills form part of Meghalaya, a state in North-East India which came into being following local demand for the recognition of a strongly felt tribal identity. But it is clearly evident that long before this overt political step was taken Soso Tham had already addressed the question of identity, carrying with it that sense of rootlessness deeply embedded in the Khasi psyche, a raw wound sensitive to the reminder that “the Other” whom we have encountered in our recorded history has invariably been certain of his or her historical beginnings. This, I feel, accounts for the leitmotif of sadness running through Khasi literary and musical compositions, and the numerous nuanced terms for sadness and regret. Tham speaks for so many when he asks:
Tell me children of the breaking dawn
You who circle round the world
Where the soil from which we sprang?
For if I could, like you I’d drift
Down the ends of twelve-year roads!¹⁷
Ki Sngi Barim is both a love letter to his homeland and a troubled and troubling exploration of what makes and sustains that fragile sense of self. He sees the battle for identity being waged on two fronts—against the enemy without and the enemy within. A reading of the work reveals in no uncertain terms that Tham fears the enemy within more than he does the foe without. Tragically this is still the case today. Mineral-rich Meghalaya with its dense forest cover is now a treasure trove being exploited by the rapacious few using tribal “rights” over the land as justification for their actions:
Man’s greed is now a gluttonous sow
(A pouch engorged about to rip)¹⁸
Ki Sngi Barim is trenchant social critique told through a trajectory of spiritual questing. Through the converging prisms of Khasi myth and religion, Tham tells the universal story of temptation and man’s fall from grace. But despite the poet’s despair hope is never totally lost, for the narrative journeys towards the possibility of rejuvenation as we see in the final section Ka Aïom Ksiar (Season of Gold):
The Peacock will dance when the Sun returns¹⁹
And she will bathe in the Rupatylli²⁰
O Rivers Rilang, Umiam and Kupli²¹
Sweet songs in you will move inspire
Land of Nine Roads, pathways of promise²²
Where the Mole will strum, the Owl will dance²³
Spellbound by the beauty of his homeland, the poet steadfastly holds on to his belief that the land that he fiercely cherishes and that inspires his art will once again be a spring of renewal and creativity. Whatever else this translation may achieve, my hope is that the powerful life of an old tradition will reawaken so that when we read we will hear:
The crash of rivers, the thunder of waterfalls
In the Khasi minstrel’s reed-piped-ears
Where tumult is hushed and silence then ripples
To the furthest brink of infinite time²⁴
Perhaps the human voice will once again reassert its power to empower and change:
Then once again will forests roar
And stones long still shake to the core²⁵
1 Some of the ideas in the Introduction have appeared in articles I submitted to the Shillong Times (Meghalaya) and in a paper entitled ‘Surviving Change’ which I presented at a conference organised by Lady Keane College, Shillong, in August 2014.
2 Closing line in Soso Tham’s Preface to Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiew Trep.
3 Published in Shillong in 1936.
4 Ka Persyntiew (The Flower Garden), in Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiew Trep.
5 Himalayan Treepie (Dendrocitta formosae), now endangered.
6 Sapphire Berry (Symplocos Paniculata).
7 Chestnut-backed Laughing Thrush (Garrulax nuchalis) also threatened by habitat loss.
8 Ka Persyntiew (The Flower Garden), in Ki Sngi Barim.
9 Ka Pyrthei Mariang (The Natural World), in Ki Sngi Barim.
10 John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, ll:5–7 and ll:31—34.
11 Ka Meirilung (Gentle Motherland), in Ki Sngi Barim.
12 Ki Symboh Ksiar (Grains of Gold).
13 The names of rivers in the Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills respectively.
14 Ka Persyntiew (The Flower Garden), in Ki Sngi Barim.
15 Ki Kshaid ba Rymphum (Cascades of Joy), in Ka Duitara Ksiar. The Surma is a river in Bangladesh; Brahma is the mighty Brahmaputra (son of Brahma) which flows through Assam.
16 Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (London: Penguin, 2008), Introduction, p. xii.
17 Ka Meirilung (Gentle Motherland), in Ki Sngi Barim.
18 U Lyoh (The Cloud), in Ki Sngi Barim.
19 A Khasi tale explaining the eyes on the tail of the Peacock who once upon a time lived in the sky with his wife the Sun. But one day as he looked down on the earth below he saw a golden-haired maiden with whom he instantly fell in love. He flew down only to discover that he had been captivated by a field of golden mustard. The foolish peacock was left heartbroken and realised he was doomed to live on earth forever. From that time onwards each morning he danced at sunrise to greet his wife whose tears would fall on his outspread tail and became those eyes on the tail of the Peacock.
20 The Surma now in Bangladesh. Here it is compared to a necklace of solid silver.
21 Rivers in the Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills.
22 The Khasi word “lad” means both path or road as well as opportunity, so to translate the phrase “Khyndai lad” solely into Nine Roads would not necessarily imply opportunity. Hence my addition of “pathways of promise” in order to convey the local extended meaning of the word.
23 Both the Mole and the Owl participate in a dance described in the legend about the Sacred Cave where the Sun hid her light to punish living creatures for casting doubt on her relationship with her brother the Moon. See Chapter 3, pp. 21–22.
24 U Lum Shillong (Shillong Peak), in Ka Duitara Ksiar.
25 From Ka Persyntiew (The Flower Garden), in Ki Sngi Barim.
Kane ka dei ka lamkhmat jong ka kot Tales of Darkness and Light: The Old Days of the Khasis (2018) kaba la thoh da i Janet Hujon. Kane ka kot ka dei ka jingpynkylla sha ka ktien English ïa Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiewtrep ba la thoh da u myllung Soso Tham.
Kane ka lamkhmat ka long kaba shoh jingmut ban pule bad ka ai jingshai shaphang ka mynsiem bad jingsngewthuh jong u Soso Tham kum u myllung bad u rangbah Khasi. ✒️📖
This is the introduction to the book Tales of Darkness and Light: The Old Days of the Khasis (2018) written by Janet Hujon. This book is an English translation of Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiewtrep written by Khasi Poet Laureate Soso Tham.
This introduction is a lovely read and it enlightens the reader on the values and heart of Soso Tham as a poet and a Khasi man. ✒️📖
🟡 The cover art for this particular edition published by Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong @mlcuniv has been done by @careenjoplinlangstieh
🟡 The book can be downloaded for free from here: https://www.openbookpublishers.com/books/10.11647/obp.0137