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When Nature Remembers: A Study of Memoir in Water: Speaks the Wah Umkhrah by Esther Syiem (Excerpt)

When Nature Remembers: A Study of Memoir in Water: Speaks the Wah Umkhrah

by Esther Syiem

-Dr. Daiarisa Rumnong

In Memoir in Water: Speaks the Wah Umkhrah by Esther Syiem (2017), the human narrative impulse is transferred onto Wah Umkhrah or river Umkhrah. The river is personified, becoming alive with stories that reveal self, identity and experience. Syiem says

I have been in close connection with the river because our house overlooks it. I would go to sleep listening to it, almost as if it were talking to me, asking me to take heed of it. I would also remember my father's stories and mother's stories too. They'd talk about it as if it were alive and human (Syiem, Esther. Personal Interview. 29 September 2020).

The changes Wah Umkhrah has undergone have become a cultural metaphor for the Khasi community who are striving to preserve a sense of identity through the palimpsest of collective and cultural memory embedded in the oral tradition. In Memoir in Water: Speaks the Wah Umkhrah, the river is the narrative consciousness who takes on the stance of historiographer, chronicling human experience, meandering the struggles of life, sustained by the reality of the oral, the mythical and the supernatural. In due course, the river documents its own self-revelation refracting into the roles of spectator, mother, father, sister, brother, daughter and son. In the Foreword, Wah Umkhrah states its identity:

I am the river Umkhrah, ka Wah Umkhrah, they call me here. I flow from east to west on the northern side of the Shillong valley. My sister Wah Umshyrpi in the south flows in the same direction. We meet somewhere beyond Sunapani Falls in the west and join together as Ka Wah Ro Ro (Syiem).

Syiem uses the river to critique Khasi society which has undergone inevitable changes under the grasp of the coloniser and now under the grasp of modernisation and globalisation.

The stories that Wah Umkhrah narrates mirror the frailty, hope and mystery of human life. In the story of Khrawbok, the guises of love are exposed by the river as it observes with human senses, the journey that love sometimes takes. The wife of Khrawbok represents the women who fall into marriage while young and inexperienced. Replaced by an older woman she is, to use the cliché, more sinned against than sinning, as the river offers commentary on the slow and aggravating departure of Khrawbok from his marriage, family and finally life. The narrative consciousness notices the nooks and crannies of cunning, desire, control, power, denial, holding up a script of truth that Khasi society would rather overlook. The river alternates between narrating the stories and addressing the reader, as if eliciting a response that it wants.

Tell me now do you still believe that you're innocent, that you're without any blame?...When you were still wrapped in your unknowing you let me be...Even in death you paid homage to me...What's the ritual now? Dead bodies trussed up and dumped without ceremony; new born babies discarded on my banks; mutilations galore and queer things at night, always at night (Syiem 17).

The story of Kyrmen Skhem merges the mythical, supernatural and real worlds, forcing the reader to realise the labyrinth of connections between the living creatures of this world. Kyrmen Skhem is an introvert who takes a water nymph for a wife. When Kyrmen Skhem finally tells his mother about his family, she is shocked but agrees to meet his wife and her grandchildren. It is in this meeting that tragedy strikes. Not knowing that she could not take out a broom in the presence of water nymphs, Kyrmen Skhem's mother takes one out and in a flash Kyrmen Skhem's wife vanishes. After some days Kyrmen Skhem's children arrive in the form of beautiful butterflies. Neither she nor Kyrmen Skhem knew that they would come as butterflies. As they alighted on rice grains that their grandmother was cleaning, she unknowingly struck them down with a synrei since they did not move when she shooed them away. Horror and disbelief engulf as Kyrmen Skhem returns to his watery home cradling his children.

In one instant, the bond between man and nature, myth and the supernatural is severed once more. This event is a metaphor for the strained relationship between man and the environment, which most times ends with man destroying the delicate vulnerability of nature. It is only when nature is seen as an equal to man, that the convergence of identity, myth, memory, culture will bring about a sustaining relationship.

The loss of an understanding and sympathy for nature in the present time may be regained by analysing the ecocritical relevance of Khasi oral tradition, culture and literature. Perhaps it will be beneficial to study this relevance through a balance of anthropocentricism and ecocentricism. In this way, discourse will be initiated on how the condition of nature reflects the well-being of its human caretakers and how it may also be a critique of human society.

The current polluted state of Wah Umkhrah has evoked cultural metaphors and cultural narratives of a community trying to preserve a past, while grappling with the demands of the present. When asked if Wah Umkhrah is a source of identity for the Khasi community, Syiem says:

Definitely for the older generation living in Shillong. During my generation when more young people had opportunities of study away from home, this source receded. Today I see it coming back to haunt the living realities of a lot of young people who don't seem to see it, however, as we saw it, but only as part of the larger ecosystem that needs to be regenerated (Syiem, Esther. Personal Interview. September 29, 2020).

Thus, the present generation needs to see Wah Umkhrah as a living source of identity and memory. This is the "ecological consciousness" (Nayar 344) which Memoir in Water: Speaks the Wah Umkhrah seeks to evoke and provoke into being. Presenting the thoughts, emotions and memories of the river as a memoir, Syiem offers an alternative form of the collective and cultural memory as well as history of the Khasi community, thereby forging a sense of identity.

It's World Environment Day, 5th June 2023!🌲🏞️
Na ka bynta ban kynmaw ïa kane ka sngi, kine ki dei ki bynta ba la sot na ka artikl wad bniah ba la thoh da i Dr. Daiarisa Rumnong @daia.risa kaba kyrteng "When Nature Remembers: A Study of 𝘔𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘪𝘳 𝘪𝘯 𝘞𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘳: 𝘚𝘱𝘦𝘢𝘬𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘢𝘩 𝘜𝘮𝘬𝘩𝘳𝘢𝘩 by Esther Syiem". Ïa kane ka artikl wad bniah la pynmih ha ka Spectrum (Peer Reviewed Journal): An International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, December 2022., Vol. 10, ISSN 2319-6076.
Ha ka 𝘔𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘪𝘳 𝘪𝘯 𝘞𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘳: 𝘚𝘱𝘦𝘢𝘬𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘢𝘩 𝘜𝘮𝘬𝘩𝘳𝘢𝘩 ka Wah Umkhrah ka kylla long kum ka briew kaba kren bad pyni ïa ki jingbakla u bynriew ha ka jingïadei jong u bad jong ka, kum ka bynta jong ka mariang. 🏞️
For this day, these are excerpts from a research article written by Dr. Daiarisa Rumnong @daia.risa entitled "When Nature Remembers: A Study of 𝘔𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘪𝘳 𝘪𝘯 𝘞𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘳: 𝘚𝘱𝘦𝘢𝘬𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘢𝘩 𝘜𝘮𝘬𝘩𝘳𝘢𝘩 by Esther Syiem". This article has been published in Spectrum (Peer Reviewed Journal): An International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, December 2022., Vol. 10, ISSN 2319-6076.
In 𝘔𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘪𝘳 𝘪𝘯 𝘞𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘳: 𝘚𝘱𝘦𝘢𝘬𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘢𝘩 𝘜𝘮𝘬𝘩𝘳𝘢𝘩 the river is personified as it speaks and shows mankind the mistakes committed against it in his relationship with it as a part of nature. 🏞️
🟡 No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without the consent of the author. Proper citation should strictly be adhered to when quoting any part of this research. All material for this content has been researched by Daiarisa Rummong, PhD.

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