I’ve attempted to keep the focus of this book as narrow as possible, which admittedly has been difficult when trying to describe a place as unusual and multifaceted as the Khasi Hills. My aim has not been to characterize Khasi culture and history in its entirety. To do so would require a very different book than that which I would be qualified to write. Rather, I’ve endeavored to paint as vivid a picture as possible of the few places in the Khasi Hills I passed through during a long trek in the winter of 2019. But, as I hope anyone reading this work will understand, there is vastly more to the Khasi world than what is found in these pages.
For historical and anthropological sources, I’ve drawn extensively from the accounts of early British travelers, scientists, and colonial officials, and also from the works of the Khasi historian Hamlet Bareh and other more recent Khasi and Indian scholars. But there are large swathes of the Khasi Hills which these sources barely mention, and which have only been subjected to the most cursory academic study. Therefore, much of the information in this work is derived from folk knowledge that was provided to me in a series of interviews with local people I recorded during my trek. Given the lack of written sources, this sort of vernacular knowledge is often the only way to learn about the remote corners of the Khasi Hills, and it provides numerous useful and interesting perspectives. But it can also be difficult to verify, and after the fashion of folk knowledge the world over, it tends to warp with time and telling. Particularly when it comes to matters of indigenous myths and spiritual beliefs, there are likely to be innumerable variations of the stories found below. I’ve tried to make it clear when I’m dealing with well documented material and with folklore. That said, any factual errors in this work are solely my own.
Much of the dialogue in this book comes either from notes I took during the trek, or directly from the interviews mentioned above. What I’ve reconstructed from my notes does contain a certain amount of artistic license. While recording conversations I participated in or overheard I made sure to include the gist of the discussions and turns of phrase which stuck with me.
As for the interviews I recorded, my original intention had been to present these only with very limited editing. But a problem with this approach soon became apparent: A simple transcript of one of these interviews would be well-nigh indecipherable to someone who hadn’t spent a great deal of time on the ground in the Khasi Hills. This is because the linguistic situation in the region is mind-bogglingly complex, with a vast number of local dialects and unwritten languages, all on top of the usual mix of languages one encounters in India. One of the first interviews I tried to transcribe involved words from the “official” literary Khasi language, three different village dialects, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, and, of course, English. Also, these conversations were frequently recorded inside noisy households, more often than not with loud children running around and neighbors wandering in and derailing the flow of the discussion. My questions usually needed to be rephrased numerous times before I got an answer. The interviews have thus been edited for clarity and conciseness, though I’ve been careful not to add any ideas, and I’ve tried as much as possible to record the way in which people in the remote parts of Meghalaya actually spoke. I’ve only corrected their grammar and word usage to the extent that a reader can understand their meaning.
Over the course of this project, I’ve made a distinction between the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. It should be noted that this is based more on the administrative division of the state of Meghalaya than on a hard and fast separation between the Khasi and Jaintia peoples. While the Jaintias have their own ethnic identity and a language that is different from (though closely related to) the official Khasi tongue, they are generally viewed as a sub-tribe of the Khasis, rather than a wholly separate group. Likewise, the geographical dividing line between the Khasi and Jaintia Hills is not always sharply defined. That said, administratively, the areas I walked through on my trek were located within the Southwest Khasi Hills and East Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya, while the place where I ended the walk, the small town of Jarain, is situated on the edge of the West Jaintia Hills District.
Khasi place names can be frustratingly similar for people who are unused to them. For example, settlements beginning with ‘Maw,’ which means ‘stone’ in Khasi, are truly ubiquitous. Mawsynram, Mawlongba, Mawphu, Mawsna, Mawpud, Mawpdai, and other ‘Maws’ will be encountered in the pages below. I fear all I can do to help the confused non-Khasi reader is provide a heads up, and let you know that you’re not alone: It took me several years to internalize the difference in spelling between the town of ‘MawkyrWat’ and the village of ‘MawkyrNot.’
I suspect many of the personal names in this book will be easier to remember, even if they strike readers from outside of Meghalaya as unusual. Below, you’ll meet people called Professor, Wonderful, Shiningstar, Distinguished, etc. These are all actual names that I’ve come across. However, except for a handful of cases, I’ve opted to change the names of the people I met during my long walk, though never to something that one wouldn’t be likely to encounter in the Khasi Hills.
I’ve also decided to mostly use metric units, even though as an American I’m accustomed to Imperial. This isn’t a political statement. I’ve done so because metric units were generally what were used in India, and I was frankly getting tired of making conversions.
Finally, one might get the impression from reading this book that I don’t like kids. This isn’t the case. The Khasis are breeding like rabbits, and children are ever-present in the Khasi Hills in a way that’s unlike any other place I’ve been to. A person who truly couldn’t stand kids would go insane within a few minutes of setting foot in Meghalaya.
It took me several weeks.