Review: Funeral Nights by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih

This seminal work of great scholarship contains hundreds of stories and anecdotes that open up a discussion on Khasi history, mythology and contemporary issues
Khasi women in traditional dress. (Shutterstock)
Khasi women in traditional dress. (Shutterstock)
Published on Oct 29, 2021 06:32 PM IST
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BySaudamini Jain

The Khasis have a great tradition of storytelling. They believe it developed after one of their forefathers accidentally swallowed their script.

At the time of creation, a Khasi man called Lyngkor the Soh Blei received divine instructions at a mountain summit. He carried back a manuscript of teachings for his people. On the way, he had to swim through a torrential river. For safety, he clutched the manuscript between his teeth but it turned into a pulpy mass anyway. Gasping for air, he ended up swallowing it. And so the book containing the Khasi script was lost. But Lyngkor remembered the instructions and passed it on to his people orally. That knowledge and wisdom, Khasis believe, is passed from generation to generation through instructive stories.

1009pp, ₹899; Westland
1009pp, ₹899; Westland

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s Funeral Nights feels like a recreation of that lost manuscript. A group of academics travel to Nongshyrkon, a remote village in the jungles of West Khasi Hills for an obscure funeral ceremony. Every night, they exchange stories and notes on Khasi folklore, culture and history.

This is keeping with Khasi funeral tradition. Khasis keep keep their dead for at least two nights. The two-night wakes are called “temples of wisdom” — friends and family gather to exchange stories. In Nongshyrkon though, the body of the deceased, an old woman who had been the last practitioner of the old Khasi custom, had been stored in a tree house for nine months. Enough time for the family to prepare for a feast: Ka Phor Sorat, the feast of the dead. Relatives and acquaintances would visit from far away; 50 bulls would be sacrificed.

The setting of the novel is based on a trip that Nongkynrih himself had taken to Nongshyrkon several years ago. The narrator Ap Jutang — like Nongkynrih — is a writer and an authority on Khasi culture. He introduces himself and sets up the book in an exceptional first chapter where his voice is the clearest — breezy, witty and wise.

The first time he visited Delhi, Ap says:

“When I told people that I came from Meghalaya, they asked me, ‘Where’s that?’ And when I told them of Shillong, they responded, ‘Ceylon? You’re from Ceylon?’ …It was in sheer frustration, therefore, that I replied to a rickshaw wallah: ‘I’m from Cherrapunjee. Do you know Cherrapunjee?’ To my utter surprise, he replied, ‘Wahan to bahut zyada barish hai.’ (‘They have a lot of rain over there’).”

It was raining quite heavily and uncharacteristically often in Delhi when I began reading Funeral Nights. And so I was particularly delighted to read about Sohra, the original name for what was previously known as Cherrapunjee, one of the wettest places in the world (overtaken by neighbouring Mawsynram a few years ago). Ap lists out the Khasi names for about 20 different kinds of rain: “Slap (rain), lapbah (heavy rain), lapsan (immense rain), lap-theh-ktang (pouring-from-bamboo-tube rain), lap-lai-miet (three-night rain), lap-hynriew-miet (six-night rain), lap-khyndai-miet (nine-night rain), lapphria (hail rain), lap-erïong (dark-wind rain/black storm), u kyllang (stormy rain), lapiwtung (smelly rain, because it continues for many days, causing clothes to stink), lappraw (light rain), lap-boi-ksi (louse-swarming rain, because it looks like lice and nits when it settles on hair and clothes), lap-ñiup-ñiup (soft, flaky rain, very light drizzle), lapshiliang (partial rain), laplynnong (rain confined to certain locales), lapkynriang (slanting rain), lapmynsaw (rain of danger, which has both literal and metaphorical meanings) and lap-bam-briew (human-devouring-rain, because it does not stop until some human has fallen to some rain-triggered disaster).”

“I have always wanted to write about us, Khasis, as a people,” he says. “I feel a sense of frustration, of helplessness and uselessness, when strangers come here and say whatever they like about us and get away with it. Among us, we have a word, jemdaw or jemrngiew, which means a souring of one’s luck, enfeeblement of one’s essence, destruction of one’s personality. That is how I sometimes feel…” he says. And so, he decided “to tell you the story of my people — to clear their ‘wounded name’.”

Author Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih (Courtesy the publisher)

Funeral Nights is a seminal work of great scholarship. Its 1000-ish pages contain hundreds of stories and anecdotes backed up by sources and facts, all meticulously contextualised. The characters debate each of these vigorously to open up a discussion on Khasi history, mythology and contemporary issues. “Having multiple people talking about an issue means that all viewpoints are represented,” Nongkynrih said in an interview. This, though, is the book’s biggest drawback. The conversations are trite rhetoric. They’re made more tedious by the fact that this group is mostly men doing the most annoying thing men do when they gather: whip out their devices to surpass each other. In this case, mobile phones and tablets are pulled out to counter facts and mansplain. The only woman, Mag, poses questions like an earnest schoolgirl. Often the text becomes preachy and sanctimonious.

Still, I began every chapter with renewed enthusiasm sparked by an anecdote or insight but each time, found myself struggling to move along. The problem is the form: this isn’t working as a novel. The only voice I liked is Ap’s and it gets diluted the moment other characters appear.

The stories themselves are fascinating. There’s a Hare and Tortoise tale about Umïam lake — called Burrapani in Hindi — on the outskirts of Shillong. It’s named after Ïam, a nymph who was so ashamed after losing a race to her homely sister, she turned into a river and spent her life sobbing — Umïam literally means weeping water.

Some stories open innocently, escalate unexpectedly into horror and turn out to be tied up in history: A pair of warrior brothers meet two visitors — also brothers — and trick them into a bet. The odds stacked against them, the visitors lose their land. Avoiding the payment of stake, they go into hiding with their families. But the warrior brothers find them in a remote cave. Now frightened, the family try to poison them. But their plot is discovered, and the angry pair murder the entire family including children. Only one pregnant woman escaped and gave birth to twins who also fled in different directions hoping to avoid further retribution. One of them moved towards Sylhet and married Wickliffe Syiem, the deputy king of Nongstein, the only Khasi king to rebel against the Instrument of Accession, the legal document devised for states to accede to India in 1947.

There are stories of love and betrayal, shapeshifters who devour their own, a whole world of magical creatures. The group discusses migration and all kinds of Khasi issues. One night they exchange stories of odd-sounding names — four brothers named Jesters, Molesters, Pesters and Monsters; others called Dicklick, Kissmefast, Latrineborn; a familiar newspaper headline naming candidates contesting legislative assembly elections held on a Monday: Odometer, Daystar, Uproarious, Romeoson, Sunday: all ready for Monday. The misspelt, made-up or peculiar English words are used to name children because “anything English-sounding is good.”

I also loved the detailed descriptions of food and drink. Rice wrapped in plantain leaves, pork-and-bamboo-shoot broth in bamboo tubes with lids fitted onto them. A drink made from a plant, legend says, was nurtured by the blood of moneys, tigers and wild boars, so “when a man drinks beer or spirit even today, he sometimes becomes a monkey, sometimes a tiger and sometimes a pig”. Betel nuts, especially in rural areas, are used to measure distances by estimating the number of betel nuts eaten on the way — one nut takes about 10 minutes which is about a kilometre.

Funeral Nights belongs on the bookshelves of students, journalists, filmmakers, travellers, artists, academics, and of Khasis and non-Khasis interested in culture. It’s an important book, an ethnographic achievement — and will be useful to other writers and researchers. But like me, I reckon, they will struggle to navigate through its dense fog.

Saudamini Jin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022