In the “Abode of the Clouds,” Meghalaya, the season of sowing and planting is over, and so are the festivals, rituals, songs, and dances associated with this time of the year. The monsoon is here.
The rains come to these hills in May. It commences with scattered showers that turn into a downpour without notice in the middle of the day. As it clears, the lingering petrichor fills the air; the trees, all dust-free and sparkling clean, come alive in a vibrant jade. This is when the post-sowing thanksgiving festivals are celebrated—Megong in the Garo Hills, Behdeiñkhlam in the Jaintia Hills, and the Shad Suk Myndiem festival in the Khasi Hills. As the weeks progress into the months of June and July, endless downpours begin.
With the change in season, a metamorphosis occurs; life slows down, forcing people to retreat into the sanctuary of their homes. There are no marriages to attend and no dances to take part in. It is time to eat and drink what Grandma advises.
With the advent of the monsoon, the timeless tradition of storytelling makes its appearance. With the skies cloaked in a symphony of grey, families huddle in the warmth of their homes, their hearts yearning for narratives transcending time and space.
I heard most of these stories while growing up, especially on days when, sometimes, it would rain non-stop for an entire week. I would sit in Kha Wanbamon's (an unmarried aunt) cottage at the foot of our garden. Her voice rising and falling, making a strange melody with the pitter-patter of raindrops that sounded like a million nervous fingers. She loved love stories…
One night the queen, the lonely mahadei, sneaked out of the palace. Covered in a shawl, she raced towards the music that had enchanted her for weeks, the sound of a flute from far away. She followed a rarely-used country road across the meadow, up a hillock and down the slope. Startled, she stopped outside a small hut as the exquisite music that had kept her awake for weeks wafted out. It was the hut of U Manik Raitong.
U Manik Raitong was the village hobo. He was the last of his clan—the worst curse that could befall a Khasi. What the mahadei saw in front of her, however, was not the miserable outcast in rags and covered in ash who roamed the village all day. Manik was dressed in the traditional finery, and as he swayed and played his bisli, his anguish flowing out in torrents like the rain, the queen watched, entranced. Mesmerised by his music and stunning looks, the queen, much against her royal will, fell in love with him.
Kha Wan would relate the story right till the end when the lovers met their tragic fate.
Myths and legends are an integral part of Khasi culture and tradition. Through folklore, we journey into the misty past and learn about the origin of everything around us. There are stories of horror, societal issues, love, and loss that let us peek into our cultural fibre. They are the stories of beginnings.
My mother's hometown was Sohra, now known as Cherrapunjee, and in the 1920s, when she was still a little girl, every monsoon, a professional storyteller was invited to their house to stay. Kong Majai, as she was known, would regale the children with stories of monsters and ghosts. The tale of the Yak Jakor, the river monster, would stretch into the twilight hour, with the sound of thunder and lightning marking the arrival of a midnight downpour.
The oral tradition of tales and legends finds its rightful place as generations connect through stories passed down from ancestors—each word an invitation to embark on a journey of imagination. These stories also stem from our diverse and divine landscape. From our mist-laden valleys to our gorgeous waterfalls, all serve to inspire some of the most well-known myths and legends of Meghalaya. Come monsoon, and our waterfalls are a sight to behold, especially Noh Ka Likai.
You will often find it shrouded in a thick, possessive blanket of mist. It parts almost grudgingly, so slowly one would imagine it never will. But it does. Cascades of leaping water greet your eyes, cascades that leap down into the rocks below, the natural sculptures of great beauty. It is also, as legend has it, where Ka Likai leapt to her death when she learnt that her husband had killed his stepdaughter and cooked her for dinner. It is one of the most horrific folktales I heard as a child.
Once the incessant rains would let up, we would rub our legs with tobacco juice to protect us from leeches and walk on the slopes of a forest filled with the aroma of fresh grass and herbs. An aunt used to say, "See those plants, those are tympew (paan vines) and those tall slim trees are betel nut trees. In Khasi homes, these are the only items we are expected to serve our guests compulsorily."
There is, of course, another story to tell about this.
Long, long ago, two friends lived in a village, U Riewbha and U Baduk. Their childhood was idyllic as they swam in the sparkling streams, hunted with catapults, and played hide-and-seek with friends in the forest. Then they grew up, and U Riewbha married a wealthy girl from the village and, as per custom, moved into her home to live with her. U Baduk, on the other hand, married a girl from another village, and he, too, moved there to live with her.
A few years passed, and one day, the wife of U Baduk declared she was sure he had no rich friends. It was just a ploy to enhance his reputation in the village. U Baduk was so upset that he shared the conversation with his friend, perturbing U Riewbha.
Soon after, he sent a message to U Baduk that he would like to visit him the following day and make amends. His wife was delighted and proceeded to clean the house, her broom swishing into every nook and corner.
U Baduk panicked as he had no money and felt he should give his friend a fitting welcome. He went from home to home and asked for some delicacies to serve his friend.
Unfortunately, everyone had to refuse because they had enough to last until the next Iew Bah or Big Market Day. Disappointed and embarrassed, U Baduk returned home and took the kitchen knife, killing himself. His wife, shocked and grieved, did the same.
It rained heavily that night, and a thief lurking in the vicinity, seeing a quiet and seemingly deserted house, decided to spend the night there.
Early morning when he woke up, he saw, to his horror, the two dead bodies. Quite sure he would be blamed for the crime, he took the same knife and stabbed himself to death.
When U Riewbha arrived, the neighbours told him of the tragedy and the reason behind it. Not being able to bear seeing the body of his childhood friend, he took his life with the same knife.
The God, U Blei, immediately intervened and brought about a solution. Three plants grew out of the graves of the bodies, until then unknown to man.
They were the betel nut, the paan leaves and the tobacco. He made it known to all that these three items, with a touch of lime, were to be served compulsorily in all homes, rich and poor. And the plants would grow in plenty in the land.
These stories, narrated to me during my growing years, have remained intact in my memory. And not just me, but almost everyone with roots in the state knows them. Whether sitting in my aunt's garden or at my mother's feet with my cousins, the nostalgia-laced flashes of memories are still the ones I associate most with monsoons.
As an adult, practicality takes over, and I may not put thought to only serving betel nut, paan leaves, and tobacco to my guests anymore. But every time I have guests over, my mind wanders to the stories of my childhood.
Within these cherished moments, the true essence of Meghalaya is revealed—a captivating tapestry where nature and the human spirit entwine.
As the heavens shed their tears upon the fertile earth, it is in these narratives that the people of my land find solace, wisdom, and inspiration.
Verbal art functions as a machinery for social control. Codes of conduct, advice, praise, and reprimand are conveyed through these stories, proverbs, riddles, and tales.
With rain comes the memories of stories we grew up with. Their lessons and wisdom stay with us through the ages and are passed down through generations.
Oh! How I long for those childhood days of rain and mists, clouds and splendid sunsets, when we bonded and were a family.
Bijoya Sawian is an acclaimed writer and translator from Meghalaya. Her work of fiction "Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories," published by Speaking Tiger Books, was nominated for the Tagore Literary Prize 2020