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Funeral Nights: Hills that speak

Anamika A | Updated on September 09, 2021

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih / Funeral Nights / Westland Context / Fiction / ₹899

Way of life: ‘Funeral Nights’ is packed with legends, folk tales, myth, parables, fairytales, and history associated with the Khasi people   -  ISTOCK.COM

A group of strangers come together to attend a death ceremony and the event throws up fascinating stories on the Khasi way of life

* The Ka Phor Sorat or the Feast of the Dead was set to happen in the coming weeks; the body of an old woman that had been preserved for nine months was soon to be cremated

* The sheer range and the number of stories that are covered during the 10 nights does tend to overwhelm the reader

* Each new reading will throw up the unexpected

****

At 1009 pages and packed to the seams with legends, folk tales, myth, parables, fairytales, history, culture, and even politics, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s Funeral Nights is an epic in its own right.

It opens with the narrator Ap Jutang introducing himself, and his birthplace — Sohra, and giving the reader a glimpse of Khasi life. The chapter — My Name is Ap Jutang — narrates the story of the origin of Sohra, and describes its terrorising tempests, and the rains — the lap-bam-briew or the human-devouring rain, and the lap-boi-ksi or the louse swarming rain, as well as the white fog that engulfs the gorges after the rains. But just when the reader settles in, travelling through the jungles with its lakes and birds, reading Khasi stories that were told to children on stormy nights, and planning to armchair travel through the beautiful Khasi hills, Nongkynrih’s narrative takes a different turn.

A group of acquaintances meet at a death house and start talking about, well, death. While discussing the Torajans of Indonesia and their death ceremonies, someone tells them about a similar Khasi tradition being followed by the Lyngngams, a Khasi sub-tribe, that preserves the body for months, sometimes even years, before the cremation. Coincidentally, the Ka Phor Sorat or the Feast of the Dead was set to happen in the coming weeks; the body of an old woman that had been preserved for nine months was soon to be cremated. Intrigued, the strangers make impromptu plans and decide to attend the ceremony. An eclectic group of historians, college teachers, taxi drivers, a film-maker, a journalist, and a preacher start their long journey to the village of Nongshyrkon in the west Khasi hills. Halfway through their adventurous journey in a rickety Maruti Gypsy through remote mountain roads they realise that they got the dates wrong and are seven days too early for the ceremony, but with rescheduling not an option, they carry on and spend the rest of the days in the village, housed in a bamboo hut that was built exclusively for them. Every night they sit around the fire, sipping locally brewed beer and sharing stories.

Stories and stories

The sheer range and the number of stories that are covered during the 10 nights does tend to overwhelm the reader. There is a morbid story about the origin of why betel nut or kwai is integral to Khasi hospitality and a slightly off-putting story about why the pork in Sohra is more delicious than anywhere else. There are stories about tribes who fought against the imposition of Hinduism, another about families that fell under the spell of a Christian fundamentalist Doomsday Cult, and the story of why the buffalo and rooster are sacred to the Khasis. And then there are also long discussions on deforestation, how coal mining has continued illegally even after the NGT ban, the pros and cons of nuclear energy and opening up the mountains of Meghalaya for the uranium deposits. It is impossible to bound the stories to a genre.

Though the book is divided into chapters with the theme of the night such as Root Stories, Little Stories, Name Stories and others, the reader sometimes ends up confused and loses track of the narration since the stories merge into more stories. It could start with the members of the group talking to each other, discussing Khasi culture and the influx of outsiders, and the narration moves on to history where it is the reader who is now being addressed in long passages. A conversation that starts with someone narrating a Khasi folk tale could end in political commentary or even in a rant about corrupt politicians. Also, sitting in a remote village with erratic electricity and no mobile signals, it did seem a bit contrived when many a time, someone in the group, usually the tad boring but very knowledgeable Ap Jutang, pulls out his tablet or mobile phone on which a relevant article or poem has been very conveniently saved and goes on to read it aloud to the group.

The funeral

The actual funeral ceremony, Ka Phor Sorat or the Feast of the Dead, for which the group has come to the village forms a relatively minor part of the book. The description of the ceremony gives the reader goosebumps. The body of the dead woman, Ka We Shyrkon, ‘as light as popcorn’, is brought down from the tree house after nine months for the villagers to pay their respects and begin the customary wailing. Two days later, the cremation rituals begin in the village now overflowing with mourners who have arrived from across the hills. There is celebratory gunfire, never-ending music and dance, shamans chanting and performing egg-breaking ceremonies, and the slaughtering of 50 bulls for the feast. It is a celebration of death. Though Raji, a film-maker, records the ceremonies and the group ask a few questions about the rituals, throughout their stay, they seem largely detached from the proceedings and rather more interested in continuing their story-sharing sessions. This makes the reader wonder if the whole set-up of the journey to the remote village and nights around the fire, and the death ceremony were really required to be the foundation of the plot since the same stories could have been shared in any urban setting.

Halolihilm, an outsider, does not contribute much to the stories but provides the much-needed comic relief, as unintended as it might have been. Having come to the village with the sole intention of converting the tribe to Christianity it comes as a huge disappointment to learn that everyone is already a Christian. He spends the remaining days trying to get the villagers to join his specific church, getting into fist-fights with the rest of the group with his holier-than-thou attitude, and is at the receiving end of the choicest Khasi abuses from everyone. But the best unintentional comic moment is towards the end when he gets into a pickle with a village girl.

Magdalene, the only woman in the group fails to deliver. In spite of being a history teacher in a college, she does not contribute much to the stories and is ignorant about much of the Khasi culture. Though her character could be a true reflection of the urban Khasi’s knowledge of their own history, what disappoints more is that she does not provide any insight or contribute to any of the stories from a woman’s perspective. She does make obligatory angry noises when the men talk about the way Khasi women should dress, but even when the men discuss a 1987 Femina article where Khasi men were described as ‘good for nothing’ and then go off on a tangent about how the matrilineal system is stacked against men, she does little to debate it from a woman’s point of view. And having been introduced as a strong independent woman ‘who has gone on hunting expeditions with men’, she is still portrayed as delicate and genteel in subtle ways. She is the only person in the group who does not carry food baskets and is queasy when stories of gory deaths are shared.

The rest of the characters are not very memorable. Though they contribute to the stories, and coming from different backgrounds and religions, showcase the diversity among the Khasis, they fail to make an impression.

Funeral Nights is not a book to be read at one go and put away, but one that needs to be taken out from the bookshelf often, opened to a random chapter, and read and re-read. Each new reading will throw up the unexpected. One day you might be travelling across the mountains with the rooster, and on another you may be at a check gate on a mountain road watching a rogue official brandish his khukri to steal the day’s cash collection.

Anamika A is an IT professional based out of Coonoor

Published on September 09, 2021

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