Realistic Fiction Reviews

Death in the clouds: Sudipta Dutta reviews ‘Funeral Nights’ by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih

A sunny day in Sohra, which was anglicised to Cherra and later, Cherrapunji.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Ernest Hemingway’s words about Paris being a moveable feast could well describe the Northeast too. If you are lucky enough to have lived in the States of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram or Tripura, then wherever you go, it stays with you. This magical story is from Meghalaya: Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih weaves a fictional tale around the dying tradition of Ka Phor Sorat or the feast of the dead, a six-day funeral ceremony of the Lyngngams, a Khasi sub-tribe.

The narrator says that it is perhaps the last time that this ancient ritual is being observed — most Khasis have converted to Christianity — and the ceremony, which involves several rites and the sacrifice of at least 50 bulls, is far too expensive and unwieldy. A group of friends from Shillong decide to go out west to the tiny village of Nongshyrkon to witness it.

But first, the narrator of Funeral Nights, Ap Jutang, wants to tell readers a few things about his hometown Sohra, anglicised by the British to first Cherra and then Cherrapunji. He has been shaped by his hometown — “not only the customs and manners of Sohra’s people but also by the silent influence of the hills, rivers and woods that surround it”. It takes him a thousand pages, 12 chapters and the ruse of an ancient ritual to fully ruminate on Meghalaya — the complexities of its name and people, how stories from the past inform the present, and the perils and joys of being Khasi. He delves into his Khasi roots, tackling philosophical questions such as, “Who are we? Where are we going? Why do we seem to lose ourselves, like ‘bees without a queen’?”

Water, wind, cloud

Using myths, folklore, poetry and prose, the writer, speaking through Ap and his friends, unravels a place and its people. Funeral Nights is an intense and acute study of Meghalaya’s socio-cultural mores, its rich natural environment at the mercy of plunderers, and the political twists and turns that have shaped its history. Shillong is associated with squalor — its famous tags ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ or ‘Scotland of the East’ inspire neither happiness nor admiration nor a sense of belonging in Ap. Instead, he yearns for Sohra with its deep gorges and forests.

Ap likes to count the many names Khasis have for rain, with which Sohra/ Cherrapunji is synonymous — slap (rain), lapbah (heavy rain), lap-lai-miet (three-night rain), lap-eriong (dark-wind rain/ black storm), lappraw (light rain), lapmynsaw (rain of danger, which has both literal and metaphorical meanings) and so on. He admits that many of his friends do not share his enthusiasm for a Sohra that is all “water, wind, cloud, darkness and terrorising tempests.” Why, they wonder, does Ap experience a “heartrending longing for such a land?”

Death in the clouds: Sudipta Dutta reviews ‘Funeral Nights’ by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih
On their journey to unspoilt Nongshyrkon in the west Khasi hills on unbelievably bad roads, Ap and his friends dissect all that is wrong with Meghalaya, from coal-mining, timber-logging and disregarded bans to corrupt officials who go to villages “only to loot”; the thorny issue of migration; and the three vices that allegedly afflict all Khasi men — kyiad, khalai, kynthei (alcohol, gambling, women).

In minute detail

In between big stories such as these and that of the grand funeral complete with shamans, there are little stories — why the kwai (betel nut) is a part and parcel of Khasi culture; meanings of the names of different clans and sub-tribes, and the ‘curious phenomenon’ of so many Khasis having ‘star’ as a part of their name, like Morningstar, Lordstar, Jonathanstar etc; why cats and dogs are sacred; why the favourite game of the State is archery. Birds and beasts, Assam-type houses, flowers and food of the region are described in the minutest detail.

It is a rambling and sprawling novel, perhaps mirroring life, with its multitudes of thoughts, feelings and words. For those hailing from the Northeast, the book will be familiar territory. For the rest, it’s a window to an often misunderstood world that is viewed with both awe and concern.

To give just one example, you will learn that khublei, which literally means ‘god bless’, also serves as hello, welcome, thank you and farewell in Khasi.

Funeral Nights; Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Context, ₹899

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 4:15:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/death-in-the-clouds-sudipta-dutta-reviews-funeral-nights-by-kynpham-sing-nongkynrih/article37123518.ece

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