On 9 February, our sixth night in Nongshyrkon but the fifth of our fireside sessions, we returned to stories about Khasi culture. Not by design; that was just where our conversations led us.
As on the previous day, Perly woke us up in the morning. He did not want to, but since it was about 9 am, he thought he had better. Then, as we were washing our faces and brushing our teeth, he asked: “What plans for today?”
“What would we plan?” Bah Kynsai replied rather roughly. He was always grumpy in the morning.
As cheerily as I could, I said, “What would we plan, Bah Perly? We’ll go to the lake as usual… We don’t have to hurry back today, do we?”
“We are planning to go hill-mouse hunting after lunch; we need all the meat we can get. We’ll wait for you if you want to go.”
“Hill-mouse hunting! Nai lum?” Raji asked eagerly. “That sounds very exciting, leh…Hey, guys, I think we should all go, ya. This is a new thing for us!”
Bah Kynsai was not very enthusiastic, though. “We don’t want to come rushing back, na, it’s too tiring in the heat, man.”
“You don’t have to come rushing, Babu,” Perly said. “See, if you leave for the lake at 10 am, have your bath and lunch, you could easily be back by 2 pm without rushing.”
Bah Kynsai agreed, though still unenthusiastic about the whole thing.
Before he went, Perly said, “I’m organising the packed lunch right now. It’s quite different today. Chirag bought some oil from Maweit yesterday; we are frying beef jerky and vegetables for you. Should be a nice treat.”
We thanked him profusely and went to have our customary breakfast of red tea and boiled rice. As we were eating, Perly came in with our lunch in leaf packets – no bamboo tubes, since there was no broth or soup. As usual, we went tramping to the lake, had a bath, washed our clothes and ate lunch. The lake was the coolest spot in hot Lyngngam during the day, and we didn’t feel like leaving. Even Raji was not so keen, now that he was lying prone on the grass after a heavy lunch. All of us had overeaten, for we had not had fried stuff for some time. However, we had promised Perly, and so, we dragged ourselves up and made the trek back.
Perly and Chirag turned up as we were drying our clothes.
Chirag greeted us: “Khublei, Babu, are you ready?”
“As ready as we can ever be,” Raji said. “Shall we go?”
“Where’s Halolihim?” Hamkom asked of no one in particular. “I haven’t seen him today.”
We all shrugged, but Perly said, “I saw him sitting with a girl near the community hall.”
“Sitting with a girl! Maybe he’s trying to convert her to his church or what?” Hamkom mused.
Nobody responded. Chirag and Perly called out to the other Lyngngam men and led us north, in the direction of the lake, but after a while, the path turned west towards a large bamboo grove.
Chirag said, “Nai lum mostly live in bamboo groves, Babu, and that’s why, in summer, you find lots of snakes in such places. Like us, they are hunting for mice.”
“Snakes also hunt each other,” Perly said.
Dale found that surprising. “What? What do you mean?”
“Just like fishes, no, Bahbah, big snakes eat little snakes,” Perly explained.
“Is that true or what? I have never heard of such a thing.”
“Yes, yes, very true. Cobras, especially, eat nothing else but snakes.”
At the mention of cobras, Magdalene yelped, “Cobras! Do you mean you have cobras here? I’m not going, Bah Kynsai, I’m not going.”
“Me too, me too, I’m not going!” Dale cried.
“Relax, Kong, Bahbah,” Perly calmed them. “In winter, you won’t find any snakes even if you look for them, not here anyway. They all hibernate in winter. It’s too cold for them, Kong.”
“But it’s hot for us.”
“That’s because you are coming from a cold place, Kong,” Chirag explained. “If you live here for a year, ha, even you will feel cold in winter. Haven’t you noticed? Most people wear warm clothes in the evening. The snakes are the same, they feel cold, so they hibernate.”
“Okay then, if you say so,” Magdalene said, still a little suspicious.
“Don’t worry, Kong, no snakes in winter,” Perly reassured her.
After walking for about four kilometres, we finally reached the place. It was a massive jungle of bamboo, hundreds of acres. Nothing grew in it but bamboo. Before entering the grove, Chirag divided the men into three groups. Each group was supposed to hunt in a separate area.
Bah Kynsai, who was still panting up the wooded slope, said, “Count me out. I’ll sit here among the trees. I’m too tired after walking so much. From the hut to the lake, from the lake to the hut, from the hut to this place…How many kilometres have we come?”
“About four, Babu,” Chirag said.
“Only? It feels like more, liah,” Bah Kynsai swore. “It must be more, ten at least.”
“That’s because you are tired,” I told him.
Chirag explained to the group what he had in mind. Pointing to a warren of holes in the ground, he said, “You see these holes? There’s a colony of mice living here—”
“Do they live in colonies?” Dale asked.
“Actually, we don’t know how they live, Bahbah, but when we start the hunting, you will see quite a few of them emerging from these holes. The holes are all around this particular clump of bamboo, ha, so, this is what we will do, okay, some of us will go inside the grove and burn dry leaves and twigs in front of the holes on that side so the smoke goes in. We will also make a lot of noise, beating the ground and all that. The mice will have no option but to come running towards this clearing, and as they come out, ha, you beat them with these bamboo rackets, specially made for the purpose. Babu, take this one, Babu Kynsai, you can also come if you want, nothing much to do, only beating them on the head.”
Bah Kynsai simply raised a hand in refusal.
Three men readied the fires, while five others, including Victor, the Nongtrai elder, and I, waited near the holes facing the clearing. Soon we could hear the men in the grove blowing smoke into the labyrinth of tunnels, and after ten minutes or so, a small creature with a pointed face and short yellowish-brown hair came running out of a hole that I was guarding. I looked at the little fellow fleeing in terror from the toxic smoke and the deafening noise. He ran towards my feet, probably mistaking my legs for tree trunks. I heard someone shouting, “There, there, Babu, he’s coming towards you, hit him, hit him!” But how could I hit that little thing already half-dead with fright? Hunting is a bloody cruel sport …
Suddenly, I was quite disgusted with the whole thing. I threw away the racket and went to sit with Bah Kynsai, watching the men running up and down, howling like bloodthirsty animals. Bah Kynsai smiled at me and asked, “Why?”
“I just couldn’t do it.”
“You might as well be a vegetarian.”
“I tried many times. But living here, it’s difficult, don’t you think? We prepare vegetables mostly as supplements to meat. Communities in mainland India, as you know, are experts at preparing nice vegetable curries and chutneys, and when I travel outside, I don’t eat meat at all. But here, if you go to a Khasi shop and ask for rice and vegetables, they will stare at you as if you are an oddball. At most, they will give you fried potatoes. How can you enjoy eating only rice and fried potatoes? Sometimes they even bring me raw herbs. Imagine that, Bah Kynsai, rice and raw herbs? Anyway, I’m not really against the humane slaughter of domestic animals. I know that the whole world cannot survive on grains and vegetables alone. And, in many places, people have to eat meat to live. But this,” I pointed to the men beating the poor mice to death, “what the hell is this about? Why are we raiding their den and exterminating them? What kind of pleasure is that?”
Victor did not seem to enjoy the sport either, and soon came to sit with us. I began a long conversation with him, learning all I could about the Lyngngams and Nongtrais. He told me about his people’s culture, especially their funeral practices and the fascinating tale of Sangkhni, which reminded me very much of the Thlen story.
It was growing dark when I heard Chirag say, “Let’s go, let’s go, there are no more in here, come, we’ll go home and roast them for dinner.”
They came to where we were sitting and rested for a while. Chirag, Perly and some others were carrying the mice tied together in bunches. There must have been hundreds of them.
Our group came too, and flopped down on the ground near us, laughing and panting from the exercise. They were all flushed and excited, apparently enjoying themselves immensely. Hamkom said, “You should have come, Bah Kynsai, you missed the fun.”
“How many did you kill?” Bah Kynsai asked.
“Quite a few, I think.”
“I didn’t kill anything,” Bah Su said, “but I did take part in flushing them out; I really regret it now.”
“I tried whacking them, you know,” Magdalene said, “but I just couldn’t hit them, they were pretty fast. And just as well, I don’t think I would have enjoyed killing them.”
Looking at the bound mice, Bah Kynsai said, “I’m not eating that.”
“Nor I,” I said.
“Nor I,” Bah Su added.
Donald said he’d try a little bit and see how it tasted. Magdalene was about to say something when Chirag called out to everybody and started to lead us back to the village.
When we were gathered around our hut’s little fire after dinner, my friends talked about the hunt and how tasty the meat was.
Raji was especially excited. “That was wonderful stuff, ha, Ning, I saw you stuffing yourself like—”
“Don’t say it, Raji,” Evening said, laughing.
“Okay, okay, but you did enjoy it, no? I rubbed salt on it, anointed it with lemon juice, ate it with onions and chillies, and washed it down with the sweet Lyngngam stuff. Perfect! Better than chicken any day! How about you, Ap? I didn’t see you eating?”
“Well, if you didn’t, you shouldn’t have participated in the hunt—”
“He didn’t,” Bah Kynsai said.
“He didn’t?” Raji asked in surprise. “Well, I enjoyed it. I recorded it also, some of it anyway.”
Donald was also surprised. “Oh, I didn’t know that, and why not, Bah Ap?”
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th” gods, They kill us for their sport,” I said.
“Aw, come on!” Raji and Hamkom reacted together, but Donald suddenly became quiet, perhaps thinking about that quotation from King Lear.
Excerpted with permission from Funeral Nights, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Context.