If you are from outside the North Eastern part of India and have heard about or know about Meghalaya without any roots in or any connection with the state, chances are you are either a rock music lover (the Lou Majaw tribute concerts to Bob Dylan connection) or a follower of music reality shows on Indian Television (connect to the Shillong Choir please) or a tourist or traveller intent on making it to the world’s wettest place or the cleanest village in Asia or the living roots bridges.

The state is not as consistent in terms of its headline-clinching violence as say its neighbours Manipur, Assam or Nagaland but yes, when those spurts of violence erupt between tribal and non tribal communities or over public unrest, things do get shaken up as evident from the recent incident when people turned out in large number in Shillong and other parts of the state to protest over the alleged encounter leading to the death of a former insurgent. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s Funeral Nights made its entry in the backdrop of such violence, and the resulting curfew and internet clampdowns.

It is that rare book which defies the lines that the publishing world has been toeing for some time: the one where books are slotted into genres and pegged on this thing or that. So is this 1007-page tome a work of fiction or non-fiction? Is it a collection of stories stitched together into a narrative? Is it a fictionalised autobiography, given that the author’s published poems are referred to in the narrative, not to mention the many similarities between the author and the narrator?

The author and poet, who teaches literature at North East Hill University in Shillong, addresses these trifling questions in good measure by firmly focusing on what literature entails with this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “Literature that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not transmit the pains and fears of that society, that does not warn in time against threatening moral and social dangers – such literature does not deserve the name of literature; it is only a facade.”

Stitching stories together

It is with this quote that Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s takes readers into the world of the Khasis of Meghalaya through a deep dive into its sociopolitical history and its journey as a community over the years and across generations. The literary device used here is that of the narrator telling us the many stories in the course of a community vigil leading to a unique six-day funeral ceremony for an old woman, involving rites and rituals that are now rarely practiced in contemporary times.

A miscommunication regarding the timing of the ceremony results in a motley group of writers, journalists, and teachers from Shillong arriving early at a remote village in the West Khasi Hills called Nongshyrkon, home of the Lyngngams, a Khasi sub tribe, after an arduous journey. This leads the group to swap stories by night: stories of Khasi culture, traditions and belief systems, stories steeped in folklore and mythological elements, stories rooted in history and identity politics, stories of valour and silly inanities, stories of internal fissures and vulnerability in the face of external forces and factors.

There are stories about rites of passage, about courtship, about the core of Khasi philosophy, as well as those of community gatherings practised for years, about food and drinking, about the mad rush for betting and its many reincarnations over the years, about traditional poetic takedowns in public where opposing teams not just rhyme their words but also use them to hilarious effect, about the culture of paan-chewing (dental after-effects are included) and the central place it occupies in the Khasi way of life – distance is measured in terms of how many pieces of betel have been consumed on the way and how the deceased are blessed with a “May he/she eat betel in the house of god”.

In another storytelling session, the matter of visitors to the state coming up with their versions of the lives of Khasis comes up, and nothing prepares you for the way a journalist with a popular magazine ends up being compared to a dragonfly, alluding to the way people come “as visitors to touch only the surface and fly away to write a hurried piece, passing judgement based on market gossip”.

The storytelling over the nine nights is a nod to the oral literary culture of the Khasis and other indigenous groups elsewhere, a practice that brings community members together in shared camaraderie, and social and cultural transaction. Does the format make Funeral Nights a Khasi “retelling” (isn’t that the approved word in publishing circles?) of The Arabian Nights? Wrong question. The right one is: Is it necessary to file literary works into neat genres?

Insiders, outsiders

But all of this comes later, for the very first chapter, titled “My name is Ap Jutang”, is a delightful but less than subtle poke at the ways indigenous names become exotica or reasons for great amusement to those who use the outsider’s lens. After all, doesn’t “national” media (read, parachute journalists) focus on the many “unique” names of electoral candidates every time there is a Lok Sabha election?

The chapter offers a glimpse into the narrator’s – and by default, the author’s – intent, claiming as it does the agency to tell a story from lived experience and from insights collected over the years of having one’s roots in the area, something that’s been challenged by centuries of colonial rule, followed by the angst of becoming part of a nation with no shared ethos, and by the fissures brought on by the mainland / majoritarian narrative.

In the chapters that follow, this agency becomes more pronounced and significant, as the author delves into how Khasi soldiers were made to fight in the white man’s World War I, men who died in far away France and whose names got erased over time, and how a lake in the heart of Shillong has its roots among natives and yet is known for a Western allusion.

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih has his narrator cite white men’s versions of events, complete with their penchant for mangling original names – not so different from the politics of obliterating indigenous cultures in the grand vision of one country and one narrow worldview. He also underlines the occasionally lackadaisical attitude of the Khasis in not taking a stand against the distortion of names, history and narratives. Through his narrator, the author says it like it is, warts and all, and very firmly. This is a narrative that is wicked in parts with its sharp turns and candour. Sample this:

“Khasi names are, as a rule, exotic to non Khasi ears, more exotic still when mouthed by non Khasi tongues…The worst distortion was by Douglas Smith, an Englishman who visited the Khasi Hills in 1995. Smith’s friends used to call him Doug, but Khasis, because they could not manage that properly, called him, out of respect, ‘Mr Dog’.”

During the vigil there is a session on the many delightful stories behind the naming of the Khasis, replete with bizarre and true instances that go beyond mere etymology: how the transliteration of native languages to English and vice versa can result in major gaffes.

Claiming, reclaiming

The group of friends makes for an eclectic arc of characters: the proud Khasi who does not know his roots at all; the confused, modern Khasi who accepts all that comes to him as his lot and who wants nothing to do with the warts that he sees; the evangelist Khasi who will not give up a chance to convert a non-Christian but who will forget he is married as he cavorts with a young girl who is yet to be an adult; the aggressive Khasi whose fanatical belief in everything Khasi is meant to obliterate his lack of knowledge; and others.

In putting these contrasting characters at odds with one another, the author casts his net wide, for every viewpoint is laid bare and hotly contested, while of course doffing a hat to the way contemporary discourse often goes: no one is prepared to listen and understand.

Spiritually and metaphorically, this book is an honest reclamation of the beauty and innate wisdom of a people who falter but pick themselves up. It has a death and a funeral centrestage, but the stories and the narrative makes it absorbing for its exploration of life and its myriad shades.

At the end of its 1007 pages, Funeral Nights is an evocative elegy, one that does not remain a lament but becomes a rousing call to fellow Khasis and other indigenous communities to reclaim the beauty of community and kinship ties, one that celebrates the joy and wisdom of ancestors, laughing at the modern airs put on by many today, and acknowledging a need for self-reflection and change while staying connected to one’s roots.

Chitra Ahanthem is the former editor of Imphal Free Press, published in Manipur. She is currently a freelance journalist based in New Delhi and is an avid reader.

Funeral Nights, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Context.