I was playing marbles with Bih just outside my house. The midday sun had dried up the grounds so much that we had to use our spit to get it soft enough to make holes in. Papa was sitting on the veranda as Mei (mother) put the laundry up on the line. I needed to win this round otherwise Bih would get all my marbles and I knew Papa would not buy me more. I couldn’t concentrate as I could hear my parents arguing in low voices, the way they always do when I’m around and they assume I’m not listening.
Mei had her hands on one of my favourite dresses and proceeded to wring the water out of it as she told Papa yet again that Meiieid (grandmother) was too old to stay alone.
“Why doesn’t she stay with that khatduh (youngest daughter) then?” Papa was not interested in the answer. (The youngest daughter of the family, as per Khasi customs, takes care of the aging parents).
My aunt had always irritated Papa. The free spirit who left the shnong (village) to look for fortune in Shillong, he despised her. She didn’t find fortune or maybe, she found her version of it. She had hardly been in Shillong a month before meeting a rather well-off man at the restaurant she was washing dishes at. He was tall and dark. His lips were stained red from all the kwai (betelnut and tobacco mixture) he ate, and he smelled faintly of coconuts. Papa called him a dkhar (a local term used to describe non-tribals in Meghalaya) and I had come to learn the word too. It wasn’t a bad word, I was taught, it was what we called people who weren’t us. I never called him dkhar to his face, only when I was describing him to my friends but even then, it felt wrong.
My aunt brought him to the village a few times and each time they came, he carried a knapsack full of treats and a bottle of amber liquid that he would gift Papa. I heard Papa tell Bah John that the dkhar worked for a construction firm in Shillong and he was only with my aunt so he could buy property there. He told Bah John that this was what dkhar did, they come to our land and marry our women so they can inherit land that belongs to the tribals. He said that the dkhar do not care about our women. He’d say all this and yet happily accept the gifts the dkhar brought.
Each time they came to visit I noticed my aunt wearing better clothes and smelling less like the village she left and more like the people from Shillong. One time she came, and Mei almost cried when she saw her wearing a gold locket. “How?” she asked stretching her fingers as if to touch it. My aunt just smiled and gestured to her dkhar.
The dkhar visited the village many times to garner good favour with Meiieid and get her approval. For us approval from the elders was paramount. My grandmother had quite a reputation in the village. She was known as ‘kmei synshar’ (mother-with-a-broom). Around the village we all knew that a few years ago, this was before I was born, Meiieid had beat Paieid (grandfather) with a broom for coming home inebriated and destroying her flowerpots. She chased him out of the house, broom in hand, and all the village could do was watch. Paieid left the house and never returned. Some people believe that he might have gone to Shillong, others believe he went on another drinking binge and fell down the many ravines that encompass our village. Since the night he left she lost the ability to speak. Some people say it’s because Paieid fought back and hurt her so badly her throat closed, and words left her tongue. Others claim it’s because she did away with him, and her silence is either her remorse or her guilt. The dkhar spent hours with Meiieid, talking to her in our tongue which he learnt after meeting my aunt. She never told him, but I could tell she was impressed with the dkhar.
Months later when he came to the village alone, we all knew what for. He stayed a whole afternoon at Meiieid’s house and left with a broad grin across his face. Papa, out of curiosity, went to visit Meiieid after the dkhar left. He came home that night smelling of spirits and bad choices. He shouted at Mei and told her that Meiieid had given the dkhar her blessings and what’s more, one of her gold rings. “She told you that?” my mother was astonished.
“She didn’t need to,” my father said as he stumbled onto the bed, “The gold band she wears on her index finger is missing.” Mei went pale and left the room.
In his condition he called out to me asking me to press his feet as hard as I could. My tiny hands could hardly hold onto them trying as best as I could to massage them. Then he recited a story he told me many times before about how he had gone to get Meiieid’s blessing for Mei’s hand and asked for her ring to seal the engagement. (He didn’t want to waste money on gold). Meiieid had given him neither the blessing nor the ring.
After their wedding the dkhar took my aunt to Tura (a town in the Northeast). He had gotten transferred by the firm and couldn’t bear being away from her. They asked Meiieid to go with them, but she refused. We would occasionally get news from them. They had bought a house and were expecting their first child.
It was no secret in our house that Papa did not like my aunt, and he had an even greater distaste for Meiieid.
A week after, I was on my way home from school. The sun was beating down hard, and I wanted to get home and throw off my uniform. On reaching the path to the front of the house I saw Papa standing outside, his face and eyes red. He didn’t respond when I called out to him, but I didn’t really care. I ran inside the house, finally able to kick off my shoes and shirt, when I noticed an extra bed in my room and a pile of clothes stacked neatly beside it. I craned my neck around the room and saw Meiieid’s shawl draped across the table. Behind me I heard a voice say, “Meiieid and you will be sharing a room.”
The situation tensed ever since Meiieid came to live with us. Papa no longer spends his mornings on the veranda smoking and talking to the neighbours. As soon as he’s done with breakfast, he leaves the house in a hurry and comes back late at night smelling like Bah John. In fact, he has been spending a lot of time with Bah John. I never liked Bah John, he looks at Mei in a strange way and he always smells like cheap alcohol.
Even though Meiieid couldn’t speak I knew she did not like how Papa treated Mei. Mei tried to be as accommodating as possible to Papa. She would wait for him every night and whenever he returned unable to stand, she would help him to bed. Some nights, with the blankets pulled all the way over my head, I would hear arguing from Mei’s room. Every now and then I would look over Meiieid’s side. We had all assumed she was also going deaf because she hardly ever reacted to anything going on in the house. Some nights though, when I’m watching her from bed, I could hear her breathing quicken when Papa shouted at Mei.
The year we took Meiieid in the drought had been particularly bad. Mei used every utensil in the house to store water. “It’s because we have an extra mouth to feed,” Papa would say anytime he saw Mei take out another pot to fill water in. She would pretend as if she didn’t hear him.
“Your grandmother is a bad person. She doesn’t talk and doesn’t help your mother with her housework. She let your aunt run off with a dkhar!” I nodded because anything other than acquiesce would be met with anger. Meiieid couldn’t talk but there was a certain gentleness with the way she would hold me. Papa never wanted me sharing a room with Meiieid. “Why can’t she sleep in the corridor? I don’t want her putting ideas into my daughter’s head.” “What ideas?” my mother said wearily. “You say that now but who knows? One day she may find herself a dkhar too and your mother will be more than happy to give them her blessings. Me? I would slap her straight!” The sun blaring down on our little village brought out the worst in Papa.
Meiieid never bothered with Papa’s rants. She would sit in our room humming tunes as she folded clothes or picked through the rice. She had a beautiful collection of shawls and jainsem (traditional Khasi attire) that she would change every day. On the day the rains came she was wearing a sky blue jainsem that had a white floral print that she paired with a deep blue shawl. She always looked so pretty and everyone in the village did say that Mei looked just like her. I would wait with excitement as she picked out her clothes for the day. The only problem was that she always wore the same shoes. A modest pair of black pumps that looked small on her. Even after Mei had bought a new pair, she still wore the old shoes throwing off the beautiful ensemble she had donned.
The rains started slowly, a little drizzle that sent the whole village to the roads looking up to the sky praying that more would come and more did come. By midday the rains were pouring down steadily, and everyone had their buckets out collecting it. Meiieid watched the downpour from the window. Mei didn’t send me to school that day. She had needed help at home. With the water flowing freely we would be able to wash and clean every inch of the house.
The clouds seemed angry as the rain poured down heavier and heavier. We could hear the thunder and the wind howling in the distance. You wouldn’t believe we had blue skies and sunshine just a day ago. The rain did not let up. As I was cleaning out the cupboards, I heard the door bang open. I craned my neck to see Papa entering drenched to the bone. He shouted for Mei, and she came rushing in with a towel. After he had dried off, Papa watched the downpour from the window. With every passing hour he seemed irritated. He shouted at Mei repeatedly, “Water has pooled by the window!” “Make some tea!” “Get the shawla out!” “Why isn’t there anything to eat?”
When evening descended Papa’s agitation grew worse. He paced around the room looking outside every few minutes. He sat down and got up and sat down again all the while muttering to himself. Finally, as if released from a trance he announced that he was going to sleep. That night Mei slept with me in my room. I could hear Papa groaning in his room. Mei just pulled me close and said that he had demons he needed to fight.
The next day, the rain was even worse. The downpour from the night had flooded parts of the road and our little garden near the veranda was full of water too. The rain beat down so hard that I was afraid our roof wouldn’t be able to take it. Papa was sitting by the window watching the rains lash out. In his hands he was holding an empty bottle and continuously bringing it to his lips. He licked the bottle clean and proceeded to tap it trying to get anything that the bottle wouldn’t give up. When the bottle seemed unwilling to co-operate with Papa, he threw it against the wall. At this Mei ran over and started picking up the broken pieces. She kept her head low and avoided looking at him.
The rains went on and on. On the third day, while Papa was drinking tea his head bent low in concentration, he suddenly stood up and glared at Mei who was sitting with me. “The tea is cold,” he said. She simply nodded her head.
“You didn’t drink it when it was hot,” the words left my mouth before I could stop myself. I felt his eyes on me. In an instant I heard a swoosh feeling something glide above my head and the sound of glass breaking. The house was silent for a few seconds.
“You could have hurt her!” the voice seemed distant, but I recognised it as Mei.
“Now you are letting your daughter talk back to me!”
He paced around the room yelling profanities at me and Mei, hearing the commotion Meiieid came in. He immediately pointed a finger at her, “It’s you! You are teaching her all this! I’m so fed up with you and I am fed up with this rain! When will this end?!” “The rains will stop once the waters have taken a man.” I had never heard that voice before. So strong and resolute. We all turned our heads to where the sound came from. A slight old woman who for so long we believed could no longer speak. She stared at Papa and the colour drained from his face.
“Mother and daughter,” I heard him grumbling.
By then, without realising, I had started crying. Mei held me close while Meiieid glared at Papa. Finally, I heard a door open and close.
“He left,” Mei said to herself.
He didn’t come home that night and the very next day the rains stopped. After two days they fished his body from the river.
My aunt and her husband came to the village for the last rites and to convince my mother to leave the village. They had arranged for a job for her. “There is nothing left for you here,” Mei nodded her head and through tears replied, “I have no money to start a new life.” Her head gestured to the lifeless body in the casket by way of explanation. We were all sitting on the floor as per custom, on a makeshift mattress from all the cushions in the house. My aunt gripped Mei’s hand, “I have money. Shim na nga.” ‘Take it from me.’ Mei shook her head.
Meanwhile we thought Meiieid was listening to the conversation but she was fiddling with her shoes. We heard a loud tearing sound and saw her taking apart the sole of the black pumps. My eyes widened as I watched her move her fingers inside and extract three gold rings that she thrust into Mei’s hand.
“The rains will stop once the waters have taken a man”—
An old khasi saying and to this day I cannot fathom why she said that. Prophetic. Maybe the old woman’s tongue was cursed and that’s why she chose to remain silent. We never heard her speak again after that night, the night Papa left and the waters took him.
Cheryl Rynjah is a healthcare professional based in Shillong, Meghalaya. She is a freelance content writer and a proud Khasi woman.