Only the ones you’ve hardly met will laugh at your Khasi, and by then you’ll have sorted out who likes to talk in English and who doesn’t.
Pasan Donbok will prefer to kren Phareng, because it reminds him of the good old days before the war, when he went to St Edmunds and was taught by Irishmen. Ma Sailor, your mother-in-law’s cousin in Sohlyngioh, has a better education but will not want to speak English on principle, drowning you in a stream of Khasi so deep and strong that you’ll just give up, sit back and think about the Pacific Ocean. Let it wash over you.
Your wife’s youngest grandmother, Radduh, doesn’t have any English, so she’ll ask you in Khasi how your Khasi is going. Nga nang ban kren khyndiat, you’ll say. I speak a little. Nga sngewthuh shibun bha. I understand a lot. This will make her smile and nod, and she’ll tell you that it will take time.
When you stand with the crowd handing over their outpatient cards at NEIGRIHMS, don’t let on that you understand all the comments about your height, your bald head or how weird you look being the only white guy. Listen hard for your wife’s name as the dude calls out each patient, and say Khublei Shibun when he hands you Maya’s card. He’ll say Room 17. That will happen a lot. You’ll speak in Khasi and get answered in English. Don’t be offended. They don’t expect foreigners to know the language.
Later, when you take your newborn son to say hello to the crew at Obs and Gynae, try not to get teary when the receptionist looks at him, then you, and says, You have a friend now. But know that she’s right.
Carrying him by the handle of his car seat, you will be reminded of the times you used to drag a 20 litre drum of creek water up the hill to the caravan in Wybong, so your family could bathe every day. The water had little green pods in it that looked like boogers, and couldn’t be used for drinking. When you drive home from the hospital through Nongmynsong later that afternoon, you’ll see Nepali boys ferrying water in the same way and will know exactly how they feel.
You can’t tell anyone this, least of all your family in Shillong. They don’t want to hear that you Lawsons all used to shit in a can, and when the can got full either you or your dad had to go and empty it amongst the long grass and brown snakes.
When your father-in-law feels stupid in front of your builder and insults you in retaliation, don’t say anything while Bah Trai is there. Wait until he goes, half an hour later, and then let them have the full Lawson family experience. Make it count. SHOUT. Never let a crisis go by without gaining something.
Take your time coming back from your long walk, and ignore everyone as you make your way upstairs. You don’t need to apologize until tomorrow.
Maya will make it clear that a son-in-law never talks to his father-in-law like that, not in India. That’s not in our culture, she’ll say. Tell her you’ll say sorry, but add that if a father-in-law spoke to a son-in-law with that tone in Maitland he just might get punched in the face.
When you go to Kiaw Blue’s funeral wear a tie, even though Maya tells you not to.
People will think you’re showing off, she’ll say. It will stand out. No one else will be wearing one.
I’m a six-foot-six saheb, you’ll say. How will I not stand out?
She’ll lay other clothes on the bed for you. Don’t bite. Wait until she gets in the shower, then put that stuff back and take out your suit and tie. She’ll raise an eyebrow, but try not to give a shit.
I’m wearing a tie to her funeral, you’ll say. It’s my culture.
Sitting with Maya’s cousin-brothers, you won’t feel scared about being left alone anymore – not like when you first came, and her leaving the room almost meant a panic attack. Even with full-on Khasi speakers, you can keep up the light patter – inquire about their health, complain about the weather, and the traffic – all the essential banalities. You know where the bathrooms are now too, and no longer suffer from diarrhoea. Even then, shitting is not the major concern it used to be – not since you learnt how to squat Indian-style, and wash your arse with a cup of water.
You’ll be offered kwai and tympew, which you love. Start slowly and wipe most of the lime paste onto the palm of your hand, rather than the leaf, or you’ll burn your tongue early and be uncomfortable for the rest of the day. In about five minutes the paste will dry enough to crumble off. The lime combined with the betel-nut and leaf will make you sweat, quicken your heartbeat, and turn your smile red, but it’s winter, so be thankful for the heat and for the distraction.
Later that night, your wife’s oldest aunt will ask you in Khasi how many pieces you take per day. You’ll think that she meant how many pieces today and say arphew – twenty. She will laugh and tell everyone that you are addicted. Don’t correct her. There are worse rumours.
When greeting people at the door, as is your duty, say, Lah wan? Reached? Then Khublei Shibun. Thank you. Try and figure out how they are connected to the family. Ask them where they work. If it is the post office then they are a friend of Bah Bah and he is sitting downstairs, already slightly drunk. If they have a shop in Laitumkhrah then they are Pasan’s tenants. Don’t let them in to see him. He’s not reacting well to the loss.
Give the older folks the best seats and offer them some kwai. Don’t let anyone leave without asking them if they’ve eaten. Kiss only the people your wife kisses, and ignore any furtive glances from the ladies. They’re only staring because you’re foreign.
When they close up the coffin you’ll be standing outside with the men, ready for the service. The dreadful noise that follows, the other-worldly screaming, wailing and crying of the women will be like nothing you’ve ever heard. For sheer horror, the silence outside will match it.
Stay calm, and keep an eye on your father-in-law. He got a fever from standing around the hospital for three days while Kiaw Blue was in a coma, so now he is a bit unsteady on his feet. As soon as the coffin leaves for the cemetery, he will go home to bed.
When you get the chance, sit next to Bah Hep and trade slangs with him. He’ll be surprised by the filth that you’ve picked up, and will gladly add to your collection.
You’ll learn how to say motherfucker in Bihari as well as Marathi, and you’ll laugh hard while eating chicken curry and parantha with your fingers.
Remember not to stack your plate high on the first serving – pace yourself – because having at least two plates is customary. Any less than that and they’ll think you don’t like their cooking.
Have some stock answers ready for their stock questions: You like Shillong very much: The weather in Australia is hot right now: Indians aren’t the only ones getting beaten up there.
Then excuse yourself and get a steaming cup of sha.
Sit down in the empty red plastic chair, next to the open front door. Clap along occasionally to the singing, or read from the hymn book, and laugh with everyone else like you understand the joke. When your mother-in-law complains about how cold it is, get up and close the door for her. Your wife’s neurotic cousin, who is married to a Bengali and lives in Delhi, will turn around quickly and command you to open it.
We don’t close the door for three days, she’ll say. It’s our culture.
She’ll be so shrill that everyone will stop and look at you. Don’t worry. She’s the only one who thinks that it’s important. Maya’s uncle will say, What’s the problem? If it’s cold, you close the door.
At the first opportunity get up and go out onto the veranda. You’ll run into Ma Kynsai, who hasn’t seen you since your wedding.
Ani, he’ll say, you’ve lost weight. Boy, you were so fat.
Take it as the compliment he means it to be, and offer him some kwai. He’ll ask about your brother, who was your best man, and your parents, who couldn’t make the trip. Tell him they are coming to visit the baby soon.
After one ride from the airport to their five star hotel, your olds will become experts on Bangalore and have several ideas about improving India. They will complain about being driven the back way, down dirt roads, and how it took over one hour. Let them grumble.
In the morning, make the driver wait while you pillage the all you can eat buffet. After you’ve finished your bacon and eggs, take a plate of croissants and chocolate donuts, and say, Sensational – truly sensational; it will make your sister laugh. But keep your comments about the quality of the grub to your table, otherwise everyone will guess that this is your first time in a five star.
Your mother, anxious about the food, will follow your father around from dish to dish, picking only fruit salad for herself.
In the back of the car they will bicker with your sister while you are driven through the empty Sunday streets, and at a red light you will give an old woman ten rupees when she taps on your window.
They will be silent for a second and then your mother will say, Why am I being picked on?
When you get to the airport there will be trouble at the check-in counter because your mum does not have the credit card that they made the booking with, the one you specifically mentioned she should bring. You’ll smooth it over, but your father will get irritated and not understand the problem.
On the plane, they won’t notice that you sacrifice leg room to give them the best seats in the front row, and they’ll be surprised that you are landing in Kolkata on the way to Guwahati.
When you stop at Nongpoh, on the road to Shillong, buy five rupees worth of kwai from the tea shop and impress everyone with your Khasi.
You’ll clash with Maya for the first few days of their stay, because you’re both defensive about your respective parents, but you’ll work it out. By day three you’ll be looking forward to the nightly Foster’s with your father – made even tastier by the fact that your Presbyterian in-laws keep a dry house.
Your sister will assume the lotus position on the veranda each morning and blow smoke rings at the guava tree. While she avoids enlightenment, the Bangladeshi day-labourers building the new Girls’ Hostel at St Anthony’s will take turns coming up to your back fence to take a leak, and peer through the bamboo thicket to perve on her.
One afternoon, sitting out there with her and your parents, you’ll be asked questions about the future, and the pain in your head will get sharper – like someone is stretching the tendons in your neck to snapping point.
We’ll have to leave, you’ll say.
Mention the furore when the university tried to hire two lecturers who were not tribal. Tell them that if you are not Khasi, it’s impossible to get a look in. It will sound like you’re making excuses, but they need to know. They can’t go home thinking that everyone is hospitable and welcoming. The smiles, the naive questions, and the compliments are for visitors who are soon leaving – not outsiders who want to make Shillong their home.
I’ve sent off some applications, you’ll say. Let’s see.
On the drive to the airport one of your other sisters will call from Australia. She’ll ask you if you’re feeling sad. She wants drama, and to know that people are in tears – or on the verge of it.
I’m used to this by now, you’ll say. Desensitized.
Your mother will mock you with these words in the terminal at Guwahati, after you have finished your last lunch together. Making the walk down the steps towards the departure gate, she’ll don the black sunglasses so no one can see that she’s weeping.
You’ll huddle a few steps away from the khaki-clad security guard for a rushed goodbye. Your sister will avoid eye contact by looking at his semi-automatic weapon and say, I don’t want to cry. Your father will be silent, and look very, very grave – like the guard has asked the group to stand against the wall.
Hug them, kiss them, let them see your tears.
Then set a new kwai eating record with Bah Hep on the drive home.
One day, not long after Maya tells you that it really is time to leave Shillong – again – you’ll open your Yahoo account to see a job offer waiting for you, in Seoul. It will feel good to be wanted, and to be in control, but you’ll recognise the dread of impending change too.
Already, your old Assam-style cottage will start to lose some of its life force, and there will be an outbreak of mould on your shoes and jackets.
I don’t care about you two people, your mother-in-law will say. It’s my grandson that I will miss.
She’ll mean it.
Your father-in-law will say congratulations, but there will be no handshake, and no hug of support. He’ll be looking at your son, trying to make him laugh.
They will want to stage manage when people are informed about your departure, like it is their news, but they won’t talk about it to you; they’ll try and get to Maya. Tell her not to feel bad, and that she is not responsible for their happiness – all those things you learnt watching Oprah together.
Then inform everybody you meet that you are leaving, and why.
Get stressed about all the chores you have to complete before your departure – like closing your accounts, organising the visas for the trip, and brushing up on your Korean – and try to watch Arirang whenever you get the chance, so you can see what life is like in Seoul. Then imagine what a foreigner would learn by studying the Australia Network prior to taking up a job in Sydney, and don’t bother. If you’ve learnt anything the hard way, it’s that you worry too much. Relax.
You should be content to leave Shillong, and India. Do it without looking back.
It’s your culture.
Annalemma, Issue 9, December 2012