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11. Ka MeirilungGentle Motherland

Translation and Notes © Janet Hujon, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0137.11

In the plaintive lyrical opening of this section Soso Tham asks that most human of questions—Where do we come from? For the Khasi the answer still lies in conjecture. Meanwhile they suffer the humiliation of forced identities which are at best perplexing, and at worst humiliating. It is from these that Tham steers us gently away. Once again he sees the natural world as a source from which to draw upon for moral strength. He lists the forethought and ingenuity of those who led before—“Dimly they glimmer, one or two”, he describes the codes of warfare, and most importantly he names the luminaries who fought with pride and integrity. It is in the last verse that Tham highlights what is or should be the lasting legacy of our forebears, a principle which we would be foolish to ignore: “Boundaries defined, rights respected… Welfare and woe of common concern”a message relevant to a troubled world.

Gentle Motherland

Tell me children of the breaking dawn

Mother-kite, mother-crow,

You who circle round the world

Where the soil from which we sprang?

For if I could, like you I’d drift

Down the ends of twelve-year roads!

O Wind who lifts those seeds of Pine

Where grows that ancient rugged Tree?

Migrant from a Land of Plenty1

Perhaps that same That Faraway Land?

Or did our infant homeland crawl

From the lair of tiger khung2

So that like them our blood will course

Beating red in tendon vein

(Where Silver Strings stir into life

And I can pluck the Duitara)

But as we have such hardy souls

Home must have been a den of bears

The pine who grows from wind-borne seeds

Drifting in from alien lands

Though oftentimes consumed by fire

His crown is spared, remains un-scorched

His roots hold firm beneath the rock

No storm can do its wrenching worst!

In other ways once more we’ll climb

With other races mingle meet

Though cast as followers, why should we fear

Have not others led before?

Vivid the signs they left behind

Resin-rich the ancient pine

On hills and in forests

Our ancients thought deeply

The Tangmuri sang

The Sharati wept3

Standing Stones sprang throughout the land

To remember forever “U Kñi, U Kpa4

For the sun-beaten traveller weary and spent

Boulders were hewn into seats of rest

And bridges spanned rivers linking far banks,

As long as the sun and moon remain

Forever endures Ka Thadlaskein5

Genius and strength of our ancient ones

Today in your waters O Thadlaskein

Only waterfowl swim and splash with joy

But in my dreams at night I see

Orchards and gardens encircling your banks

When such a Host has gone before

We can never be infants left far behind

In Jaiñtiapur mansions built to last

Water tanks sunk throughout the land

Signposting a future that is only envisioned

By an eye that is clear, an ear that can hear

If our homeland today is to scale great heights

Then like once they were, so should we be

“Tigers of the Sword”, “Noble Bearers of Honour”

Toughened by trials through Fire and Water

Their pageantry and colour, their bearing, their pride

To behold their demeanour was to fall back in awe

Revered Ancestress, Creator Father

Will you tell us where they fell asleep?

Their name and their fame

Not mere legend or tale

U Puhshilum, U Khwai Shynreh6

Was untold wealth their only concern?

Was all, you think, just swallowed whole

When we grappled and battled with the rage of the river?7

Just one or two stars in heaven appear

One or two names remembered, survive

Sajar Laskor, Mailong Raja,

U Mangkathiang, U Syiem Kongka,8

Dimly they glimmer one or two

“Lest we forget! Lest we forget!”9

Kings they were of fearsome mien

Of them why should we be ashamed

They were not mere “Collectors of Heads”

But “Children of the Sword and Shield”

If ever we forget that they once lived

As orphans we doom ourselves to live

From under cover of cotton and rubber10

The resolute call to war rang out

Protectress of the Portal, Guardian Divine

Had kept tireless watch both day and night

With one accord the Tigers arose

The sword she lies still, but if war is to cease

The man in the sword must be unsheathed11

Swift they sped through forests deep

The tiger cowered, the Thlen retreats

Though slashed and torn by lightning sabres

Their sleep at night always quiet sound

Because they died to live again

Beings such as they can never age!

And so came forth these fabled warriors

Sword against sword come victory or loss

Thus ended combats of long ago

Thus did two kingdoms reconcile

“Collectors of Heads” of them you say?

Are they not “Sons of Sword and Shield”?

Oft we search for gold that’s pure

Yet here we find a gold that’s rare

From times now gone and times now lost

God chose those who could endure

To safeguard the frontiers of this our land

“Drenched in the blood of U Kñi U Kpa

Once again will forests roar

And stones long still shake to the core

Days new unknown will surely dawn

And our homeland ripen as never before

If we are willing to listen to ponder upon

The words that are spoken by Ka Mei Ramew12

Once Great Minds did wrestle with thought

To strengthen the will, to toughen the nerve

Once too in parables they spoke they taught

In public durbar or round the family hearth

In search of a king, a being in whom

The hopes of all souls could blossom and fruit

Together as one in a circle they gathered

Learning to steer the affairs of the state

They founded a “Hima13

Which they vowed to protect

They laid down their lives soaked the land with their blood

Thus lives on their name, enduring their fame

It matters not greatly who wears the crown

Only the power to shackle belongs to the king

Rich and poor, privileged and lowly

Marigold petals arranged in a circle

Resplendent gathering ordered decorous

Smoothly flow Durbar proceedings

Gateways and highways under the king’s control

Tethering thongs he holds in his hands,

Though given the power to tax and to fine

No tax from land flows into his coffers

For land is common, land bequeathed

The subjects, you see, are the lords of the land14

Boundaries defined, rights respected

Trespass a taboo remaining unbroken

Equal all trade, fairness maintained

Comings and goings in sympathy in step

Welfare and woe of common concern

Concord’s dominion on the face of the earth.

Listen to an audio recording of the poem at https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0137.23


1 The original phrase (Ri u Soh u Pai) translates into “Land of fruit and sugarcane”. I have chosen to use “Land of Plenty” to maintain the regularity of the rhythm, and also because the expression “Land of fruit and sugarcane” is often used to indicate abundance.

2 A mythical beast, half-lion half-bear.

3 The Tangmuri and Sharati are traditional wind instruments.

4 The Uncle, the Father.

5 Ka Thadlaskeiñ is a lake in the Jaiñtia Hills. Not wishing to shed the innocent blood of his own people by declaring war on his own king, the ruler of Jaiñtiapur, Sajar Nangli chose exile. But before leaving their homeland he and his band of rebel warriors used the ends of their bows to dig this lake.

6 Legendary characters famed for their superhuman strength. U Puhshilum was one who could turn over a whole hill with one thrust of his spade; U Khwai Shynreh used buffaloes as fish-bait.

7 A reference to the legend which explains how the Khasis lost their script during a great flood. See p. 24, n. 4.

8 The names of Khasi chieftains.

9 Soso Tham was familiar with Kipling’s Recessional and his use of this line is deeply ironic as we know the poet’s pride in the achievements of his people, “those lesser breeds without the Law.”

10 Cotton and rubber trees. See p. 59, n. 3 for a reference to a legend in which these trees play a part.

11 Translating part of this sentence “Shynrang ka Wait” was problematic for the original implies that the Sword (“Ka Wait), which is female, as denoted by “ka, has to become a man—“shynrang. As the sword is genderless in English I have had to add “The sword she lies still” in order to communicate the change from female to male.

12 Mother Earth.

13 A kingdom.

14 The concept of community land (“Ri Raid—common land) was once enshrined in Khasi traditional Law to ensure that the poor never remained landless and always had the means of producing their own food. Sadly this idea of “Ri Raid” is fast becoming a myth and land has now been bought and sold for private use. This is reminiscent of the Acts of Enclosure (1809–1820) the consequences of which tore apart the soul of the English poet John Clare.