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2. A Short Biographical Note

© Janet Hujon, CC BY 4.0

Soso Tham, 1873–1940

In 1841 a Welshman named Thomas Jones arrived in the Khasi Hills of North East India, bringing with him the message of the Christian gospel. It was to better serve the aims of his mission that Jones decided to use the Roman script in order to set down the Khasi language in writing. But Jones was also “adamant about the need to teach the Khasis to read and write their own language first before attempting to learn English”.1 So began a re-drawing of the cultural map of these hills and several decades later, Soso Tham, as ardent student and inspiring teacher, deepened the lines on that map. In one of his letters to his son working in the British Army Office (Mesopotamia) during the First World War the poet writes in English: “In one way it is only what we write that matters in life. So the more you express yourself in letters the better.”2

Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiew Trep3 still stands as the final flowering of Soso Tham’s literary genius, but his facility in the use of English and his intense pride in the wealth of his mother tongue resulted in his other works in Khasi, as well as translations from English to Khasi. These include Ki Phawer u Aesop (Aesop’s Fables) first published in 1920, Ka Duitara Ksiar ne ki Poetry Khasi (The Golden Duitara, or Khasi Poems) in 19314 and Ka Jingim U Trai Jong Ngi (a translation of Charles Dickens’s The Life of our Lord),5 which appeared in 1936 after Ki Sngi Barim. He successfully bridged the gap between the old and the new.

Tham died in 1940, leaving behind a body of work that speaks volumes about a man who, against all odds, could draw blood from the proverbial stone. The death of his beloved wife meant he was left alone to care for his five young children. As if this tragedy was not enough he then had to bear the loss of his only daughter, an experience he likened to being “whipped by the tempest”. His letters to his son contain frequent references to his continuing struggle to make ends meet. But despite all the hardship Tham’s tenacity of spirit and sense of purpose never wavered. He never lost the will to find the words to convey his fierce pride in the homeland that made bright his vision and nurtured his spirit.

1 Andrew J. May, Welsh Missionaries and British Imperialism: The Empire of Clouds in Northeast India (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2012), p. 139.

2 A. A. Dkhar, Na U Kpa Sha U Khun ([Letters] from a Father to his Son) (Shillong, Shandora Press, 2013), p. 12.

3 Soso Tham, Ki Sngi Barim U Hynñiew Trep (Shillong: Shillong Printing Works, 1936). A more recent edition was published in Shillong by Primrose Gatphoh in 1976.

4 Soso Tham, Ka Duitara Ksiar ne ki Poetry Khasi, 8th ed., rev. and enl. (The Golden Duitara) (Shillong: Primrose Gatphoh, 1972).

5 Soso Tham, Ka Jingim U Trai Jong Ngi, 2nd ed. ([n.p.], 1936), available at