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A Gap in the Clouds: In the beginning was the word

By Janice Pariat

A few days ago, there was an article in “The Shillong Times” that made me think of a folk story. The Khasis love folk tales, and like many other folkloric traditions, these attempt to explain natural phenomenon in order to make sense of the world. We have a story for almost everything how the earth was formed, what causes a solar eclipse, how a peacock got its feathers and even on why the rooster crows at dawn. Yet the one I recalled was about words.

Although versions vary (as most stories do in an oral culture), the one I’m familiar with is called ‘Ka Kitab ba lah Jah’ or ‘The Lost Book’. It tells the tale of a Khasi and a foreigner who are summoned by U Blei or God on a certain day to a mountain – the name of which is not known – to receive knowledge. The Khasi and the foreigner obeyed and appeared before U Blei, and remained there for three days and three nights. U Blei wrote down the laws of life and worship in two books and gave them one each saying, “Take this and read it and return to your people, so you may teach it to them.” On their way back, the Khasi and the foreigner found that the river they had crossed earlier had risen and was so deep that they needed to swim across. However, they didn’t possess anything with which to protect their books. Finally, the foreigner, who had long hair, tied the book up on the top of his head and swam to safety. The Khasi, who had short hair, had no choice but to clamp the book in his mouth. He floundered in the swift and strong current, his head went under and the book was ruined. In haste, the Khasi returned to the mountain to ask U Blei for a new book but found that there was no one there. He returned to his people empty-handed. Dismayed and saddened, the people called for a great durbar of all the Khasis where they could frame guidelines on how to lead a blessed life filled with health, wealth and families. It is said that since that day, the Khasis, for their knowledge, have depended on the traditions passed down from one generation to the next from their ancestors who sat in the great durbar after the sacred book was lost.

The news article I read that made me think this story did not report anything new. It is an issue that has cropped up constantly over the years that there is unrest among teachers in Meghalaya primarily because they have not been paid for months. This does not include employees of private institutions. The melee affected work in deficit schools that number approximately 137 (both secondary and higher secondary) in the state and employ over 2,100 teachers in all. Early last year, the Khasi Jaintia Higher Secondary Adhoc Teachers Association threatened agitation for non-payment of salaries for over five months.

In 2012, little has changed. The article I read recently reported that The All Meghalaya Primary School Teachers Association has resolved to hold a series of protests aimed at putting pressure on the state government to fulfil various demands including “immediate disbursement of pending monthly salaries, retirement benefits, head teachers’ allowance, advance increment of higher qualification which has been stopped recently and payment of the remaining 30 per cent of the revised arrear pay (2007), among others.” The programme of protest will begin with the release of an appeal to the public, the wearing of black badges by all primary school teachers, followed by a boycott of classes and a dharna in Shillong. The failure on the government’s part stems from the fact that the budget is perennially not prepared on time and because there was an enhancement from 49 per cent to 56 per cent in the dearness allowance that the teachers are entitled to receive.

What I would like to know is whether the ministers in our state government have ever faced the same problem? Has there been a month or two when their salaries have not been released? Or has their only hardship been not being able to afford a business class air ticket on their annual summer trips abroad?

The reason this situation is appalling is not only because people are being deprived of their livelihood and the benefits they deserve. With teachers resorting to “agitation”, an entire programme of education is being disrupted. As with mostly everything else in the state sporadic healthcare, illegal concrete construction, and a complete and utter disdain for environmental issues there is no thought for the future. For the children who attend these schools, who graduate from them into a society that is corrupt and failing.

In the folk story, there is a profound reverence for the ‘Word’, whether written in the book or the one spoken and passed down. Even when it’s lost, there is an effort to preserve and protect it. With every teacher’s salary unpaid, and every pension withheld, the state government does nothing but flout the sanctity of the ‘Word’, and strip it of its authority. They are the ones disrupting the durbar so that nothing gets saved for future generations. They are the ones drowning the books in the river.

(Thanks to Billy Peter Domes, editor of Khasi weekly Dongmusa for his help)

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