The Matrilineal Tribe

Mridusmita Dutta

From Guwahati

Hello guys! Mridusmita this side. I am a sweet but silly girl of 17 with a horrible sense of humour. Yet, I know how to express myself on a piece of paper to pen down my imagination and escape into peoples' hearts. 😋 I started as a poet when I was 10 years old and my first poem was on my Mother and since then I have been wasting paper and ink😁.

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Mridusmita Dutta

“One more case of female infanticide took place  in the Boravalli district of Haryana today ”read  Meera but soon she folded the newspaper and kept it aside. She couldn’t read further, maybe she knew what was written next or maybe she was afraid of recollecting her memories from the past. Meera looked out of the window of the moving train, from Delhi to Guwahati. She enjoyed the view outside, the birds flying towards the infinite sky, the trees, the paddy fields, the small cottages and the distant forest that passed by. Somewhere she was lost amidst the lush greenery, the scenic beauty of the North-East. But then the innocent face of her 5 year old daughter caught her attention. Such a pure soul was asleep in her lap who made Meera smile but soon it was gone as she remembered the responsibilities nested on her shoulders.

“Mumma, water”, said the little girl as she woke up. Meera then hurriedly reached for the  bottle only to find it empty. A lady sitting in front noticed it and said,”You  can take this bottle”. She was a middle-aged woman with straight hair, eyefold eyelids, a snub nose and a broad smile. She looked friendly and hence Meera took the water bottle after she thanked her. “Nice to meet you. My name is Meera ,” said Meera. “And myself Lisa Lyndoh '', the lady introduced herself. Lisa asked “Where are you from?”, to which Meera replied, “ Haryana ''. “Actually I am visiting one of my friends in Meghalaya '' and so the conversation started between Meera and Lisa. After knowing each other’s whereabouts, Lisa asked, “Isn’t your husband travelling with you?” This question was followed by a long silence which made Lisa understand that she didn’t want to talk about it. So she tried to change the topic. Unexpectedly, Meera broke the silence to say,“We don’t stay together any more. Anyways, are you returning to your in-laws?”   

“No.No! I don’t stay with my in-laws. After marriage, my husband and I live with my parents, you see”. Meera was surprised to hear this. Looking at her surprised face, Lisa explained, “Look, I belong to the Khasi tribe, the inhabitants of Meghalaya. Here we have a matrilineal society. That is after marriage, the husband has to leave his home and move to his in-laws. Meera was intrigued to hear this and asked, ”Then what about the surname?” Lisa gave a giggle and said. “I knew you would ask this question as many do. No, we don’t have to change our title as our husbands. Infact the child is given the mother’s surname. “For the first time she was fed up with such information, so Meera got curious to know more. So she insisted Lisa tell something more about their tribe, customs and traditions, their way of living etc.

Hence, Lisa continued, “We are one of the last matrilineal societies in the world in which woman control property and inheritance and dominate public space. Unlike yours, in our society, daughter ensure the continuity of the clan. The youngest daughter called “Ka Khadduh”, is the custodian of the property inherited from mother. She has to look after her parents and eventually after her mother’s death, becomes the head of the family. A lot of questions poked  Meera’s head while she listen to Lisa. So abruptly she asked, “Do you know where its origin lies?”

“As per our legends, most of the men from our tribe were warriors who often fought with other groups for land. During those battles, men used to stay away from their family for years and some even died. With no other option left, women had to take the responsibilities of cultivating fields, feeding their families, protecting them, meeting up their daily needs and taking their important decisions. Hence the womenfolk became independent and decided to lead their clan.

“Hmm, interesting. But don’t you face difficulty sometimes?” I mean to say your customs are completely different from rest of the world. Then Lisa replied with a sigh,” Yeah, this is what others think. They are uncomfortable with this concept of matrilineal society but very easily accepts patriarchy where women faces injustice everywhere- whether it is right to education, equal pay in workplace, health facilities or social status. Look though in our tribe, a woman is the head of the family, that doesn’t mean men are deprived of their rights. In Fact, they have their own duties to fulfill. While the mother nurses the children, it is the father that the children will expect to get more advices from. It is the father who is expected to be the defender of the family’s property. They make political decisions and provide for their families.”

The train slowed down and came to a halt. “Chai, chai”, said a tea vendor who came into the compartment where Meera and Lisa were sitting. Meera asked Lisa,”Would you have some?” “Sure, why not”, replied Lisa. Meera and Lisa then had a cup of tea each. Looking out of the window,Meera got lost in her thoughts. She thought how nice it would have been if she had been born and brought up in Meghalaya. Her fate would have been different.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon. Everyone had their meal and dozed off except Meera and Lisa as they needed to resume their conversation. They were quite free to other then and in fact Meera was glad to have someone to talk all her train journey. “So” said Lisa,” Aren’t you going to tell anything about your family, friends,….(after a pause)…. your husband?”. Meera gave a faded smile and said,”I was born and brought up in small village of Haryana when birth of a girl is not as celebrate as that of a boy. I passed out my matriculation with good grades but wasn’t allowed to pursue higher education. And the reason given was that I should get married and serve my husband and in-laws. I accept my destiny without saying any word. But couldn’t keep my silence when my daughter was born but my in-laws refused to accept her and tried to persuade me to abandon the newborn child. It was then when I decided to leave my husband’s house.” 

Lisa seemed to be touched by her story and said,”You are really brave Meera. Being a single parent and bearing all the responsibilities is different but not impossible. I can understand you well, “Lisa gave a friendly smile. After sometime the sky grew darker and night approached. The stars were then bright and more beautiful. The train was moving at full speed and either side of it were paddy fields. Nothing could be heard except the snorting whistling of the engine and rumbling of the train.

Next morning, the weather was bright and the sky was clear with a gentle breeze. Soon, the train stopped at the Guwahati railway station. Passengers got ready with luggages to alight from the train. So did Lisa, Meera and her little daughter Naina. “Never thought that I would meet such an inspiring person  on my journey. I am really very glad and thankful to God for this. Lisa then said, “Oh! It’s nothing to thank for. But if you are really inspired to look at your life from a different perspective, I will feel myself to be worthy of something. And of course, it was really nice to meet you and our cute Naina.” “Hope to meet again” said Meera. “I will miss you Lisa aunty”, said Naina. “Hope to meet again” said Meera. “Sure if destiny decides.” Then they said goodbye to each other and carried on with their journey. 

Meera booked a cab from Guwahati to Shillong. On the way they crossed numerous mountain villages like Jorabat, Shangbarglo, Mowlai-Mowiong etc. The road passed through the lush green landscape of northern Meghalaya. Meera was mesmerized by the spectacular beauty and lush greenery of Meghalaya. The scenic trip and the sparkling Umiam lake would be ever memorable for her. She realized that the name “Meghalaya '' was perfect for such a place which was abode of  the clouds. They stopped the cab in the police bazaar where Meera would meet her friend. There Meera and Naina had their afternoon meal too. Since there was time to leave for her friend to come, Meera thought of giving one round of the place. Surprisingly she noticed that the maximum number of shops were owned by women. Somewhere, she felt the worth of the hectic woman’s life there. She also bought handicrafts and beautifully decorated items made of bamboo. Just then, there was a top on her shoulder from behind. She turned back only to get delighted by the familiar appearance of a lady. It was more after than her school friend she was waiting for. Then they shared a cozy hug.

Meera joyfully said,”Oh! Milli, I have seen you after such a long time. How are you?” Milli replied, “I am doing great. What a joy to see you! And you too little girl”, saying so, she handed over a big chocolate to Naina.

You haven’t changed at all Meera, since we were in school.” Both of them had a long conversation. Milli was an advocate and also worked in an N.G.O which specially helped women and children. When she came to know about Meera’s plight, Milli offered her to come to her place and lend a hand. They spent that night in a nearby lodge and the next day all of them headed towards the khasi hills. On the way, Milli gave Meera each and every details of Khasi tribe. She began, “The khasi are now mostly Christians. But before that they believed in a Supreme Being- “U Blei Nongthaw”and under him there were several duties of water and of mountains and also of other natural objects. If you ask about their food habits, their staple food is rice. They also take fish and meat. One very famous dish in Meghalaya is Jadoh. Also  rice beer is a must for every ceremonial and religious occasions.

Meera then asked, “And what about their dress?” Milli replied, “Oh! Yes, I just love the way they dress. It is so colorful and attractive. The Khasi traditional female dress is elaborate with several pieces of cloth. On ceremonial occasions, they wear  a crown of silver or gold on the head. The traditional Khasi male dress is' ' Jymphong”- a long sleeve coat without a collar, fastened by them in front. But now the Khasi have adopted the western dress.” After a brief conversation, Meera peeped out of the window. The weather was quite cold with chilly gusts of wind. For the first time she then noticed areas and areas left uncultivated, when huge profits can be made from them?”

“Actually, the people of Meghalaya practice shifting cultivation also called Jhum cultivation. In this slash and burn method, farmers clear forest areas to grow agriculture crops for a short period of time, ranging from over 1to 10 years. After this period, the cultivation is moved to another site. The farmers may or may not return to the old site after the fertility of the soil has reduced. In short they abandon the land to let it recuperate.

“But this would have adverse ecological effects resulting in soil erosion”, said Meera.

“Yeah! That is why the government. has asked them to practice better methods of cultivation like terrace farming.”

After a 2 hours journey they reached the Khasi Hills. The atmosphere was enchanting and the view was one of the breathtaking beauties. They stopped there for sometime, then again set off to where Milli’s NGO was located.  

“Meera, now it’s time for you to forget your miserable past and start a new life with your daughter. In our NGO, we have many women who are not dependent on anyone and earning their livelihood. Take inspiration from them and learn to grow” explained Milli. These words had some effects on Meera as seemed to be quite confident that earlier she was ready to give direction to her life and shape her daughter’s future. She was especially motivated by the Khasi culture and traditions and how to turn the circumstances to one favour instead of simply accepting them.

Milli continued, “You know Meera, the incharge of the NGO, is a very nice lady. She is one of the locals here and has helped many to grow their small business. You will be pleased to meet her. “ They reached the cottage located amidst bamboo trees but the place was quite charming. As soon as Meera entered the gate, she could spot a familiar figure with straight hair and broad smile. To her surprise it was none other than Lisa Lyndoh, the incharge of the NGO and Meera’s inspiration.