U Manik Raitong
** This story first appeared in “Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends” published by Penguin India, New Delhi, in 2007. The copyright is mine. **
U Manik Raitong, or Manik the Wretched— also famed as the archetypal lover and the dispenser of the tradition of love and music in Khasi society— lived, sometime in the remote past, in the capital of one of the biggest Khasi states or himas, in those days, located in contemporary Ri Bhoi District to the north of the Khasi Hills towards the Assam border. He was an orphan from youth, a young man all alone in the world, who had lost not only his family but also all the members of his clan. Yet he was neither poor nor wretched in the material sense, for he had inherited all the property of his clan, which comprised a spacious hut at the outskirts of the town and large tracts of cultivable land, bordering a nearby village.
At that time Manik spent almost all his time in his extensive and partly wooded fields. He would leave at third cockcrow and return at nightfall to a lonely hut, never enlivened by the company of friends, for he had none.
In the fields, where he grew a little paddy, a little millet, a little of this and a little of that, his routine was never rigorous. He would work on a furrow or two till his midday meal and then retire to the hills and the groves to listen to the songs of birds and the melodies of insects in the bushes. As he often told himself, he had no need for hard work, being alone. His sole ambition was how to recreate the countless sounds of nature, which had strangely brought such restful consolation to his bruised soul.
It was while he was wandering about in this manner that Manik met a remarkably beautiful girl from the neighbouring village. He had strayed absently into the fringes of the village and was going down to a shyngiar, a spring spouting from a length of split bamboo, for a drink when he bumped into the girl emerging from another lane.
Surprised, they stared at each other and then blurted out at the same time, “Who are you?”
A nervous laugh followed… the girl turned to proceed down the lane… then Manik like a man who was dreaming, and afraid that his dream might come to an abrupt end, blurted out again: “Wait….”
She waited, looking him full in the eyes as if daring him to unburden himself. Manik stared at her enthralled. He had never seen such a beauty before. Here he was, looking for the rare and tuneful strains and finding instead a rare and beguiling flower. Not that she was dressed differently from the girls he had seen in the fields. Like them she was wearing a jaiñsem 1 over her sarong skirt and like them she even had, slung across her shoulder, a ïarong, one of those small net purses woven from the threads of pineapple leaves so common among working women. Nonetheless he could see that she was no ordinary working woman. She had about her an apparent elegance, a confident grace that no clothes, however commonplace could ever obscure.
Manik was even more fascinated by the peach-blossom appearance of her face. Her thick black hair, pulled back firmly and tied in a bun at the back of her head, only intensified the effect of her cerise complexion, her luminous dark eyes and her smiling thorn-berry red lips so that she seemed to be aglow like early sunrise.
“Forgive my rudeness,” he finally said when he saw her blushing uncomfortably under his intense gaze, “I’m sorry to embarrass you like this… you are so… I… I have never seen you before.”
Seeing him ill at ease himself, the girl giggled happily and said, “But we have been watching you everyday. You never seem interested in anything except the singing of birds and the loud whining of the cicadas. Are you a poet?”
“No, I’m only trying…”
“Someone’s coming,” interrupted the girl, “I have to go.” And with that she turned towards the shyngiar.
Manik shouted after her, “Will I see you again?”
“If you want to see me come to my house tomorrow,” the girl shouted back. “Ask for the house of the Lyngskor.”
What! Manik thought, the Lyngskor? Is she the daughter of the Lyngskor, the chief minister in the king’s council of ministers? No wonder she looks so noble. Anyway, Lyngskor or no Lyngskor I will go, he resolved. After all, she invited me… and come to think of it, I’m not so bad off myself.
The next day Manik tried to appear as respectable as he possibly could in his clean work clothes, since he did not want to wear his occasional dresses for fear of drawing undue attention. He presented himself at the house of the Lyngskor late in the afternoon and was received by the mother herself, who said:
“Ooh, so you are the man my daughter has fallen for? No wonder… you are so well-turned out. Somebody please bring us the shangkwai… yes the betel nut basket. Now tell me about yourself.”
Manik introduced himself.
“What! You are the sole surviving son of Ka Phrin and U Sherin! Please wait here,” she said and left the surprised Manik alone.
In the kitchen she reprimanded her daughter and told her not to bring the shangkwai to the main room. “And all of you,” she said, addressing her entire family, “stay out of sight. What I have to tell the young man is not for your ears…. You are lucky your father is not here….”
Back in the main room she addressed Manik in peremptory tones: “I’m terribly displeased that you a miserable orphan could be so presumptuous as to court the daughter of a Lyngskor. What have you got to offer her except misfortune and perhaps, God forbid, untimely death? Don’t you know what people are saying about you? You carry with you the touch of death. You have caused the death of your parents, your family and your entire clan; and now you want to bring such ill luck into my house too? When Ka Phrin, your mother died, she left in your care her only daughter, what has happened to her? You are a death dealer. Your name shall never be spoken in this house. Your presence shall never be permitted. Now go, cast your ominous shadow elsewhere.”
Poor Manik, his love had ended as soon as it had begun. He did not even know the girl’s name, but what was the use? He did not realise that there was so much hatred for him in this world. How had he caused the death of his parents, family and clan? How had he been a death dealer? It had always seemed to him that God and the dead had been cruel to him by deserting him alone in this unfriendly world, but now that same world was trying to turn things upside down by putting the blame upon him.
Ah, my dearest sister, you were the last to go, he suddenly recalled. How I had tried to save you! Surely everyone knows and remembers how I had tried to save you so that through you, our clan could live on and prosper. I had collected for your cure every plant and herb known to man. I had brought all the shamans, the healers, the diviners from every nook and cranny of the hima, our state, so that they could plead for your life with their egg-breakings and their sacrificial roosters. I had desperately wanted you to live so that you might in turn be my companion and caretaker. But the world is turning things upside down, and I am blamed even for your death.
I’m like an animal in its lair, sad and lonely, yet the moment I try to reach out, people chase me off and hound me out as dirty and dangerous. Alone then from now on, alone as long as I breathe, and since I am treated like an outcast, like an outcast I shall live. I shall dress in sackcloth and anoint myself from head to foot with ash from the hearth of my burnt out life. Let me give the world a reason to denounce me a pariah. Let it shun and leave me alone. But away from meddling eyes, in the friendship of the night, let me be pure and spotless. Let me be true to myself. Let me be true to my quest. Let me speak with the musical sounds, the healing tones of Nature.
If the truth be told, many a young woman would have been too happy to be courted by Manik. He was young, handsome and propertied. Surely, since everybody had to die one day, the thought of future death would not have been as important to young women in love as their present wellbeing. But who was to tell Manik that the feeling of one indignant mother did not represent the collective truth of the society?
It was from that time that Manik began to appear to the world in sackcloth and ashes. That was how he walked through the lanes of the town, whistling to himself or practising with the seven-mouthed sharati, the long slender flute he had invented, carved from seasoned shken, the small-stem bamboo. That was how he went to his fields and roamed the woods in search of new tunes for the instrument which had become his only true companion. But unknown to the world, he waited for the gloom— he bathed; he dressed in his best clothes; and he played through the night, sharing with the crickets the sad story of his life.
It was from that time that the world came to call him Manik Raitong, Manik the Wretched, Manik the Forsaken.
And so Manik lived the life of a recluse for many years, oblivious of what was going on in the world. He was ignorant and uninterested in the affairs of the town. It was as if life had passed him by completely, and except for the occasional jeers of the town’s children, who branded him ‘a mad man playing mad music’, he was completely ignored as if he did not exist at all. There were tremendous changes around him, but he remained blissfully unaffected.
A young Syiem, a strong ruler and powerful warrior had taken over the governance of the hima. Under his leadership the hima, and consequently its capital, were growing in fame and prosperity. The Syiem had won many battles and annexed many territories. The hima had expanded on all sides but especially towards the north where its territories extended far into the plains of Assam from Goalpara in the west to the Cachar Hills in the east. To govern these territories, the Syiem appointed many syiem raijs or provincial kings, who reported directly to him at the capital in Ri Bhoi.
The Syiem was truly a hero, loved and respected in the whole hima, and feared throughout the length and breadth of the Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills, known in those days as Ka Ri U Laiphew Syiem bad U Khatar Doloi or the Land of the Thirty Kings and a Dozen Dolois. What enhanced his image as a hero was also the fact that he was still a bachelor at 30, a bachelor who was the dream of every suitable young woman and whose marriage was a subject of endless debate and speculation.
The Syiem was of course, in no hurry for marriage. He had no desire to settle down and grow old just yet. He was a man of action whose real thrill in life was in the thick of a battle and whose ambition was to go down in folk legends as the greatest conqueror and nation builder of the Khasis.
His mother, however, had different plans. She realised that he was living a dangerous life and wanted to curb his restless spirit by diverting some of his energy towards the responsibilities of raising a family. Besides, as she told the Syiem, she would like to see him happily married off before she grew too old to perform her part of the nuptial rites.
Following the queen mother’s wishes many matchmakers were engaged to look for the most eligible bride in the hima. But as it turned out, their services were not really required, for the Syiem had fixed his fancy upon Ka Lieng Makaw, the only unmarried daughter of the Lyngskor, who had been introduced to him by none other than the Lyngskor himself.
Lieng Makaw became officially betrothed to the Syiem after the engagement ceremony called kyntiew synjat was performed. The wedding itself was fixed six full moons after this to allow the entire hima to gear up for the grand event. The invitation was relayed to every part of the hima through special messengers, and soon after, weeks before the occasion, representatives from villages and provinces arrived with gifts of goats, cattle, pigs, poultry, rare birds and wild animals captured for the purpose, besides basketfuls of paddy, millet, maize, fruits and foodstuff of every description. They poured into the capital town from every direction and occupied every empty space on the suburbs, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of the raucous pipe music of ka tangmuri and the booming sound of ki ksing, the big and small drums.
On the wedding day everyone was curious about the Mahadei 2 to be. Had their Syiem chosen the right woman for his wife? How did she look like, to win the approval of such a king? Was she fair? Was she tall? Did she have the gracefulness, the refinement, the sterling qualities, to be a true Mahadei of the people?
It was for this reason that the wedding was held in an open field to let all the citizens have a glimpse of the bride. The ceremonial rites were conducted by the Lyngdoh Hima, the Chief Priest, in the presence of the ministers, the syiem raijs, the nobles and representatives of the Dorbar Hima, the Council of State, and countless other dignitaries from neighbouring himas.
And yes, Lieng Makaw was everything that the people expected, and more. She was dressed in a brilliant yellow velvet blouse over which were suspended, crosswise, a pair of chaste white dharas or mulberry silk jaiñsem with gold designs near the hem over the flowing tassels. Over and above them she wore draped over her shoulders a milky satin cape. On her feet was a pair of slippers made of a specially treated deer skin. On her arms were bracelets, bangles and armlets of solid gold inlaid with rubies. Her necklace was a konopad made of flattened gold and adorned with topazes and rubies; her earrings were dangling gold leaves; and her crown was a tiara of gold and diamonds to hold her ample hair, which was swept back and left flowing loose down her spine like a black cascade.
There she was sitting by the majestic Syiem in the specially decorated, gem studded love seat. To say that she was beautiful was to understate the truth. She was the snow on the summit of Ki Mangkashang, 3 kissed by the golden sunlight of the afternoon. She was the goddess of the mountains, a nymph, pure and sparkling like the pearls and gemstones of magic depths. The revellers heaved a collective sigh of happiness, and bunches of them broke into a dance and sang arias to the spectacular queen consort.
Lieng Makaw moved to the palace of the Syiem, an exception the matrilineal Khasis allow for their rulers. Since normally a married Khasi woman would never go to settle in her in-laws’ house, it was therefore hard to describe Lieng Makaw’s feelings at that moment. She was living in a strange place (not exactly with the in-laws but in a palace in the same compound), bound to a man she hardly knew, a man, moreover, she had not fallen in love at first sight. But that man was also a king, regal, celebrated and revered. It would be false to say she was unhappy, nevertheless it would also be untrue to say she was delighted.
Adjusting to the new life with its protocol and decorum, its duties and responsibilities was rather awkward for her, who was used to the freedom of the hills. Her new family assured her that she would get used to it with the guidance and inspiration of the Syiem. And so, perhaps, she would have got used to it, and grown to love the Syiem dearly in the bargain, but for the fact that the Syiem never seemed to have much time for her.
Merely one week after the wedding, the Syiem announced: “My dear Mahadei, there are rumblings of discontent in my provinces in the plains. I have to head there immediately. I cannot risk a full-scale rebellion at this point…. No, I cannot take you along, it would be too dangerous. Besides, I don’t know when I could come back. I’m leaving tomorrow with the Lyngskor and some of my most trusted ministers and swordsmen. I have appointed a Syiem Khynnah 4 to administer this part of the hima in my absence. You please look after the affairs of the palace. I don’t want any indiscipline among the servants. Keep everyone under a tight leash. My mother and sister will help you carry on your duties in a manner befitting a Mahadei.”
That night Lieng Makaw could not sleep for a long time. Why is he leaving me alone so soon after the wedding? Why does he want to avoid me? Is his work that important? Why can’t he take me along, is it that dangerous? How can I live here without him? I’m still almost a stranger here….
As she was moping in this fashion, she suddenly heard a strange almost weird sound carried on the wings of the night breeze. What a strange mournful music, she thought. I have never heard anything like this before… it cannot be the raucous tangmuri, which is played only during festivals and occasions… nor is it the moan of the three-stringed duitara… what could it be?
The music seemed to creep in from the cracks to tug at her heartstrings. She sat up and wakened the Syiem, “Pa’iem! Pa’iem! 5 Listen…can you hear that?”
The Syiem woke up and listened. Just at that moment, however, there was a sudden lull and the music stopped. “It must be the wind,” the Syiem said. “Go back to sleep.”
By and by Lieng Makaw dozed off. Just before she fell asleep she thought she could hear snatches of the music but could not keep her eyes open and slept almost against her will.
The Syiem departed at third cockcrow accompanied by his most intimate advisers and a large number of fighting men including some of the fiercest swordsmen and the most accomplished archers in the hima. Lieng Makaw was quite forlorn and unhappy. Despite the Syiem’s justification, she felt vaguely, inexplicably betrayed, let down, and unwanted. She was so depressed by this desertion, as it seemed to her, that she moved about the palace as if she was in a trance. And thus she continued for many days, an outsider and alone, owing, in no small measure, also to the indifference shown by the Syiem’s family living in the ancestral mansion at the centre of the palatial compound.
One afternoon, towards nightfall, after a perfunctory dinner, she found her loneliness so overpowering, her sense of neglect so unbearable that she literally ran out of the suffocating confines of the palace to go for a stroll in the fields nearby.
Outside, fanned by the cool and fragrant breath of autumn, she felt immediately better. Let see, she said to herself, the palace is on the outskirts in the east. Where shall I go from here? To the north where I could get a glimpse of the woods from those cluster of monoliths, or to the south where I could climb the low hills for a panoramic view of the town? Her lady-in-waiting, who had followed her, suggested it might be too late to go anywhere. Indeed a light moon was already up in the eastern sky and a few stars were making their appearance at the edges of the horizon, but she dismissed her and walked towards the knolls, instructing her to be around only when called for.
When she got to the nearest hill, the night was already bathed in the flaxen light of the moon and the surroundings were clear as day. The town was quiet and glimmering with flambeaux and hearth fires. She turned her gaze north-east to the cluster of monoliths— the male stones standing erect and the female lying flat at their feet, so that they looked to her like high-backed resting places for the weary traveller. She felt strangely drawn towards them and in spite of the advancing night, she found herself making her way to them.
Lieng Makaw sat on a flat slab and leaned back against a standing male stone, sighing deeply as she brooded over the resting place of her life, her husband, who seemed to have lost all interest in her after barely a week of life together. And I’m bound to him for life, she thought bitterly. How would our life together be? Would I always be left to myself like this till the fire in my blood slowly dies for lack of caring hands?
As she sat there assailed by doubts and worrying over a thousand questions, the air abruptly came alive with the strains of the extraordinary music which she had heard the previous night. They rose as if from the depth of the earth and were picked up and carried forward by the light wind to be distributed among the lonely creatures of the night. Lieng Makaw pricked her ears trying to place the direction of the melodies. They seemed to be emerging from a hut standing alone between the monoliths and the woods. She ran towards the hut as if she were a house pet responding to the urgent calls of her master. Yes, the delightfully sweet, incredibly sad music was emerging from the hut. In her excitement, Lieng Makaw shouted, “Hey Bah! Hey Kong! 6 Who is in the house? May I come in?”
As a response, the music stopped its wailing and there was only silence even after Lieng Makaw had repeated her calls several times. Uncertain and a little nervous she retraced her steps and ran back towards the palace.
At the palace, she called her attendant and casually enquired about the solitary hut she had seen near the woods.
“That Mahadei, is the hut of Manik Raitong. Yes Mahadei, he is the one, he goes about in sackcloth and ashes…. He even smears his face with soot…. Nobody knows the exact reason why, but everyone presumes it is because he has suffered so much in his young life…. Yes, he lives completely alone. All his relations have died. He is the most miserable creature on earth.”
Hmm, Lieng Makaw thought, so that is the hut of Manik, the Wretched. In that case it must have been him playing those haunting tunes. But if he is what they all say he is, how could he have been the one? And how could his music affect me so profoundly? It is as though the music knows me intimately; as though it is my long lost acquaintance; and that deep inside me, I also know it and that is why I react to it with such spontaneous gladness. She rubbed her chin…could he be the same one? No, how could he be? The other one was so good looking…and yet is it possible? It has been so long ago….
There was no sleep for Lieng Makaw that night. She was grappling with a different kind of restlessness, no longer the misery eating at her heart, but an excitement induced by the music and the provoking thoughts about Manik Raitong. She twisted and turned in her bed, and then, at about midnight, she suddenly sat bolt upright. Yes, she could hear faint snatches of the melody beckoning to her like the barely audible voice of a friend calling from faraway. The palace was asleep. She neatened herself and crept out into the moonlight. She ran all the way to the hut and then stopped at a distance to listen.
The music was full and round as it gushed as if from some inner spring and emerged surging into the air riding the waves like a silver thread. It soared above the trees, now high, now low, like a gliding eagle: it is the wind whispering dolefully among the trees; it is the rain pattering softly among the dead leaves of the forest; it is a brook gurgling eerily among the bushes; it is the rolling wail of a cicada; it is the forlorn sadness, the distressed call of jyllob 7 in the deep woods; it is the cry of a soul in despair, a soul whose agonies had translated into this sweet, unceasing lament.
The music seemed to be all of these to Lieng Makaw, as she took in the different tunes pulsating in the air. She was moved as never before by this melodious outpouring of grief. Each tune carried the haunting note of sorrow and each note was a sweet and painful thrust sinking into her heart and reeling her like a hooked line, relentlessly, into the mysterious world of the musician. She ran lightly onto the porch. She peeped into the hut…. “What! This is no Manik Raitong in sackcloth and ashes!” she exclaimed in a low voice.
Indeed what she was seeing was a man in the finery and the ceremonial robes of a king. The man was sitting on a wooden stool facing the hearth. The enthralling music that had possessed her was flowing from the man’s breath through the seven openings of a thin bamboo tube— the seven mouths of the soul, the seven outlets of sorrow, the seven wonders of a music created by the very breath of life. It was by playing his fingers over the openings that he was creating the most hauntingly poignant tunes that Lieng Makaw had ever heard. Every time the man exhaled into the tube, a string tautened in her heart and throbbed painfully.
She knocked loudly at the door, “This is your Mahadei, Ka Lieng Makaw, please open the door,” she requested.
The door did not open, but this time, the music did not stop either. Lieng Makaw peeped through the chink in the plank wall again, and without taking her eyes off his back, beat the timber frame with the palm of her hands, pleading, “Please open the door, I only want to listen to your music. Please let me in, I only want to watch you playing.”
The man turned his face towards her. It was the handsome youth from the shyngiar! The youth who had loved her and sought her hand many years before! He was older, much more matured; otherwise he was the same, serene and attractive as ever. Yes, Manik was the man of her first love! With her heart hammering at her side, she banged the wall more fiercely and shouted, “Manik, it is I, the woman at the shyngiar! My name is Lieng Makaw, don’t you remember me? You even came to my house for me…”
Manik was startled, she could see that, but then he simply turned away and began playing a different tune. As she listened spellbound to the new eerie tune, she seemed to understand everything. She was the last straw in his cheerless life, the last straw that broke his back. It was she who had turned him into the despised creature that he was now. She understood this as plainly as though he had recounted his story in clear and resounding terms. She became even more desperate. Manik’s sharati gushed forth to draw out her very soul, which swirled about the porch like a mad spirit trying to find a way in. Unexpectedly Lieng Makaw saw a large machete leaning against the wall. She grabbed the broad heavy knife and began battering the door with it till it finally broke down.
Lieng Makaw entered. Manik had stopped playing. He was standing and staring at her in amazement.
Lieng Makaw looked up at him with sheer adoration in her face. How she had secretly admired this fair finely-etched face, manly and majestic in its light yellow turban of muga silk. How fascinated she had been with these striking dark eyes shining with such a sad gentle light. She said, “Don’t you remember me? We met at the shyngiar years ago, you said you were in love with me; you….”
“I used to love a woman, not a queen,” Manik interrupted sadly. “If you had shown your rebellious spirit then, we would have been happy. But now you have only sentenced me to death.”
It was a portentous statement from a man who had gained much wisdom from much suffering. But Lieng Makaw did not even stop to think, “What wrong have I done?” she replied. “I have only come to listen to your mournfully mesmeric music, which has not allowed me to sleep or to rest even for a moment. And no wonder it is so, now I understand, for your sorrow is my sorrow… I have done nothing wrong. We have done nothing wrong… and besides it is about midnight. Nobody knows and nobody needs to know.”
From that time Lieng Makaw started visiting Manik every night towards midnight to watch him play; to listen to his magical sharati; to wonder how on earth they could have conjured up such enchanting notes.
Nobody knew that Manik Raitong, Manik, the Wretched, Manik, the Forsaken, had won the heart of a queen.
Time flew, the seasons passed and passed again over the land. But the Syiem did not return. It was only at the end of the third winter that he sent word of his homecoming. The entire hima got ready to give its great and noble king a reception befitting a conquering hero. There was a great rejoicing in the land when the Syiem reappeared. Every village received him with festivities and much show of affection. In the capital, however, the tone of welcome was muted. And in the palace, there was only a dreadful hush.
When the Syiem arrived at the palace he first asked for his Mahadei, “Where is Ka Mahadei? Why isn’t she here to receive me?”
A frightened household told him, “She is suckling the baby, Pa’iem.”
“Baby! What baby!” thundered the startled Syiem, jumping back as if he had stepped upon a snake.
The servants replied, “Ka Mahadei’s, Pa’iem.”
“What? Ka Mahadei has got a baby? How is that? Why was no message sent to me?” he bellowed.
At that moment the queen mother appeared, “Welcome home, son,” she said quietly. “Come, we shall talk in private.”
When they were huddled alone in the main chamber, the queen mother asked, “How long have you been absent?”
“Three winters, of course,” the Syiem said impatiently.
“Then he definitely is not yours,” the queen mother concluded, “We have always known this, of course, that’s why we have put her under house arrest. I just want to make sure. The child is male. He is about six full moons old. The question is what is to be done now?”
The Syiem clenched his fists, ground his teeth and hissed out with suppressed rage, “I’m going to destroy the man who has brought this shame upon me, upon my house, upon the entire hima. I’m going to destroy them both.”
“My sentiments, exactly,” agreed the queen mother. “But first you should find out from her who is the man. Not that she would tell you, knowing what you would do. But you could try.”
Lieng Makaw was summoned before the Syiem. As the queen mother had deduced, it was useless to expect a disclosure from her. Here was no repentant woman. She came before the Syiem with her head held high— proud, stubborn, unashamed and even happy. Seeing this, the Syiem thought, is she naively expecting me to throw her out, divorce her, so that she could live blissfully with her paramour? Or does she think that her father, the Lyngskor, could protect her? A hard cruel smile curved the left corner of his mouth as he dismissed her.
But what was to be done? He could not possibly have her physically treated for a confession, for after all, she was his legally wedded wife and the daughter of the hima’s chief minister to boot. Later he could devise an appropriate punishment for her, but for now, that method was out of the question. But what was to be done then?
It was the Lyngdoh Hima who suggested that a test be carried out to uncover the identity of the wrongdoer. On his instruction, he said, the shamans had already performed an egg divination ceremony, and God, U Nongap Jutang, the Keeper of the Covenant, the Pledge between man and Him, had indicated, through signs, a way by which the Syiem and the hima could expose the offender and right all wrongs.
To implement the test, a Dorbar Hima comprising all those villages within striking distance from the capital was convened. All marriageable male members from the villages were ordered to attend without fail and to bring with them a piece of banana.
On the appointed day, the men were made to form a circle round a huge field. At the head of the circle sat the Syiem, the Lyngskor, the Lyngdoh Hima and other ministers. To their right and left, extending for thousands of paces, sat the councillors from the villages. The middle of the circle was left bare except for a cane mat where Lieng Makaw’s six-full-moon old baby was lying. The purpose of the dorbar was explained at length by the Lyngdoh Hima following an instruction from the Syiem. Each man was required to hold up the piece of banana he had brought and to offer it to the baby. The man whose banana the baby accepted would be declared as its father and would be punished as deemed fit by the whole dorbar.
The procedure was initially objected to by many, for they pointed out the possibility of the baby accepting more than one banana, or accepting it from the wrong man. But the Lyngdoh Hima argued that the test was according to the signs and tokens indicated by God, and eventually persuaded everyone by contending that justice would be carried out only after a further careful investigation. The man whose banana was accepted by the baby, he said, would be subjected to additional examinations and questioning so that the absolute truth is first established.
After these assurances, the dorbar unanimously agreed to put the test into operation. The men, starting from the direction to the right of the Syiem, carried the bananas in their hands, and with their hearts in their mouths, approached the baby.
The first one, a scrawny middle-aged man, gripped his banana in the fingers of his right hand, held it upright, and then crouching low, hand extended in a gesture of offering, he slowly crept towards the baby in the fashion of a man who was trying to appease an angry and dangerous animal. With sweat dripping all over his forehead, he reached the baby and presented the banana, cooing softly and grinning foolishly. The whole dorbar held its breath. The baby looked at the man and then at the banana, but continued sucking its fingers. The man stood up, gave a loud sigh of relief, raised his hands and shook them in the air in jubilation.
And so one by one, to the last man, was subjected to the test— the younger men sweating under the strain, while the elderly were more perfunctory. One of them, a joker in the pack, even tried to thrust the banana into the baby’s hands so he could be suspected of having made love to the queen. The baby, however, showed no interest in any of the bananas. Frustrated, the Syiem nodded an instruction to the Lyngskor, who stood up and asked, “Is there anyone from any of the villages who hasn’t attended? Respected headmen, please answer for your groups.”
Each headman stood up and testified that every marriageable male member from his village had attended. But one headman from a locality of the capital stood up to explain, “Everyone has attended Pa’iem, except Manik Raitong. As you know, he lives like an outcast and goes about in sackcloth and ashes. His face is always covered with soot and grime. He is truly a wretched creature. Should such a man be called to the dorbar?”
At first the dorbar was divided in its opinion until the Lyngdoh Hima intervened. He said, “I have just consulted with the other priests, Pa’iem, and they are unanimous that every male regardless of his circumstances in life must be called before the dorbar. I move, therefore, that Manik Raitong be brought here.”
Manik was brought to the dorbar and given a piece of banana. Timid and shy, he cut such a pathetic figure in his ragged and ash-laden sackcloth that everyone present clicked and clacked in sympathy and annoyance that such a one should be subjected to such a test. The question in everybody’s mind was how could the Mahadei possibly consort with such a poor thing? “Shish!” they derided, “he looks like one of those beggars from the plains.”
Manik walked towards the baby with his banana. He was no longer timid and shy. Erect like a menhir he advanced…. When he reached the baby he kneeled down and offered it the banana. As soon as it saw him the baby kicked out its little hands and feet in excitement. It giggled and gurgled and reached out towards him, coaxing him to pick it up. Manik reached for it, hoisted it in the air and announced imperiously, “This is my son!”
A deafening roar went up throughout the dorbar. Men jumped in amazement. They craned their necks for a better look at Manik and raised exclamatory noises in sheer disbelief that such a stinking wretch could have cuckolded their Syiem.
The Syiem called for order. He could not believe that he had been undone by this filthy half-human. He instructed the Lyngskor to question him closely. He sent one of the ministers to get Manik’s claim confirmed by Lieng Makaw. When everything was done and the truth was established beyond the shadow of a doubt, the dorbar sentenced Manik to immediate death by u tangon u lymban, that is, by crushing his neck between two heavy logs.
Manik, unafraid and unperturbed, requested the dorbar for a last wish. He began:
“You the Syiem, the mother; you the ministers, the advisers; you the priests, the nobles; and you the councillors, true sons of your mothers, in whom the true power is vested; please hear me out. You consider me a criminal to be condemned to death by u tangon u lymban. But in my heart of hearts, for reasons that you will come to know by and by, I know that I am not a criminal. It is life’s designs that I should suffer and through suffering create and conquer, and then suffer again for my very achievements. I’m not a lawbreaker the way a thief or a murderer is. My heart is pure, pure as a mountain stream. If someone is attracted to that purity and tries to drink from it that does not render the stream impure. I’m not, however, trying to justify my actions, nor am I trying to plead for clemency. Death is the natural end of all sorrows. All I ask is that I do not be slain like a common criminal. Please allow me to choose the manner of my own death.”
The dorbar was surprised by Manik’s fluent self-expression. Even their renowned ruler had never attained such solemn eloquence. Amidst the hushed silence the Syiem enquired, “How would you like to meet your death?”
Without any hesitation Manik said, “I would like to die by the cleansing power of fire. What I have done is unclean to you. What life has done is unclean to me. Let fire destroy every trace of my life, let my soul rise like the blue smoke and be one with the blue sky. And let me build my own pyre so that I may go in peace having died by my own hand.”
The dorbar, moved to pity despite what it considered an unpardonable crime against the head of state, granted his unusual request. Even the hard-hearted among them said to themselves, since he is going to die anyway, it does not matter to us how he meets his end. A day was appointed and builders assigned to assist Manik in making the pyre. Guards were also posted to monitor Manik’s movements.
Manik went about building the pyre as though he was making preparations for the most important occasion of his life. He selected a site on a small hill on the western edge of the town and had a large rectangular strip cleared. Then he ordered several huge plantain trunks, which he made into a spacious rectangular enclosure, open at the bottom and the top. The enclosure was fixed into the ground with fist-sized wooden spikes in such a way that the bottom rested on the wooden, latticed platform of a makeshift hearth. He packed a considerable stash of dry logs inside the enclosure and proceeded to decorate the pyre.
The plantain trunks were first covered with pure white cotton sheets and then beautified with dark red velvet, festooned with golden tassels. The corners of the decorated enclosure were topped by wooden carvings resembling a plantain flower called siarkait. Finally four long bamboo poles were erected near the four corners of the pyre to which were attached the shanduwa or a high canopy of deep red satin cloth.
When all this was done, Manik stood back to survey the place of his last repose. Satisfied with his own handiwork, he went home to prepare for his final journey.
On the day fixed for Manik’s self-immolation, people streamed into the capital from all corners. They started arriving at first cockcrow and continued to flow in till the sun stood at the zenith. It was shortly after they had all settled down and chosen their vantage points near the funeral pyre that they heard the strains of an eerie, even creepy music floating towards them. They had never heard anything like these tunes before— onwards they came towards the pyre like creeping tendrils in the air. Are they the spirits of the air, the harbingers of death, enticing the soul with sweet refrains? The music grew stronger, fuller, more doleful. It was now wheeling in like a hawk, up and down, high and low, swirling about them, conveying anguish, heart-rending grief and deep lamentation.
Many among those present asked, “What is that? Is it the wind whispering sadly among the trees? Is it the rain pattering softly among the dead leaves? Is it a brook gurgling eerily among the bushes? Is it the rolling wail of a cicada? Is it the forlorn sadness, the distressed call of a bird in the deep woods?”
However, they soon saw it was Manik Raitong, playing on his sharati, the very same the local populace had dismissed as the instrument of a mad man, but which was now haunting them with the forlorn, gently stabbing yet deeply wounding melodies he had fashioned from the repertoire of his singular sorrow. And what a Manik he was! He was clean and bathed and handsome beyond belief. Tall and sinewy, he strode forward blissfully, his head slightly tilted to the right, his lips kissing the mouth of the sharati and both his hands fondly fingering the rest of its slim body.
He was dressed like a royal dancer. He had donned a luxuriant dhoti of deep purple eri silk with silver edging over which he wore a white shirt and a sleeveless jacket adorned with ornate designs and the golden tassels of muga. Over this was draped an X-shaped chain of silver inlaid with ruby. On his neck was a pearl-shaped necklace of gold and red coral stones and on his head was a magnificent purple and gold mulberry silk turban topped with eagle feathers.
Watching the new Manik the people were wonderstruck. They shouted among themselves, “Is this Manik, the Wretched, or Manik, the Prince? Look at him clothed in the ceremonial robes of a king!” cried one of them. “Yes!” cried another, “in the finery of a spring dancer!” Yet another asked, “How is it we never knew that we have the prince of princes in our midst? Not only is he a well-endowed youth, but an accomplished musician as well! Why did we ever treat such a gem like a pariah?”
It seemed as if Manik had come to life in all his splendour just before the hour of his death. It seemed as if he had been discovered in all his enthralling powers just when he was about to be damned forever. Many people thought that it was neither just nor honourable to destroy such a God-gifted talent. They went to the Syiem to plead on Manik’s behalf, to spare his life and change his death sentence to life in exile. But the Syiem sat there, flanked by his ministers, near the pyre, hard-faced and unmoved like a rock. He was watching Manik’s curious behaviour.
Having reached the top of the hill Manik turned his back to the pyre and walked backwards towards it— he was withdrawing from life, having a last look at it, while his sharati was sending its last greetings to his queen. Now he was truly playing his heart out, piping the most poignant and affecting dirges of his life. The sweet-bitter tunes, tinged with black despair were like rusted arrows going straight for the hearts of the onlookers and drawing tears of pain from their regretful eyes.
When he arrived at the pyre, Manik set the dry logs on fire then turned to circle the blazing flames three times. At the same time as he began his slow circular motion, he abruptly changed the tune of his music. The sharati was no longer mourning his dismal fate. It became festive and triumphant, shaping a new image of Manik, the consummate artist, who having won the love of a queen through an art that was also winning the hearts of all those who had initially come to enjoy the spectacle of his fiery end, was now happy to make a sacrifice of his life.
After he had circled the pyre three times, Manik stopped by the crackling blaze. He passed the sharati through the fire three times and then threw it across the pyre another three times. Having done this he went to a corner and planted it upside down on the ground— a powerful and profound gesture, both an indication and a denouncement of how the society had treated him and his art. Then without much further fuss, he jumped into the roaring inferno.
All this time Lieng Makaw was confined to her room at the palace, and her guards had strict instructions not to let her out of their sight. But the spectacular metamorphosis of Manik dressed in royal robes and playing what seemed to them a transformed and mesmerizing sharati, had caused such a frenzied tumult that everyone deserted his post to have a glimpse at this spectacle of a lifetime.
Lieng Makaw heard the familiar lingering notes of sweet sadness and her soul immediately broke into a dust devil dance. She moved about the room like a restless spirit, and without knowing why, she found herself putting on her best clothes. When the music stopped as Manik passed out of earshot, she also stopped, wondering fearfully what had happened to him. She was suddenly assailed by an empty feeling as though everything had been scraped out from inside her leaving her with nothing but a hollow shell. She wailed out in despair, “What use is this cage without its maina?” And so she rushed out, flying like the wind towards the cremation hill.
When she arrived there, almost unnoticed by anyone, she was in time to see Manik throwing himself into the fire. She gave one shrill agonizing cry, “Maniiik!” And then before anyone could stop her she was already in the burning pyre with the only love of her life.
A deep gloom fell upon the gathering. They had never witnessed such an event in their lives. They had never known such extraordinary souls before…. They dispersed slowly with a bitter taste in their mouths and an unclean feeling in their hearts.
The next morning when the Lyngdoh Hima along with the other priests and some elders went to perform the purgatorial rites at the site, they found to their amazement that a spring was gushing forth from the spot where the funeral pyre had been. And where the sharati had been planted upside down was a cluster of thin bamboos with leaves slanting downwards. Near the bamboo cluster was the sprout of a new tree species with large boat-shaped leaves that was later to be called the Lieng Makaw tree.
Though the names of the great Syiem and his expansive hima have been shrouded in the mist of time, perhaps deliberately, the thin-stem bamboos with inverted leaves are to be found to these days on the hill that has come to be known as U Lum Raitong. The spring still exists and now serves the requirements of Raitong, a new village that had sprung up near the hill many years after the destruction of the original capital town by unknown invaders. The Lieng Makaw tree still grows in plenty in the area and they say that if there is a truly inspired sharati player its leaves would sometime dance with flipping movements even when there is hardly any breeze in the air. And the melancholy sharati survives in spite of Manik planting it upside down. It has now become the most favoured instrument played during any sad occasion, but especially as an instrument of lament during cremation ceremonies. Its shorter version, the besli or flute, on the other hand, has transformed itself into a quintessential instrument of love, used in traditional Khasi courtships.
1 Khasi outer garment comprising two long cloths of cotton, silk, etc. draped over the shoulders.
2 The matrilineal Khasis do not accord the title of Ka Syiem or Queen to the wife of U Syiem, the King. The wife of U Syiem is called Ka Mahadei, although she is sometime unofficially addressed as queen. The proper title of Ka Syiem is held by the Syiem’s mother or his youngest sister.
3 The Himalayas.
4 The King Junior.
5 A term of respect and endearment for the Syiem.
6 Respectful terms of address: Bah for Mr. and Kong for Miss or Mrs.
7 Songbird of the lorikeet family.