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An Encyclopaedia on Khasi Tribe

Book Review

Title: Funeral Nights

Author: Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih

Published by Context, 2021

As I reached the last page (1007) of this book, a sigh of relief escaped from my chest. I had begun reading it months ago. I read many other books in between, but this one continued to be as charming as it was daunting like an arduous mountain peak that at once beckons you and intimidates you. But never did I feel that I should abandon reading it altogether. After all, it is about the people of a place where I lived 15 years: Shillong.

Let me confess right away that I wouldn’t even have bought this book had I not had a personal connection with its contents. The Khasis were my first colleagues and first students. This book is their history. Written in the guise of a novel, this is more an encyclopaedia on Khasi people, their history, folklores, myths, and even behaviours. What is said about the Mahabharata can be adapted for this book too: What is not here is nowhere else in the Khasi Land.

The author, who is a scholar on Khasis as well as English literature, has done an inimitable service to his people by writing this book. He has presented everything that is ever known about the Khasis in this book.

The title, Funeral Nights, refers to a rare funeral that takes place in a remote village in Meghalaya. Ka Phor Sorat is the Feast of the Dead, a unique 6-day funeral ceremony. A group of Khasis from Shillong go to participate in that Feast. But they are a little too early. Hence they have to spend ten nights in that village. They spend their time telling stories about their people, culture, religion, and so on. If you are interested in knowing more about the Khasi people, you won’t get a better book than this. Nongkynrih knows what he is writing about – more than anyone else possibly could.

It is difficult to classify it as a novel though it has all the trappings of one. It is equally difficult to classify it as history though it contains all the history of the Khasis – a history that goes back to 66,000 years ago. The book quotes a study by some anthropologists and scientists at the Indian Statistical Institute and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad according to which “among the first people to have arrived and settled in India were ancestors of the Mundas, who came about 66,000 years ago. Khasis were the first genetic offshoot of the Mundas and appeared on the scene 57,000 years ago. Later, many of these ‘Austro-Asiatic populations’ migrated to South-east Asia through Northeast India, though the Khasis, who represent ‘a genetic continuity between the populations of South and South-east Asia’ decided to settle in the Northeast itself.”

We go on to learn a lot about Khasis in this magnum opus. In fact, we learn all that possibly can be learnt about them. There’s a lot of humour too between the lines. And much self-criticism. The author does not glorify the Khasis and their culture. He looks at them with a judicious critic’s eye. There’s nothing that he leaves out. While presenting the great aspects of the tribal culture, he also gives us picturesque peeps into the rot that has gripped the society in the form of corruption in politics, militancy, alcoholism, laziness of the bureaucrats, undue fondness for English language and culture, Khasi women’s fondness for non-Khasi men, and so on.

This book is indeed a tour de force. But you will enjoy reading it only if you are interested in the Khasis one way or another. I bought this book precisely because I lived with them for many years. Secondly, I knew the author personally though my contact with him lasted only a couple of weeks. I enjoyed reading the book for personal reasons. Without that personal touch, this book wouldn’t have reached my desk. My conclusion is simple: go for it if you have the faintest of interest in the Khasi people of Meghalaya.

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih

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  1. You viewed it's important points judiciously. Out of interest about North East culture, I have bought it many months back but long descriptions sometimes made me stop reading. However there's a magic in the book. Started again to read.

    1. I too felt many times that the author could have made it shorter.

  2. The comment above is mine. Pressed the anonymous button by mistake. --- Murthy

  3. Hari OM
    Thanks for the honesty of this review; a book that clearly has its place, but not, perhaps, on my list. YAM xx

    1. The author himself quotes Nehru who referred to the Khasis as a drop in the ocean. A tiny community that's not likely to arouse much interest in others.

  4. Should have seen the look on your face, the battle is over you may rest señor lol and I feel like it's a good feeling to know about the past of the people you've been with.

    1. The battle is over. But no rest. I picked up The name of the Rose for a third reading.

      The result of my 2nd reading is here:

  5. Your review is quite interesting eventhough the book could take a long time to read.


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