Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Cloudy state

Meghalaya, they say, is the home of the clouds.

It's described as 'wet, overcast, green, hilly'... it's perfect, for me.

My next visit must be to Meghalaya - though I can't go there on assignment. For one, it's too peaceful to be newsy, right now. Two, there are stringers based in Guwahati and if I step on another journalist's territorial toes one more time this yaer, I might get into trouble at work.

I had a little glimpse of the cloud-state in a train. There was a Megha family in the same compartment. The north-eastern women.... are not very chatty.

These women didn't speak English or Hindi either. A young boy travelling with them (a son?) did speak Hindi, and managed to translate a sentence or two for me. The women wore a sari-like cloth (this bit of cloth is about the size of a dokhna, I think - not a regular saree length) draped crossed over both shoulders in a strange way. I was tempted to ask them to teach me how to drape it, but they didn't seem inviting or friendly enough.

And they all wore their hair piled high on their heads - like Queen Aishwarya of Nepal.
Actually, they reminded me a lot of the Nepali women. Not just because of their features, but also in the way they wore make-up (bright red lipstick) and their body-language. They ate a lot of paan though - a distinctly cow-belt trait.

Why am I so intrigued by Meghalaya's women?

Because it is one of the few places in the world that still has a matrilinear system. Property passes from mother to youngest daughter. Other siblings don't get a share of the booty and the boy-child is not the hankered-after Alladin-ka-chiraag that he is for the rest of the country.

But, Sunil and Jenny tell me, a matrilinear system does not translate into a powerful socio-political situation for women. The community is not matriachal, merely matrilinear. The real power-strings are wrapped round the finger-tips of the maternal uncle - the maamaa.

So, the system remains patriachal and the centre of power simply shifts from the father to the mother's brother. (It is so even in Kerela, where some communities continue to be matrilinear. The maternal uncle also gets to marry his neice, who is to inherit the property!)

The Meghalaya tribes are mostly of Indo-Chinese or Tibeto-Burmese origin. I suppose the same holds true for the hill tribes of Nepal - the pahadis. Prateebha must come from the same anthropological branch.

Pratish tells me that in her community, women had the option of giving a relationship a trial run before actual wedding rituals took place. A girl would go to her future husband's home (with or without a maid as escort/chaperone) and would stay for anything between three months and a year. She would then decide whether or not she could contemplate a lifetime with this guy, or whether she wants to try out another man.

In either case, the bride-to-be returned to her family and appraised them of her decision. If she agreed, the wedding is solemnized.

This system is almost redundant now. Some families carry on the tradition in a ritual way - they send the girl over for a week, or less, knowing that she can't really make up her mind in such a short time.

The trouble is, thanks to the high store set by virginity in 'civilized' cultures, parents don't like the idea of sending a girl to a man, and letting them try each other out. The men don't particularly like being put to the test either. And the pressure to get married anyhow, before a certain age, is intense.

But if I had my way, I'd revive the custom.... It's perfect, for me.

1 comment:

anumita said...

Meghalaya is rightly called "Scotland of the east".
The people are called Khasis and not "Meghas".
Also I am surprised about the language bit, cause almost everyone there speaks English like it's the official language!

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