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On the wall to my right is a framed picture of Masjid al-Haram. Around it are Islamic prayers, and strung along the length of the restaurant are fairy lights and small plastic flowers. Seated beneath the decor is a Khasi couple tucking into a cauldron of biryani. I'm there to write a piece on "Muslim food in Shillong", and have a wider array of dishes laid out on my table - creamy mutton korma, crumbly sheekh kebabs and a plate of soft rotis. Naturally, the couple finish before me and make their way to the payment desk where they encounter burkha-clad Dimple, the daughter of Kong Sohtun or "Mimi" who owns the establishment.
The man begins to speak in Khasi. Then falters, and resorts to broken Hindi. Dimple calmly replies in Khasi. He shoots his companion a quick, confused glance.
Later, when I'm paying, Dimple explains (in crisp English) that that was a common reaction from her customers. She's married into a Muslim family from Lucknow who came to Shillong "during the British times". "We're Khasi Muslims," she says, "people don't know what language to speak with us, least of all what to make of us."
While walking home that evening, as the hills darken in the fading light, I think of Dimple and Mimi, and what it means to be Khasi. A simple definition is that the Khasis are one of three tribes in Meghalaya (along with the Garos and Jaintias), with small populations in neighbouring Assam and Bangladesh. However, this answer - dry and Wikipedia-esque - explains almost nothing at all. Matters are complicated by the fact that the word "Khasi" refers not only to a people but also to a language and to a "niam" or system of belief (rather than religion).
Are true Khasis only those who remain unconverted, speak the language (or one of its many dialects) and hold Khasi parentage? Must they also be affiliated to the Seng Khasi, a socio-cultural organisation that aims to protect and preserve Khasi heritage? Surely it couldn't be as narrowly delineated as that. Even with an ancestry as mixed as mine - Portuguese, British, Khasi and Jaintia - I still consider myself Khasi and the language my mother tongue.
Identity is a tricky, promiscuous word; it's a secretive, scuttling chameleon, a ragdoll. For some Khasis, identity is cradled by the kur (clan) and nurtured by a sense of kinship within a large extended family. It is shaped by the niam or adages like Tip Briew Tip Blei, Tip Kur Tip Kha and Kamai ia ka Hok.
For others, identity is won by the barrel of a gun. It is something "outsiders" leave behind when they flee the state. It is claimed, appropriated, asserted. Many decades after its formation in 1972, Meghalaya was wracked by unrest when the Nepalis, Bengalis and Assamese were seen as a threat to local jobs, women and resources. It was important, as an ex-Khasi Student Member once told me, for "our own people, not outsiders, to run our own state".
Does identity then end at borders? And begin anew beyond an invisible line. What about those who travel to the land and stay? The ones who love its lilting language, speak it like a local and understand its nuances? Is identity not formed by the tactility of words? By an attachment to a place?
The government is a great proponent of identity. For example, in September 2011, the Village Administration Bill was passed in Meghalaya, which Chief Executive Member Pynshngain Syiem said was designed to "protect tribal Khasi identity" as well as its customs and traditions. Is it true? Can the soul of a people be captured on sheets of paper? Can it survive the endless stamp of bureaucracy?
I wonder whether identity is homogeneous and remains unchanged by experience, if it's the same for the urban-dweller and the nongkyndong (person from a rural village) - especially in Meghalaya, where wealth and facilities pool richly in Shillong and rarely reach the villages, many still inaccessible by road and lacking basic health care and electricity. Does something at the heart remain unchanged?
What does it mean to be Khasi? All and nothing. It may not exist. Perhaps a person finds her identity by just identifying.
More about Janice Pariat
Janice is a freelance writer based in Shillong, Delhi or Kolkata, depending on the weather. Currently, she is studying History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She edits and runs Pyrta, an online literary journal of poetry, prose, photo essays and sketches. Her collection of short stories "Boats on Land" will be published by Random House in October 2012
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