Located in the frontier state of Meghalaya, in the Northeast of India, I have a unique position, a liminal one – of being between multiple worlds and therefore worldviews. On the one hand, it is the era of surveillance capitalism still taking shape from a techno-military-corporate complex. On the other hand is an indigenous world of the Khasi-Jaintia people steeped deep in myths, stories with no separation between human and non-human realms. This makes for a diverse yet seamless weave with an effortless disappearance of consciousness as the direct perception of phenomena that inform us of our own existence. Multiple, shape-shifting worlds open up.
Ansell Pearson argues that “in constructing a posthuman paradigm that makes the logic of capitalist biotechnology integral to the plan of human history”, there is a “disabling (of) alternate stories of human pasts and human futures” and therefore the urgency for telling of and re-telling of our stories. Through stories that are deeply embedded in a landscape and location I explore a sense of place, which connects us to and restores one of our deepest needs, a sense of identity and belonging. And in turn this becomes a “psychologically healing journey” in the way Andreas Weber talks about it in his paper, "Sharing Life. The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity".
The virtual lights, part I
Interior of Aiban’s house. His bedroom at night.
Aiban, sits on a mattress placed on the ground. He is twenty-one, with an unkempt look and short stubble. He is wearing track pants and a loose T-shirt. He rests his back against the side of the bed. The mattress rolls from the bed onto the floor. The bed sheet has been pulled onto one side. The light from the TV screen illuminates his face. He is deeply engrossed in playing FIFA on the PlayStation. He has a cigarette in his mouth, with a long trail of ash built up on it. The ash then falls on him and he stubs off the cigarette in an ashtray close by.
As the round of the game ends he puts the joystick down and stares listlessly at the screen for a few moments. He then picks up a box and puts his hand into it. He takes his hand out; it has play slime on it. He plays with the slime for a brief minute and them puts it back into the box.
He gets up slowly shakes his legs out, drinks some water from a brass bottle and lights up another cigarette. He moves towards the window, draws the curtains aside and looks out. He hears his mother call his name and replies, “Yes ma, I’m coming.”
The dining room is dimly lit. It is stuffed with things, though neatly – decorations, diaries and electrical devices. There is a TV next to the dining table. On it a paranoid news anchor blares on about the very rapid spread of COVID-19 in India. Aiban helps his mother, Banri lay the table and then sits down and watches the news. He plays with the switch of the table lamp, turning it on and off as he waits for his mother to come.
Banri comes back into the room and joins him at the dining table. They begin to eat and watch the news in silence. The news is on the new effects of the coronavirus and how a new finding is that it causes blood clots in all the major organs. Banri switches the channel to one of local news. A woman news anchor says, “Early this morning on the Shillong-Sohra road a deer was spotted. In another bizarre event hundreds of fish were found swimming in the compound of a man who had just died. The compound was flooded due to the three days of continuous rains and the fish were seen making circumambulations around the house before disappearing just as mysteriously as they had appeared. The number of COVID-19 cases in the state has gone up to 305.”
They finish dinner and Aiban goes back to his room, goes to the bathroom, lights another cigarette and begins playing the game again. He falls asleep with the joystick in his hand.
He wakes up and begins playing again. He suddenly looks down at his feet and there is slime on his feet. His feet appear webbed. In panic, he removes the slime and throws it away. He still has some stuck on his hands, so he takes a newspaper lying close by and wipes it clean. Aiban wiggles his toes a bit, regains his composure and continues to play the game. Slowly he dozes off again.
He wakes up with a start and immediately looks at his feet. Both his feet are webbed with the slime.
Exterior in a gently undulating field. Daytime.
The sun is up high in the bright blue clear sky. Aiban is walking towards us with some difficulty. His feet are webbed and he is dragging them forward. In the background boys are playing football. We hear their animated shouting – asking for a pass and to score a goal. The scene has a dreamlike quality to it.
Aiban falls to the ground, gets up and continues. He is in a daze but also focused on his destination. A few white clouds appear on the horizon.
In the background is a small children’s park and in it is a statue of a giraffe made out of concrete.
There is a herd of cows in the field. Aiban walks in between them pushing two or three out of his way.
Aiban’s point of view as he heads towards the thick sub-tropical, broad-leafed sacred forest. He crosses a group of megaliths as he enters the forest.
Inside the forest, it is dark and sounds of birds and insects overtake the senses, it is unreal and dreamlike. Aiban looks around. He is animated and alive; as if getting closer to something he is in search of. He walks along a path covered completely with moist leaves. He is now walking more easily with his webbed feet.
As he ascends a small hillock, he comes across a thick fallen tree and struggles to cross over it. Here the forest is a little more open. He then goes downward and comes to a stream and walks alongside it. The light in the forest changes rapidly, short spells of darkness are followed by beams of sunlight.
Aiban has walked some distance and is now tired and uncomfortable. He sits on a rock and takes his shirt off. We secretly look at Aiban from behind leaves, foliage and a tree trunk. Our angle of view is very wide and distorted on the edges. He looks towards his armpits and sees that there is golden coloured slime coming out them. He extends his arms sideways and the slime stretches and pans out like wings. He leaves his shirt on the rock and continues onwards. We hear the rustling of the leaves.
We hear a thunder storm brew in the distance. Aiban’s point of view as he walks ahead and reaches a hillock in the forest. It overlooks a small valley with a stream flowing through it. All of a sudden, the sky darkens as storm clouds gather and it begins to rain very heavily. The winds lash out loudly. He seems to notice something down below and dashes towards the stream. There is a loud flash of thunder and a bright stroke of lightening. And then there is darkness. We hear splashing in the water.
The dreaming waters, part II
Exterior by a stream. Evening, as the sun is about to set.
Basil, an old man of sixty-six, wearing worn out torn clothes is sitting by a small stream below a bridge. He seems engrossed and oblivious to the world. He appears to be talking to himself as he looks towards the stream.
Interior. Basil’s House. Day.
In an empty, desolate, lonely house, Wanda a woman of aged fifty-three sits by the window peeling areca nuts. Carl, her son, is twenty-six. He is sitting on the stairs leading to the backyard labouring over and trying to repair a water pump. The emptiness and melancholia of the house screams out loud. It is a large house and is full of quirky, strange and old objects, antiquated furniture, a tiger skin, a big armchair, a gramophone. An ornately framed picture of a young Gaddafi occupies a central place on the grand sitting room wall. It is an eclectic mix of objects and has an absurdist air to it. There are three cats that lounge in different places around the sitting room that has a musty worn out feel to it. We move in a slow tracking motion through the room and into the long hallway.
Iba, the daughter, is wearing a white flowing dress. She is nineteen and has dark, intense eyes. She is standing looking out from topmost floor of a tall white tower. It is a mausoleum, which, with many floors, holds the cromlechs for the entire family. We fly in a circular pan around the mausoleum looking down at Iba as she sings a sad requiem in Khasi. Very large trees surround the tower. The whistling of the wind in the trees accompany Iba’s singing. The three cats prance around Iba.
Wanda looks out from the sitting room window as the trees outside sway from side to side in the wind. In the sky white clouds, like cotton candy float by rapidly. Wanda with a resigned look on her face says to no one in particular, “It’s going to rain.”
We hear a strange gushing sound coming from the underground rainwater harvesting tank outside. As Carl hears this he gets up to check what it might be. He opens a heavy metal trap door of an underground water tank. He lies down on his belly and looks inside. The gushing sound becomes louder; it has an echo but he is unable to stop anything. It is dark inside.
Iba is on the terrace, the sky is overcast and dark rain clouds gather. She picks up the clothes from the clothesline struggling against the gushing winds.
Exterior. In Basil’s compound. Morning.
The sun is out and it is a clear bright day.
Basil, Wanda’s husband, walks in through high gates and heads towards the front door. His back is bent, shoulders stooped. He walks with his weight on his left leg, slightly dragging his right foot. He is wearing worn out torn clothes. He is exhausted, drenched with water dripping down his body.
He walks into the sitting room. Wanda is sitting by the window looking outside. As she hears him enter, she turns around to look at him. He goes straight towards large worn out armchair and lets his body fall slump into it. The water from his wet clothes seeps into the armchair and drips down onto the ground, making a small puddle.
Wanda just stares impassively at him as he shuts his eyes, completely disengaged from his surroundings. She turns around and looks out again. Her face hardens slightly. She looks up at the sky and the storm clouds gather again very swiftly. We hear the rain come down heavily as we move out in a tracking motion of the sitting room into darkness.
Interior. Sitting room. Morning.
We hear the rain crashing down on the tin roof – it is deafening. The room is dark and gloomy. Iba is sitting on a rocking chair holding one of the cats a bit too tightly; she is nervous and out of sorts. The other two cats prance around her chair. Carl sits repairing an old radio and we hear the sound of different frequencies come and go. Wanda sits by the window, which is now closed, looking out.
Basil sits on the chair in the same position; his body has sunken a bit further into the chair. His eyes are closed and he seems unconscious or dead.
We track out of the room into darkness.
Interior. Sitting room. Next morning.
The room is even darker than the previous day. We still hear the heavy rains accompanied by gushing wind and storm. Carl sits by an antique desk leaning on it. He is playing with the switch of an old table lamp turning it on and off. The light from the lamp illuminates his face as it comes on again and again. He is in a brooding mood. Wanda is staring blankly outside. Basil sits on the chair in the same position with his eyes shut and arms sprawled out. Iba lies sleeping on the sofa with her legs up on the armrest. The cats lie around Iba.
Exterior. Inside the forest. Daytime.
Iba, in a white flowing gown, is in a sub-tropical, broad-leafed forest. She moves deftly hiding behind the trees looking at someone she is chasing. Her movements are blurred and hazy at times. The scene is dreamlike.
Interior. Sitting room. Day.
Iba is lying on the sofa fast asleep. We move in a slow tracking movement out of the room into the darkness.
Interior. Sitting room. Next morning.
We can hear the rain outside. It is now a gentle drizzle. Basil’s face and hands are now visibly grey. His body is bloated like it’s been underwater for a long time. Carl sits on the carpet leaning on a wooden sofa staring blanking into space. Wanda is staring at Carl. Iba sits on the arm of a sofa playing nervously with her hair. Slowly it stops raining and as the sun comes out, the room is flooded with light.
All the four members of the family look decomposed with time. Basil’s body is very grey. The cats tensely move around Basil’s body. It becomes very quiet. Slowly we hear the chirping of birds and then a faint gurgling from outside. The gurgling grows louder and louder. Iba looks up at Carl. He looks back at her and gets up. She follows him as he rushes out of the sitting room. Wanda follows behind. The gurgling is getting even louder.
They then rush up the stairs towards the terrace. The cats too follow. From the terrace, they look down to where the sound is coming from and see that the trap door of the underground water tank is open and water is gushing of the tank with great force. The entire compound is flooded.
As they look on in shock, from the water tank swim out hundreds of fish. They swim in disciplined formations around the house circling it several times. We hear the loud frantic meowing of the cats who seem it be going crazy prancing on the wall of the terrace.
From under the water, we look at Wanda, Iba, Carl and the three cats up on the terrace looking incredulously down at us as we move deeper and deeper into the water and into darkness.
The entropic forest, part III
Exterior. Inside the forest. Before sunrise.
It is still dark; the moon is in the far distance. Clouds float by at a fast pace. The sky and moon are reflected in the pools of water in the stream. It is placid and calm. We move closer to the stream and see a reflection of the Puri (river nymph) reclining on her elbows on the edge of a stream. As we move closer we see that it is Iba. She is wearing a white flowing dress and a black jacket over it. Her movements are akward and strange. Although she is human, yet she does not have any of the behavious of a conditioned human. She is a creature moving about, wiggling and trying to stand as if she is not so adept at being on land. She struggles to stand but then gives up. She looks around with eyes wide open around her at the trees, rocks, the stream and bushes. The angle of view is very wide and blurred at the edges. She looks further up at the sky. It is blue with a few clouds floating past.
She lays on the ground looking up from her point of view. The world appears upside down. She makes a round shape with her fingers and looks through them. She is lost and softly humming a song to herself – a sad requiem in Khasi. She is sombre but not sad. She wiggles towards the water and puts her legs hidden under the white flowing dress into the water and splashes around for sometime. She is just there. Just being.
She hears a sound in the water and turns around and looks at it. There are tadpoles in the water. She looks at them through the circle she has made with her fingers playfully.
Exterior. Inside the forest. Daytime.
We look at Aiban in secret from behind leaves, foliage and trees trunks as he walks through the thick broad-leafed forest. Our angle of view is very wide and distorted on the edges. We hear heavy laboured breathing up close. Aiban looks tired and uncomfortable. He sits on a rock and takes his shirt off. Under his armpits there is golden coloured slime. He extends his arms outwards and the slime stretches and pans out like wings. He rests for a while then continues forward. We hear the rustling of the leaves.
We follow Aiban from behind trees and bushes observing him secretly. The stream is in our foreground. He reaches the top of hillock in the forest overlooking a small valley with a stream flowing through it. In the distance we hear a thunderstorm brewing. The winds lash out loudly and very suddenly the skies darken, storm clouds gather and it begins to rain very heavily. We look through the leaves and trees, which too are dripping with the rainwater.
Slowly we glide towards the stream. We hear sound of water splashing and entering the stream. We glide gracefully into the water looking upwards. We see against a background of heavy rain, thunder and storm Aiban running frantically towards us. As he reaches the steam he looks down at us. As we sink deeper and deeper into the water, the image of Aiban blurs further and fades away. Darkness.
Based on the Khasi myth of Puri (water nymphs/ creatures)- heard in oral stories, narration of personal experiences, the poem IohPuri by Jobeth Ann Warjri, (25/09/2018) and readings from Desmond L. Kharmawphlang’s,The U NgatPuri Legends – The Crafting of Ecocritical Discourse in Folklore Imprints in North East India.
Copyright © 2020 by Sonal Jain
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This contribution is part of Alternative Worldviews.