Ever since the dawn of time, stories have been part of community life. Elders gathered their young ones around a fire and regaled them with stories of heroes, monsters, gods and demigods, objects of nature, as the imagination conjured. These stories entertain but, more importantly, they convey valuable lessons, shedding light on what's important in life and help mentor it.
And so, from time to time, the wisdom of the sages trickled down to their children and their children's children, generation after generation, through stories. One such story is the Khasi folktale about how Ka Nam, a beautiful girl, escaped the clutches of U Khla, the tiger and came to live with Ka Sngi, the sun.
The Pregnant Woman and The Tiger
Once upon a time, on a hot summer day, a heavily pregnant woman was ambling down a village road that winded around a forest. It was the season for 'sohphie', a well-loved sourish fruit and the woman was dying to eat it. She knew there would be a few trees in the forest and, though going there was dangerous, her desire was so strong that she ventured deep into it. She soon espied a sohphie tree that was so heavily laden with fruit that just gazing at it made the woman's mouth water.
She reached the tree and scoured the ground around it for fallen fruits. She gathered as much as she could in her 'jainkyrshah'– an apron worn by Khasi women – even as she voraciously mouthed a couple of them. There was plenty more up the tree and better ones too. The woman murmured out loud, 'if only someone would shake the tree, I can gather as much to last me a month!'
Unknown to her, a tiger was lounging on one of the branches, keenly watching. He heard what she said and called down to her.
'I can shake the tree for you if you promise to give me what I will ask of you.'
The woman looked up and was astounded to see the tiger on the branch directly above her. She trembled with fear, knowing full well she was easy meat for him. Still, she gathered her wits about her and replied, 'Oh, uncle tiger, it is you! Please shake the tree for the fruits to fall. I will be so grateful and bow down to your wishes.' She said all this more out of fear than anything else.
'No, woman!' the tiger retorted angrily, 'Man is forever my enemy. I will never forget how men ensnared me so that I cut my tongue on the sharp blades of their sharp axes when they felled the Diengiei tree. I will have my revenge!'
'What happened was true', said the woman, 'but aren't you, a masculine creature who is endowed with twelve wits and twelve strengths, duty-bound to help poor, helpless women and children endowed with just one wit and one strength? Will you not show mercy to me, who is powerless and who bear no ill-will towards you? If you must fight, it must be among equals. But if you trample upon the poor and downtrodden who have no strength to match yours, isn't that a sin before God and man?'
The tiger pondered awhile upon the woman's logic. He felt that what she said was correct and gave such a mighty shake to the tree that a good number of fruits dropped to the ground. The woman set about gathering the sohphie as the tiger clambered down and stood beside her.
'A while ago you promised that you will give what I ask if I shake the tree', he said. 'Now you must keep your promise. When the time comes for you to deliver and if the child is a boy you can keep him. But if it is a girl, then you must give her to me.'
At these words, the woman shook like a leaf and her heart sank. If she didn't agree she'd surely be eaten and if she did she might lose her baby if it was a girl. But she was left with no choice but to agree to escape the tiger's claws for the time being. Once she reached her home she forgot about the encounter, until the time came for her to give birth to her child.
Ka Nam Was Born
That time came, eventually, and the tiger waited in the shadows, hiding in the bushes, listening. At the first cry of the baby, he heard the people say, 'It's a girl!', and his face lit up, a broad smile featured across his countenance.
Immediately afterwards, he heard the people say again, 'Oh, no, no, it's not a girl, it's a boy!'. The tiger's face lost its glow and he slinked away gloomily back towards his lair as it wasn't safe for him to venture any nearer to confirm. On the way, he passed myrsiang, the fox that was on his usual prowl to steal chickens.
Said the fox, 'Why, it's Um-la! (i.e., brother-in-law tiger). Why the gloomy face? Is something the matter?'
The tiger poured out the whole story. The fox, cunning that he was, told the tiger he had nothing to worry about. He only had to get him a goat and he would teach him how to know whether the baby was a boy or a girl.
The tiger happily agreed and brought the goat. The fox then told him that the following morning the baby's parents will have a naming ceremony. The tiger must hide somewhere nearby and he will come to know for sure whether the baby would be called 'U' or 'Ka', i.e., boy or girl, before a name.
So the next morning, sure enough, the tiger hid underneath the house and observed the baby's parents and relatives bring out the pestle and mortar, the bamboo tray and basket, the gourd bottle filled with rice wine and other religious items for the ceremony. At last, the naming took place and name called out was 'Ka Nam', which means honour.
A broad smile cut across the tiger's face once again. But he was angry too. Once again the humans have duped him by making him believe the baby was a boy. He would have carried her right away but was afraid of being found out and killed. So he stole away from his hiding place to wait for a chance to one day carry Ka Nam to his den.
Ka Nam's mother, however, was ever vigilant. She was careful never to let the baby off her sight and kept her always confined to her village and never take her near any forest.
Ka Nam Grows Up
As time flew, Ka Nam grew up to be quite a lively and beautiful young girl. One day, her friends invited her to the spring to fetch water in their bamboo containers. As they were filling their tanks, the tiger, who had always been stalking Ka Nam from afar, suddenly appeared in their midst. He went straight for Ka Nam to carry her off but her friends came to the rescue by repeatedly shouting:
Dong-dong shityndong umngap umwai
Dong-dong shityndong umngap umwai
The tiger felt ashamed and ran off to the forest. Ka Nam and her friends came safely back home.
The next day her friends again invited Ka Nam to the spring. She refused, stating that she was afraid the tiger would come again and carry her off. The friends told her not to be silly. If the tiger returned, they would create the same racket as they did the previous day.
Ka Nam felt assured and agreed to go. The tiger was already in wait near the spring. As soon as the girls approached, he appeared on the scene and went straight for Ka Nam. No amount of shouting by the girls could make the tiger turn back. Off he carried Ka Nam to his den.
The tiger kept Ka Nam very well, tending to her every need, bringing her food, clothes and jewellery. She lived a comfortable life and grew strong and healthy although she was never allowed out of her prison of a cave.
One day, the tiger said to Ka Nam, 'Listen, my child, tonight, according to our custom, we will be having an annual feast. I will be bringing my noble elders and friends so you must keep everything neat and clean and in order'. Then he went his way, locking the door from outside.
Ka Nam ordered the house as she was told. When she finished she sat back beside the fire playing on her 'mieng', a musical instrument.
Just then a mouse came near the rice basket, nibbling away at some rice grains. Ka Nam at once shooed her away with the 'dongsliewding', the fire blowpipe. The mouse scurried off, saying at the same time, 'If you shoo me away me like that I won't tell you anything'.
The mouse's words intrigued Ka Nam and she demanded to know more. The mouse, however, stood her ground and bargained that she be allowed to eat her fill of the grains first. Ka Nam agreed and when she finished the mouse told her that it was ka hynroh, the toad, that sent her to convey to Ka Nam this message:
'Tonight, when the tiger return with his friends they will have you for a feast'.
The message sent shivers of fear down Ka Nam's spine. 'What should I do then?' she asked. The mouse said she'd have to ask the toad and went. Ka Nam waited for the mouse to return.
Meanwhile, the toad took off her toadskin and gave it to the mouse with the instruction for Ka Nam to wear it and go to ka kya ka jri – the rubber – tree. She must climb on one of the branches and say the magic words:
To san to kong a, to pat ko kong ri
To san ko kong ri, to pat ko kong a
Ka Nam donned the toadskin, forced herself out of the tiger's den and went straight to ka kya ka jri tree. She sat on one of the branches and said the magic words repeatedly. As she did so the tree magically shot up to the heavens.
Ka Nam in the Heavens
Once in the heavens, she went roamed about searching for a place to rest. She soon reached the doorstep of U Lurphira, the morning star. She called out his name begging him to allow her to stay at his house. U Lurphira sent his slave to find out who it was that called. The slave returned and told his master it was an ugly ka hynroh outside the door and it would not be becoming for him to allow such an ugly creature in his house. So U Lurphira denied Ka Nam entry into his palace.
Ka Nam was heartbroken but went her way till she got to the house of U Lurmiet, the evening star. Here too she was denied entry because of her ugly toadskin. Though she was so unhappy at the double rejection she went on searching for a place to stay for the night. Soon she reached Ka Sngi's, the sun's, palace.
As she entered the dazzling compound, the likes of which she had never seen before, she marvelled at the exquisite beauty of the place. The owner of this place must be beautiful beyond compare, she thought, as she called out begging to be allowed for the night.
Ka Sngi sent her slave to find out who it was and sure enough, the slave was repulsed by the ugly sight of the toad-skinned creature. He reported what he saw to his mistress and she at once denied entry to Ka Nam. But this time Ka Nam persisted. She appealed as one woman in distress to another woman who was in a position to help. So fervent was her plea that Ka Sngi relented, although she gave her a place in a rickety woodshed.
Ka Nam, however, converted that rundown place into a neat and habitable one. So well-kept did she make it that Ka Sngi was very pleased with her and allowed her to stay in that place for as long as she desired.
And so, from that day onwards, Ka Nam lived happily ever after stayed with Ka Sngi, working in her household and keeping it as shining as ever.
So if you ever wonder why Ka Sngi is always bright and beautiful it is because Ka Nam is her housekeeper!
And of course, the tiger was deeply upset and angry at not finding Ka Nam at the den but that's another story!