Every community around the world has stories. Stories, and folklores that transcend eras to keep customs and traditions alive.
The chomping on ‘kwai’, a combination of betel or areca nut along with betel leaf and a dash of lime is not just a habit in Khasi- it’s an age-old tradition. You might know a similar combination as ‘paan’, but the Khasi kwai is different in itself. Unlike the regular paan, it’s eaten ripe and raw, never dried like ‘supari’ elsewhere.
Khasi people love ‘kwai’ very much. But, there is a dark history behind that joyful glee on people’s faces chewing kwai.
Where It All Began
Once upon a time, long, long ago- in the idyllic village of Rangjyrwit that perched daintily on a beautiful hill slope, lived two bosom friends, Nik Mahajon and Shing. Companions since childhood, they remained inseparable even after they got married.
Nik came from a rich and influential family of merchants and married a rich girl. Shing belonged to a family of poor day-laborers who eked out their living by doing odd jobs and his wife too came from the lowly working class.
But the wide difference in social status and wealth never dented their deep and steadfast friendship even one bit.
Shing had spent a lot of time at Nik's house, for that is where they got together every single time. One day, it occurred to Shing that he should also call up Nik to his home sometime.
He extended an invitation to Nik.
Humbled by the gesture, Nik surprised Shing at his home one day. Shing and his wife were overjoyed to see him.
As they sat and talked, Shing’s wife went to the kitchen to prepare something. But it so happened there was nothing to offer, not even a grain of rice.
She peeped through the door and signaled at her husband to come. ‘There’s no rice at all and no fish too’, she said, a cloud of worry on her face.
Shing was alarmed, ‘Go and borrow from the neighbors for a measure of at least a meal so we can offer our friend’, he told her.
Shing’s wife went but soon returned empty-handed. ‘None of the neighbors would give even half a measure of rice’, she said.
This devastated Shing. Fate had struck a cruel blow. He couldn’t offer even a small morsel of food to his dearest friend for the first time in his life! Even the neighbors were so unkind as to not lend them a cupful of rice.
Struck with hopelessness, shame, and grief, Shing concluded that it was better to die than to live such a miserable life. Thereupon he took the kitchen knife and stabbed himself.
Shing’s sudden action shocked his wife beyond belief. She felt that she no longer had a reason to live, especially now that her beloved husband had gone. With the same knife, she took her life too.
The sun soon went down and curious about no sign of his friends, Nik stepped into the kitchen. The gory sight he saw stunned him to stupefying horror. Two bodies lay sprawled on the floor, drowned in their own blood. Water was boiling in the pot over a dying fire. There was no rice in the basket, no fish nor vegetables in the larder.
It didn’t take long for Nik to realize what had happened.
Intense remorse engulfed Nik. What grieved him most was why he didn’t realize how much in need his friend was. With his friend gone, Nik felt absolutely lifeless. He knew nothing can relieve his pain now, and his life has no meaning.
With that thought, Nik stabbed himself and lay dead next to his friend.
As darkness steadily stole in, a dark silhouette scampered towards the house. A thief came running towards the house, hoping to hide and save himself from a group finding him.
As the sun rose, he was stupefied to find the three dead bodies. Stunned and clueless, he found just one escape route- to stab himself than to be charged with their murder.
The day progressed and the neighbors began to notice that something was amiss – the open door, the silence within.
They entered the house to be greeted by a gruesome sight of four dead bodies lying in pools of coagulated blood. Shocked and bewildered, they tried making sense of the tragedy. They soon understood why the friends and the thief killed themselves.
Grief and shame overcame them. Had they helped the poor couple, such a gruesome event would have never occurred.
The community decided to make amends.
Shikyntien Kwai - A Tradition to Honor Khasis’ Guests
I wrote in the title that this is a dark and beautiful story. This is where the story turns…
The sacrifice of the four lives led to the beginning of a lovely tradition in Khasi. The tradition of offering 'shikyntien kwai' – a serving of kwai – as a courtesy to any guest who visits a house.
The kwai (betel nut) symbolizes Nik, the steadfast friend. The betel leaf (tympew) with a dash of slaked lime (shun) on it symbolizes Shing and his wife who were always together. The fourth ingredient, tobacco, is rarely taken, but if taken, it’s always tucked in the corner of the mouth just like the thief in the kitchen corner.
'Shikyntien kwai' is so affordable that even the poorest of the poor can offer.
So when you enter a Khasi home or even meet a Khasi friend on the road don't be surprised if you're offered a serving of 'kwai'.
It's a gesture of Khasi welcome in remembrance of the three friends who took their own lives and gave the Khasi people this unique tradition of hospitality.
The story we tell here is to illustrate the power of the narrative behind customs. This one that binds the Khasi people- sweeping across every economic stratum, leveling classes to a common ground and obliterating the need for wealth as a factor for social acceptance. The kwai story is one such powerful tale – it creates friends and binds communities, it raises economies, and unfortunately, the indulgence on kwai creates havoc on health.
If this story moved you, share it with one friend you think will appreciate it. Do tell us if you have any interesting stories to share!