Rarely do we come across stories that touch us so deeply that we want to read and re-read them. The stories of an unheard place, stories you think don’t exist, stories of people, stories of communities, stories of unity in diversity.
I will tell you one such story which has grasped my attention like no other. Not because it is some extraordinary tale of some superhuman, nor it is a superhero comic like Marvel. I would say it is a marvel of community and togetherness. How one and one, we together become invincible.
The Nongsteng Clan in Meghalaya
It is a story of the village of Kongthong in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills. The village is perched on an adjoining ridge that is known far and wide. The residents of the villages are identified not with their names, but through various musical whistles and sounds. Are you taken aback? I don’t know about you but I was. The entire village communicates and interacts with each other through musical whistles and sounds. What is more strikingly ironic is that just across the hill, lies the village of Massar, known as a “silent village” with its 87 households, being either, partially or completely tone-deaf and hearing impaired. To survive, some learnt to lip-read, whereas a large many floundered.
This impregnable circle of community solitude has existed for generations. According to a report, there are over 87 households belonging to the Nongsteng clan which have remained silent for generations together for the past 100 years. You know what is more intriguing and empowering, their dutifulness towards the nation. While many of us may underestimate our role in nation-building, but the people of Massar don’t. Here I will just talk about one of their many acts of social change. While we may hold a slightest discomfort to withdraw from one of the primary acts of nation-building in a democracy — voting. Do you wonder how they participate and make a difference in society?
They respond through a unique combination of sign language and lip-reading, or raising their hands on elections enquiry. The Poll campaigns have reached a crescendo through loud jingles, bands, songs and speeches. The hearing impaired amongst this community are mainly women, often it is a male member who would guide his female relatives through sign language on the voting process.
The Legend of the Deafness
Another report brings forth the only reason they have of their deafness, a legend. “A great granny of whom Lisadora is but the latest progeny had eaten doh kha syiem, the queen of fishes, and had as if touched by a curse, turned deaf. Her daughters, and theirs, and theirs, have been that way since they say. The deaf of Massar are but a small subset among the many that exist in the world with the affliction.”
Now there exist two groups of the Nongsteng Clan in Meghalaya– The “hearing group” — Nongsteng Sngew and the “deaf group” Nongsteng Kyllut, living on two different hills. The Nongsteng “deaf group” dominates the villages. Most of the children, in the age bracket 0–6 years are at various stages of hearing impairment. Records of some NGOs working in the village reveal that this community of hearing impaired numbers about 90 persons, including 42 children.
Survival of the Fittest
Across the village, the omnipresence of silence urged interpersonal communication to be relegated to lip-reading and basic sign language. Here diversity comes into play. The dialect and language of the Nongstengs Khasis are distinctly their own. The adopted signs are distinctive to those in any other valley or plain of silence elsewhere in the world.
According to a Telegraph report, in her office in Guwahati, some 150 km away in Guwahati in Assam, Brinda Crishna, Director, VAANI, Deaf Children’s Foundation explains what ails the deaf of Massar. “There is an urgent need for early detection, care,” she says. “Their deafness seems to be hereditary. To contain it, there must be family planning.”
Unique World of Massar
There are other problems as well, of supersets, sets and subsets of silence. “The Indian Sign Language (ISL) which we work with is different from American Sign Language (ASL). And remember sign languages are distinct languages with their own grammar,” says Crishna, the report says.
The words — and their signs — are unique to the world of Massar. However, in reality, a formal, thorough ISL hasn’t been forthcoming, definitely not the state of Meghalaya.