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Call of the hills

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NAME THAT STRAIN: In Kongthong village, 'caller tunes' are mostly based on English country songs

In some Meghalaya villages, people are identified not only by their names, but also by unique 'caller tunes' assigned at birth.

The first thing a visitor to a group of villages nestled in the sylvan folds of the towering Sohra (better known as Cherrapunjee to the outside world) mountains notices is the absence of human voices. Only the whisper of winds blowing through the pine trees is broken occasionally by some singsong tweets. Not from birds, but humans. For, that's the custom in this agglomerate of 19 villages, collectively known as Khatar Shnong, about 70 kilometres south of Megahalaya's capital, Shillong. People here call each other not by their names, but by unique tunes assigned to each at birth. No two tunes - jingrawei iawbeis, as they're called in Khasi - are similar. And all villagers know each others' 'caller tunes'.

The practice of assigning these tunes, usually of two to five seconds' durations, to each child born in what was a group of only 12 villages dates back many centuries. The name Khatar Shnong itself comes from the number of villages: khatar means a dozen in Khasi, while shnong means habitation, though the number of villages has now grown to 19. "My parents and grandparents had specific tunes, and so did their parents and grandparents. The practice started ever since our forefathers came and settled here a couple of centuries ago, " says Andrial Sokhlet, 70, an elder of Khrang village.

Andrial, a farmer, explained that the specific tunes that sound like bird tweets are actually a portion of the lullabies that every mother composes for her newborn child. "No two lullabies are the same. Composing a separate lullaby for every child that's different from those that have been composed by other women in Khatar Shnong is a tradition every mother takes very seriously. A woman's qualities are judged by her ability to compose good lullabies for her children, " adds Andrial's wife, Pyier Shabong. Pyier, who has six sons and two daughters, adds that a woman who finds it difficult to compose a good tune is helped by the other women of the village.

Kyrtaid Majaw, the headman of Kongthong village, located about two kilometres east of Khrang, says that while it's not known how this practice was born, there could be a practical reason for it. "All the villages of Khatar Shnong are located in the folds of steep mountains. Thus if you call someone by his or her name, the echo will distort the call. But a short tweet doesn't get distorted, " he explains.

To demonstrate this, he calls out to his son, Robert Lyndem, 30, working in a patch of farmland on another hill about 1. 5 kilometres away, by his Christian name. What one hears is a reverberation of the yell. But there is no such distortion when he whistles out Robert's 'caller tune', and Robert responds immediately with another singsong whistle that is his father's identification.

"This is how we prefer to call out to each other even at home, " says Kyrtaid, who knows the tunes of not only the thousand-odd residents of his own village, but also those of a sizeable section of the residents of the other 18 villages, by heart. "It's not so difficult actually. Most of us remember the tunes of hundreds, if not thousands, of such songs, " he says.

In the past, the tunes for lullabies were adapted from traditional Khasi songs. "But with the advent of radio and movies, and now television, most of the tunes composed by the women are adaptations from popular Hindi, English and even Khasi songs, " says Pynsheng Khongsiej, another elder of Khrang.

For instance, the caller tune of Pyier's son, Hermington, 23, is a copy of Papa kehte hain from the 1988 hit Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. "I watched the movie in Shillong and liked it a lot. This song became my favourite and I decided to adapt it for a lullaby I composed when Hermington was born, " says Pyier.

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