Feminine grace in brawny business

IN MATRILINEAL Meghalaya, businesses are usually run by invisible women. Dolly Khonglah is an exception, making her presence felt in heavy-duty, brawny, macho trades.

Khonglah has a way of carrying her weight — “and arthritis, thyroid, spondylitis and high BP” — around. And if she packs a punch, it’s usually with generous doses of humour in the Jaintia dialect, English, Bengali and Hindi or a hybrid. As the secretary of Meghalaya International Exporters’ Chamber of Commerce, she has to.

Her wit and authority are attributes most coal and limestone exporters at Tamabil, a border trade point with Bangladesh some 80 km from State capital Shillong, rely upon. Like a couple of weeks in March-April 2008 when both the exporters and Bangladeshi importers refused to play by a new set of rules imposed by Bangladesh Rifles. Someone had to break the impasse; so Khonglah sent her truckload of limestone to be unloaded at the dumpyard beyond the Zero Line. The others followed.

“Whenever there’s a problem, all roads lead to International Wine,” says Khonglah, 54. The wineshop she runs, on a mound bang opposite the road that leads to Syllhet in Bangladesh, is the de facto office of all exporters. It’s her second wine shop, in the name of her daughter-in-law (“to ensure she has something to fall back upon if my son does hanky panky”).

When she had set up her first, in Shillong, after her husband’s death in 1983, she had taken many aback. No one, even in the liberal Khasi-Jaintia society, expected a woman to sell liquor. But then, no one expected her to take up a job or a trade after she was born a khatduh — Khasi for ‘youngest daughter’, heiress to all the maternal property — at Sohkha village, 10 km from Tamabil.

Her status in the family put paid to Khonglah’s ambition of becoming a nurse in the army. And like the ideal khatduh, she married at 17 to settle down into a comfortable life. But the go-getter in her yearned to be “out there”, not content with living off her legacy.

It wasn’t until her son David turned seven that Khonglah stepped out — to the deep jungles of Garo Hills, as a forest contractor. Given the ethno-political chasm, few men from the eastern half of Meghalaya inhabited by Khasi and Jaintia tribes pursue business in the western half dominated by the Garos, and vice versa. And here was a woman trying to make her business debut on uncharted territory.

“In 1981, I was the last government-approved agar wood mahaldar (person who takes areas of natural resources on lease) for the entire Garo Hills. My job entailed trekking to deep forests, encounter wild elephants and leopards while selecting matured trees. But they were not as dangerous as the mosquitoes, which nearly stung me to death. But these insects told me something by injecting me with malaria — that I could make it big in business,” says Khonglah, a graduate in English from Cotton College in Guwahati, capital of the adjoining Northeast Indian state of Assam.

After another year in the timber business, she decided to move on. It was around that time that her husband died in a road mishap, and acquiring a liquor license “seemed the best thing to do during those days of crisis”, that also included funding her brother’s higher education.

A couple of years later, New Delhi and Dhaka agreed on border trade. Khonglah grabbed the opportunity by purchasing three trucks, initially to export rice to Bangladesh. She then turned to the more lucrative — and seemingly trouble-prone, with militants targeting miners, traders and officials for abduction and extortion — coal trade and shift base to Tamabil.

Unlike most exporters, she travels 80 km to the mines of Khliehriat, Ladrymbai and Ladsutnga in Jaintia Hills at least thrice a week to select the best coals. “I believe in going by the book and giving importers value for their money,” she says. Khonglah’s calendar is also chock-a-block with social commitments. They include arranging marriages and funerals within the extended family, village and community, and adopting orphans. “I want to ensure an efficient platoon besides my son to carry on my businesses after me,” says the one-woman army.


About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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