The ‘Japanese’ wife

The Mukhim-Pala family at Cathedral Church in Shillong, India. All photos: Ujjal Deb

IF YOU sniff Gujarati vaghaar at 4,900ft, it is likely wafting in from quarter number L10 in Meghalaya capital Shillong’s North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) complex. And it will invariably be Caroline Mukhim preparing panchkutiya shaak (five-vegetable curry) to go with the khatta-meetha bhaat (sour-sweet rice).

Caroline, 39, agrees sugar-loaded Gujarati khaana needs a lot of getting used to. The three years she spent in Ahmedabad since 1998 – husband Kenneth Pala was transferred there soon after their marriage that year – made her so accustomed that she gives her family a Gujarati break from jadoh, a pilaf-like Khasi staple, and dohkhleh (pork dish) or dohsiar (chicken).

Kenneth, 41, prefers Maharashtrian cuisine; he developed the taste from his Marathi Hindu local guardians during an earlier stint with the ministry of environment and forests in Ahmedabad. But food is to be relished, not fought over. So they discovered a ‘middle path’ – south Indian food – thanks to their Tamil neighbor. Given a choice, Caroline and Kenneth would have rasam often, as would their daughter Alethea, 9, and son Brendon, 8.

But Caroline, one of four doctors in NEHU, and Kenneth, Shillong-based monitoring and evaluation manager at the UN-affiliated International Fund for Agriculture Development, encountered the indigestible while adapting to ‘mainland’ fares. In Gujarat – elsewhere in India too – people
would often confuse their hometown Shillong with Ceylon. The height was when the manager of a nationalized bank turned down their home loan application because he thought Caroline was Japanese. She wasn’t wearing jainsem, the Khasi traditional attire that the bankers could have mistaken for a kimono.

“I took a long time convincing him we were as Indian as he was, but I couldn’t buy a flat in Ahmedabad,” says Kenneth.

The couple’s acclimatization to a ‘different’ India was somewhat like their becoming naturalized Khasis; they are descendants of the Pnars, an ethnic cousin of the Khasis, from adjoining Jaintia Hills district of matrilineal Meghalaya. “But there are no hard feelings; as much as other Indians need to be more sensitive about the country’s fringes and communities, the onus is on us to sensitize them,” says Kenneth.

Caroline and Kenneth attribute their adaptability to their schooling. “Most schools in Shillong do not allow you to mingle with your own kind during breaks. This helps refine your attitude and widen your horizon. We are lucky to be home in suitable jobs and put our children in schools with similar values,” says Caroline. Their children have Hindi as their second language and not Khasi because ‘Hindi offers more opportunities’. Caroline is good in Hindi – “TV soaps helped hone my vocabulary” – and English besides Khasi and Assamese; Kenneth’s Hindi is kaam-chalau and his Gujarati has suffered in these 10 years.

The Catholic couple also ascribes their liberalism to their families. The eldest of four siblings, Caroline’s mother, editor of a Shillong-based Khasi daily, has been zipping around the world after her bank officer father’s death long ago. Kenneth, the second of four siblings, has imbibed the qualities of his father who retired as a senior agriculture officer and his mother, an SEB employee. “Like most Shillongite, we socialize a lot, visiting kin, friends and acquaintances,” says Caroline. Church on Sundays is a habit, but they are not fanatical about it. “We are among those who believe a place of worship, whatever the religion, gives you a spiritual break,” she adds.

In front of the NEHU administrative building

Socializing adds ‘a bit of music’ to the rhythm their life follows. “Unlike metros, Shillong offers you that extra bit beyond duty and responsibilities such as coordinating the children’s trips to school, music and karate classes. And we drive off to Mawphlang (nature trail with sacred grove 30km from Shillong or Umiam (lake 20km from Shillong) occasionally. And we make it a point to go on a long vacation at least once a year,” says Kenneth.

Their last trip was backwaters exploring in Kerala. “We have gone everywhere except Kashmir and Haryana, but we prefer southern India because people there are nicer and yes, we freak out on south Indian food,” say Caroline. But a trip to Kolkata did something to Kenneth; he was indoctrinated to the world of Hindi films. The entire family watched 3 Idiots, the first Hindi film together. “We like Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor,” she says.

Caroline and Kenneth are proud to be Khasis as well as Indians. They feel their uniqueness as a matrilineal community enriches India’s
multi-ethnic tapestry. “It’s nice to be a cog in the diverse Indian wheel; that we live in the most divergent country on earth makes our existence all the more meaningful,” says Kenneth. But they don’t do anything special on August 15, mainly because nothing much happens in Shillong apart from the official functions.

Of course Meghalaya, like the rest of the Northeast, has long experienced rebel-imposed boycotts on Independence Day. “But things are changing; a local organization has been promoting intra-state tourism on that day,” says Kenneth. India beyond has changed too in the last couple of decades. “Blame it on communication and change of mindset of the younger generation exposed to globalization,” he adds.

Kenneth – Caroline too – are happy working in relatively laidback Shillong. There’s no place like home, they say, but wouldn’t mind getting a dream job – heading the Indian office of a UN body for him and being a medical practitioner for her – in either Pune or Hyderabad. “These cities have more accommodative than the metros, and they offer better work atmosphere,” he says.

But for now, they are looking forward to a visit by the Marathi couple who were Kenneth’s local guardians in Ahmedabad. “It’s been a long time we met though we communicate regularly. Besides, we hope to get some tips on Marathi cuisine,” says Kenneth.

(This is the longer version of the Independence Day Special package published in Hindustan Times’ Brunch magazine on 14 August 2011)


About rahconteur

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