That uneasy feeling comes on over and over, when one meets a Khasi person for the first time. The manners tend to dictate certain questions have to be asked in Khasi society; firstly: ‘what clan are you from;’ fine that is an easy enough answer; me as a foreigner of course the questions is what clan I married into. Then a simple question of how many children: seemingly un intrusive and easily answered, but then the question: ‘how many boys and how many girls.’ When I or my wife answer 3 boys and our 4th passed away at birth, there is that moment of silence then a look of sympathy, not empathy and a comment like: “don’t worry the fifth will be a girl.” Of course before our fourth, it was: “your fourth will be a girl.”
The deep desire for a girl a girl, a girl, a real oddity to a country like India, where the majority of the population wants a male child, to the point where often the girl child is a curse.
The following chapters are dedicated to our son Ethan, who we never got to know, my wife Valarie carried him for 8 months, knew him as only a mother can, was told she had to have an early cesarean because her blood pressure was way too high. Not more that a few hours after his entry into this world he passed away.
To all the unknown children, the hugs we never got to give, the cuddles we missed and for all parents in the same situation I want to write this book, not as a scholar, telling a personal story explaining the nuances, dispel misconceptions, highlight misuses and misunderstanding from within and without the society, and tell the story of a unique Matrilineal Tribe, I married into, called the Khasi’s.
Simply described my family heritage would be described as a typical patriarchal family; where our mother gave up her last name and took my father’s. Even the way our parents named us, all the daughters were given a first name and the last name Perry; the assumption is that they would get married, take their husbands last name and keep Perry as a middle name. The sons were all given a middle name.
Yet so much of what I am today is not that, partly, maybe from the influence of growing up in and around a Matrilineal society, but partly because, I suppose from being given free choice of where I went in my life, whether it be in religion, work, or otherwise. I was never told what to do.
Expectations may have been there, as that it seems was how we were controlled, there was always, I think, the unsaid expectation that we would be good children, always part of the same church, always straight in the way of marriage and family, no likely diversion. This expectation was implied but then there was the other side of it, free choice. Somehow, despite the disciplinary upbringing, we had free choice in the end and were likely to stumble from the straight and narrow. Not likely living up to the implied expectation, only living up to the freedom given us.
My father the Patriarch, pretty much controlled most all things in regards to our household: finances, discipline, when we ate, when we prayed, somehow did not control us in the end. Today as we raise our own son’s, I am perplexed, when people, often educated, ask me who I am grooming, of my sons, to take over our business. I don’t know if this is an Indian thing or just a thing in general. But for me it is not even in my remotest, deepest desire or thought to somehow be the controller of my son’s destiny or choices in life. I feel and have often felt that I am only a guide, a person who can only do my best to empower my sons to make their own choice; with the hope that the choice they finally make or take is toward a respect for other humans, a love for life and a desire to do good. I am not here on this earth to tell them what to do, nor to make them feel that somehow they have to do something, only because, I, as their father think they should.
One would have thought that my family would be different than the generation of Patriarchs from the west. My mother’s maiden name was Auchinachie, her parents had come from Scotland to settle in Toronto, Canada. Being Scottish one also belonged to clans like the Khasi’s of Meghalaya, but because the name was so difficult for the Canadians to pronounce her Maiden name became, Cameron. (siting of why he changed his name; note I). Cameron came from her father’s mother, named Georgina Cameron.
My mother was older when she got married to my father, 33 at the time. She was one of a first group of Canadian women officers, recruited for WWII. She served in London England through the heaviest bombings on that city. She then came back and became a nurse, on a path to a self-made woman and a career. Marrying my father changed all that. She never, in the common terms, took another job for pay for the rest of her life. One year of nursing, prior to marriage, and that was it. She now was married and as expected became a good housewife and mother. The days of being in the air force, WW II, and that independence were never really spoken of as I grew up, other than short little memories and stories.
My mother was a good story teller, the many nights we lay in bed, by candle light in Mawlai, India – being whisked away by stories she made up, or read from books to us. The days and nights dad would go away to villages were like a treat to us kids. It meant being spoilt in so many ways, the discipline of a specific bedtime went out the door along with my father. Now we were in a different world, the loving world of our mother and her fantasies and stories. To this day I still hold a letter she sent to me on her death bed, a letter of mire and joking about potential business interests with me, her son. Finally signed with: this was written on a Morphine high. She was in the last stages of dying from Cancer and was pumped on pain killers, yet still had those deep seeded fantasies of independence.
We, as children, always wondered, for naught. what she would have been like if she had not married our father. Of course an absurd wondering, we would not be around to wonder if she had not. So who am I and who are my brothers and sisters because of the effect of our parent, the effect of Nature and the surroundings we grew up around and the effects of nurture, of how we were brought up.
I grew up a white kid in a small Khasi village of Mawlai, at the time so close to Shillong, yet seemed so far in so many ways. I can’t speak for my older brothers and Sisters, 7 of them all under 11 years of age when my parents came to India in 1963. At the time my mother was a few months pregnant with me, the youngest. The influences on the older siblings leaving Canada and being brought to this remote part of India, can only be told by them. Where we lived was a village, getting to market was a big deal, a weekly adventure for my mother, we tagging along once in a while. I think for myself I could say, other than being white, I was pretty much a khasi boy.
I went back to Canada at 13 years of age with callouses on my feet, we wore shoes less than we did walk or run barefoot. Stories of Canada so far away, melting in a rush to go out and play games with our friends. It was a time when each season had a different game: you either were flying kites, playing marbles, shooting rubber made slings made from tire tubes, spinning war with tops or playing some sort of tag or hide and seek game. All in its own time, all in it own season. Somehow you knew when one stopped and the next started and there was little cross over. You woke up one day ready with the sharpest nail on your top to destroy your opponent’s top, after maybe flying kites and fighting a battle to tether the string of your friends kite the day before. Such was our life, simple and without much to question. We were let loose with all the glory of childhood in our midst. We were not the foreigners sent off to boarding school, we were there amongst it all, it is just we were always and will always be white. I attended school in Khasi curriculum, spoke a rough dialect of Khasi with my friend, and only spoke English at home or for the one subject of English in school.
The Perry’s were who we were; my mother was Mrs Donald Perry by designation. To this day I somehow can’t stand being called Mr Perry. To me that connotes my father not me, I am James or Jim. My last name does not mean much to me. Why this is I don’t know, maybe after a few chapters of this book, we might reveal the truth behind this. My wife and I meet people each day here in the Khasi hills and almost always to my wife the question is: ‘what clan do you come from’ and to me ‘what clan are your children’. Our children, in Khasi lexicon, would be my wife’s children, I am just the seed. And thus the story begins.