01 January 1970

What’s In A Name? Of The I Love You Talangs And Hilarious Pohchens Of Meghalaya

The recent death of six prison escapees in Meghalaya drew the world's attention to the unique names of the Khasi people of India and the complex history and desires of the region they reflect.

What do the names of Khasi youth and children tell us about their culture?
What do the names of Khasi youth and children tell us about their culture? Getty

On August 24, the police in Jowai, a small town in the West Jaintia Hills, arrested four men for kidnapping and allegedly killing two taxi drivers. The accused, along with two other prisoners, managed to escape from custody but were nabbed by residents of nearby villages and beaten up on the night of September 10. All six succumbed to their injuries.

While this gruesome incident made headlines, the strange names of the accused also grabbed the attention of the people.

One of the accused was called I Love You Talang, and another was named Tellme Pyrtuh. (Their two alleged accomplices were Ramesh Dkhar and Sampher Ksoo.) Among the taxi drivers they had allegedly killed, one was called Fullmoon Kharsahnoh.

It is not uncommon for Khasi people to have such names.

“When I was three months old, my grandfather passed away after fighting cancer,” said Hamkhein Help Me Morhmen, a Jowai-based newspaper columnist, Unitarian minister, and environmentalist. “He gave me this name. May he wanted to me to help people like him who were in distress.”

Morhmen said whenever people refer to him by his middle name — Help Me — he cannot help answer their plea. But it also gets him into trouble at times.

“Facebook rejected my name,” he told Outlook. “I joke with my friends that I should sue Facebook for rejecting a name given by my grandfather.

B Tariang, the father of I Love You Talang, had given him this name to remind him of his father’s love, said sources who know the family. But his death, unfortunately, was rather cruel.

Ka siang, U siang… Adolf Hilter!

The Khasi community lives mostly in the East Khasi Hills and the West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya. They can also be found in neighbouring Assam and Bangladesh. Linguist and ethnologist Peter Wilhelm Schmidt has claimed that the Khasi are related to the Mon-Khmer people in Southeast Asia and their language is from the Austroasiatic language family. These languages are spread over India, Bangladesh, southern China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Khasis live in closed groups or clans that are mostly matrilinear. Most Khasi groups have been recognised as Scheduled Tribes in India.

One of the key features of their society is the weekly markets called musiang.

“The markets are not only places of business,” said Morhmen. “These are also a venue for entertainment, community sports, and competitions among various Khasi groups."

The Khasi calendar has eight days per week and the markets open on certain days. Many children are named after the marketplace near which they are born, such Ka siang or U siang.

In the Khasi language, “ka” means “she”. So, girls born on the Musiang day are often called Ka Siang. Similarly, boys born on the market day are called U Siang. Morhmen said that was a trend during the generation of his grandparents.

Socio-political and historical events have also affected how Khasis name their children.

For instance, in 1971, during the Bangladesh war, many Khasis settled in the neighbouring country. They married Bengalis and took Bengali names. It is not uncommon for residents in these areas to have names such as Nicoles Rai or Princeton Roy — a combination of Khasi first names and Bengali surnames.

Some names can seem a little bizarre as well. For instance, in Jowai town, two girls were apparently named Toilet by their parents.

“We don’t know why they got this name,” said Morhmen. “One of them has passed away now, and the other has changed the spelling of her name. She now spells it as Tailet.”

If you thought this was strange, wait for it.

In the 2018 Assembly elections in Meghalaya, the contest for the Mendipathar seat was between Marthon Sangma and Frankenstein W Momin. A former environment minister of the state from the Nationalist Congress Party was Adolf Lu Hitler Marak!

Colonial hangover

During elections, the lists of voters and candidates throw up many such instances — Highlander Kharmalki,  Sounder Strong Cajee, Hispreachering Son Shylla, Bomber Sing Hynniewta, Hilarious Pohchen, and Goodleader Son Nongsiej, among others. Many are even named after foreign countries and cities like Argentina, Sweden, Berlin.

Taking on English names also betrays an obsession with the language and how proficiency in it can be a catalyst for social mobility.

Pencil Marak, 32, a resident of Shillong in Meghalaya said there were many with names like him. “You will find people called Chair, Table, Speed, Metre in Meghalaya,” he added.

“A friend of mine knew a couple from the War community of the Jaintia Hills who had named their son Finally,” said Arup Kumar Nath, assistant professor, linguistic department, Tezpur University. “The couple had always wanted a son. But they had three daughters before the male child was born. So, he got his strange name.”

Nath said there were two reasons why people from the Khasi communities have these names. “Parents want the names of children to have a surprise element. There is also colonial hangover.”

When the British colonised the Northeast of India, many people living in these areas were fascinated by the language of the colonisers — English.

“People started giving English names to their children,” said Nath. “It made them feel good as the British were perceived to be superior. And, it was easier for British officers to pronounce their names, some of which could be as strange as Gearbox.”

God’s Spear

Apart from colonisation, the immediate circumstance of a child’s birth can also reflect in their name.

Take for instance, Sutgna — a small village in the East Jaintia Hills. Before coal mining began here a few decades ago, the villagers were poor with little education.

“This village is full of people having weird names,” said Oscar D Phira, a local.

“We have an elderly man named 1947 because he was born that year. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday are common names in our village. Another person from our village whose name was recently in the news is I Love You Talang.”

Phira’s own name has Biblical origins. “As I am the only son of my parents, they called me Oscar, which means God’s Spear.”

The spread of Christianity in the Northeast — which accompanied the British colonisation of the region in the late-19th and early-20th centuries — also brought in an influx of foreign names, said Tezpur University faculty member Nath.  

People with names such as Friday and Sunday, as well as Rome, Jerusalem, Palestine — places important to Christianity — are also common.

One name, however, seems to beat them all. A 32-year-old woman in Elaka village of the East Khasi Hills district was called I Have Been Delivered. How did she get named after a song released only in 2009? No one seems to know.