Illustration: Prianka Jain
When Arnold Sonsoflim, 25, fell in love with his classmate in Shillong Polytechnic College, he didn't think it would be hard to start the relationship. "We met in the canteen, became friends, and then began texting. I proposed to her, but she rejected it." In an attempt to get over the heartbreak, he started chatting with another girl on Facebook Messenger, only to be rejected again, this time via a telephonic conversation. "I'm now talking to this cute girl via Instagram messages. We've exchanged numbers and chatted for hours. I will propose face to face this time, with a gift," says the shy, soft-spoken boy, not willing to give up hope of finding love.
In the age of sexting, finding love on Instagram and Tinder, many like Sonsoflim prefer to get over a heartbreak swiftly. In urban spaces like Shillong, flirting takes place on WhatsApp, and fate of love stories depend on dating app swipes. However, this is a recent transformation in the dating landscape of Meghalaya, a state with a significant tribal population steeped in centuries-old traditions. Through a large part of the state, dating is still governed by traditional gender roles and accompanying rituals.
According to Keith Myrthong, 29, a resident of Mawphlang, dating in his village still takes place discreetly. It isn't rare to find a girl showing interest in a boy through offering him paan (betel nut) leaves, the betel leaf and nut being a longstanding symbol of respect and affection amongst many tribes in north-east India. With directly showing your interest in someone still not a popular practice, many still show through traditional symbols like paan. "There was a cute girl in our village, whom my friends and I used to meet. I liked her but wasn't brave enough to tell her," Myrthong tells me over a cup of black tea. Whenever they met, she'd give a paan leaf to all three boys, but it was always Myrthong who got it first. "The third time it happened, my friends suggested it must be a sign that she likes me, but is too shy to say it. So, I proposed to her and we are now dating."
Vensi Leone, 41, runs a tea stall in Mawphlang. Her boyfriend, now husband, proposed to her through letters. "We were friends and neighbours, but he always spoke to me through letters. I also began replying to his letters. In one of them, he told me that he loved me." They have now been married for 20 years. But, Leone tells me, there are other ways to propose too. According to a Khasi tradition in her region, if a boy loves a girl, he would look for a peripheral root that has fallen from a tree in the forests. He would wind it in the shape of a circle and give it to his beloved at an opportune moment. "If it's a 'no' from her side, she would return the root. If she unwound it before returning, it's a 'yes'," explains Leone. The practice was a polite way to propose/reject, and girls would sometimes take weeks to reach a decision.
The Khasi tribe, which forms the majority of Meghalaya's population, is a matrilineal society-a kinship system in which ancestral descent is traced through maternal instead of paternal lines. Though the women in the state are considerably more empowered than most other tribes (the primary heir to property is the youngest daughter), it is still predominantly patriarchal in most other aspects. In dating for example, it's still the men who are expected to make the first move.
Wesley Madjan, 29, a teacher in Tryna village in Cherrapunji, wooed the girl he liked during a long train trip, and proposed to her soon after. "We were in the same school, and we went on a school trip together via train. Luckily, we sat together and chatted for hours." The couple got married five years ago.
Pres Bila, 40, runs a shop near the famed double-decker root bridge in the forests between Mawlynnong and Cherrapunji, and her proposal was made at her doorstep. "I was just 18. We began meeting at our friends' places. Then I talked to my family, who gave their approval and we got married." The deal-clincher in Bila's case was simple actually-her husband was not a drunkard like many men in her village were. "He is a daily labourer, but has fulfilled his responsibilities towards me and our six children as best as he can."
However, not everyone's story ends happily ever after. 26-year-old Envolin Sheti (her friends call her Annie), who is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Education in Shillong, met her boyfriend at a food stall selling momos. "After we began meeting regularly, he proposed in a filmy way at the beautiful Wards Lake in Shillong. I was floored." It seemed a perfect match between a girl from St Mary's and a boy from St Anthony's, the two most prestigious colleges in Shillong. However, over time they grew apart-dating after all isn't only about beautiful proposals.
"I wanted to pursue my passion of acting, while he was looking for a far more traditional, homely girl. In some time, he began dating someone else." It broke Annie's heart, but she doesn't feel being single is as bad as it's made out to be. "It's better to take your time and be single, than rush into a relationship and get hurt."