The bureaucrat who became a cultural icon of the North East

My mother Justina (left), with my father Leslie Harding Pde, with their children in front. (L to R) Genevieve, Desmond, and me, Loreta Ann. Shillong, Meghalaya. Circa 1978.

Image and Narrative points contributed by Loreta Ann Kharmawphlang and Dabormaïan Jude

IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam

My father Leslie Harding Pde (also known as Bah Besbha), was born in 1937 in a village called Mawngap, about 20 kms from Shillong (formerly in Assam, now capital of Meghalaya State), adjacent to the sacred groves in the Mawphlang village (maw phlang means “grassy stone). He studied in his village up until primary school, but to continue his education, his parents decided to send him Shillong.

My grandparents Lyton Ñiangti and Mary Pde, were from Jaintia hills (NE forest and hills region), and had five sons and five daughters including my father. They moved south west to the Jowai district to find a better life in its village Mawngap which was a flourishing trade centre at the time. My grandfather was a skilled tailor, a profession that has been integral to many Jaintia men. Even today, in Barabazar, Shillong, the men line up with their sewing machines. My grandmother Mary ventured into trading fermented beans, but with ten children she found it difficult to invest her time in it completely. I remember she was quite active in the Hill state Movement which began in 1960 and eventually resulted in us obtaining our own state – Meghalaya in 1972.

My grandfather was until then a follower of only his traditional faith called Ñiam Tre. My grandmother however belonged to the Church of England. My father’s relatives, the Nongkhlaws, who lived in Shillong were also Catholics. They were well off, and took it upon themselves to offer the young Leslie a place to stay and provide for his education. Not long after he arrived in Shillong, my father was drawn to Catholicism because of its creative culture. The Italian priests enthusiastically engaged local youngsters in creative activities and especially music – they had a band, with bass drums, guitars, and the saxophone. They encouraged people to sing, play instruments – activities that sounded wonderful to my father. He began participating in the cultural activities of the Church, and joined the St. Cecilia Choir when he was a teenager. He sang and learnt to play the guitar, and began to be known for his renditions of Pat Boone. Some of his peers went on to become big names in music. I think a culture of performance actively propagated by the Church, can be credited with the burgeoning music scene in Shillong. Later on, my father convinced his own mother Mary Pde to become a Catholic as well. He had become a person who was extremely open-minded about enjoying and learning from all cultures.

After Matriculation, my father did some odd jobs, including a government job as a sort of peon. While continuing to work, he finished his IA degree. (Intermediate Arts. At the time, it was not called 10+2 or Pre University). He kept applying for a better job until he was appointed a clerk in the Government of Assam. When my parents got married in 1960, the very next year, he became an ACS (Assam Civil Service) officer. He was posted as an officer in Dhemaji (in present-day Assam) for a couple of years, managing many of the administrative requirements. He learnt to speak fluent Assamese and later Bengali. He would tell us that it would be so severely flooded in some of the areas that he would have to go to his office by boat, as well as distribute relief material whenever it was required. Occasionally, my elder brother and sister would visit him. By the time I was born in 1966, he was back in what is present-day Meghalaya.

Meanwhile, my mother Justina too completed her Intermediate Arts. While studying, she also worked as a data entry person for horse races on the Polo grounds for British folks, many of whom did not leave India and were still living in Shillong. Some of them even married into local families and several of their descendants still live in Shillong, more so in Laitumkhrah. Like my mother, many educated Khasi youth, who had graduated 10th or 12 grade found employment opportunities on the Polo grounds. All of them remember the time with great fondness. However eventually, my mother too found a job with the Government of Assam. 

In 1971, my father was the Extra Assistant Commissioner at Sohra, Cherrapunji, which is about 50 km inside India from the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) border and helped many people fleeing the 1971 war in East Pakistan with relief efforts and settlements. With a good knowledge of Bengali, he communicated with the refugees well. So much so that when he took my mom to Sylhet after the Battle of Sylhet; he had formed some good relationships with the new settlers. 

In the early 70s, my elder sister Genevieve developed a serious problem with one of her kidneys and my parents had to take her to Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh (known to have the country’s first Radiology Department). To fulfill multiple tests and formalities took quite some time and so my parents and my sister remained in Dibrugarh for about two to three months. And that is when my father picked up the pen, and wrote his first novel Ka Bih (Poison). He always said that if not for that visit to Dibrugarh, he would not have been inspired to write. After his first novel, he just kept on writing more books, one after the other. He even translated the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Ramayana and Mahabharata from English to Khasi. Some of these translated texts are still being studied at universities and almost all of his books are held in libraries worldwide. 

At the time, entertainment wise there was not a lot to see in the North East, but when my father could find it, he would devour and study anything he liked with interest – he liked Peter Sellers, especially in The Pink Panther, Charlie Chaplin, the British sitcom Mind Your Language, and Yes Minister, including delving into the Yes Minister book. He was quite the music lover – he loved the Rock genre, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd and old Hindi songs by Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. He also brought the first The Wall (Pink Floyd’s) album to Shillong. My father’s wardrobe too was exactly like his personality – Bursting with colours. Even the umbrella he carried had all the colours of the rainbow.

It was probably in 1986 when my father and friends formed a comedic group SBUK (Seng Biria U Khasi) with like-minded creative people such as writers & musicians. While all of them had day jobs, the group became their creative channel. Most of the plays and sketches were written by a gentleman called Wan Kharkrang, others also contributed, with several themes including critiquing religion and politics. Their performances were a huge hit, with a full house each time they performed be it in Shillong or rural areas. To be noted was the fact that he still didn’t quit his day job as a senior administrative officer with the government.

In 1993, my father retired as the Director of Employment and Craftsmen Training. Post his retirement he became even more active in Shillong. He received contracts from the government and helped raise awareness about natural disasters and good health. He wrote and directed a few movies as well – for instance Ka Umsaw (Flood) and U Tiew Lily Basaw (The Red Lily). There were three feature films with DDK, three satirical humour plays, and street plays on earthquake and disaster management, environmental degradation. He wrote, produced, directed and acted in several dramas of the SBUK and the Shillong Trendy Society.

In the mid nineties things became even more interesting for my father with a commission from the Election Commission. They wanted him to make a campaign video to create awareness about voting. His awareness campaign was such a big success that it was made into a commercial CD. And that led him to a second commission – a contract from Doordarshan, (India’s first national and regional Channel) for a TV series. He spearheaded (writing, directing and acting) the sitcom Ki Kam U Bah Beshbha, with local and khasi characteristics (influenced by the sitcom Mind your Language as well as Elvis Presley’s character across many of his skits.) that went on for 3-4 years. He revolutionised the concept of Khasi Televison in Meghalaya, that had never been done before. The entire series is now available on YouTube. My father had become a regional star and when he would drop my son off at school, everyone would ask him for autographs.

My father was always the first person to awaken in our home, and could be usually found gardening. A small corner in the house was his favourite place to sit and write, where he would type away on his ancient typewriter, with scattered books and papers, and his glass of drink. I remember, on some occasions, he would make his grandchildren stand in a line, and pour a little bit of wine in a cup and give them one by one. 

In the UK year of literature of 1995 –  the Welsh Literary and Cultural Council invited a group of people from the Khasi Hills to perform and my father was one of the invited delegates. There have always been strong ties between the Khasis and Wales. It was the Welsh Missionaries who established themselves in the Khasi hills and gave us the Roman script to write in, introduced western education, medicine, lace curtains, and the amenities of the modern world. They taught us a lot- well, except the love for drinking- that was there decades or centuries before they arrived. But that said, my father was, by the end of his life, conferred with several awards and honours from the state and international community and he enjoyed and celebrated them all. We are honoured to have had a really interesting father such as him. 

In 2018, our beloved father, a playwright, writer, translator and humorist, and bureaucrat, passed away after a brief period of sickness at the age of 79. He was laid to rest at the Laitumkhrah Catholic cemetery. Since he loved his Elvis Character so much, it was only fitting that one of his SBUK members performed his Elvis act on his first death anniversary gathering, where my son and nephews acted as the backup singers.

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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