By Patrick Bryson
For MA Vicent
THEY CALLED it a lynching in the Shillong Times, but that’s not what really happened to Doug Bennett, the Kiwi handyman on an Apostolic Mission from God. What the villagers of Sohlyngioh did was beat him within an inch of his life and then bury him alive, although that came as a surprise to no one — at least not to anyone who’d met the poor bastard.
There have been hundreds like him through the years. One after another, like coal trucks swaying up the Shillong-Guwahati Road, these earnest men of God have ventured into the hills with their harried wives and screaming kids, attempting to turn the heathen into believers — usually by translating the Bible into languages that are on the UNESCO endangered list. If they have any success at all there is an unreadable history of their work written by some equally incomprehensible theological student, their severe face is reproduced on commemorative plates and the date of their death becomes a church holiday.
Yet the aforementioned Doug Bennett, of Whangarei, New Zealand, gets none of that treatment, as he never learnt one word of any language other than English. And after the cold-blooded murder he committed in 1985 Doug was no longer mentioned in polite company, which is a shame, as he provides a decent yarn. But if you give Marvellous Mawsohiong strong drink — and that happens almost every night, from what they say — you’ll get the whole story from start to finish.
Marvellous Mawsohiong is the third of six brothers — a terrible run of luck for his parents in the matrilineal society of the Khasis — and should not be confused with his older brother Devious, which happened quite regularly when they were younger. Devious was the second brother and the Irish twin of Marvellous, who was born ten months after him in the same year. In order the brothers were Precious, Devious, Marvellous, Strenuous, Paulus and Damascus Mawsohiong — the last two christened after Doug Bennett swiftly grasped onto the rhyming craze that had guided Marvellous’ mother, Sweetie Mawsohiong, in her name-choosing.
Bah Marvellous was in the service of Mr Bennett, and had received his commission from the same after picking the carpenter and his wife up from Guwahati in the second-hand Ambassador tourist taxi he partowned with his brother and uncle. By the time they had reached Shillong, Marvellous had talked his way into being the new full-time driver for the Bennetts, and also managed to get Devious a position as chowkidar. Technically almost illiterate, the driver soon graduated to translator and fixer too. He’d only had formal schooling up until Class 6, before his mother pushed him out to be a cowherd with his older brothers – though he was, and remains, as cunning as a shit-house rat, and can speak Khasi, Jaiñtia, Hindi, Nepali and enough English to get him by.
Anyone who has met Marvellous can testify to his personal charms, which are still considerable. Blessed with a smile that can soften the cervix of the most cynical of Shillong’s spinsters — and he does a bit of that too, on most nights — Bah Marvellous soon mastered the politician’s art of being able to size someone up within moments of meeting them and then tailoring his smile and his demeanour to suit the mark. If you add in the fact that he is a relentless opportunist, who would auction off his mother’s honour for his own personal advancement, then you have one dangerous driver in your midst — or a Member of the Legislative Assembly, which is what he is today.
But those were simpler times, and in the beginning Doug Bennett’s naivety got him through. He had already been living in India for seven years, building schools in Karnataka — none of which, by the way, ever gained accreditation — and he’d moved to the East Khasi Hills on the strength of meeting a Sohlyngioh girl studying in Bangalore, who had told him of the locals’ need in her village. Doug hired her as the first teacher — before he even got to Meghalaya — and within six months she became pregnant to a Bengali boy that she duly ran off with to Kolkata, leaving Doug and his wife Margaret to construct the school-house, teach the children and deal with the locals, with only Marvellous and Devious for help.
By his own account, Marvellous started laying the groundwork for his mission within minutes of first having Doug and his missus in the car. He didn’t cop to being a part-owner of the vehicle and pretended that he was a driver for hire — working for his exploitative uncle.
Well, said Doug, how much would it cost to buy the vehicle so you could have your own business and take care of your family properly?
Marvellous knew then that he had hit the jackpot. Doug helped him through the good graces of his Apostolic partners back in NZ, who soon received his request asking for money so that a local lad could buy a car and begin supporting his folks, and within weeks Marvellous had been given enough cash to buy the Ambassador again.
What Doug needed next was a site for the building. He promptly found the perfect location — only to be told that he couldn’t buy it, as he wasn’t tribal. While true, it wasn’t the real reason that they knocked him back. Most of the people in the village were already Christian — it’s about a 50/50 split between the Presbyterians and the Catholics — and they couldn’t trust a missionary who didn’t believe in rules and regulations, the stuff that a real church is made of, and one who further didn’t have any good references and was impossible to trace.
Who is this Bah Doug? said the Headman. Where does he stay? We don’t even know the name of his church.
Doug’s aloofness made him hard to know, and less likely to get anything of significance done. The seven years in the South had not made him any wiser when it came to liaising with local officials, and after one or two meetings he would blow his top and then decide to build everything himself. He even started putting up street-lights at one point, which the local boys took great delight in smashing as soon as each new bulb appeared.
So the Bennetts’ brand of Apostolic radicalism did not find many takers, especially after Doug and Margaret told the good Christians of Sohlyngioh that they didn’t know how to worship, that the congregations they pledged their allegiance to were man-made monstrosities, and that the Devil himself had taken over both the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches.
No worries, said Doug — who interpreted the refusal of the Headman as a Satanic attack — Marvellous can buy it for us.
And Marvellous did — though for a much lesser price than he reported to Doug — but only once he’d scrambled to find a family connection in the village. After half an hour on the phone to Shillong, he established that his mother’s brother’s father-in-law’s sister stayed in Sohlyngioh. He took along a gift of some bananas and visited her that afternoon for tea — where he flashed his trademark smile — which led to her petitioning the Headman that night and vouching for Marvellous, giving him a glowing endorsement. Anyone involved with her relative, she said, must be alright.
DEVIOUS, ON the other hand, actually helped the Bennetts with their day-to-day chores. He chopped the wood, fetched the water and served as Doug’s apprentice — never once complaining about the patronising way that the giant Kiwi spoke to him, how he yelled at him for not knowing what a Phillips-head screwdriver was, and how he was loudly censured for anything that went wrong on the building site.
This was not an unknown situation for Devious. Since he could remember, he had always managed to get the blame for the terrible things done by Marvellous — and they were many — who in turn took full credit for the virtuous conduct of Devious. It was partly because of Devious’ name — even his mother always suspected him of something — but mostly because of Marvellous’ smile. Doug was not immune to it and neither was Margaret, Doug’s wife.
The trouble started when Doug decided that he didn’t want to accompany Margaret into town every other week to get the supplies.
I’ve got too much work to do, he’d say. I can’t be standing around helping you decide which loaf of bread we should buy when these kids don’t even have tables and chairs.
So the wily driver stood around and held the bags, answered the questions and translated for Margaret, who primly took more time than most to succumb to the polite but insistent propositions from Marvellous Mawsohiong. His seduction of her was considered, and consummated only when he convinced her that she would not be able to get all the things she needed in Shillong, and would instead need to go down to Guwahati for a day trip. The Ambassador — which had up until then run smoothly — mysteriously broke down, and could not be fixed until the morning, right near a hotel that Bah Marvellous happened to know.
The Guwahati trips quickly became monthly, and so did the car problems. But Doug Bennett remained oblivious to the obvious. He had no imagination and didn’t suspect Marvellous or Margaret of anything except being slow to get the provisions, when the only thing she was slow at getting was her orgasm — which Marvellous tried to draw out for as long as possible — or so they say.
Anyway, this situation could have gone on forever. Doug himself told anyone who’d listen that he needed three lifetimes to get the work done on the school and the surrounding locality, and he grew fond of saying that he would die there.
But Katie, Doug’s daughter, turned up for a surprise holiday one Christmas. It was just the opportunity that Marvellous needed. He asked her if she’d like to visit some waterfalls, if she fancied seeing a lovely view of Bangladesh, and if she wanted him to touch her there.
After Class 6, his mother pushed him out to be a cowherd. He now speaks Khasi, Jaiñtia, Hindi, Nepali and enough English to get him by
When Katie came to know that she was pregnant, in her third month of staying in Sohlyngioh, she broke the news to Marvellous when they were on their way home from a picnic at Shillong Peak — her backside still itching from where her naked skin had just kneaded the grass. The wretched girl, still flushed, was actually thinking of marriage. She thought that they could continue the work of her father, and that their children might do the same.
Bah Marvellous smiled.
Gosh, that didn’t happen with your mother, he said. She is too damn old.
Both of the women were on a flight back to Auckland within a week, Margaret citing Katie’s ‘poor health’ as the reason, Doug still none the wiser to anything that had gone on. Even then, after the baby was given up for adoption, Doug’s work could have kept going if Katie had decided to keep the secret to herself. But she blurted it out a few weeks after giving birth and told her whole prayer group exactly what Marvellous had done — to her and her mother — before she left for Sydney, never to be heard from again.
THERE WAS a depression in the Bay of Bengal on the night that Doug met his end. It had been pelting down for two days straight and the huge rainfall almost equalled the amount of Indian Made Foreign Liquor that the mad saheb had thrown back. But he did not yell, or decant his troubles to his fellow drinking companions; he just stared into the whisky, and let his anger simmer on the slow boil. It was fitting, as it matched the calculated build-up of the long-con that Bah Marvellous had pulled on him.
You see, the shack and the block of land they purchased to make the school included a hill at the back of the property — a hill that Marvellous already knew was full of untapped wealth when it was purchased in his name. He spent the 15 years after Doug’s death hollowing it out and selling the sand off by the truckload — each tray-full taking him one step closer to buying an election, which he finally managed in 1998.
Of this Doug had no idea. All he knew then was that he’d been cuckolded by Marvellous and that his daughter had carried the driver’s child. In the small group of home churches that made up the Apostolic Movement back in Australasia, the Bennetts’ story had become the top-rated gossip of the decade.
Bah Doug walked the whole way back to Sohlyngioh from the Shillong Club in the dark, without saying a word. The rain had lessened to the point where it was just drizzling, and there was a thick fog that covered the ageing missionary-built stone road he took as a short cut.
In the small group of home churches that made up the Apostolic Movement in Australasia, the Bennetts’ story had become a top-rated gossip
As he reached the yard he saw the glow of a lamp in the kitchen, and the axe on the chopping block next to the steps. Picking it up made him feel good, and putting it into the back of Marvellous’ neck felt even better. It was only when the future MLA parked the Ambassador at the front of the school and walked through the door that Doug realised what he’d done. He was sitting at the kitchen table and on the floor, with the axe still lodged in his neck, was the dead body of Bah Devious — the best behaved of all the Mawsohiong brothers.
Marvellous did not break down, or run, or say anything at all. He just smiled at Doug — a beautiful, almost angelic grin — then turned around and walked out onto the road, and screamed murder, bloody murder.
It was an easy business for him to incite the mob. No one in the village liked Doug — they’d always felt that he looked down on them, especially as he kept saying that they were backward, and needed to wash more — and they were secretly happy that Bah Marvellous had seduced both mother and daughter. He’d been shamelessly telling his friends — all wealthy contractors now — about each sordid detail along the way. And with his older brother dead at the hands of his employer, Marvellous just had to say the word.
They buried Doug Bennett in the hole that he’d prepared for the cornerstone of the new prayer room. He’d planned to build it next to the school, but the foundation instead became the start of Marvellous Mawsohiong’s garish new mansion, complete with orange bathroom tiles on the sitting room walls — Sohlyngioh’s very own Graceland.
AT LEAST that’s how Marvellous tells it. He has been known, in the years since, to have his guards, surrendered militants the lot of them, to drag out his enemies — constituents who don’t vote for him after he has paid for their vote; young upstarts who are considering running against him; local scribes who criticise his kleptomaniac ways — and have them put down on their hands and knees in front of the unsightly building.
Look at that, he yells, pushing their heads into the ground with his foot. That’s where I buried the saheb! If I can do it to him and get away with it, imagine what I can do to you.
And then he laughs.
There is an alternate ending that does the rounds, one that is never mentioned in Bah Marvellous’ presence, and if its details weren’t so fantastical it would be the official version. On the night that Doug Bennett got stewed in the Shillong Club, he supposedly set off on foot, heading in the direction of Sohlyngioh, but never made it. Someone claimed to have seen him walking somewhere in Nongthymmai on the Jowai Road, head down, mumbling to himself, but that was it. He just disappeared, and when he didn’t come back Bah Marvellous put it out that he had killed the crazy firangi, with able assistance from his brothers and friends.
But that leaves us with poor Devious, slain on the kitchen floor. In this account it was Marvellous who let him have it — all because Bah Devious had an attack of conscience and planned to confess everything to Doug — and, as a result of his drunken stupor, Doug froze in the night somewhere between Nongthymmai and Sohlyngioh, never to be found.
But that leaves us with poor Devious, slain on the kitchen floor. In this account it was Marvellous who let him have it — all because Bah Devious had an attack of conscience and planned to confess everything to Doug — and, as a result of his drunken stupor, Doug froze in the night somewhere between Nongthymmai and Sohlyngioh, never to be found. That’s what they say, anyhow. The proof offered of this report is the drinking problem of Marvellous, his inability to sleep in his Sohlyngioh home anymore, and his loose tongue. He has apparently confessed to Devious’ killing several times, and to being haunted by both his brother and Doug — whose ghosts are sighted at least once a year. Sometimes it’s on the road to Sohlyngioh, and sometimes in Motphran — right in the heart of Shillong. Raju, the old fella who works behind the counter of the electrical shop next door to the Waikiki, claims to have seen them twice. Both times the lanky Kiwi has bounded in near closing time, wanting to get a roll of copper wire, with Bah Devious two steps behind him. When Raju turns around to get it, they disappear.
Now, if you must choose between believing Bah Marvellous — by no means the shadiest MLA in all Meghalaya — and Raju, the light-bulb wallah from Motphran, there is only one more thing to say.
On those rare occasions when he can be coaxed into talking about the visits from Doug Bennett and his humble apprentice, Devious Mawsohiong, old Raju never smiles.
In 2009, Bryson was awarded his PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is a published poet, short story writer and essayist, with his works appearing in Tehelka, The Times of India and Mascara Literary Review. He lives in Shillong, Meghalaya.