MY city, my past

Authors share memories of ’80’s communal conflict & why it recurs in literature but there are other aspects of Shillong which need attention

Beloved Sundori,/Yesterday one of my people/Killed one of your people/And one of your people/Killed one of my people./Today they have both sworn/To kill on sight. ~ Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Sundori

More than two decades have passed since communal turmoil ripped Shillong apart but the abomination still festers. The two communities, broadly the local tribals and the ‘outsider’ non-tribals, are encumbered by memories of the violence, which has added another facet, loathsome and disturbing, to the city. In this morass birthed a genre of literature and a generation of literati which documented not only the time and history of events but also the anger and frustration of the sufferers.

Shillong does not cease to inspire authors, both diaspora and local, whose novels, poems and short stories are commingling of the different layers of life in the city. In the past few years, several books — the latest being Name, Place, Animal, Thing — were written where the city is either the protagonist or an inseparable part of the narration. Its beauty fascinates readers as much as the distortion repels them. “It’s a thread that’s woven into the fabric of the place,” says author Janice Pariat about the socio-cultural upheavals.

But how deep was the wound that it refuses to heal? Author Nilanjan Choudhury, whose last book Shillong Times traces the contours of dejection and friendship, recollects his experience to underscore the intensity of emotions, especially of the non-tribal community comprising Bengalis from Sylhet, Assamese and Nepali population, among others.

“My uncle’s beautiful bungalow was burned down by mobs. He was a well-known lawyer and a public-spirited citizen who loved Shillong and never recovered from this shock. He died a broken-hearted man in Kolkata. My father, who had a business, was physically and verbally threatened many times for ‘hafta’. Our family and I were also accosted on the streets on several occasions with the usual pejoratives. In the ’79 riots several of our relatives had become refugees in the Jail Road Boys’ School having been thrown out of their houses as they were Bengalis, where they stayed in very squalid conditions for six months to a year,” he says.

Shillong Times is the story of Debojit Dutta, alias Debu, and his friend Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh set in the backdrop of the communal clashes.

Author Bijoya Sawian feels there is a need for keeping the dark memories alive. “I think it is important that it (the communal violence) is constantly being featured (in literature). Sadly, the authors cannot avoid it as it is the most palpable vibration in the city. This tragic ongoing conflict has to end as no development can take place in an area of discord and violence,” she says.

Sawian’s last book, Shadow Men, has two main characters — Raseel, who grew up partly in Shillong, and Strong, a Khasi man who grew up in the same city in the 1970s. While Strong reflects on three decades of the conflict between the locals and the ‘dkhars’ as well as the conflict within the matrilineal society that he belongs to, Raseel observes and comments.

“Their perspectives of the incident in the book flow side by side throughout the narrative. Seeing both sides of the story was important for me as this book attempts to find solutions by putting all the cards on the table. No one has done that so far,” says Sawian, who has also delved into stories from the peripheries of the city and daily struggles, without raising the debate on the tribal-non-tribal issue.

Many authors, apart from Choudhury, Sawian and Pariat, have created fine literature with Shillong as the epicentre. Among them, Anjum Hasan, Dhruba Hazarika, Ankush Saikia, Siddhartha Deb and Daribha Lyndem need mention.

Hasan’s Lunatic In The Head has the communal layer like a cellophane, unseen but present. Talking about Shillong on literary canvas, a bibliophile in the city comments, “Lunatic In My Head is a societal rather than political study. The dkhar-Khasi incompatibility is described in terms of hypocrisies in work environments and relationships. Certain privileges are questioned but there are no critiques on the system. Hasan does not present two sides of the coin. Her emotionalism towards what dkhars face in Shillong makes her insular.”

Hazarika’s vividness of description of the place, people and the darkness that engulfs their lives is intriguing. “A Bowstring Winter is the first one (novel based on Shillong) I read. I remember feeling homesick visualising the winter chill and the anaemic sun filtering through the greyness and I could almost smell the aroma of the chowmein in the Malki restaurant,” Sawian, who is currently based in Dehra Dun, savours the memorable moments in her mind.

Asked to pick her favourite fiction set in Shillong, Sawian says each book is special to her in its own way.

Pariat’s stories “often feature the ethnic clashes as a backdrop, even if they don’t quite make it to the forefront”.

“It was the Shillong I grew up in, and even now, it’s an uneasy peace. It would be difficult for that not to permeate stories about Shillong,” says the author, now based in Delhi.

Sharing his thoughts on Pariat’s Boats On Land, the city-based bibliophile, who is in the process of deciphering the Shillong beyond convention, says, “Shillong was over-romanticised by her. She relied heavily on nature imagery failing to dig deep into how Khasis think. There were less urban tales reflecting contemporary issues.”

Beyond dissent

“The possibility of communal violence in Shillong is unfortunately too real,” says author and poet Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih.

But there are other parallel realities which seldom get similar attention of authors.
Thriller writer Ankush Saikia discovers another side of the city that is often deliberately overlooked. The rising crime in a city that is witnessing imprudent urbanisation is downplayed. But Saikia walks the lawless alleys of Shillong and spots the greys on the city’s canvas.

There are stories of struggles, the daily drudgery that is more real than the scarred past. And there is the underbelly of the city that is rejected as scum. Theirs are the stories which are better reserved for non-fiction and sombre news reports.

“I think I still write about a very middle-class Shillong, and I would honestly like to move beyond that — the stories of street vendors and farmers, people who don’t quite feature in ‘middle-class’ Shillong consciousness. I’m also interested in the more ‘unpretty’ sides of the city, far from the tourist gaze, but for that I do realise I need to spend time in Shillong, which I sadly haven’t been able to much in the last few years,” admits Pariat, adding that readers outside the state are missing out on the fact that the city is much more than its years of communal violence and tourist prettiness.

“It is not Scoland of the East. It is its own place,” she says.
Poet Nongkynrih echoes Pariat.

In her imagination, Pariat wants Shillong to be a street vendor — strong, resilient, lending life on the streets of Shillong and coming with their own fierce story.
Choudhury points out the other side of his narrative in Shillong Times saying it is about “friendship that overcomes the clash” and that “nature plays a key role in the book”.

Nongkynrih’s novel Funeral Nights, which is forthcoming from Amazon Westland, focuses on the “totality of Khasi life and manners, grossly neglected, especially by non-Khasi writers”.

“There are, in the novel, stories in poetry and prose, songs and plays, treatises and travelogues, historical accounts and cultural narratives, tragic tales and funny tales, myths and true stories, so bizarre that they sound like tall tales. Funeral Nights is essentially a big book of little stories… In Funeral Nights some characters represent both sides of the divide. There are books, like Dhruba’s A Bowstring Winter, whose protagonists are local characters, but they don’t deal with this kind of conflict,” says the author.

It lingers

No matter what an author looks for in Shillong, traces of the past still remain as does the divide. Both the communities hide the same fear and apprehension inside them as they did two decades ago and no façade can camouflage it. Choudhury admits that for any diaspora author, who witnessed the violence, Shillong will remain a chequered past. The contrast is also true. “It will also be remembered for the unique and unforgettable joys of growing up in one of the most enchanting hill stations of India, at a time in pre-liberalisation India, when life was much simpler,” he says.

Sawian strongly believes that until a solution to the decades-old strife is found, there is no hope of progress in socio-economic terms.

“Unless the youth receive the guidance and encouragement they need and deserve, unless we provide them with jobs and opportunities, unless we look into their mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, unless they see light at the end of the tunnel — this will continue. Counselling at the school level is imperative. Parents are not equipped to do this. If I had had counselling in school, I would have benefitted most definitely,” says the author.

Shillong has much to offer to an intellectual mind and a sensitive heart. There are stories in the city which need to be told, which are personal and contemporary. True, the communal scar exists but there is always scope to see through another lens. As Nongkynrih continues in Sundori, “But this is neither you nor I,/Shall we meet by the Umkhrah River/And empty this madness/Into its angry summer floods?/I send this message/Through a fearful night breeze,/Please leave your window open”, it is time that the fear in the air blows away and a zephyr calms the troubled mind. Literature may be a way to initiate the change.

 ~ NM