Recapturing Shillong citylights

BOOK REVIEW

Shillong is a sleepy hill town that remains unperturbed by happenings around it. The calmness is innate to its character but for one who witnesses the circadian rhythms of the city, the undercurrent of events are unavoidable. Name, Place, Animal, Thing captures that undercurrent of daily life in all its aspects through a child’s lens that unwittingly captures the layers of socio-cultural and politico-economic fabric of the place.
Daribha Lyndem, an IRS officer, uses lucid narrative to depict the various facets of Shillong, encapsulating the essence of the bitter-sweet life of Shillongites. For instance, Bahadur, the obscure domestic help of an elderly but rich and cantankerous Bengali widow, Mrs Guha. He lives with his family in a decrepit house provided by the landlady and takes up odd jobs in the neighbourhood, not for extra income but out of goodness. He exists only when there are chores to do and remains invisible otherwise. Nonetheless, he rouses curiosity in an eight-year-old girl who observes him toil the whole day.
Then there is Mr Baruah, the suspected “vampire” who runs a stationery shop at Barik. “It was a small shop with a weather-beaten pink front door which sealed in the warmth on cold winter days,” describes the author. But time takes a toll on the small business that vanishes in the oblivion.
And there is the graveyard, cloaked in the damp smell of wet laterite, and the untold stories of the dead. The place has a character of its own, peculiar and pessimistic, which nudges the faculties of the narrator during her annual visits to lay wreaths on the grave of her grandfather.
Lyndem’s stories do not miss out on the subtleties. As she describes Bahadur’s mundane life, she captures the class distinction and society’s inhumanity. When Bahadur’s son is mauled by stray dogs, none of the neighbours, who would often enjoy his service, comes out for help. The boy writhes in pain and all he gets are curious and selfish glances from behind curtains which separate the two worlds.
Incidents like the assault of Mr Roy by local youths bring out the communal turmoil that has maligned the city’s reputation forever. But Lyndem’s narration, which at times is poignant, is not hindered by a particular event and eddies round the monotony to capture the broader canvas.
“Apart from these everyday occurrences of people being mauled by humans or animals, nothing otherworldly ever happened in our lives. That’s why perhaps people in this town were so mundane, I thought,” life in Shillong is uneventful but when looked under the microscope can come alive with hues of colours, like the memories at AVVA, a Chinese eatery run by a Chinese migrant.
AVVA — “a lighthouse, a fuzzy beacon in the dark” — is another symbolism in the demographic contours of the city. The migrant Chinese community once held sway over the local economy and was an intrinsic part of the local populace.
“Chinese migrants in Shillong, unlike some of the other communities, were spread across the city. Some stayed in Mawkhar, some in Dhanketi and others in Laitumkhrah, Khasi/Jaiñtia neighbourhoods that would have rarely allowed outsiders like Bengalis, Biharis, Nepalis and other migrants,” Lyndem writes.
The community’s stronghold notwithstanding, social disturbances dislodged them from Shillong leaving behind remnants of their existence. The neons were gone and so was a part of history.
What makes ripples in the sleepy city does not move the young narrator. So when local groups declare their disconnection with the State, she finds it difficult to fathom. “‘Khasi by blood, Indian by accident.’ The group made as little sense to me as the strange writing on the wall,” she writes.
Name, Place, Animal, Thing, which derives its name from a popular childhood game, lives up to its name as Lyndem picks up anecdotes from her childhood and strings them mellifluously to portray a vivid picture of the city and its people.

~ NM

Book: Name, Place, Animal, Thing; Author: Daribha Lyndem; Publisher: Zubaan; Pages: 208; Price: Rs 300