Shillong: A portrait of longing and belonging

Bijoya Sawian’s ‘Shadow Men’, shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020 and set in the Tolkien landscape of Shillong, portrays the problems of insurgency and identity in Meghalaya

To the world, Shillong is a corner of India that is forever England. Dotted with lakes and dales, roads bordered with lacy ferns like Elizabethan ruffs, tin cottages with pretty curtains and antimacassars, and a cosmopolitan melange of music and meat-based dishes, Meghalaya’s capital has had an on-off, love-hate affair with settlers from elsewhere. The Khasis, one of the three tribes that dominates the State (the other two are Garo and Jaintia), even have a word to describe an outsider — dkhar.

And although they remain a warm and loving people, the people of Meghalaya often walk a knife-edge path when it comes to competition with outsiders for jobs and identity.

It is into this world, where the matrilineal society here has a downside spiralling into drugs, extortion, alcohol and murder, that Bijoya Sawian draws the reader to in Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories (published by Speaking Tiger). Sawian, 69, who is part-Khasi-part-Bengali, lives in Dehradun where she runs a school. A translator into English of works that essentially deal with the life and culture of the Khasis, she has also been published by the Sahitya Akademi.

“I grew up in Shillong in a family that still practises the indigenous faith, Niam Khasi. In keeping with tradition of the Khasi matrilineal society, I grew up in my maternal grandmother’s house. My father who was from Sylhet in Bangladesh, was from a family that came up to these hills in the 1930s,” says Sawian in a telephone interview. Although, she studied at the Seng Khasi School like many children from families who had not converted to Christianity, she was encouraged to study English to help her connect better with the outside world and later schooled at Loreto Convent, Shillong. It led to her pursuing English Literature at Lady Shri Ram College and Miranda House, Delhi, and continuing the family tradition of translating books.

“Shillong changed dramatically after the State of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972. The cosmopolitan character was receding as more families from the plains moved out,” says Sawian, referring to the time when they was a growing disconnect with the ‘Indian mainland’. “I think the seed for the book was sown one summer in the 1980s. Insurgency was at its height then and there was so much conflict in Shillong revolving around the anti-outsider movement. Most Indians are natural xenophobes. Blaming outsiders was born out of ignorance of the root of the problem. A nephew of mine, who was misguided, then thrown aside, told me of his experience. I knew then that one day I would write about it.”

In an interweaving of all these issues, as complex as the chevron bamboo weave of Khasi huts, Sawian tells the stories hidden in Shillong’s underbelly. In Shadow Men, Raseel is determined to get to the truth behind the strange death of an outsider, on the grounds of her hosts’ house. In The Flight, 18-year-old Mawii has to decide between her ‘own people’ and her one true love, an outsider. In The Limp, octogenarian Nipendro Roy finally feels he ‘belongs’ in Meghalaya to which he came as a 20-year-old from Bengal.

In poetic lines Sawian describes Shillong, the true hero of these stories. In lucid prose that keeps the reader hooked, her writing weaves its way through love, loss and longing with a steady rhythm. Like the thrum of the heart while navigating the pine-crunching walk through Shillong’s steep Jacob’s Ladder.

The book is available on Amazon Kindle.

Bijoya Sawian will be in conversation with Namita Gokhale and others at 6.30 pm on April 30. For details, look up Oxford Bookstore’s Facebook and Instagram.

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 5:46:27 PM |

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