The Times They Are A-Changin’

Shillong Times by Nilanjan P. Choudhury, Bengaluru resident, has appeared at a time when ‘migrant literature’ is found to be limited in scope and there is a movement toward a more inclusive term, ‘migration literature.’ Think Vietnamese boat people, Syrian refugees, the Partition of India, to name a few. Shillong Times belongs to this genre but with a difference. It does not concern itself with the staples of this branch of literature such as the Dutta family’s experience of migration itself, a search for identity, efforts at assimilation in the host state, or the mixed reception they receive at their destination, in their case, Calcutta.

What it deals with is the dilemma of whether to leave one’s place of birth. The dilemma is amplified by the rootedness of two generations of the Duttas, both of whom were born in and have lived their whole lives in Shillong. This dilemma is played out against the main theme of the coming of age of 14-year-old Debojit (Debu), of his friendship with Audrey Pariat and Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh, both Khasis, and of the ethnic tensions that have developed between the Khasis and the non-Khasis, particularly the Bengalis.

The opening chapter takes us into the heart of the troubled times, when Debu returning from school is chased by a group of Khasi boys. He hears the term “dkhar” for the first time. He learns that it means “foreigner” from one of the frequent heart to heart talks he has with his father. Mr. Dutta owns a small pharmacy in the biggest farmer’s market in Shillong. He’s a broad-minded person who understands the root of the ethnic tension: the Khasis’ fear that their culture and way of life will be submerged by the influx of “foreigners.” By contrast, Mrs. Dutta, a Shillongite by marriage, carries the outsider’s mentality.

Choudhury has very deliberately created Mr. and Mrs. Dutta both as two distinct personalities but also as types. As personalities, they give Debu a loving, if a slightly over-protective home. Mrs. Dutta’s exaggerated prejudices make her a figure of comedy, though a lovable one. Whenever she comes on the scene, the comic strain of the novel comes to the fore.

As types, husband and wife present the points of views and the dilemmas of the “dkhars”. While Mr. Dutta represents the views of the dkhars sympathetic to the views and fears of the Khasis, Mrs. Dutta displays the superiority complex and haughty attitudes of the “dkhars,” one of the roots of fear in the Khasis.

The “fear” part of the subtitle is thus something that exists on both sides. Choudhury adds shade and balance to these fears by showing that they not only exist between different ethnic groups, but within the same group. The relations between the Sylheti and the Calcutta Bengalis are complex. He parallels this among the Khasis: Pahara is all for teaching the “dkhars” a lesson, while Clint’s attitude is “He’s my friend… that’s all that matters.”

The “friendship” part of the subtitle has its roots in the home of Professor Bose, who because he couldn’t marry the Khasi girl he loved, “transformed himself into an amalgam of Devdas and Descartes – a perpetually intoxicated mathematical genius, composed, in equal parts, of alcohol and algebra.” It is in Bose’s home that Debu and Clint meet.

“Debu would often wonder how Clint’s inability to solve a simple problem in solid geometry has caused their lives to intersect, changing them in ways they could never have imagined, on a cloudy afternoon in Shillong when they first met.” Clint introduces Debu to Western music, to the pleasures of smoking, drinking, X-rated movies and pork( which would have given Mrs. Dutta a fit). The broad-minded Audrey Pariat, who wants to escape Shillong’s confining atmosphere and move into a wider world, came into Debu’s life through Clint. The friendship between Debu and Clint is typical of teenagers who argue, quarrel and make-up.

Shillong Times lays claim to be considered migration literature because it portrays one of the main staples of this genre: the backdrop of the social and political contexts which prompted the Dutta family to leave Shillong.

Mrs. Dutta recalls for Debu the background to the ethnic troubles. In 1979 “shops belonging to Bengalis were forcibly shut down. Landlords evicted Bengali tenants. Houses owned by Bengalis were set on fire. Overnight, hundreds of families became homeless. A mass exodus followed.” Jail Road, a Bengali-majority area, became the only safe locality. Bengalis who tried to flee Shillong were stopped, questioned and killed.

Between that time and now, when Debu is 14 years old, the demand of the United Students Federation has continued to grow: “reservation for Khasis in govt jobs, school and college seats, complete reservation of all MLA seats for tribals, curbs on non-tribal men marrying their women, restrictions on buying and selling of property by non-tribals, and, the chief demand, the expelling of all foreigners, particularly Bangladeshis.”

Even as Debu resolves to make Clint a friend for life, the Khasis’ efforts to drive out foreigners escalate. An enraged mob attacks the poor inhabitants of Sweepers Colony. All houses in Shillong are required to switch off lights from 7 to 10 p.m. Stones are pelted at Bengali homes during the blackouts. The homes on Lower Jail Road become the target of arrows. “Dkhar” boys and men returning home during the blackout are beaten up. Indefinite curfews are imposed. Schools and colleges are ordered to shut down till such time as laws are passed to detect and deport foreigners. Non-tribal shopkeepers are forced to pay protection money. Extortion is given a veneer of respectability when the obtaining of a Trading License, a permit issued by the traditional Khasi village panchayat, required by a non-tribal to run a business, a near formality in the past, can be obtained only by paying a fee that runs into six figures.

A word on Choudhury’s style before I move on. The quotations I have chosen above give an indication of how he nuances his voice to convey a particular effect. The following extract cloaks criticism as sarcasm.

“The extortionists had realized that it was a potential goldmine. But to dig out the gold, they needed help from unusual quarters – the traditional Khasi village assembly, known as the Dorbar Shnon…. The transformation from headman to godfather was smooth and swift. Soon, money began streaming out of the tills of non-tribal businessmen and flowing into the pockets of the extortionists who, more often than not, had the tacit support of the headman…. Shillong became a city of ghosts – the soul of its people crushed beneath the weight of a thousand blackouts, curfews and intimidations.”

Mr. Dutta receives a renewal notice for his Trading Licence at a time when he has estranged himself from the Bengali community because of the considerateness he had shown towards a Khasi fish seller; he is boycotted as a sympathizer. The fee for the renewal of his license is two hundred thousand rupees. Mr. Dutta tries to get the amount reduced but every attempt of his fails. Debu at this time is not on good terms with Clint but Audrey is a close friend. Audrey reunites old friends. Clint agrees to talk to his father to use his influence. The father, John Wayne Lyngdoh, not only refuses but orders his henchmen to vandalize Mr. Dutta’s pharmacy.

The shop is vandalized and Mr. Dutta attacked. But he survives the attack. How and why he survives – spoiler alert – is a tribute to friendship in general, and to that of Clint and Debu in particular. That episode cements their friendship for life.

Choudhury’s versatile style, his facility at characterization, the evocation of a beautiful hill town, and skillful inter-weaving of comic, serious, dark situations, makes him a winner on each count. Shillong Times is a literary multi-course buffet where every dish presents a different flavor yet each contributes to making the spread a highly satisfying meal.