It’s been 30 odd years since I left the turmoil that haunted the tiny lanes of Shillong. While the unrest in Kashmir has always been in the global news, the North-Eastern part of India, which has been equally riddled with problems, remains unexplained; barely covered by the media, misunderstood by most across the country.
Shillong with its pristine beauty has always tugged at my heartstrings. The meandering lanes give way to a vast expanse of free, blue skies.
We took this freedom for granted, as the narrow lanes always held the promise of a known destination. It felt safe and secure. But we were forced to make decisions about whether we wanted to continue staying, given the political unrest.
Like countless other Bengalis who had grown up in Shillong, I too was forced away from this paradise, thrust into a life I had not chosen. Generations of non-tribals who had toiled hard to create a home in the peaceful hills of Meghalaya had to bid goodbye to the bright dahlias that grew in every corner of the state. The struggle to rebuild our lives from scratch was real and daunting.
You need to face the heartbreak of migration to truly understand what it means to leave your safe space forever. We felt dwarfed in cities, rich with ostentation and power-hungry individuals. But the flip side was that in larger cities, identity and acceptance were not linked to ethnicity but financial success; money allowed one to merge seamlessly with the rest.
I was luckier than most and was embraced easily by my peers. My command over the English language, my easy talent with the guitar, my innate ability to gel, made me blend in and forget the pain and loss of Shillong.
My mixed hill features lent me an exotic air and impressed the Hindi-speaking crowd of Delhi. In the mad city rush, I often missed the placidity of Shillong but I learned to quell those thoughts. Instead, I began learning the ways of the city folk; the way they entertained, dressed, and even spoke. On some rainy nights though, the past caught up and I was forced to acknowledge it even as I nursed a fine malt while staring out at the urban dystopia from the vantage point of my high rise.
I remembered Mr Das, his face bleeding as he walked home one evening from work. His head hung low, his shirt was torn, and blood was smeared across his sweater.
Mr Das was our neighbour. He was gentle but very strict about his routine. We could tell time just by his activities. Every morning, he sat under the mellow Shillong sun and read the papers. This was followed by a staple breakfast of rice, lentils, and vegetables. He was short in tature like many Bengali men and had well-oiled hair; a cloth bag always slung purposefully across his shoulders. He carried his tiffin to work and a copy of the Anandabazar Patrikaas well. This he devoured during his break. He waved to his kids and left for AG, the Accounts General office approximately 20 minutes away.
Mr Das could walk blindfolded on this route.
The little tree-lined lanes, small shops, and the dewy fresh mountain air were all companions on his daily route to work. It was 1981, and we knew we were not welcome there by then. We had started to sense the change in the political direction, the stiffness of the nods, and unreturned “hellos.” We were getting used to the idea that we were not safe and needed to leave.
On 24th December, Mr Das left work and went to the bakery to buy a fresh cake for the children and his shy wife. Leaving the bakery with a fresh cake in his hands, he carefully stepped over the little stream trying not to wet his polished leather shoes.
That’s when he noticed his son’s classmate, a local, approaching him. He used to come home regularly till the absurd tension had created a rift between the tribals and non-tribals. He was with four other boys, all his son’s age. Mr Das smiled at them.
As they approached, his son’s friend yanked Mr Das’s hair and punched his face with metal studded leather bike gloves, all the while yelling, “Get out of this state, you dirty pigs. Get out.”
The excerpt is from ‘Nautanki Saala’ (OakBridge Publishing).