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Friday, December 03, 2021

Of faultlines and universal childhood experiences: Bureaucrat-author Daribha Lyndem on her JCB shortlisted book

Set in the Meghalaya capital in the late 90s and early 2000s, the book is her way of highlighting the universality of childhood experiences.

By: PTI | New Delhi |
November 10, 2021 2:20:14 pm
Daribha Lyndem is the author of 'Name Place Animal Thing'. (Source: Daribha Lyndem/Instagram)

Some childhood experiences are universal regardless of geography or politics, says Daribha Lyndem who strings together memories of playing ‘Name Place Animal Thing’, collecting WWF cards and looking at gift card shops as doorways to a magical realm in her collection of short stories.

But Lyndem, deputy commissioner of customs with the Indian Revenue Service in Mumbai, also touches on “us and them” schisms and racial faultiness in the Shillong of her growing up years in her evocatively titled book Name Place Animal Thing.

Set in the Meghalaya capital in the late 90s and early 2000s, the book is her way of highlighting the universality of childhood experiences.

“…perhaps that’s why you feel a connection with the protagonist. The hopes and fears of children in Shillong would be analogous to those of children in the rest of India. Geography and politics may change, but some things remain the same,” Lyndem told PTI.

Name Place Animal Thing follows ‘D’, the protagonist, over a decade, providing a glimpse into the city of Shillong and the life of a girl entering womanhood through vignettes that introduce the reader to people, places and life-changing events in her growing up years from seven to 20.

Lyndem with a copy of her book. (Source: Daribha Lyndem/Instagram)

The intimate nature of the 10 short stories, which build upon each other across 199 pages, leads the reader to view the book as an autobiographical account. But that is not the case.

“Although it would not be wrong to say a very big part of my feelings and thoughts are in everything I write, D is not me and I am not D,” Lyndem said.

The book is one of the five shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature, the most expensive book prize in the country. The Rs 25 lakh prize will be announced on November 13. The other titles in the running are Anti-clock by VJ James, The Plague Upon Us by Shabir Ahmad Mir, Delhi: A Soliloquy by M Mukandan, and Gods and Ends by Lindsey Pereira.

When Lyndem sat down in her room to write the book in isolation, she did not imagine it would be shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature.

“The hope was that a few people would read and enjoy it. I hardly imagined it would be shortlisted, and now it is being read by so many people since the announcement and I am more than grateful,” she said.

It has become possible for more Indian writers of English to reach larger audiences because of awards like the JCB Prize for Literature that highlight authors from different parts of the country, she said.

In Lyndem’s view, the Indian reading population does not necessarily focus on Indian writing in English. Not just north eastern writers, it is also difficult to find authors from Bengal or Kerala in a bookstore.

“I step into a bookstore and I don’t see many books by Indian writers unless they have been nominated for a Booker. So if I do not see books by say authors from Bengal or Kerala, I would hardly expect any from north eastern writers, writers that people do not even conjure in their minds. This is why awards like JCB are important, for highlighting authors from parts of the country one does not necessarily think about,” she noted.

As Lyndem lifts the curtain on the coming of age of a young Khasi woman and the politically charged city of Shillong, she touches on racial identities, hints of xenophobia, and the perennial question of “us and them”.

In one chapter, “AVVA”, a Chinese migrant hotel owner is forced to leave the city, In another, Bahadur, the father of a fatally wounded son is left helpless only because he’s a ‘dkhar’, people who are not tribal or are non-natives of Meghalaya.

Addressing the racial faultlines of Shillong of her childhood, Lyndem said, “Things may have changed for the better to a certain degree but the tensions are always simmering below the surface. There will always be fear of the outsider and although it may not manifest in outright xenophobia, there are always micro-aggressions that people are subject to.”

Was it difficult to find time to write while working full time as a civil servant?

“I think me being a civil servant has very little to do with me being a writer. A person can be a multitude of things, I happen to be a writer whose day job is being a civil servant. I love to write and always have, since I was in college. It was only about finding the time,” she said.

Name Place Animal Thing, published by Zubaan, is available on online and offline stores at Rs 495.

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