Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship And Fear
Nilanjan P Choudhury
Speaking Tiger Publishing
248 pages, Rs. 350
Shillong Times takes off with a 14-year-old Bengali boy, Debu, being chased by a group of three Khasi boys, unsure why the latter are so keen to meet him, or if they have any urgent business with him. They are screaming at him, calling him a “dkhar” — an outsider — but Debu doesn’t know (yet) what it means, just that it is not a nice word. He is running, while simultaneously uttering silent prayers with a promise to offer Rs 10 a month to god if he escapes unscathed. Over the course of the run, he brings the price to Rs 5, and feels proud of pulling off the negotiation. The chase ends with the Khasis screaming at him, this time calling out: “Bangladeshi bastard, we will kill you.”
Set in the volatile times of the 1980s — in the backdrop of communal tension between the Khasis and Bengalis — the novel begins on a highly promising note. It delves into the heart of the matter right from the first sentence, and is, thereafter, viewed, written and experienced from the lens of a 14-year-old who doesn’t quite understand racial divides.
Despite initial scepticism and resistance from his parents, Debu befriends two Khasi teenagers in times of simmering ethnic tensions. Together they roam the pleasurable world of Pink Floyd, Khasi restaurants, whiskey, cigarettes and girls. This is everything he had been consciously kept away from, till now. Their friendship becomes strong enough to transcend the permeable boundaries of conflict, until a larger conflict takes over, and, Debu and his parents are compelled to move out of Shillong.
Author Nilanjan P Choudhary follows a “tell it like it is” style of narration. The protagonist is a 14-year-old. Naturally, he will describe the prevailing tensions as “stupid” and “crap”, and will try to act “manly” because he wants to impress a girl. Which is fine. What is not, however, is dredging the technique too far and deploying it unnecessarily at crucial plot points, thus marring an experience which should essentially have been of profound friendship and loss.
Having said that, Choudhary’s writing feels honest — particularly when he is talking about the experience, and the fallout, of growing up in Shillong as a Bengali. Or when he is writing elaborately on the history of the town, its geographical and political landscape.