The Year We Left Home

A generation of Bengalis made Shillong their home and then gave it up,accepting the logic of displacement that started in 1947. The story of their continuing exodus

Written by Amrita Dutta | Published: November 3, 2013 5:46:05 am

Do you realise what you are saying? This is your last month in Shillong.” My mother laughs in reply. She is as incredulous as I am,the hope that this is untrue evident in her voice. But it is here. The inevitable that we had held off for so long. After nearly 50 years of living in this city,where they had children,made friends and lasting connections,wove the web of their life,my parents are leaving home. In another month,they will follow an entire generation of Bengalis of Meghalaya,who moved out of its capital through the 1980s and 1990s,and who have flowed out of Shillong’s consciousness in quiet trickles ever since.

In 1965,when my father arrived here,Shillong was not the sprawling city under a traffic siege that it is now. It was a beautiful pine-fringed town,where the sunniest day could end in a spectacular shower of rain,grey skies and mists,where the pipes would freeze in winter,and where spring came with the whiplash of March winds. Like an entire generation of Bengali men,he had come from the surrounding plains to find work in its government offices,banks and colleges — Meghalaya would be formed seven years later. Others had come earlier,when the British built this town to serve as the capital of Greater Assam in the late 19th century. They were not refugees fleeing from riots (though they would come too) but economic migrants,as I am today in Delhi.

My father left his home in Mongolpur village in Sylhet in 1946,following his eldest brother who had found a job in the Duncan tea estate in Jatinga,Assam — a journey of less than 200 km,through familiar sights and sounds. A year later,Partition had calcified this undulating landscape — the vast floodplains that ascend into the hills through spiraling roads — into India and (East) Pakistan and,subsequently,Bangladesh. My grandfather would never leave Sylhet,he died in 1962,the question of belonging for him not as complicated as it has been for us.

The Bengalis struck roots in this hospitable town,its languorous pace akin to theirs. Many of them lived in rented portions of houses with sloping tin roofs,rows of windows and wide verandahs. Some were affluent or industrious enough to own the houses. For everyone — native tribal or non-tribal,rich or poor — was the brooding beauty of nature,tall pines,blue-green hills,flowers that grew wild on mossy walls and the wide,open sky,whose everythinging moods one knew as one did an intimate friend. They were insular as Bengalis are wont to,clinging on to their language,customs and music — not only Rabindrasangeet,but the polligeeti of boatsmen,sung with yearning about rivers left behind. Only a few of them learnt Khasi,and friendships between communities were rare,which would change with the next generation. Their life,and mine,was not the one that fits the popular image of Shillong,a rock-n-roll loving haven of youthful exuberance. It was a life pitched on a lower note,like the shade of Shillong’s dusk,between grey and blue,the colour of a reverie. But the texture of their lives was unmistakably of this city,the white lace curtains that fringed the windows,the teer shops at which people gambled small amounts in the hope of fortune,the love for kwai and paan,the disdain for hot,dusty places and a rhythm of life formed by a lifetime of climbing its sloping roads.

It was not an idyll meant to be. Shillong was built,and appropriated by outsiders,and after Independence,the native tribals found themselves cut out of jobs and positions of power. After the state was formed in 1972,the resentment of the native Khasis grew against other communities,and was exploited by politicians. A few years later,a law made it illegal for non-tribal residents to buy land. The riots of 1979,1987 and 1992,which targeted Bengalis,Biharis and Nepalis among others,sharpened the division between the Khasi and the dkhar,the term used dismissively of other communities. The violence was followed by an exodus,which continued through the 1980s and 1990s. My memories are of schooldays abruptly cut short by panic,enforced blackouts,stones raining on our tin roof,a town under curfew,a child’s inappropriate sense of happiness at the suspension of normal life.

No one has forgotten those days,even through the last two relatively peaceful decades,making the “outsiders” less sure-footed on its streets. Never an economically or politically powerful community,the Bengalis chose to uproot themselves for shrunken lives in smoky,soot-laden Calcutta,where the angularities of their language,and their small-town ways turned them into outsiders again. “But,at least,” said one of my aunts,among many people who made that choice,“we are not second-class citizens here. We are not dkhars.”

As if to question the optimism with which my parents have chosen to disregard such voices,the tide seems to have turned. The xenophobia that is marshalled periodically to reap votes is opportune again. The new demand is for an Inner Line Permit to enter Meghalaya,to stem the “influx” of people — from Northeastern states as well as the rest of the country. Two people have already died in the violence in the last few weeks — one was a Marwari businessman,who died of burn injuries from a petrol bomb hurled in his shop in Bara Bazaar.

That we would lose Shillong is a fact we have grown up with; each visit home is shot with that awareness. For displaced people,it’s the remorseless fact of landlessness that is the final push. It is not feasible to live on rent forever,my parents remind me. Others have made that journey before. Though there has been no greater fortune than to have been born here and experienced the grace of its life,to have returned to its sanctuary every year,my claim on it is tenuous — we were here and we were touched by its beauty; that is all there is. It was never going to be enough.

It seems difficult to believe that I once wanted to leave this town; that ambition had spurred me to find a life outside. When I first left it for Calcutta,the vision of my home would seize me at the oddest times. In the midst of crossing a street,a whiff of pine. During a conversation with friends,the memory of cherry blossoms. Those glimpses have dimmed but bits and pieces of the city are afloat in me,they find me all the time.

When I go home,I go on walks,taking stock of the gashes on the landscape of my childhood,an ugly castle obscuring the sky,the thinning line of conifers. But there is so much that remains,the road that dips and bends and seems to bring the sky closer before veering away again — the stone slab where I had my first cigarette,where my best friend and I chatted away about school crushes,watched over by a lonely,leafless tree,which remains like a sharpened pencil someone has forgotten to use. I walk,I walk,claiming the sky,the pines,and the jacaranda — heedless of what is to come.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” I carry it within me.

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