The riots, curfews, and flag marches in parts of Shillong earlier this summer — following the clashes between the Khasis and the residents of the Punjabi dominated Harijan colony — brought back memories of strife to many residents and former residents of the hilly town.
Following the events as they unfolded in Meghalaya’s capital from his Bangalore home, author Nilanjan Choudhury did not fail to see the irony. In fact, he had just wrapped up his own ode to the town – 248 pages bound together to tell a coming-of-age tale called Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear, published by Speaking Tiger.
“It was almost like life imitating art. I thought we left those days behind us. Maybe we have, but they always come back in different shapes and forms,” says the author, who has already published two books.
Shillong Times is a work of fiction that charts a conflict-ridden chapter of the town’s history, the tumultuous 1987 riots, and its aftermath, through the eyes of three young protagonists – Debojit Dutta (Debu) and his friends Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh and Audrey Pariat. Choudhury was born and brought up in Shillong and he admits that it is his most personal work so far, injected with autobiographical elements.
Shillong in the late eighties was a bittersweet period for the author, filled with apprehension and adventure alike — memories that eventually made his novel. “Growing up, we often got unplanned school holidays because of the unrest. That gave you the freedom to meet other people and move beyond your usual social circles. In the novel, this period is where the friendship of the main character (Debu) with an older Khasi boy (Clint) develops,” says Choudhury.
During those days, Choudhury’s father, too, was roughed up a couple of times. “And this is explored in the book. I used to fear about his safety and a lot of those memories have found their way in the story,” he says.
The backdrop of the story refers to a period of ethnic tension between the Khasis and the non-tribal residents that started in 1979 and flared up sporadically but violently across the following decade.
But perhaps a key takeaway — from the book, and from Choudhury’s childhood too — is that despite it all, it was a happy time. “The situation compelled us to seek out the little joys of life despite the overall backdrop of tension and fear,” says Choudhury, adding that there is “a lot of my father in the story – people who saw the conflict as a tragedy and did not react politically, but personally.”
The real impact of most political events are personal. And Choudhury does well to highlight this. “The character of Clint Eastwood is based on my friend. Unfortunately, he died some years ago. In a sense, he (Clint) is the theme of the book. The Shillong agitation of 1987 was also a moment of sad realisation for many non-tribal families who lived there during the time,” he says. Following the unrest, over the years, generations of Bengalis moved out of Meghalaya. However, Choudhury’s family did not. Today, while he has no family left in Shillong, the author makes frequent trips to meet his friends.
The book acknowledges these emotions through the perspectives of the teenage characters. “The book is about people who considered themselves as belonging to the place and almost overnight became aliens. But at the core of the novel is the story of friendship; it touches upon the ability of children to transcend identities. Children look at people as just people as opposed to being representatives of some community.”
Shillong Times may have been based on the author’s memories but it also involved a fair bit of research, including old news articles and other sources. “My father used to keep a file of newspaper cuttings and things like that which covered that period,” he says.
The book is also releasing at a time when race and ethnicity have taken centre stage in discussions across Meghalaya. “The concept of racial purity has been a longstanding issue and my book touches upon it. The character of Audrey plays a role there, along with Debu. You can imagine the plight of a teenage boy who likes a Khasi girl but has to be careful about talking to her in those troubled times.”
Apart from the socio-political backdrop, the culture of Shillong is an important part of the plot. Choudhury wants to immerse readers in the Shillong he grew up in – that of a hill station still steeped in nature and simplicity. “The book is a personal history but not just about people, but also about the lifestyle. I have tried my best to evoke the Shillong that I think does not exist anymore. It is about the hills, the forests, the trees, the cats, cottages, flowers, and butterflies, the absolutely clean air, the blue skies, and the empty roads.”
Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear was published by Speaking Tiger Books in September 2018.