18 years ago impecunious hindi journalist Anil Yadav and his friend Anhes Shashwat made a trip to the region. With no money, no funding, no contacts and no touristy romanticism clouding his mainland head, Anil Yadav was confronted with the frontier surrealism of India’s North East. The book he wrote “Woh Bhi Koi Des Hai, Maharaj!” has become an all time classic of Hindi travel literature. Now finally for the derivative world of English, it has been translated by Anurag Basnet as, Is That Even A Country, Sir!: Journeys in Northeast India by Train, Bus and Tractor and published by Speaking Tiger Books. Buy the book as they say.
It was the fifth day of the new year. In the afternoon, Yakku looked out of the window of his taxi and shouted, “Mr Writer, happy new year has happened in Dhankheti!” A little joy was also mixed in his voice.
The neighbourhood of Malki-Dhankheti was about 200 or 250 metres on the slope above, on the road which goes on to join the national highway. When we ran up, we saw police standing in front of Aristo, Shillong’s largest store for electronic gadgets. An ambulance was about to carry away three corpses. A small crowd of people was peering in through the windows and seeing them for the last time.
One of the dead bodies had a shock of curly hair which was wet –the man had been shot in the head. The shops nearby didn’t shut down, no one seemed shocked, the police did not stop traffic, and no one was searched. The young Nepali boy who worked as a cleaner in Aristo was saying that that of the five boys of the HNLC who had shot up the store with AK-47s, two had been barefoot.
Three store employees (two Bengalis, one Nepali), one customer and one kwai-vendor on the street outside had died. The customer, Jonas, was a student at Delhi University. Home for Christmas holidays, he had been buying a cellphone when the firing began.
On the other side of the police cordon the floor was sticky with blood. In the mess were a few red shoeprints, and the stench of gunpowder and charred flesh hung about the store. The employees were looking on at everything with stony eyes but were seeing nothing. The backrests of two chairs behind the counter were sieved with gunshots. One bullet had pierced the tinted window of the shop, exited on to the street outside where the kwai-vendor was.
In one corner of a wicker chair, I came across a large quantity of congealed blood.
This was where Jonas had fallen. Opposite the chair stood two new televisions with their backs to it; slivers of flesh were stuck to the perforations on the television-backs. There were two large pools of blood on the floor, which had been covered by advertising banners. Suraj, the photographer working for Meghalaya Guardian, was inside. When I shook hands with him I could feel him shiver.
Shashwat tried to avoid the blood by climbing on to a pile of advertising banners but leapt backwards and stood gazing as if there were a deep pool in which he was drowning. Underneath the banners lay the body of the Nepali employee, which the ambulance was going to take to the mortuary on its next trip. The man’s arms were strangely twisted, as if he had been trying to fly to avoid the bullets. A policeman started towards Shashwat who abruptly turned away and hurried out.
Outside, the incident was steadily acquiring new versions. Some Khasi boys were saying, “The rifles were shining in the sunlight and, before leaving, the assailants flashed a V for victory sign.” But it was an extremely cold day, blanketed with fog.
Gautam Bhattacharya, the owner of Aristo, who is counted among the ten richest businessmen in Shillong, was standing in a corner like a terrified child. Two years earlier, the HNLC had killed his younger brother in a similar incident. Upon his face was a salty layer of ash. I repeated “This is terrible!” three times before he responded in a faint voice, “If the police hadn’t meddled, three of my personnel and two customers wouldn’t have been killed.”
This massacre hadn’t been carried out to protest Indian imperialism, or to bring the demand for a separate state to the prime minister’s notice. It had been done only – only! – to extort money.
The militants had sent a demand notice to store-owners before Christmas like they did in all the other years. As always, the police knew but, this time, for reasons unknown, they had decided to take action. Notices were recovered from thirteen such businessmen. The drunk young boy who was going around distributing the notices was arrested, beaten mercilessly and sent to jail.
The police then sent news of the extortion, along with a list of the stores targeted, to newspapers and news channels. A CRPF company was stationed in Dhankheti for the protection of the storekeepers. The massacre had happened a day after the CRPF company had left.
At the press briefing that evening, the police superintendent of East Khasi Hills, GHP Raju, claimed that the police had information about the boys involved in the “action”. He said: “The faction of the HNLC headed by its chairman Julius Dorphang wants to extort without violence. This action is the handiwork of the more ambitious Bobby Marwein faction.”
He also gave out the information that extorted money was being used by the militant leaders to add to their personal property.
They have farmhouses in Ri Bhoi, he said, and coal mines in Lad Rymbai in Jaintia Hills. The militants lend money on interest to the very businesspeople from whom they extort, he claimed, and many big businessmen are themselves custodians of the militants’ money.
The police superintendent had his eyes on the coincidence that two Khasi youth died that day in the action. He was using that delicate matter to play politics. If there was information about the murderers, what was being done to bring them to book? In reply, he made a politician’s appeal: “The Khasi community must itself decide if it wants to continue living alongside the snakes who have killed their own brothers.” The government’s response to the massacre arrived that same evening: The HNLC may be a banned organisation but the doors of dialogue still remain open.
While it is common for bullet-riddled bodies to be found on the streets of Shillong and for there to be no reaction to them, the atmosphere in town had completely changed by the following morning. Black flags flew atop houses in Dhankheti. At the church service after the slain Khasi youth were buried, the headman of the Malki area, HP Offlyn Dohling called the HNLC “U Thlen” and demanded an explanation for the bloodbath. Two days later, eight women’s organisations marched on the streets and demanded what it was that gave the HNLC a share of the people’s hard-earned money. Speaking at a massive gathering, the women said, “They are criminals and robbers; they should either surrender or prepare for consequences.”
The women also regretted an old incident in which they had supported the HNLC. The HNLC had held up an all-women branch of the State Bank of India. But, before the militants could vanish with the loot, the employees of the branch had demanded a song from the film Kaho Na Pyar Hai. The boys had all lined up like obedient children, sung the chorus from “Kaho na pyar hai” and, saying “bye bye sisters”, had left.
The syiems also issued statements that they rejected the support of the HNLC in their struggle to have the monarchical system reinstated. The march of the women’s organisations put the HNLC under pressure. It apologised for the deaths of the two Khasi boys but branded the three murdered dkhars as criminals whom they had been duty-bound to punish. In the following week, these words appeared on walls in the city: “Don’t simply talk about extortion, oppose it”. Then, a police outpost was attacked and four policemen were killed.
Only two men dared to rise above the blind tribalism of that time. Almond D Syiem of the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) said: “This unrest after the death of two boys only proves that the Khasi listen to the voice of their conscience when it suits them and remain deaf to it when it does not.”
“The HNLC should come to the site of the massacre, to where blood was spilled, and try to separate the blood of the Khasi and the dkhar.’ This was said by Robert D Lyngdoh, an MLA from Shillong.
At the office of the Meghalaya Guardian, Suraj was made fun of for having been scared. At the evening drinking session he was asked, “Do you see, son, how it feels to be a dkhar in Meghalaya?”
Back in the guesthouse, Shashwat asked me, “Tell me, why are we still here?”
I stayed silent. What his question actually meant was: Are we here to count corpses and be traumatised on a daily basis?
Abuse that had long been held back was on its way. The torrent would break upon me at any moment. Yet, abuse was better than silence.
I said, “For a workout of our sensitivities.” But, instead of abusing me, Shashwat became grave.
‘But think, they had been alive only half an hour earlier. Showing calculators and mobiles to customers.’
A few nights after the massacre in Aristo I was half-asleep when I heard the four ancient mantras which had vanished soon after the beginning of our journeys in the Northeast. They were:
William the sain sain
Sain-a sain-a wa haré
It must have been past midnight. The lamp was at half-light. Shashwat was pacing the room whispering these mantras one by one, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He would pace, stop to laugh, and pace again, chanting. This was an old trick which he would use to snap out of gloom and despondency. Whenever Shashwat would drown within himself, his mind, following preset strategy, would drag those incidents from the depths of his memories which would take him to completely opposite states of mind from those he was in, and cheer him up. This soul- struggle was an infallible technique of his but someone unfamiliar with it could ascribe it to madness. Shashwat’s method was often successful but could be dangerous if it went on for too long.
These mantras had been born out of lengthy observations of two families in the Bairahana locality of Allahabad. Shashwat lived there when he was preparing to take the entrance examination for the civil services. The first family was secretive, and must have been experts at clandestine activities. The members of that family would always speak to each other in low voices. A third person listening in to their conversations might understand the sighing of the breeze but what they were saying to each other would remain incomprehensible to him. The head of that family had been given the name ‘William the sain sain’— William the Whisperer. And so the entire family was quickly christened ‘Sain-a Sain-a wa haré’ in the typical Avadhi dialect of Allahabad. The head of another family in that same locality was a thin, dry, sucked-out sort of a man. Children would tease him with the name ‘Churri’. His son, though well-fed and healthy, was fated to become the ‘Chur-kid’.
I tried to distract Shashwat. ‘This is why I say you should drink a peg or two before sleeping. See, take an average, the number of people dying at the hands of these terrorists in one year must be the same as those dying in traffic accidents in Delhi in one month.’
‘But think, they had been alive only half an hour earlier. Showing calculators and mobiles to customers.’
Recreating the past was another of Shashwat’s bad habits. Walking around ruins or historical sites, he would often stop. Stand still and ruminate. ‘Imagine—this must have been the sitting area, that is where the hookah might have been placed, there the sentry would have stood, the children would play here, and there, all sorts of delicacies would be cooked.’ He loved history, did Shashwat, but his nature was such that instead of learning lessons from the past he would try to transport himself there and live it.
‘In the same way our bodies will lie, the world will trundle on.’
‘Whose, yours or mine?’
‘You sleep. Don’t worry about me. I was only saying…’ The depressed bear crawled all over the walls once more.
The bear’s blood pressure might plunge. Or it might not. Who knew?
‘Don’t you know this is Mawlai’
… Shashwat proposed that Shillong should be properly seen. We took an overbridge to the right of Police Bazaar and walked past colony after colony of houses, engrossed in talk. Shashwat would occasionally stop and point at a house. ‘Look, the dwelling of a refined, civilized man.’ Two hours later we climbed down a steep slope and reached a densely populated locality, exceedingly filthy and poverty-stricken.
A big drain was flowing underneath a bridge. A bedraggled puppy was fighting for its life in the freezing water. A group of Khasi children lay in ambush on one side of the drain; each time the puppy would be ready to clamber out they would push it back in with a piece of wood. When the filth-smeared puppy would yowl in agony, the children would scream in excitement. A slit- eyed old man, leaning on the railing of the bridge above, was smiling, lost in this game. The children’s joy rode up to him upon the whines of the dying puppy. This scene, the cruel future of the tribal communities, was what must have shocked Shashwat. He ran down to the drain. ‘Hey… Hey… Let it go… Let it go… Why are you killing it?’
Even after Shashwat became gainfully employed he would regularly bring home a whelp off the streets each winter. They would all receive the same name: ‘Lumdigdig’. The puppies’ exploits would be conveyed to us with the same passion with which the blind poet Surdas wrote this line about the child Lord Krishna: ‘At times he closes his eyes, at time his lips flutter.’ Shashwat would play with the puppies, nose to wet nose; if they fell ill he would take the day off and look after them; if they died, he would mourn them.
The children paid him no attention. Shashwat looked up at the old man. The man said something to the children in their language and they ran off. The puppy, trembling and unsteady on its legs, followed.
Having walked some distance we came upon a general store. Its minder dozing inside. He asked, ‘Are you outsiders… Get out, quick! The boys here are dangerous. Don’t you know this is Mawlai?’ Fear could be sensed in his voice.
Fifteen minutes later we were sitting in a teashop where a primary-school teacher gave us the lowdown. ‘See, even the city folk fear Mawlai but cannot avoid it; the cemetery is here. Julius Dophrang’s house is in Mawlai and most boys in the HNLC are from these parts. Guns go off the night before every anti-government agitation. Dkhars often turn up dead in the surrounding drains and forests. My relatives rarely visit; you see, music systems are lifted from parked cars. Gang wars take place. Local heroes spring up overnight and die overnight. And the police stay away.’
Before we could decide what to do next the schoolteacher hailed a taxi and practically pushed us in. We hadn’t even finished our tea. He was a self-appointed public relations officer for Mawlai terror, that man. Back in the guesthouse Yakku said, ‘No taxi-driver goes in Mawlai though his bladder may burst. His car will vanish as he pisses.’
Later, the traditional king of Shillong, Loborious Manik S. Syiem said to me, ‘Mawlai is a different public but every city has its own Mawlai.’