Nilanjan P. Choudhury’s novel Shillong Times takes us back to the good old days and the bad old days. As they say, the best of times and the worst of times; a Jacob’s ladder when it was still a rickety, lonely lane full of terrors, Smit buses that you had to keep a date with, an unclogged Laitumkhrah, Naughty Boy shoes, Capstan cigarettes, a plate of Delhi Mistan jalebis for 12 bucks and of course, Kalsang Restaurant.
The year is 1987 –hate boys were chasing terrified Bengalis down darkly lit lanes and girls in school uniforms would join their male friends in Kalsang Restaurant for a drink (were the times really that liberal?). Apparently also, Pink Floyd and The Eagles were what the kids of ’87 preferred as their ‘devil’s music’ of choice. A young Bengali boy came of age at this time and the novel looks at the Shillong of that era through his eyes. The young boy, Debojit (Debu), is a sensitive kid and generally tries his best. He has a kind, liberal father and a somewhat domineering mother but all is well in the Upper Jail Road home where he grows up – that is until, he is saved by a Smit bus from some boys who merrily chase him all the way down Jacob’s ladder to the AIR vicinity for a licking.
The novel begins to paint a picture of the trouble brewing at this point and Debu recollects the worried conversations of elders about the tension building in the city; the name calling, the formation of cultural barriers, the perception of one’s otherness and the ghosts of the 1979 communal riots. Hate was in the air again but yet to really enter people’s living rooms. So despite the unfortunate Jacob‘s ladder affair, Debu still goes home to a father who loves the city and who instils empathy for the place and its people in his son. Debu’s mother is more sceptical because of the not so distant 1979 riots and she is also less understanding of a people who eat pigs and cows – fish and the occasional mutton was as far as she’d venture. But despite the strong currents of hate outside, the Dutta household goes about its business; the father struggling to run a pharmacy but generally cool and leaving his son alone while the mother is a bit of a drag with her nagging, supposedly typical of Bengali women.
We are saved from this humdrum by some nice passages chronicling the family’s history, especially the poignant evocations of loss and longing for the old country, its rivers and plains. It’s a safe little world that’s about to be busted for Debu– both by his growing up pangs and the communal hatred that would erupt.
But there’s a plot to follow here and our protagonist has his ‘artist as a young man’ phase to go through. So it happens that Debu would befriend the Khasi bad boy, Clint at a tutor’s place and as it should, the world opens up for young Debu with the artistic Clint serving as his gateway drug to the real Shillong. So the ubiquitous Kalsang Restaurant becomes an abode of learning where Debu has his first swig of booze, falls in love and learns some strange names like Pink Floyd and The Eagles.
We follow Debu as he earns his bad boy stripes – puking in the family bathroom, flunking his exams and so on. All the while, the coals of communal disharmony are being stoked and the protagonists begin to question their place in the city. Walls are being painted ‘Khasi by Blood, Indian by Accident’ and the nefarious activities of the USF (United Students Federation) are on the rise. Bad boy Clint meanwhile continues to school the young Bengali on the ways of the teen world and even helps set up Debu in his star crossed romance with the cerebral Audrey.
While the two lovers pass through their awkward phase, the novels provides us with a discourse on the Shillong Bengali experience – one that comes through with pathos and a sci-fi analogy; ‘… space shuttles of Star Trek returning to the USS Enterprise…..’ (for Bengalis on the periphery and their relationship with Calcutta) and more movingly ‘……could become strangers in a strange land—eternal refugees—cursed forever to be called dkhars in a hundred different tongues’ (for the eternal immigrants that Shillong-Bengalis have become). These passages serve nicely to shed light on the complications and hierarchies of and within the pan-Bengali experience and also the emotional fragility wrought by the ‘…….Bongal Khedao’ (Banish the Bengalis) movements that were flaring up across the Northeast’.
Meanwhile, Debu’s romance with Audrey gets a kick-start when he and his harmonium are invited to a party at her place. The young man begins to plot his attendance at the said party by altogether side-stepping the approval of his parents but he needn’t have as the plot gets in his way and the events unfold. The rhetoric and graffitis of hate have now given place to direct action and an attack on the Sweeper’s colony and the desecration of Durga Puja idols set in motion the events that would eventually lead to the riots of ’87. The novel takes us through the black outs, the curfews and the fear and loathing that arose as the hatred intensified culminating in the (heart-breaking) transformation of Debu’s father into a khukri-wielding defender of his people.
In the midst of all this, Debu’s relationship with Clint too gets strained. The artistic, bad boy turns out to be the offspring of a rather hateful father – a locality headman and businessman with no interest in his son’s arty leanings and one who benefits from the Trading License extortion racket that crops up during the troubles. Debu questions Clint’s friendship with the USF and his father’s dubious activities leading to a showdown with his former guru. A disillusioned Debu finally accepts his parents’ plans for him to leave Shillong for the safer haven of the ‘mother ship’, Calcutta. But Audrey would not leave things that way and sets up a truce for Debu and Clint – an unfortunate idea that ends up with Debu kneeing Clint’s father in the ‘pelvic area’. Revenge was sought for this and Debu’s father would be the target. So, the denouement takes place at the Dutta pharmacy in Iewduh (Iewheh, in the novel) where Clint’s dad and his cowboys are doing a demolition job and about to gang-bang Debu’s father but for Clint stepping in and taking the bullet (a shovel, in the novel) on Dutta Senior’s behalf. Clint’s dramatic act of selflessness and courage apparently teaches the warring adults a lesson about the ‘Sins of the Fathers’ and a lot of introspection and self-recrimination follows. The epistolaric ending sees Debu in Calcutta, Clint recovering and the promise of resolution to the ill-fated romance of our two young lovers.
Let’s start with the positives – a novel about the Bengali experience in Shillong, especially during the troubles, is always welcome. The novel has some nice passages, as mentioned above, and some wit at times, for example ‘…..he transformed himself into an amalgam of Devdas and Descartes—a perpetually intoxicated mathematical genius, composed, in equal parts, of alcohol and algebra’, to describe Debu’s tutor, Professor Bose. Shyamlal Lahiri (though a caricature of Bengali bhadralok) does amuse, especially as the cause for Debu’s tryst with the harmonium. The novel’s treatment of the Sylhet-Calcutta divide imbibes it with an angle that will be new to Khasi readers while the episodes around the first TV in Upper Jail Road and the Bengali fish embargo during the troubles are well recounted. The loss of home or the lack of it, the longing and sorrow that emerges as a result and the plight of people who have suddenly become outsiders in a place they love can be felt throughout the novel and is movingly rendered in parts. But the novel also fails on many fronts. It surrenders too easily to stereotypes and it miserably fails to overcome the tropes that have become a bit tiresome in novels about Shillong.
Kalsang restaurant, quaint names (Clint Eastwood, John Wayne Lyngdoh) that occupy an unnecessary centrality and a lack of understanding of the Khasi milieu are major failings in this novel. Can anyone recall a Shillong novel without Kalsang restaurant in it? Places like it, I know, are meant to evoke a Shillong of a different time but it also ends up depicting a Shillong of a particular kind of experience and class, specifically a missionary school educated, ‘Laimu-centric’ ethos of writers whose experience and social interactions were limited to such places. This is also evident, when, the only Khasi articulation on the troubles comes from Audrey – an upwardly mobile, Khasi liberal who decries the goings-on as if they were an inconvenience on someone’s social calendar. Also what’s with the names? For every Clint Eastwood there is an Aiban or a plain old John in Shillong but these names, I suppose, lack the necessary novelistic appeal.
Stereotyping is also another bone of contention with this novel. To be fair to the writer, he stereotypes them all. Bengali women – nagging and domineering, as in Debu’s Mother and his aunt Phool Pishima; Khasi gender dynamics (again of a certain class) – as in strong, working class women supporting their good for nothing, alcoholic husbands; the rockin’ and rollin’ tribals with their Pink Floyds, Eagles and their early initiation into sex, booze and cigarettes, like bad boy Clint mentoring the wide-eyed Debu. (As an aside, did the bad kids of ’87 really listen to the Eagles? It must’ve been just those Edwardians and Loretta Convent ones). In this way, the writer’s cautious and politically correct approach ends up creating unmemorable, one dimensional characters and a plot that’s wafer thin and contrived. The writing too suffers, especially in its description of the troubles – here was a canvas to paint an inferno but it ends up sketching tinder.
In all, the novel fails to connect with the wider world of Shillong and its inhabitants and limits itself instead to Laitumkhrah, Police Bazaar and Upper Jail Road. It’s not surprising therefore, that when the novel ventures into other places it fails to understand them (unnecessarily menacing like Iewduh and Mawkhar or overtly romanticized like the Mawphlang Sacred Forest).
Unfortunately, Shillong Times belongs to a long line of novels now that just refuse or are incapable of engaging with a city that is – and has been for a quite a while – darker, meaner, more complex and more fascinating; one that does not fit easily into a simple, wistful sequencing of past events. It demands more. It deserves more.