79 to Corona – a Poem

1979 was the first major ethnic conflict in Meghalaya. Said to have started on the day of Kali puja idol immersion in Shillong, clashes between mostly Bengali residents and Khasi Community made public the simmering historical tensions in the community life of Shillong. Many middle-class Bengali residents left Meghalaya after the tragic incidents of 1979. Almond Syiem remembers 1979 lockdown in the locked down Corona times.

Daily we gulped down the alcoholic news
of roasted cars and brutalised bodies, fleeing
families and flimsy appeals for peace, curfew
reliefs, temporal windows for resupply, while

at home we gossiped about spilled blood
between endless games of scrabble, our tones
hushed lest the police patrolling sanitised streets
would hear and accuse us of plotting. That year,

with winter fast approaching with no sign
of school reopening, I learnt the vocabulary
of hate and placed my preadolescent signature
on a certificate that declared my neighbour

and friend, Abhijit, his family, had become
our enemy. So, we grew up drinking xenophobic
wine and transitioned seasons in communal stupor,
bullying Bengalis, questioning our Indianness,

cheering student heroes who defied chief ministers,
who called us back to reclaim our lost indigenous pride,
some whose skulls were cracked by rifle butts in
city sewers. Those were the days we walked perpetually

stoned on the marijuana of blaming the settlers
for all our problems, washed our parched throats
with the scotch of ethnocentric justification
to prevent our extinction, while curiously blind

to our own decadence, excusing our politicians
for their predictable theatre of well-rehearsed lies
and serpent-tongued promises. We forgave them
even when the forgotten villages were left to die,

even when countryside children sang no rhymes,
even when they shook their contaminated hands
with the merchants of agricultural death, who told
them to look the other way while they bludgeoned

the life out of our rustic cousins, crestfallen farmers,
whose songs of lamentation every harvest for wasted
cabbage and potatoes no one listen to. We live in a
strange land of imagined romance with the west,

single-parent homes in squalor, street children
with a bellyful of tricks selling religious pamphlets
and newspapers, rumours of men who would kill
for the midday-meals they cause to disappear

year after year. We lost a decade to a war fought
without an ideology, lost boys to the jungle, some
who never returned home, until one day we saw
the fugitive bootleggers of national pride emerge

from subterranean spaces to divulge true colours,
freely soaking in the illicit liquor of the aftermath
of a staged surrender. And we return once a while
to the ritualistic bashing of the outlander, high on

the cocaine of our cultural insecurity, dependent
on the drug of each other’s hypocrisy, content
with the sermons that do not change us. Here,
we hear rumours of landed churchmen leaving

miners to die in lucrative carbon-monoxide holes.
Here, we nail victims of a loathsome virus to the cross
of superstitious gossip and primitive cruelty. Here,
I saw true love in a homeless pimp caring for his

prostitute wife, covering her unattractive body
with the only shawl he had. Here, hope perhaps
has not completely abandoned us. While we
were busy overdosing on mutual pontification

over social media, an invisible teacher again
stepped outside the geography of her expected
school duties to prepare underfed city children
for a future they would otherwise not have, a

nameless couple nurtures the daughter they
once embraced from trafficked streets to give her
a real home, a community confronted by its own
inhumanity begins to self-examine, repent, hopefully.

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Almond Syiem Written by:

Almond Syiem is passionate about poetry, songwriting, jazz and Jesus whom he has been following for two decades in weakness, mostly.. His works have appeared in several journals and magazines including Indian Literature and The New Welsh Review. He recently brought out an e-book, Sleepless which showcases a few of his poems set to stunning photography by Tim Wallis.

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