This is something I wished I never had to write about. But somehow I am compelled after reading the editorial in The Shillong Times regarding the nuisance created by street-hawkers in Shillong. My mother used to be one of them. That was many years ago, while I was in high school. And it made me wonder if my mother was a nuisance to the beautiful and sanitized Shillong, people love to portray. How does Shillong look like from below, from the margins, from the fringes of society? Marginal on the basis of community, class and even neighbourhood.
Growing up in Shillong, as migrants from another north-eastern state, as children of parents with no stable income, we (we were a community in itself) took things by stride, forged new friendships and bonded over many shared experiences.
We lived in a tiny two room house in Madanrting, on the outskirts of town. When we arrived, for a family of seven, all that my mother had with her was 20,000 rupees which she grasped in her hands, neatly rolled and tied with a rubber band. It soon got over with the rent payment, buying utensils and other necessities to start a new life. That was early 1998. Our first house, owned by a Hmar family, did not even have a door for the toilet. And the next room was our kitchen.
We soon moved to a new house owned by a kind Khasi landlady and lived there for many years. It was damp, and water would sometimes seep through the walls but we were happy. We found a kind person who would not throw us out when we we couldn’t pay the rent on time. Sometimes that would last for six months or more.
It was a struggle trying to make both ends meet and trying to fit in between community and class. My mother took to selling eatables and bed-sheets/blankets/etc that came in from the Indo-Myanmar border town of Moreh. It was hardly enough to sustain the family. She had to complement it with selling seasonal vegetables and fruits. I remember being woken up early mornings by mother and rushing to AluKudam (Alu Godown) bazaar in Mandarting to jostle and fight for the best pineapples, bananas, pumpkins, etc so we can sell them door to door.
While that was not enough, mother would sell local ice-creams on the streets (not ice-cream because there was no cream; more like sweetened-flavoured ice). She would sit with them in a blue container borrowed from a well-wisher outside schools. The preparation readied into plastic wrappings were kept to freeze in somebody’s fridge for which they charged about 25 percent of the cost of one ice-cream, which was one rupee then.
When my elder sister was in 7th standard, she asked for a dictionary to use. One day, my mother came home with a copy of Oxford English Pocket Dictionary. It cost Rs 115. She told us that she sold Moreh eatables worth exactly that amount that day. Tears of joy flowed from our eyes that evening. I can never forget the look on my mother’s face that night, recounting our old house and the large-sized, unused dictionaries we used to have.
An old high school friend of my mother offered us their old fridge so we could avoid paying the cost of making ice-creams in other people’s house. My father declined. So much for male pride and ego. But he contended that we borrow nothing from others. Maybe he didn’t realise we lived on borrowed money. Then the family suggested a way to help us. We were to wash their clothes once a week for which they would pay us. To father, that was honourable. My sister and I would go to their house on Friday evenings to collect their clothes. They would keep a packet of detergent always with the bundle for us to use. The next day, my sister and I would take them near Brown Gate of the Assam Regiment Centre (ARC), and wash them near the stream. Friends would come and ask to play football or cricket with them. My reply always was a lie: “I am not in the mood to play. You guys go ahead.”
It was also nearby that along with a relative who had come for army recruitment, we stole some bamboo-shoots from a compound fencing. We thought we would sell them in the market. The landlady saw us and shouted so loud that we ran all the way up to the main road. I don’t remember what happened to the loot.
Father used to drink daily (he has stopped now) and required his meat. Mother would cook meat just for him – just one pava. He stayed at home did the household chores while mother was out on the streets. An ex-armyman, despite his alcohol, he too had to go through a lot to adapt to the circumstances. Just having a father also prevented us from being exploited, gave us pride and made us feel secure and safe.
The local bakeries in Shillong used to sell butter biscuit which quite opposed to its name, contained no butter. It used to cost a rupee for four biscuits. Our after school snacks included three biscuits and red tea. It was not so bad. We never got to drink milk for about five years. Meals were always one pava of daal boiled with lots of water, rice and some chilli chutney. I used to hate winter seasons when hordes of monkey-beans would arrive. Because mother was selling them, she would make sure the older ones found their way into our kitchen. Sometimes we would eat just that – for all meals – for a week. She would make monkey-bean chutney, fry and unleash all her creativity in the kitchen to make us eat.
But mother and her friends had the loudest laughter in the neighbourhood over silly jokes and failed conversations in Hindi and Khasi while doing their business. When old friends refused to notice you anymore, you get to make new friendships, new bonding over shared experiences.
There used to be a petite white guy married to a local Khasi lady who ran a small eatery close to the fake CMS University building in Laitumkhrah. We used to supply packed goldfinger papad to him which he sold to school children. He was a kind man.
What I hated the most was buying things from the local shop and asking for baaki. Only one shop which didn’t have much customer allowed us to buy in debt. I would dread it when forced to go get something without being given the money for it.
Friends and school
We were not alone. There were other families too with us, many of them less fortunate than us. Some of them without a father. Some illiterate parents. But we bonded over many things – playing cricket, football and roaming aimlessly on weekends.
A friend, K, once brought 500 rupees to school. We went to a Chinese restaurant opposite Yalana Hotel for everyday after school until we spent all the money. Years later, when I thought about it, I have a feeling he stole the money from his family. He joined the army when we were in 9th standard. He was living with his uncle and found it very difficult to adjust.
We would enter small, local one-day cricket tournaments with an entry of 50 rupees and first prize of 200 rupees. When we won such tournaments, the prize money was equally shared by all members. However, such tournaments were dependent on finding suitable playing grounds which were becoming more difficult. With no hope for grounds like Fire Brigade or any such fancy places, we would search far and wide for empty spaces to play our games.
Once, K and few other friends went to the scrap-dealer’s yard at around 3 am in the morning, entered from the back fencing and stole some aluminium scraps (they were the most valuable items there). The next day, they went and sold the same wares to the dealer for a hefty price. It funded us to buy a new football for our team. On more than one occasion, we borrowed the water carrier from the local water supplier and sold spring water to a few households to enable us to enter some bigger tournaments. We’d ride down on the carrier to Demthring, fetch water and push it back to sell them.
Being non-Khasi, there were times we were denied the use of public spaces like the basketball court at St Peter’s School (Madanrting) or the football field. Perhaps, it was because we were just not ‘them’, not necessarily because we were non-Khasi. It was not the management or administration which denied us the permission, but often those wanting to use or already using the grounds.
When you don’t have money, even church can become very unforgiving. After church, all the kids would go on a ride on their father’s scooters or bikes. I would go home and read some magazines or books my sister borrowed from her friends. It was mostly Femina, Cosmopolitan or a Sweet Valley High or sometimes a Sidney Sheldon.
It was always fun going to school. We would wait only for the Shillong buses – the ones with local made bodies – because they had two doors. We would enter from one door, get down at the next from the other, and climb again from the door we entered. This way we avoided being caught by the bus conductor and save one rupee from a journey. The money was then used to buy cigarettes occasionally. The smarter ones would save them up and buy something at the end of the year. There were not many of them.
At school, we would have our own gang. Unwilling to get into trouble with the Khasi boys in an all boys school, we deployed all kinds of tactics to survive. We made friends with them by buying them cigarettes or just trying to be in their good books. In the rilvalry between Mawlai boys and Laitumkhrah-Nonthymmai boys, we found closer friends and security in the latter. I had a relative who was a well known ‘good fighter’ everyone knew about and whom even Khasis would ask for help to fight for them in their rivalries. I was largely protected because of him. Many others were not as lucky.
We knew we were not likable. We were not the well dressed, disciplined students from good families. Our white uniforms were never from Lila Bros or the tailor. They were from Sunday second-hand clothes market at Iewduh or the overhead bridge. We were not the boys with good habits and packed lunches, who were dropped and picked up from school or took taxis. To add to the list, were not even particularly good in studies nor excelled in any field. We were trouble-makers. We must have been a nuisance. But we somehow made it. Most of us finished school.
My mother, the street hawker, seldom used public transportation those days. She would walk from Mandarting to every corner of Shillong with her goods. She knows every shortcut by-heart. Now, when we visit certain parts of Shillong like NEHU road, or Motphran or Rynjah she would point out many tiny kong shops and say she used to supply Moreh eatables to them.
We were never the invited.
It is clear that Shillong doesn’t need us. We needed Shillong. Shillong loves students from other states and government officials posted in the city. They are welcomed. They contribute to the economy, to the poster of Shillong as an educational hub, cosmopolitan and vibrant. Families like ours don’t fall into that category.
Nobody likes to be a street-hawker forever. In fact, nobody wants to be a street-hawker to feed their children or even for themselves. Now, if the elites of Shillong can please tidy up their excessive garbage output to the Umshrypi and Wahumkhrah rivers, and bear with us so they can walk on the footpaths more comfortably, many dreams and lives can be shaped.
My mother runs a small shop now. It was quite a task in itself getting all the necessary permissions from the local dorbar shnong who changes with every election, and each of them to be bribed. Today, I study in London on an UK government global scholarship programme. And I am thankful to Shillong for where I am now. My mother was once a street-hawker.