Once upon a time…

A book that I like to read time and again, specially in these troubled times, is Rahul Pandita’s “Our moon has blood clots”.Browsing through this memoir of emotional turmoil in strife torn Kashmir took me to disturbed times in my hometown,Shillong.

The year was 1979 ; it was the month of November. Although I cannot recall the exact date, I do remember that something happened on that day which changed our lives forever.For the first time in our lives we heard words like “outsider”, “non-tribal”, “curfew” – words which made the air heavy with hatred , animosity , confusion and uncertainty.

Schools had shut down, final exams were cancelled (We were in class 8 then ) and only ICSE examinees reached school amid heavy security . Curfew was imposed in the city and there was tension all around. The desecration of an idol of Goddess Kali in the Laitumkhrah locality was apparently what triggered incidents of violence. Cocooned in the confines of our homes, we could fathom little of what was happening in the town. Our teenage minds could hardly understand the reason behind this sudden outbreak of violence and we thought naively that our idyllic days of yore would soon be back.

With the imposition of curfew, a new phase began in our lives. Our peaceful tranquil life, bordering on somnolence, suddenly became turbulent. Arson, murders , looting seemed to have become the order of the day if newspaper reports were to be believed . Yet, we were able to brush aside everything and spend the days doing nothing except play,chat and listen to music. We could not go out for days on end and there were standing instructions from Baba- don’t leave the house without tuning in to the regional news broadcast on AIR Shillong every morning at 8.25. It seemed that our lives were guided by the sinister sounding updates given by Esther Booth and June Pariat !!

Shillong returned to normal in a couple of months but certain things had changed forever.Although our roots in Shillong could be traced back to the middle of the 19th century when my great grandfather was born, we, the non tribals were referred to as foreigners or “dkhars” – but how could we be called foreigners when Shillong had been our home for four generations ? My great grandfather, Kailash Chandra Das, was among the prominent members of the Bengali community which settled in the locality of Laban. It was he who took the initiative to bring Swami Vivekanda to our house in Laban in 1901 (https://www.assamtimes.org/node/10815) . My grandfather Sudha Sindhu Roy, born in 1894 in Shillong was a sportsman par excellence and was one of the founder members of the undivided Assam Football Association. He was also instrumental in forming the Assam Cricket Association on 30th November 1947 and became one of its founder secretaries. (http://www.assamcricket.com/history)

Swami Vivekananda at our Laban house in 1901.
My grandfather,(in the second row, left hand corner ) with the victorious Town Club team.

The hill station, established in 1874 as the Head Quarter of Assam Province, was born as a cosmopolitan town because the British needed occupation specific communities to run the administration. Bengalis had been making Shillong their home for centuries- via Assam in the North and from Bangladesh in the South. To the Bengali, mostly in colonial government service,the town’s appeal lay in its wonderful difference from the plains and he gladly made himself comfortable in his cozy wattle and daub house amidst the rolling hills and tall pines.

The disturbances of 1979 resulted in an exodus of non tribals from Meghalaya to other states of India, primarily West Bengal. Amidst all this darkness however, I must say that I was lucky that none of this bitterness and animosity could affect our relationship with tribal friends and acquaintances with whom we had grown up. That we could rise above narrow parochial feelings certainly had something to do with our Catholic upbringing in Loreto Convent, Shillong.

For the next eight years, life was normal and disturbances were few and far between. However communalism raised its ugly head again in 1987. I was then a Masters’ student at NEHU. The beautiful Mayurbhanj campus of the University (which now houses IIM,Shillong) with its erudite professors gave us delightful experiences.No sooner had I begun to revel in its wonderful ambience than trouble erupted and matters became so serious that the University shut down for what seemed like an eternity.

The final nail in the coffin was an incident which took place on the 13th October, 1987. I remember the date because it was the day the legendary singer, Kishore Kumar passed away. Chitrahar – the ever popular programme on Hindi film songs was airing popular songs of the great singer. My mother and I, in spite of an imposed blackout by a powerful student union, continued to watch the programme. Minutes later, a flurry of stones pelted on our glass window panes shattered not only the silence of the night but instilled in us an unspeakable fear. A day later, there was an attempt by miscreants to set fire to our electric meter box. That was indeed the last straw.

The next morning when Baba came from Guwahati, there was a strange firmness in his voice as he spoke of leaving Shillong and moving to a place where we would not have to live in fear and panic. Not in his wildest dreams did Baba think he would one day have to leave his home and hearth and become a refugee in his own land. There was no other place we could call ‘home’ and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we felt dispossessed, displaced, homeless and uprooted.No matter how many words I use to describe our plight, nothing can truly express how traumatized we were.

On a cold December morning when we were leaving Shillong for good, fighting hard to hold back tears, we were not just leaving a city to move to another one,we were extricating ourselves from a labyrinth of emotions,ties and bonds.

It has been a little more than 30 years since we moved to Kolkata but I wonder if we have been able to loosen or disentangle ourselves from the ties which bind us to the pretty little town we still call home.

The Shillong of my childhood is gone forever but I still pine for its pine trees, church peals in the evening, the azure blue sky and even the ‘angtha’ lit with charcoal, holding its fort in the middle of a room….Thankfully , there’s a new word that I have learnt – “hiraeth”, that aptly describes this longing. It is a Welsh concept( Isn’t it interesting that Shillong and Wales also have an indelible connect) and means, quite simply, a kind of homesickness, nostalgia and yearning for a home that one cannot return to. So if you find yourself pining for Shillong, at least you’ll know how to describe the feeling !

7 thoughts on “Once upon a time…

  1. Truly fabulous write up . Captures the essence of our lives who lived in ‘those times’….


  2. I appreciate your initiative very much from the core of my heart. It would have been better if the share option was open.
    Congratulations and Best Wishes.


    1. Thank you very much for your feedback. I have enabled the share buttons.I want more and more people from Shillong to go through it and let me know their views.


  3. Very well written. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I was reading. I too could recall some of my bitter experiences. Yes I too miss Shillong since it is my birthplace. All the childhood memories came alive reading this article of yours. Thank you very much. Be safe and take care.


  4. Reblogged this on Seasons of Life! and commented:
    My previous post was on my hometown, Shillong, described in the context of Hindu Sylheti Bengalis – the community that has been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam, more than seven decades ago. It’s a tragedy that most of my fellow countrymen don’t know about. I had mentioned that I would share few stories written by other bloggers. These are my stories. Stories that I would have told. My aim is just to raise awareness about this marginalized community through these posts.

    Today I share Sharmistha’s story. Her story reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s family. They lived in Shillong for generations. My grandmother and her siblings were born and brought up in Shillong. Every single person from that family has now moved out of Shillong. The last member left just 2 years ago.

    Sharmistha writes, “Not in his wildest dreams did Baba think he would one day have to leave his home and hearth and become a refugee in his own land. There was no other place we could call ‘home’ and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we felt dispossessed, displaced, homeless and uprooted. No matter how many words I use to describe our plight, nothing can truly express how traumatized we were.”
    Read on….


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