Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear
By Chitra Ahanthem
Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury
Published by: Speaking Tiger
Fiction, 237 pages.
Rating: 4/5 stars
A delightful novel about growing up in Shillong in the 1980s – a time when political connections are required to get a phone connection, Bajaj Chetak scooters are status symbols and a grim faced lady named Salma Sultan reads the news every night on Doordarshan.
When fourteen-year-old Debojit Dutta meets the slightly older Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh in his maths tuition classes, he is wary of his cigarette-smoking, whisky-swilling ways. Besides, Debu has only recently escaped a bunch of local ruffians who wanted him to ‘go back home to Bangladesh’. But Debu is unable to resist being friends with Clint. For, in return for doing his maths homework, Clint introduces him to a completely new life: the heady charms of Kalsang, the Chinese restaurant forbidden by Debu’s mother; the revolutionary sounds of Pink Floyd; and most importantly, the coolest, prettiest girl in town—Audrey Pariat. Audrey loves maths and detective stories, just like Debu, and does not make him feel awkward or exotic. Together, the three of them look set to embark on many adventures. But when tensions between the Khasi and Bengali communities boil over, Shillong becomes a battlefield—old neighbours become outsiders and the limits of friendship are challenged.
With crackling energy, Nilanjan P. Choudhury immerses us in the tumultuous lives of Debu, his friends and his family, and their attempts to find love and belonging. Written with uncommon warmth, humour and a delightful evocation of place, Shillong Times is an exhilarating coming-of-age story—showing us how friendship can eclipse the hardened enmities of adulthood.
About the author:
Nilanjan P. Choudhury has earlier written a mythological thriller, a contemporary detective caper set in Bangalore and a pioneering play on the history and science of black holes. He grew up in Shillong and now lives in Bangalore with his family
I am often wary of reading books set in the North Eastern region of India as most writers end up making the region as sheer exotica or in a state of despair and beyond hope. But Nilanjan P. Choudhury’s ‘Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear’ is anything but depressing or about making the region exotic to readers. It is a book that is deeply insightful, at times playful, but mostly, written with a candour that will take readers on a nostalgia trip to the 80s but make it so relevant to contemporary times.
The narrative of the book set in 1987 moves through the eyes of 14 year old Debojit Dutta (Debu) who lives with his parents in Shillong. A small town, Shillong the capital of Meghalaya, is where socio cultural divides and political history binds the natives of the land to others who have come to look upon the place as their own. The ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ fissures: doubts and judgments over food habits, social norms and a common tendency of certain terms for each other lurks in the book rising its head off and on then ultimately, holds centerstage.
Debu is a third generation Bengali Indian whose grandfather had to flee Sylhet in the wake of the creation of Bangladesh and settle in Shillong. His parents are a mixed pair when it comes to their attitudes: the mother being dismissive of the Khasis and everything that they are while the father is more ‘liberal’. Debu is only a bit aware of the schism that exists between the Khasis and the other communities, but mostly the Bengalis.
The entry of Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh in his life brings more than its share of excitement and new things. Debu’s life is akin to every teenager: there are new discoveries, ones that his mother and slowly others begin to find fault with. There are forbidden worlds he enters, new tastes and then of course, there is Audrey Pariat, a girl like no other. When the rift between communities sharpen, Debu questions Clint and his people. The tension in the world around them almost tears the friendship between them as it does to the social relations in the larger community. What happens to the three friends and to Debu’s family who starts getting targeted by both the Bengalis and Khasis over certain developments takes the narrative to its climax.
The writing is full of subtle humour but very sharp in its insights on both the Khasi and the Bengalis as communities living in Shillong. The landmarks of Shillong come alive as near characters and will make those familiar with the place(s) to smile. The book will surely resonate with people who feel and live as outsiders in a place as it will with people who firmly believe that their land is theirs only. Strongly recommended.
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