To visualize Shillong sitting in Jatheri village in Haryana’s Sonepat district can be a daunting task. So my computer screen is a picture of the hill to which I woke up every morning since my birth; the sun rose behind the Lumparing Hill that had three biggish houses on its right flank and an unending staircase to its left leading to several small houses. Right at the foothill was a house named Veni Vidi Vici- the inscription that was visible even from our quaint wooden verandah. There was a Buddhist monastery somewhere hidden behind and the stream of lamas walking up the road was part of that landscape. Then one day the hill was on fire. I was in middle school.
It was a November night when I first heard the cries. The student’s agitation in neighbouring Assam was spilling across the borders and the student body in Meghalaya joined in the ‘anti-foreigners’ agitation. Given my Bengali parentage, in one stroke, I came to represent the unwanted Bangaldeshi ‘foreigner’. That was not all; unwanted during those times meant you could even die. If you were lucky, you were assaulted or rendered homeless. I escaped almost all, except I was sucked into the binary of ‘outsider’ versus the ‘insider’.
A Perpetual ‘Outsider’
After years of violence in my beautiful hill town that was essentially an ethnic cleansing of sorts, one day I was threatened in the university campus in the presence of people I counted as friends. Nobody wanted to come forward and help. I was not physically hurt but decided to leave the town to never return. I was tired of the profiling, I was sick of the harassment and intimidation and I realised rather late that I had wasted many years hoping all will be fine.
But the profiling went beyond boundaries; in cities like Bombay and Delhi, I was made aware of a new identity-the ‘Northeasterner’. When I was growing up in Shillong in the 70s and 80s, the ‘Northeast’ identity was not dominant but slowly that was what the rest of the country started identifying ‘us’ with. At ‘home’ (from where I was exiled), I was a Bengali and therefore an assumed illegal migrant and outside of the region, I was an ‘outsider’ as well.
Moving to Assam
Almost a decade later, I returned but this time to Assam that had become the epicenter of terror. Every other day, there would be a massacre, killing or abduction. I was thrown into a cauldron from which I couldn’t escape and was easily sucked into the terrifying heat of it all. The entire region by now had been engulfed in the fire and I was only counting body bags. The experience was numbing but it helped me undergo a catharsis; my own sense of victimhood was overpowered by the unmitigated misery I had to witness and chronicle.
The killings continued for years till they ran out of steam and some of the places on the map forced some semblance of normal life. Shillong was one of them. The town that was free from a full-blown terror wave (though it had its fair share of violence), quickly branded itself as one of the rock music destinations of the country. Big international bands were arriving and anti-outsider sentiment was not the town’s flavor any longer. Shillong’s bloody past was not visible to the uninitiated. There has been no attempt at documenting the two decades of genocide but some right thinking people consciously started speaking up the moment those ugly warheads would surface. Several others acknowledged that they were used by political forces and didn’t act on their own.
A Reunion and Closure
In my personal account of my lost hometown, the year 2016, however, will remains significant for three reasons; my school’s centenary reunion, my parents’ final departure from Shillong and my first public confession of why and how I left the town.
The reunion was like a closure. Though I was in touch with most people (given my travelling assignments), many amongst us were visiting the town for the first time since they left school. The ‘local boys’ had taken it upon themselves to arrange the event and meticulously attended to every detail. The reception was warm, the exchanges were fond and the hospitality was overwhelming. But the highlight of it was that the ‘outsiders’ and the ‘insiders’ spoke for the first time about the conundrum. It took 32 years to face the truth that we were a divided class. The pictures we carried from our school picnics and walkathons clearly showed the divide; tribals and non-tribals were separate and the school did absolutely nothing to address it. Just like the boarders were kept away from the day scholars. The healing was instant. We just had to talk, that’s all!
The house we lived in had plum and pomegranates and beds of beautiful flowers and I earned my pocket money pruning hedges. We had a kitchen garden in the back yard and a bamboo grove, and the front had flowers and trees. The house changed hands sometime in the late 80s but my parents continued to live there. The fruits and flowers did not survive the ravages of time and some ugly structures replaced where my boyhood dreams were spawned. Shillong had become ugly in many ways. Though my parents had partially shifted, they would consider this home and return every summer, till 2016, when they finally left. This is where my mother stepped in after her marriage and lived for 50 years and my father for 65 years. When they walked down the staircase and got in to a taxi, they didn’t even look back. The emotions may have died long ago. I didn’t shed a tear too. I didn’t even feel a thing.
The writer teaches journalism in O P Jindal Global University and is the author most recently of An Unfinished Revolution: A Hostage Crisis, Adivasi Resistance and the Naxal movement.