Reviewed by Ananya S. Guha
Title: Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear
Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Nilanjan Choudhury’s novel Shillong Times, as the subtitle suggests, is a ‘story of friendship and fear’. Friendship’s association with ‘fear’, then, seems to be a thematic focus.
Set against the backdrop of Shillong in the volatile times of the 1980s, the novel is an addition to what is now turning out to be a fairly long list of fiction, including short stories which revolve around this town. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head, Siddartha Deb’s The Point of Return and Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land come readily to mind.
Choudhury, however, builds a more conscious landscape than the others to take us to the world of his fourteen year old protagonist Debojit Dutta, who in Blakeian terms leaves his ‘innocence’ behind to ‘experience’ his new found world, thanks to his friendship with two other teenagers, Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh and the empathetic Audrey Pariat. It is the former who introduces Debojit Dutta, when they meet in mathematics tuition classes, to the world of Pink Floyd and the out-of-bounds restaurant Kalsang.
I mentioned the volatile times of the eighties that forms the backdrop of the novel. Choudhury poignantly interfuses community relations (tribal and non tribal, the Bengali superiority syndrome, the Sylheti speaking Bengalis and the Calcutta Bengalis, etc.) with personal ones. Yet these personal friendships are among teenagers, which their adult counterparts or forebears seem to look askance at. Debojit’s mother reprimands him for this, so does his school teacher (lampooned effectively) Mr. Chakravarty. Clint’s father refuses to help in getting the trading licence of Debojit’s father renewed, although he saves him in a potentially violent squabble.
As ethnic tensions rise in the town of Shillong, resulting also in conflict of relations between Debojit and Clint (thanks also to the meddlesome Mr. Chakravarty), Debojit’s parents contemplate shifting to Calcutta and remove him to a school in Calcutta despite his protestations. Debojit also suffers taunts from his locality members for befriending a tribal, a Khasi. All this while, the petite Audrey plays a quiet mediating role, playing across the broken friendship of Debojit and Clint and building bridges.
At the end, Debojit and his family leave Shillong for Calcutta, but not in any Forsterian sense, for Debojit stoically maintains his friendship with Clint, prismatically seen through the metaphor of the epistolary, writing a letter to him, and vowing to keep in touch with him.
Humour is mingled with pathos in a deflective manner to create a reality effect of pain, humour and love amidst racial animosity. All the three protagonists – the Khasi boy and girl and the Bengali boy – are shown as muddled as they really do not comprehend such divides, which is perpetrated more by the world of adults (Debojit’s mother, Mr. Chakravarty the school teacher, etc). Choudhury has set off these two worlds as point-counterpoint where one group consciously resists and rejects the world of friendship and camaraderie, which the much younger characters uphold with some kind of an innate wisdom. This is the irony in the novel. Set against the times and also about it, Choudhury writes a brilliant, witty, at times with omniscient narration, a novel about transcending the times and fostering a world of friendship and love.
Deeply evocative and with a racy narrative, Shillong Times is both contextual and textual; the sublime hypertext being an attempt to radicalize human relationships in the midst of ethnic tension prevailing in the small town. As curfew in the town disrupts the relationship between Clint and Debojit, the latter makes a last ditch effort to save it, when against all odds he takes Audrey’s help to meet Clint, to plead with him to help save his father’s trading licence.
The novel is a neat inversion of reality, in fact a caricature of it – that adults cease behaving like adults. This is a brilliant novel with a layered complexity of how human relations can be polarized consciously on ethnic lines, but how, more significantly, the world of friendship and love acts as an antidote and nullifies barriers or divides based on artifice.
This is the imagination of survival which Choudhury’s novel reflects – survival through the lenses of the imagination. Debojit is just about surviving in the city that he distrusts through his captive imagination of the town that he loves and knows only so well – Shillong.
Is this also a question of an authorial survival as the novelist spent much of his formative life in Shillong? The novel is a deft interweaving of fact and fiction, childhood fantasy, history (the partition of the country) and contemporary politics. More significantly, the ‘telling’ of the tale is superb with its delightful fusion of style and content peppered of course with infantile humour.
Ananya S. Guha is a writer and poet who lives in Shillong. His latest book of poems Hills Of Slow Time has recently been published by Dhauli Books, Orissa. He has been an academic for the last 37 years.