Shadow Men: Where nightmare and dreams go hand-in-hand


Gracy Samjetsabam reviews Bijaya Sawian’s latest novel, Shadow Men (Speaking Tiger Books,10 December 2019) introducing us to the ‘Angry Young Men’ of Shillong

Bijoya Sawian is a writer and translator who resides in Shillong and Dehradun. She did her schooling from Seng Khasi High School and Loreto Convent in Shillong, graduated in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College and has a Masters in English Literature from Miranda House, University of Delhi. Her contributions include writings on the life and culture of the Khasi community of North East India. The Sahitya Akademi and the Institute of Folklore Studies, Bhopal, are some of the institutes of repute that have published her short stories and critical essays. Some of her prominent translated works include The Teachings of Elders, Khasi Myths, Legends and Folktales and About One God. Her original works in English include A Family Secret and Other Stories. Shadow men, A Novel and Two Stories is her latest novel. It has three stories in which two take place in Shillong and one is set in Aizawl.

Shadow Men sheds light on sensitive issues to tell a tale of the experiences of a society which is at crossroads and provides a platform to questions of relevance, legitimacy, culpability and accountability of the status quo and on the seismic shifts that social change brings on deep-rooted culture and tradition in a blend of the inevitable and the instrumented. With Shillong, the abode of clouds, the capital of Meghalaya as its setting, Sawian allows the reader to subtly experience nature and life in this bewitchingly picturesque place. The oddities in the ordinary that Shillong and the many shades of Shillong have encountered in recent years is well- sketched in the characters and in the setting of the story. There is a sense of turbulence in the matriliny in the Khasi community and how the transitory under goings have an impact on the clansmen and clanswomen.  

As the story opens, Raseel, the main character arrives at Shillong to visit her old friend Aila. She is thrown in the middle of a murder-puzzle and the gun-shot that greeted her arrival triggered the brain-teaser to her discovery of the horrors of insurgency and violence in the otherwise normal and beautiful life in Shillong. The story brings in fresh flavours of the contested grounds of ethnic, race, and identity in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The killing of a ‘Dkhar,’ an outsider, made her follow the trail of mystery and suspense that ensued thereafter, and as she tracked the mystery further, she finds herself being drawn more and more into troubled waters. Sawian tells us a thriller story filled with suspense, mystery, murder, crime, betrayal, drugs, corruption, and politics. But the story offers much more. The story speaks of life in a society, where development and insurgency are intertwined as climbers on the same wall. Besides, there are the woes and side effects of eroding age-old customs, beliefs, values, and tradition along with the shaking of the roots of matriliny by the sweeping wind of change.  

The story speaks of life in a society, where development and insurgency are intertwined as climbers on the same wall. Besides, there are the woes and side effects of eroding age-old customs, beliefs, values, and tradition along with the shaking of the roots of matriliny by the sweeping wind of change.

In Shadow Men, Sawian introduces us to the ‘Angry Young Men’ of Shillong albeit to the wrath, angst, fear, and bitterness of generations, especially the younger generation. Sawian beautifully charts the difference between a world order of the new and the old generation, etching the nostalgia of the bygone days in the narration. There is a sense of what has been replaced, what has taken precedence, and what has seemed to have become a priority at present. The beauty of the story brings us to the question of: “What has happened to all the young people of the place?” which is a pertinent question as it strikes a chord with young people in all societies affected by insurgency, conflict, corruption, and politics. As you turn the last pages of  the story, you automatically make more sense of the metaphor of the word “shadow” in the title Shadow men has been fittingly used to talk about how Raseel shadowed on the walk to find the murderers and on doing so came across the multiple men who shadowed on the path of lost dreams – misled and misguided.

As you turn the last pages of  the story, you automatically make more sense of the metaphor of the word “shadow” in the title Shadow men has been fittingly used to talk about how Raseel shadowed on the walk to find the murderers and on doing so came across the multiple men who shadowed on the path of lost dreams – misled and misguided.

Caught between suspense and surprises, as you read the story, if you are someone familiar with Shillong – Kwai, the rainfall, Shillong teatime, the Marwaris and the Sindhis, bakeries, clothing, furniture, Polo Ground, Golf Links, and much more, will haunt your memories of the place; and, if you are new to Shillong, you will be thrown for some new clips of a part of India, less explored. There is a sad tone in the story that speaks volumes of the sense of loss and waste, and yet manages to provide a ray of hope in a world otherwise bereft of hope. There is deceit, humiliation, suffocation, depression, and hallucination amidst the ‘story within a story’ in Shadow Men, where ‘hope’ as the story unwinds provides a breather. Nightmare and dreams go hand-in-hand in Shadow Men and Sawian tactfully prologues the story using ‘dream’ to juxtapose life and death, epilogues the tale to find comfort in the word ‘Karma’ and aptly ends the story with the Bob Dylan song:

Everyone wants to know why he couldn’t adjust

Adjust to what-a dream that bust?

He was a clean-cut kid,

But they made a killer out of him

That’s what they did. …

The Flight gives us a glimpse of the possibilities and impossibilities of falling in love with a man of another religion and its consequences. Sawian fluidly brings out the complexities of love, the responses of love and what choices people make for life to go on amidst the love and lost through the story of young Mawii in Aizawl. In The Limp, Sawian heralds in the opening of the story ‘it was the first Sunday of the millennium’ as if to emphasise the story set in the new-millenium Shillong and drives us into an aspect of what it feels to belong despite being someone who would have been on the other side of those who belong to a community, touching on the idea of ‘belonging’ that applies to a society, a people of a place, a clan, a race, an ethnic, or a religion. Nipendra Roy, the main character declares, ‘This is home where the pines are. This is home,’ strikingly bringing forth the idea of life, choice, and home in the short story. All the three stories – Shadow Men, The Flight, and The Limp – artistically talks about the complexities of love and lost, belongingness, identity, the insider and outsider dichotomy, and an understanding of how it inseparably dances along as we progress with time. The book provides a window to a world in North East India and adds a feather to English writings in India.   


About the reviewer

Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English literature and communication skills at the Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. She is also a freelance copy editor and copy writer. Settled in the western shores of the Arabian Sea, she loves Nature besides reading over a hot cup of tea. She can be reached at gracysam27@gmail.com