By Tan Kaiyi

Spooky bus stop

“You change to 165 from here. It’ll take you down the road and then to Holland Village. You can’t miss it,” he said.

“Ok, thank you. It’s so late at night now and my phone battery is flat. Thanks for your help,” she said.

“No problem.”

“And it’s awfully dark.”

“The lights down the road are spoilt. It’s usually better lit.”

“And we’re under a highway.”

“Yeah. It’s not the most accessible bus stop in Singapore.”

She laughed.

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

He felt the ground for the reassuring grip of his cleaver. Once he had it in his hands, he crouched down and heard for sounds. The night was dead quiet. Not a good sign. It was a shade of absolute silence that was all too familiar to Lao Seng. He gripped his cleaver tightly. He peered over the barrier that marked out the activities area for the elderly to look at the field between the two blocks. The electric lamps had dimmed as well, creating a darkened no man’s land. Something metallic hit the floor violently and from the sound, Lao Seng knew where it was. One of the offering bins had been toppled and thrown against the pavement. The sleepers in the apartment upstairs would only hear it as a minor nuisance before they roll up their blankets to return to slumber. For Lao Seng, it would be a different story.

He eyed the area under the tree where the offering bin lay. It was now somewhere in the covered walkway between the two blocks. In its place, was a black figure, hunched over like an ape. Its form was indistinct, as if one could see through it. Dark smoky trails rose out of it, like it was burning from a black fire. The ape figure was rummaging through ashes of the joss paper as well as several food pieces scattered around the field. It was hunched over, totally focused on picking through the burnt heap.

Reviewed by Ananya S. Guha

Shillong Times

Title: Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear
Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Pages: 237

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.