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In one of my recent conversations with an artist working on issues of home and belonging, I came across interesting metaphors of identity and place. According to her, the home is a mental phenomenon and memory is the address. It set me thinking on my own experiences of leaving home - Shillong - about 17 years back. Living with this sense of a 'remembered Shillong' with memories of a childhood that had a kind of magical realism, home is indeed a mental phenomenon, tied with feelings of fixation and loss.
When I visited Shillong recently, I walked its roads as if I never left the place, weaving in and around its narrow lanes, speaking to the pine-laden air and the cerulean blue skies. I waited to hear the sound of rain on the red sloping tin roofs and snuggled into a thick quilt, with familiar creme cotton covers, after a long time. Yet the more I looked, the more I saw and sensed its changes, its expanding concrete urbanity and ambitious plans of New Shillong, I felt increasingly distanced and strangely displaced. I did not belong, I am the outsider, the dkhar who can never belong, despite having a family history of being a third-generation Bengali who grew up in cosmopolitan Shillong.
It still hurts to think of the racism, the curfews, the violence, the offensive grafitti that split Shillong into us and them. I grew up in a neighbourhood in Upland Road (Laitumkhrah) where the sense of community was embedded in everyday life. We had neighbours who were Khasis, Assamese, Kannadigas, Oriyas and Muslims and our front doors, gardens and kitchens were open to each other. We celebrated Christmas, Id, Bihu and Durga Pujo through shared rituals, food and cultural engagement. Having working parents, much of my early childhood was spent in neighbours' homes and I had Khasi friends in school and college, with whom I have reconnected through Facebook.
Since Shillong had water problems, rainwater harvesting was part of the A-type architecture and buckets of water from the two black drums in our garden crossed low cement walls and bamboo fences. We had a Khasi gardener, Barela, who took care of our home in so many ways, through his skills in masonry, carpentry, gardening and of course, colourful story-telling. I still remember his gentle face and strong hands, which slowly wrinkled over the many years we knew him. My mother and Barela conversed in terrible Hindi and somehow understood each other. We never locked doors when he was around; he repaired nooks and corners of our home when my parents were away at work. He applied Dettol over our wounds with cement-filled hands, we ate kwai with him and he cried when we left Shillong. It was a culture of care, simplicity and sharing, which got displaced with distrust, fear, hate and identity politics.
It was in 1979 that the first rift between the Khasis and Bengalis took place and suddenly we became the 'outsiders/dkhars' who took away their land, jobs and seats in education; this rift widened over the next two decades. The political grafitti on public walls read: We are Khasi by Blood, Indians by Accident or Indians Go Back, complete with engraved contours of a naked female body (headless) within the larger narrative of Otherness. Our neighbourhood changed from its open peaceful character to one demarcated with high concrete walls, iron grills and locked doors after dusk. Forced blackouts, bandhs during Durga Pujo, and stone pelting on Bengali homes became an everyday reality. On one such blackout, the sound of crashing glass pierced the darkness of our living room. We were being asked to leave and our dkhar-ness was forced upon us. The A-type house was ours, the land was theirs and we could sell it only to them.
True, there was laughter and life beyond this violence. The Khasi colleagues of my mother in the cooperative bank she worked in were dismissive of such divisive politics, so were my Khasi friends. We continued to meet at each other's homes after the bandhs, went out together during our festivals and generally enjoyed teenage life. Yet, increasingly, dkhars began to live ghettoised lives, our minority status marked in public exchanges.
Insurgency in Meghalaya was a belated affair, it makes me think whether it was really about ideology or more about power, money and the politics of fear? Many of the radical figures of the anti-immigrant students' movement became disillusioned and integrated into regular lives or joined as ministers in the government. There was a mass exodus of immigrant population from Shillong, we also sold our property and came to the Indian mainland to feel at home. This was to explore new career possibilities, which Shillong had ceased to offer. But if I was a Bengali-Indian in the Northeast, I was a Northeasterner in the mainland, again an 'outsider'. I was told that my Bengali sounded different and my first language seemed to be English, along with an 'advanced' sense of dressing! This led to a constant reworking at my roots and coming to terms with my hybrid identity.
Life has now 'normalised' in Shillong, there is less threat to non-tribal businessmen and 'development' is the buzzword. Old architecture disappears and concrete vertical apartments mar the landscape. Our old A-type home is a hostel, unkempt and peeling, and our garden is gone, the green grass covered with dry concrete. Few neighbours remain and the politics of land have acquired new dimensions - the empty flats in multiple apartments are waiting to be sold - presumably to both the natives and the dkhars. Interestingly, it seems a dkhar who was born in Shillong can go back now and buy property provided a domicile certificate is produced. This is constitutionally wrong, an Indian citizen can buy property and settle anywhere in India and all dkhars are not necessarily from Bangladesh!
Is this about integration and assimilation after the nullity of violence? In my view, it is again the doubling of dkhar-ness in insidious ways. Do I want to go back home under such circumstances? Reverse migration is an interesting proposition - on the outside, but is the inside any different? As I move to different places, home is more about people than a place, it is about shifting thresholds and experiences. Yet, in many ways, Shillong continues to be like an old love, its memories untouched by the vagaries of time.
More about Amrita Gupta Singh
Amrita Gupta Singh is an art historian and writer with an interest in arts management. Born and brought up in Shillong, she studied Applied Arts and Art History in Kolkata and Santiniketan after completing her BA from NEHU. She was a Visiting Lecturer at the JJ School of Arts, Mumbai (2003) and Fellow, ArthinkSouthAsia (2010-11). Currently, she is the Programme Director at the Mohile Parikh Center, Mumbai, and writes on modern and contemporary Indian art.