Literature of Shillong: Where Prose and Poetry Meet
A new critique in Indian writing in English is how the town of Shillong figures in this body of literature. It is in a way not new since the 1980s the poets Robin S Ngangom and Desmond Leslie Kharmawphlang used Shillong as a backdrop for their poetry. The hills, the streams and the pines recurred as poetic motifs. More significantly however, they revealed extension of poetic minds seeing in nature both the past and present. The archetypal nature was decoded. Myths and legends were infused in their poetry - for example the myth of Nohkalikai, the water falls in Sohra, where the father killed the step-daughter thus grieving the wife to the point of madness. More and more myths and legends entered the poetry of such poets. The land of seven huts featured prominently: U Hynnietrep and the creation myth associated with this.
This led to the folk tales, myths and legends getting academic interest and deriving versions in English from the spoken word, not the written. This was because the source was an oral tradition and not written. The oral tradition entered writing in English through these poets, leading to a poetic robustness, a recall of memory, tradition, a love for the past and a resurgence of the oral tradition - now, with a difference in the written word. Folk mannerisms, the “tale” were infused into English poetry by the poets of Shillong.
However they never also missed the hills, searingly dominating their poetic landscape. In the wake of a society in social and political transition, these hills were and are motifs of pristine beauty, a way of life and a metaphor of truth.
However the social and political transformations referred to above also lead to social crisis and the divide between insiders and outsiders. This has been reflected in novels and short stories such as: "Lunatic In My Head" (Anjum Hasan), "A Point Of Return" (Siddhartha Deb), "Boats On Land" (Janice Pariat) and the very recent "Shillong Times" by Nilanjan Choudhury. All these writers are either from Shillong or have lived there. Here in the fiction, the trajectory is different in the sense that the social-political does get focus, but mainly is used as a literary backdrop. What happens further, and a point that is missed out is either way whether the protagonist is an insider, or outsider, or insider/outsider, he is firmly wedded to the town of his love. This is inescapable even when he lives the boundaries of the hills. I have in mind especially the novels of Deb and Chowdhury. Thus, this Shillong motif has been worked and reworked in both poetry and fiction since the eighties and is continuing till today. This should be a focal point of critical interest.
This is giving North East Indian writing in English a new flavour and a history for literary recapitulation. While the poets are revivalists, the fiction writers are “survivalists.” Even though they live out of Shillong, they “survive” in its memories, serpentine streets, the sacred forest etc. The poets too survive in decoding the past and recapitulating origin stories and myths.
The “survival” and the “revival” are essentially and quintessentially, obverse realities - two sides of the same coin. Shillong.
(The author worked as a Senior Lecturer and Head of Dept of English at St. Edmund’s College, Shillong. He holds a doctoral degree on the novels of William Golding and evinces a keen interest on Indian writing in English.)