Sunday, March 01, 2009

Lunatic and Memories of Shillong

This past week, between sniffles and lazy lie-ins, I got to read this brilliantly written novel called Lunatic in my Head by a young woman named Anjum Hasan (Penguin, Dec 2007). Sometime last year, Mona Zote had sent me an issue of a poetry mag called Carapace which featured my favourite poem of hers, as well as this fantastic poem titled "The Last Winter, But" by the said Anjum Hasan. The structure of the poem just blew me away but I assumed she was probably one of those very high-brow, middle-aged looking eggheads with uncombed, scruffy hair. Recently, I googled her down and found that she was actually a young, pretty woman who'd grown up in the same place I did, Shillong. Now Shillong and the name Hasan rang a bell so I quickly made inquiries and discovered that Anjum was the daughter of one of my teachers at university, the laconic Dr (now Professor) Nurul Hasan. I remember him as a complete Thomas Hardy maniac with a gangly frame who'd come in and sit with his legs crossed, talking non-stop in the same tone of voice about Tess of D'Urbervilles, William Golding or Jane Austen, all the time kicking the air with one foot under the table and never really minding if the class wasn't quiet or paying him a great deal of attention. He was a brooding intellectual who approached things from the opposite end of the stick and gave us home assignments on topics like Lord of the Flies as an anti-modern novel or Pride and Prejudice as an anti-ironic novel. Despite his obvious knowledge, however he didn't inspire us as much as he might have because he was so close-mouthed and uncommunicative, and didn't exactly give off warm, welcoming vibes. It's wonderfully in keeping with the scheme of things though, that his daughter (and a younger sister Daisy who's reportedly also written a novel) should have inherited their father's formidable little grey cells.

Lunatic brings back many memories of Shillong where my family had fled Mizoram in the wake of the insurgency movement in the mid 60s. My father had been a high-ranking young officer then and after a while, had gone back to Aizawl with my mother, leaving four very small children (us 2 sisters and a male cousin) with my maternal grandparents. We lived in an assortment of houses, ranging from a Mizo family's ground floor tenement to a little cottage near a pretty field to a larger house in Nongrim just next to the Khasi section of Auxilium Convent. There had been many Mizo families then, many like us, on enforced self-exile due to the political instablity back home. Of course, Shillong was always the most cosmopolitan place in the Northeast even then.

I'd started my education at Auxilium and later shifted to the all-girl Loreto Convent. Loreto was, hands down, the most snobbish, stuck-up, snooty schools I ever went to. I remember lunch time when we'd take our little tiffin boxes to the lunch room or whatever it was called, and eat furtively with our right hands while with the left, we kept a tight grip on the slightly ajar lids of our boxes so that nobody could see what we were eating. Another memory I have of LC is funnier. My grandparents had instructed my older sister to always make sure she shepherded us younger ones home, so there we'd stand at the bus stand at Dhanketi and my older sister, always a voracious reader, would bury her bespectacled head in a book, usually an Enid Blyton, and never pay attention to the buses coming and going. So bus after bus after bus would sail by and we'd only eventually make it home when it was almost dark. Finally, grandma strictly forbade my sister from reading at the bus stand or until she'd brought us safely home.

Though I never knew Anjum Hasan personally, from what I do remember of her family, I can see that she weaves in many personal details of herself and her folks in varying degrees in her three protagonists. Like their little house just above the Fire Brigade bus stand which was opposite A la carte restaurant, and for anyone who knew/knows Dr Hasan, he's been immortalised quite unmistakably in the character of Mr Das. But despite the interest and hype about Anjum's Lunatic bringing the largely little-known and often ignored Northeast into the Indian literary mainstream, a word of caution. This is the Northeast through the perspective of someone who was born and brought up in the Northeast certainly, but to whom the distinctive essence of the Northeast must forever remain impenetrable because she is, as she keeps putting it, a "non-tribal". Never liked that tribal/non-tribal terminology and even while I understand perfectly well that the theme of the book runs along precisely those lines, I'll stick my head out and say I like Anjum the less because of her obvious inability to transcend the socio-cultural divide.

Her poetry though is immaculately faultless, and I include here the poem that first made me sit up and take note of her. Just love the innovative pattern of these lines.

The Last Winter, But...

This longing to get to the end of things,
I just walked everywhere, eating dust.

It was December and the light had changed,
Sunlight ripening like squares of rare fruit.

I just walked everywhere, eating dust,
Thinking, this will be the last winter, but...

Sunlight ripening like squares of rare fruit,

Every city street still resistant to habit.

Thinking, this will be the last winter, but...

I have explanations to offer myself.

Every city street still resistant to habit,

And barefoot women wanting the time.

I have explanations to offer myself,
Firmer than the day's jelly shadows

And barefoot women wanting the time,

The afternoon's sounds like, like a new alphabet.

Firmer than the day's jelly shadows,
That place where all sentences hold good,

The afternoon's sounds, like a new alphabet,

This longing to get to the end of things.

PS I'm going to hospital to have an ovarian cyst removed on Tuesday. Please, everybody, say a little prayer for me.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I don't know Shillong very well, but one thing I remember about it is the biting cold. Early one morning many years ago we visited some relatives and boy was it freezing!! That visit still remains on my top ten list on Coldest Moments.

    Will pray for you, hope everything goes well.

  3. Love it, i could see a picture of you!. I laugh so hard to hear about your sister banned from reading at a bus stand.
    Far hnuaia kum 2 kan awm chhung khan Shillong chu ka inpui 2 na ang hial a, ka nel ve hman hle, a hmun i ngaihna rilru chu ka hriat thiampui mai che. Ram buai laia unau a, nu leh paw awmlova hmun hrang a i awm chu a khawhar thlak ve ngawtin ka ring.

  4. picturesquer, they weren't always happy and carefree but those were memorable times alright.

    ambs, yep Shillong and cold. But summers were always great. And thank you. I'll be offline for a few days too.

    vana, ka pi leh pu te nen kan awm ho tho a, nu leh pa chu kan ngai em em lem lo. Puitlin hnu a MA zu zir leh naupanlai nun dan chu inthlau tak ani!

  5. Great review.. I've been through and stayed in shillong a coupla times while in Hostel, cos' a train from Guwahati was the most affordable way out of North-East then. It still brings back fond memories of cold mid-days with the fresh smell of pine in the air.
    About the "non-tribal" issue in Shillong, I have non-tribal friends from there who act and speak perfect Khasi, yet are still discriminated against.. We should take lessons from Russell Peters in saying that there are no African-americans, no Asian-americans and that they are all just Americans.
    BTW: Hope your operation was a success. Get well soon.

  6. Shillong..ka thulo a lo sawi awih a ni hleinem :-) Loreto chhuak maw i nih a..engpawh a chhungah thleng se..Hemi vang a nih hi ilo thiam em em ni...I thuziah hian Dhankheti Bus station te minthla in min hmuh tir uarh uarh mai, mi haw tur kha kan thlah ve nasa thin asin. Wards lake ngeiah pawh khan keimahin thuziah insawrbing duh avangin ka va thu ve vang vang tawh a sin :-)Nongrim Hills-ah chuan nula kan rim ve thin. Bak ho rui kan hel zak zak lai te kha..Shillong chu keipawh Hyderabad ka chhuk tirh khan ka sawi zing lutuk, ka thiante nin hlauh avangin ka sim deuh tawh.

    Thian hlui te hmuh chang pawh hian engdang a lenglo. Mahse maw Miss ka han tlawh leh hnuhnun ber khan hmelhriat bar anlo awm tawhlo a, phairam chul hnu tih te kha han hrechhuak ve i a... Shillong..Shillong ka theihngilh che chuan ka kut hi ka bengah bet rawh tia mi kha?

  7. 96 - 98 chho vel min ti hre chhuak,ngaihawm khop mai.

  8. Hey, you're making me all nostalgic about Shillong! Dr. Hasan taught me too. He's really learned, really passionate about his subject but wasn't too good at communication. Like you said, he'd go on and on without minding us or the bell. Do you know he's a trained theatre actor too? Once we had a reading of King Lear, and he played a small scene. Wow, he was good at that!

    So you're a Loretian eh? I did mine in Auxilium.

    I'd read reviews of the 'Lunatic' but haven't read the book. Somehow the reviews didn't make me feel like it. The poem is lovely, though.

    My prayers with you.

  9. The way you have described Shillong, and the photo, makes me want to leave everything and rush to a place which seems so heavenly.. i loved the way you have written this post, effortlessly mingling your views on the writing of Ms Hasan, her profile and your childhood. the blend was superb and a great read..

    it's been a week now since u posted this, and i hope u r recovering speedily after the surgery

  10. Hi all, I got home from hospital today, a little shaky still so I'll save the individual comments for a later date. But thank you so much for your prayers and good wishes :)

  11. ohoo damdawiin ah te i lo awm a n maw. Dam takin chhuak chu a lawm awm e.

  12. Hey Miss Jay, you beat me to it! But am glad you read the book and for your insightful comments. I don't want to get started on Shillong... you know me, I'd never stop. About the book, I felt really proud of Anjum Hasan for being able to capture so evocatively the little nuances that make Shillong and its residents what they are.I did have mixed feelings when I read it, though, because everything was a little too close to home. I don't know if that makes sense at all. But I was taught by her father, went to the same college (St. Mary's) as she did, studied in the same University in the same Department (albeit much later)... so there were a little too many things that were too recognisable at times. All in all, I did enjoy the book.I think she's been able to capture the feeling of paradoxical feelings of alienation and possessiveness that being a non-native in Shillong can incite.

    More importantly, I'm glad the op was successful and I wish you a very speedy recovery. I wanted to pay you a visit, but none of your colleagues could tell me which hospital you were in...

  13. red, I just strongly dislike the usage of the term tribal and non-tribal because of its derogatory implications and I think it's rarely used anymore in common parlance today. Shillong is maybe the one place it's still used because several years ago at a training course I attended, a fellow trainee from St Edmunds who was himself South Indian, said, "You people shouldn't let yourselves be called tribal" and I was shocked because I hadn't been called tribal in years and years in the first place!

  14. sawmte, Hriatpuia zarah Shillong hi chuan i lung a len dan tur te poh ka hria alom heehe. Mahse nia, a khua hi progress a hnekin, a regress zawkin ka hria. An mipate an harh chhuak har lutuk a, an harh chhuak leh hi an over ngei bawk a, an ram an ti chhe zo ta zawk anih ber mai khu.

    A_es, i lo awm ve thin animo? MA zirin ami?

  15. mesjay, Hasan a trained theatre actor? Nopes, I didn't know that. I remember one of our Naga classmates had a crush on him though. She thought he was soo macho, with his deep, gruff voice and manner of speaking and all :) I was also at Auxilium as well. Did my kindergarten etc but I was so small then I have practically non-existent memories of it.

  16. Gauri, the book brought back so many memories of a time and place I'd pretty much since forgotten, I couldn't help reacting to it in that way! But do make a short visit to it if you can some day. It's beautiful. And do read Ms Hasan's book as well.

  17. vana, poem hnuai chiah a damdawiin ka luh tur ka ziah khi i lo hmuh hmaih chiang lutukkkkk!

  18. DDB, it's the holiday season so I didn't inform my colleagues about my hospi stay. In fact, the most public I went about it was right here on my blog, and that too as a tiny insert at the end of a long, rambling post and bingo, most missed it :D

    What I don't like about the book, or more accurately the reviews of it I've read online, is the insinuation that Hasan is a representative of the Northeast. I think that's just so much hogwash because she writes completely from an outsider's perspective. All her three protagonists reflect that and though she claims "her debut novel “polyphonic”, echoing voices belonging to different ethnicities and cultures", I'd beg to differ because while she has a couple of Khasi characters and one vaguely drawn Manipuri, she's so clearly more interested in people like her, like the Bihari tailors etc etc and chooses to remain oblivious to the Mizos, Nagas, Arunachalis who make up such a large part of the Northeast/Shillong population. So while I agree with you totally that she's captured well the feeling of alienation yet strong sense of belonging for a Shillong non-native, it's a good idea to not go so far as to hail her as a rep of these parts or people.

  19. Lo dam zel rawh khai. Nakinah i dam chian deuh hunah "Memories of Shillong Part II" ziak leh la a tha ang. Naupan lai Life ni lo, nulat tak tak hnua i experience hriat a chakawm takzet :)
    Take care, all the best

  20. Callopia: No offence, but like it or not, we are tribals and there's nothing to dislike about it.. it's just who we are and we can't deny or change it.. We just get offended when a non-tribal uses that term, right?
    Afro-americans don't like the N-word, yet they use it among themselves.. We don't like being called Chinkys, but we use it to address our own.. It's just a name I've been called so many times that I think I don't really care anymore..
    We are all unknowingly racists, cos' its fun to make fun of VAIs in Mizoram yet we don't really think about how they feel, Khasis call them DKHAR and when we move out of the state and face the same prejudice, we feel deeply offended not knowing that its the same feeling.. So, I guess no one is to blame..
    PS: I'll be posting a follow-up on this, cos' its been in my head for so long..

  21. PPS: India is the only country where races discriminates against each other this much, cos' there are just too many.. From each corner of the country, you would get at least a dozen names to call the other corners (And the caste system didn't really evolve to make it better) :) I guess its just a part of being an Indian!

  22. Ka dam tha zel e, samuapa. Naupanlai chanchin hrut hi a nuam zawk alom. Leh nulat hnu experience lo ziah vak chu a tha nang!

  23. red, you may not dislike it but I do, and c'mon, the whole point of blogging is in telling the world what makes you tick or ticks you off. Your 5 minutes of the spotlight to blast away and all that.

    You're quite right that African-Americans freely use the N word among themselves but in language and communication, what's always important is the context and usage. Blacks use it among themselves as a term of affection mostly, unlike the derogatory, demeaning implications of the white man's usage of the same. Ditto for the tribal label. In this day and age of political correctness, I'm not interested in being labelled a tribal except by a sociological researcher.

  24. good t know you're back up (ish). AND i agree with the kitchen sentiment.

    about the tribal-non tribal think, i'm going to feel immensely qualified to comment because i have a leg on each side of the fence.

    i think a lot of us (NE hills people) use "non-tribal" as a derogatory term for us (non-NE hills people).

    i LOVE that image of hiding your lunch. i knew kids who used to do it in school, and always wondered why. i never did because my lunch box was normally empty by the 3rd period. but back to that image-it's a really powerful one. hold on to it, (or copyleft it), for use in some material. lemme know if you're willing to copyleft. :)

  25. fed, you got it. I don't think the words tribal and non-tribal are used in quite the same derogatory sense anywhere else in the country. I have such negative feelings when I remember the tiffin hiding scenes. It was such a seriously stupid thing to do but when you're about 8 years old in a new school and everyone does it... Sure, be my guest, copyleft it right and centre all you want. Just split the moolah if it rakes in any :)