In his book Ways Of Seeing, writer and critic John Berger wrote: “It is seeing that establishes our place in the surrounding world.” For the child in my novel Name Place Animal Thing, her home, her town, the social milieu she engages with—all help her establish her place in her world. She sees differences and similarities between people and things and that shape her understanding. She sees decay and growth in her physical environs, and she realises the mutability of objects and space. The hills turn from lush green to a listless brown, her friends grow up and they are not who they were, streets widen, migrants move, Dkhars and Khasis fight, and butterflies die.
The Shillong that she navigates is charming, with its troubled history and divisions. Her small world is a microcosm, and this idyllic world is intruded upon by the adult world with its worry about money, outsiders, religion and sickness. It may not be an all-encompassing view of Shillong because it is not what D sees, not what she experiences. The seeing of the place is more important to the identity of a place than a textbook rendering of its history, culture or politics. She tries to make sense of it all but does not have the tools to completely understand; she cannot grapple with the realities of the adult world as they are presented to her, through gloved hands. But this environment helps her evolve, and no character can evolve in a vacuum.
The place is not meant to function as mere window dressing; Shillong is a character in its own right, with its own dignity. The people D encounters here shape the plot, and their behaviour is also determined by the where and when they are in the history of this town. It influences the people as much as it is influenced by the people. I wanted to focus on the dichotomy of this hill station, how it can alienate anyone and anything that deviates from the norm, while it also draws close through a shared lived experience. The atmosphere and terrain set the tone—the rain that never abates, the fog thick as pea soup, the cicadas and their incessant droning. The time contextualises—the exodus of the Chinese immigrants, the bandhs when insurgency was at its peak, schools staying closed, the church’s power waxing and waning.
Wuthering Heights could have been set anywhere, but it was set in the moors because the wild terrain mirrored the untameable nature of the characters. J.M. Coetzee in Disgrace called attention to post-apartheid South Africa, the time his novel is set in, because it played heavily on the fates of the characters. We cannot wholly extricate community, time and place from character.
Situating characters in a time and place advances the story and gives a reader something to work with. Having said this, I would like to add here that there is this expectation about books set in a troubled region, that we should only write about our traumas. Publishers, and perhaps readers too, prefer literary fiction set in those places to be steeped in pain and suffering, detailing the odds the protagonist has to overcome. I believe every place has a multitude of stories and one cannot expect a homogeneity of stories from a heterogenous people.
For the past 10 years, I have been living outside my hometown of Shillong. The first thing people ask me when they see me is “Where are you from?” Many hazard a guess and ask me if I am from Manipur, the most common response. I wonder if Manipur has become a placeholder for all things North-East. I tell them I am from Shillong and a flicker of recognition, hills, waterfalls, and finally, “I have been meaning to go, I hear it is very beautiful.” This, in my experience, is the most common response these days. This is a response starkly different from what I had seen earlier, where men discussed the worries about being beheaded once they set foot in the North-East. Earlier just a zip code, a headline about an earthquake in the nightly news, an announcement of a bandh—we now have more information out there, what Shillong is like, what to expect.
A Google search of Dawki’s waters, a trek to the living root bridges, and people believe they have engaged with the North-East, they believe they have shattered information silos with a vacation. Engaging with geography is one way, but it’s the people and communities that need to be participated with. I have tried to marry both in this novel by bringing to life people and places sewn together by memory. The onus now lies with the reader to see past the impenetrable borders they have built around these places in their head.
Daribha Lyndem is a writer and civil servant currently living in Mumbai.