A book about Shillong offers much to the curious reader but less in terms of cultural depth

Name Place Animal Thing first acquaints us with the racialised social structure of Shillong through the child-narrator’s interactions. Tarun Bhartiya
16 April, 2021

The story of Shillong has been told, sung and written across history. We find echoes of the place in colonial narratives, urban folktales, gossip, twentieth-century Khasi novellas, contemporary music and poetry. But Shillong is not just a place filled with the remnants of an empire; it is not just a city of pine trees, tribal politics and rock concerts. Having spent the first eighteen years of my life in this frustrating and beautiful city, I always feel great excitement when I chance upon a work of art about or from it. This is how, in the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown, I came across Daribha Lyndem’s recent book, Name Place Animal Thing.

The latest addition to a string of recent English-language novels set in Shillong, this book is slotted among works by authors—including Temsula Ao and Easterine Kire—from North-East India, who were published by Zubaan, one of the few publishing houses in India that actively facilitates literary works of women from the region. Classed as a “novel,” despite reading more like a collection of disparate short stories, it has received some recognition in the media. Whether it meets the hype that surrounds it, is debatable. Having lived in the city over the same period in which the book is set, and coming from a social background similar to the author’s, many places, events and activities accessed and experienced by the protagonist were intimately familiar to me. However, it was not an entirely pleasurable encounter with the familiar; it was one fraught with nostalgia, elation and annoyance. As I sank deeper into the book, I found myself wanting more; apart from the lack of a rich historical and social elaboration, the novel does not fully succeed even in the realm of character development and many of its characters are one-dimensional, or, at times, purely functional.

Name Place Animal Thing is a coming-of-age work in which the protagonist, D, recounts, in a fragmented manner, her formative years in Shillong in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is structured into ten stories, over which we meet her family, neighbours, friends and other characters sharing her social world, and are guided by the voices of the child and adult protagonist. The book first acquaints us with the racialised social structure of Shillong through the child-narrator’s interactions with Bahadur—a Nepali man her landlady employs—and his family. Initially D thinks, “Bahadur did not look like us or speak like us, but I never thought he was very different. His rice pudding was as good as the one my mother made, and he liked watching movies just as we did.” Bahadur’s precarious position as a working-class person ultimately forces him and his family to go back to Kathmandu, particularly after he becomes disillusioned with life in Shillong, following an incident where his son is injured by dogs and nobody comes to help. Over time, D begins to develop a growing awareness of Bahadur’s otherness, as a “dkhar” and a non-tribal:

‘Dkhar’ was a word I learnt when I was young. I did not understand it’s full meaning until I was much older. It refers to people like Bahadur and Yuva, people who were not like me, who were not tribal. I understood it to mean people who were not from this land. It was a strange, loaded word meaning different things to different people. Words like dkhar can be innocuous or they can be weaponized. It made me think of people in terms of them and us. Although I was not taught it as an insult, I always saw it used as one.

We later meet Mr. Roy, the family’s tenant, and Tommy Lu, a Chinese man from Kolkata—both non-tribal immigrants who deal with racist threats and get caught in difficult circumstances that drive them to leave Shillong. The protagonist’s childhood persona here provides a useful eye, critical of the adult world, marred with division and conflict—she gradually observes her own privilege as a middle-class Khasi girl, whose freedom and comfort are protected, unlike the situation many others in the text are in. D’s consciousness of privilege is communicated multiple times through words such as “dissimilarities,” “barriers” and “hierarchy”—for instance, she writes of her cognisance of Bahadur’s position: “This house is not fit for entertaining guests,’ he would continue, and I would reassure him that I did not mind. I knew it was smaller than my house, and that gave me a sense that there was a hierarchy in the world.” Here, as in much of the book, an observation, opinion or emotion is often left suspended. We do not get any affective revelation beyond recognition and the narrator’s overly objective tone adds a tone of frigidity. It is evident, of course, that the writer intended to portray the child narrator’s naivety and short-sightedness, but as a reader, I struggled to sympathise with the protagonist, even as the character evolves.

Although the adult protagonist’s voice, implied to be more mature and aware about the world, is simultaneously present, it does not step in with informed commentary much, either. The only major historical event the book does generously elaborate on, in the chapter “AVVA,” is the Indo-China War of 1962, in the context of the chapter’s exploration of Chinese migrant families in Shillong. But does nothing to ground incidents of inter-ethnic clashes in the larger context of Meghalaya’s history. The consistent invocation of ethnic disharmony throughout the book reveals its haunting presence in the state; yet, Name Place Animal Thing evades unravelling the distinct and composite story of race in the Khasi and Jaintia hills. Historical situations, such as the colonial administration’s making of metropolitan Shillong, the partition of the subcontinent, the longstanding presence of the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo nationalist movements and the culture of militarisation in Meghalaya are not discussed at all. When the author speaks of the Saw Dak militant group and mentions that “shootings were very common in the late 80s and early 90s,” for instance, she also does not point out that, apart from the militants, the Indian paramilitary forces were also responsible for much of the public disturbance that occurred during the same period.

In contrast to these absences, the book’s witty and critical portrayal of Christian culture in Shillong is deeply significant. The text captures the variegated topography of the Christian population in the city and the complex inter-denomination dynamics that exist. We learn about the covert tussle among Presbyterians, Catholics and Baptists, who all think that “…theirs was the best method of worship.”  We meet the evangelical Sarkar family, who attempt, horrifically, to convert non-Christian children by force-feeding them footage of disturbing depictions of hell. And in the ninth chapter, we are taken to the heart of the intense spiritual universe of the Presbyterian Revival of 2006 in Meghalaya. There we witness frenzied and delirious youths who see themselves as “born-again Christians.” We listen to the young-adult narrator contemplating this phenomenon, while being burdened by the pressure to reach the same spiritual heights as her friends. She confesses, “I did not want to stand for something I was confused about, nor did I want to stand because the others were doing it. But I was frightened of being outed as a person who was not repentant or godly enough.”

This honest revelation of doubt and vulnerability is refreshing to read in a context where Christian spiritualism is embedded within the social structure. A bit later, the protagonist exposes the exploitation of the Revival by various groups and people; she says that “miracles and hoaxes began to occur in equal measure,” such as people being struck down by an invisible force, or children feigning a trance in order to escape school and adults doing the same for respect and recognition. Although the book does not establish an emphatic or direct attack on the Church, it does cast an important intervention in Meghalaya’s Christian world, one which seldom receives criticism. In fact, through the raw depiction of the protagonist’s first-hand experience of evangelical situations, it hints at the importance of self-criticality amongst the Christian community. It is this attention to nuance in its articulation of a critical, albeit fragile subject-matter that makes the book’s commentary powerful.

What is striking in Lyndem’s book is also the seemingly deliberate organisation of most chapters around characters from various ethnic-minority backgrounds in Meghalaya—some chapters’ names read, “Bahadur,” “Mrs Trivedi,” and so on. While this is perhaps intentional, in order to underscore the multicultural history of Shillong, it also comes off as an inadvertently tokenistic gesture. The book has a tendency of preventing characters from growing beyond the precincts of their given social and ethnic identities. For instance, Bahadur and Mr Lu are devoid of any personality, and seem to exist merely as “types” representing their ethnic group, with predictable trajectories. Their appearance in the text certainly helps to explore racial injustice against minorities in Shillong. But we do not get a sense of them as people outside their roles as a working-class Nepali or a Chinese immigrant. This flatness of representation extends to another working-class character in a later chapter, Kong Bishar, who is employed by the protagonist’s grandmother as a maid. While Bishar’s story itself is important, we barely hear her own voice in the chapter. Her trying experiences of having to leave her two children back at the village as she goes to Shillong for work is told through the protagonist. We do not know anything about Bishar’s desires, fears and aspirations. The protagonist at one point even says, “I always wondered if Bi got lonely”—she could just have told us whether she did. Although Bishar is shown apparent sympathy in the text, her character is deprived of much agency. This culminates very starkly in her choosing to abandon her own romantic aims to suit her employer’s wishes.

Some of the book’s shortcomings can also be attributed to its uncompelling usage of first-person narration. While it follows a similar style to Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land, (which also features semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stories, adopting the same narratorial technique), it lacks the arresting power of this book. Even in Chapter 10, where the protagonist’s experience of grief and loss brings us closer to her inner world, the clinical and almost dispassionate narrativisation of it aborts any possible intimacy between character and readers, something I find to be relatively essential in a work of fiction. There are several other significant scenarios in the text that are seldom awarded a dose of intensity, or that inspire any lingering afterthoughts that could help unpack their purpose and value in the plot. In much of the book, the consistently abrupt jump from one topic or scene to another at first appears like a stream-of-consciousness narratorial experiment, but increasingly seems like a lack of attention to the characters’ interiority.

Despite the few splashes of critical humour scattered among anecdotal narrations, the overall chronicling of the city is almost suffocated by the protagonist-narrator’s point of view, and hardly backed by a removed and distant viewing of the same in which larger and deeper questions about the social and political world of Shillong are being put forth. The repetitive and prosaic language makes the reading incredibly tedious. In Chapter 6, for example: “We took the scenic route through a path that no cars could go through because it was too narrow, where the Um Shirpi ran alongside and under us…This river and the Wah Umkhrah cut through the city and joined each other in Umiam Lake. The Wah Umkhrah was said to be divine. These two snaked through the city, reminding me of the great serpent Jormungandr who surrounded the earth, from the Norse stories my father read to me from his prized hardbound collections.” Although there is a commitment to detail, it is often outweighed by grammatical clumsiness and a superficial imaginative tone as witnessed in the lines cited above. When I first picked up Name, I expected to be embraced by the energy and grit of Shillong, which is often elegantly captured in other literature set in or inspired by the city. Instead, when reading it, one feels like the people and things talked about are caged in the monotony of the book’s tone and language—resulting in an underwhelming, and at times, alienating experience through the book’s dilution of the city’s intricacies and richness.

Shillong is rain and sun, flesh and blood, Assam Rifles and Cherry Blossom Festivals. In Name Place Animal Thing, it is also an immaterial longing. But the city, which is identified as “boring” and “sleepy” throughout the book, has also given the author a rich palette with which to create this work. I do recognise its aim and aspiration, especially as a work that explores the North East. In a recent interview with Assam Tribune, Lyndem states that Name should be read so as to “…give people in the rest of the country a sense of how we lived…what life was like for us in the North-East.” In light of the historical politics of representation surrounding North-East India in the literary world, Name certainly presents a window into the “curious” lives of people in the region; and it does so through the eyes of a child and young-adult female protagonist. However, in terms of a deeper political and aesthetic immersion, the book has very little to offer.