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.