I have been reading Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in my Head on and off for a month now. It’s a novel based in and about Shillong. It reminds me of all the hilly/mountainous things in my life. Like the fact that I have never lived in the mountains or that I have never traveled east of Calcutta. But I do have one connection to the North East – a friend from ninth grade.
Back then in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Chinese meant food, not ethnicity. And North Easterners were a rarity in the city. The few that were there were mostly ignored unless absolutely necessary. Like when you needed a haircut or “international” food. Chinese being the height of international cuisine back then. The beauty parlors and Chinese restaurants were their special haunt. Not just because they were good at it, but there were very few other avenues open to them. They were invisible much like South by North East, a direction that doesn’t exist. It speaks so much of our insularity as a society.
A few years later, this situation changed. The deadly combination of insurgency and lack of opportunity pushed many of them out of their homes. And some of them even left their beautiful lush mountains and came to the coconut plains.
As far as I know, my North Eastern friend was here because her mom had made a choice. To marry a South Indian. She was the most exotic looking girl of our class. Her name was Elizabeth Syiem. For some reason, we never shortened it to Liz, Eliza, or Lizzy. She was always Elizabeth. Following the matrilineal tradition, she took her mother’s surname Syiem. We were never sure how to pronounce that. One more reason to stick to calling her Elizabeth.
Her physical features were a study in contrast. From afar, she looked just like the women from the North East: petite with high-cheek bones, mongoloid eyes, straight hair, narrow hips, and an air of the mountains about her. (That air I am sure was inherited because she was very much brought up here in Madras.) Once you go closer, you’d realize that something was amiss. Something was not quite right. She was not the girl from the North East. Not completely at least. Her skin was the color of the woman in Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters. Very definitely not North East. Because of her exoticness, she often attracted the attention of the older boys not the boys of our class.
I can still remember her voice; quite unlike anything I’d heard. A voice with an incomplete twang. As if she had swallowed something by accident and that had stayed there, contributing to every sound she made. Maybe Shillong was stuck in her throat.
The air of the mountains couldn’t stay too close to the sea. We lost touch after High School. In a city this big, it was so easy to lose things – friends, memories, hopes, desires, ambitions, ourselves.
I remember the first time that she had told us that she was from Shillong. I had asked her, “Meghalaya?” as if to reassure myself that it was still a part of the recognizable world. She nodded a yes. The land of the clouds. A hazy-around-the-edges map of India sketched itself in my head. I zoomed into North North East of Calcutta. That little oval-ish state above graceful arch of Bangladesh. That was far. So far beyond my imagination that I had nothing to say. Maybe it was a land beyond both speech and clouds.