Shillong: A Nursery of Literary Culture

27TH MAY 2012

Murli Melwani

Along tradition of educational excellence, a salubrious climate, and a relaxed pace of life make Shillong a nursery of literary culture. I was witness to the growth of this culture from the fifties till the late seventies. It was my good fortune to know most of the writers personally. The contact with literary figures happened, less because I was a lecturer at Sankardev College, more because I gave time in the evenings to the bookshop I owned, Ratna’s Mascot.

Dr Verrier Elwin, a world-renowned anthropologist and ethnologist, who had donned khadi and worked with Gandhiji during the  freedom  movement, made Shillong his home. He was an impressive personality, with back-brushed collar-length hair and a perpetual cigar in his mouth. He wrote his autobiography, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin, in Shillong.

EP Gee, renowned for his 1953 discovery of Gee’s  golden  langur (Trachypithecus geei), was  a member of  Wildlife Board of India, along with well-known figures like Salim Ali and M Krishnan. He wrote the authoritative The Wild Life of India during his retirement in Upper Shillong. AL Basham, author of The Wonder That was India, married Catherine Sen (Shadap), who taught history at St. Mary’s College, Shillong. Basham travelled between Australia, his native country, and Shillong. He was buried in Shillong.

Nari Rustomji, former chief secretary, Government of Meghalaya, recorded his experiences in the Northeast in Enchanted Frontiers.

JN Chowdury, author of The Tribal Culture and History of Arunachal PradeshThe Khasi Canvas and Arunachal Panorama: A Study in Profile, would spend time at the Rabindra Library, from 7 pm till 9 pm, after a full day in government office. Everyone knew him as Mukul Chowdhury, not as Jyotindra Nath Chowdhury.

JD Baveja served as the director of All India Radio, Shillong for a number of years. A heavy-set man with casually combed hair, he had the look of an artiste. He wrote Across the Golden Heights of Assam and NEFA and The New Horizons of the North East, and collaborated with two others in writing The Land where the Bamboo Blooms.

DD Mali taught economics in the college where I taught English. My evenings in the bookshop taught me that there was a need for a book on the economy of Meghalaya. I persuaded Mali to write such a book; Ratna’s Mascot published it. Shortly after the publication of the book, Mali applied for the position of the director of the small-scale industries institute that was being set up. What secured Mali the job was the fact that he had published a book.

Mali subsequently wrote books like Economic Problems and Planning in Assam and Small Industry Development in North East India.

Radhon Singh Lyngdoh, who went on to become speaker of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly, was connected from the beginning with the movement for the creation of a separate hill state. He wrote a history of the movement. The manuscript was not published and is presumed lost. Efforts should be made to find out the manuscript and publish it, since it records an important phase of Meghalaya’s history by a person who was a lecturer in history at St. Anthony’s College, Shillong.

Chronicles of an Impossible Election by James Michael Lyngdoh gives the reader an insight into the functioning of the Election Commission. Lyngdoh, a winner of the prestigious Magsaysay Award, retired as the Chief Election Commissioner of India.

Mona Melwani won the first prize in the non-fiction category, for her entry, Tipu Sultan, in the Competition for Writers of Children’s Books, 1980, organised by Children’s Book Trust. The iconic Nirad C Chaudhuri, who completed a book at the age of 100, has written in some detail about Shillong, a city he was connected with, in The Autobiography of An Unknown Indian. Sanjoy Hazarika, author of Rites of PassageStrangers in the Mist and Writing on the Wall, needs no introduction.

Non-fiction is often the precursor of fiction and poetry. Famous anthropologist Verrier Elwin was a poet too; a collection of 28 of his poems has been recently published by North East Zonal Cultural Centre. Jyoti Jafa, wife of VS Jafa, an IAS officer, is the author of a historical novel, NurJahan. Since Jyoti Jafa was connected to one of the royal families of

Rajasthan, she recreates the Mughal court in the novel in meticulous detail. Shillong is the background for most of the stories in Murli Melwani’s collection, Stories of a Salesman. William H Archer, who reviewed it in Books Abroad, wrote, “(these)…are not stories with complex plots so much as sketches after the manner of Lafcadio Hearn, sharp vignettes of the daily round of East Indian people”.

In the early sixties, three young men and two women, who had just graduated from college, started a literary magazine, Forward. It carried poems, short stories and articles. Forward died a quiet unannounced death after three issues. Reason: the obvious one, lack of funds.

I am tempted to include writers like Mitra Phukan, who went to school or college in Shillong, but I would be straying from my turf, because other cities nurtured their talent.

Preetika Venkatakrishnan, in a recent article in Seven Sisters Post, Guwahati, brought the literary narrative of Shillong up to date by focusing on contemporary writers and poets.I would like to add a few names to her list.  The story of Ankush Saikia’s debut novel, Jet City Woman, alternates between New Delhi and Shillong. The short stories in Saikia’s recent collection, Spotting Veron and Other Stories, move closer to Shillong. RG Lyngdoh, former home minister of Meghalaya, brought out a novel, Who the Cap Fits, that deals with the ethnic tensions in the Shillong of the seventies and eighties. Bikika Laloo Tariang, in her collection of short stories, Dad and The Salesman, presents both sides of the coin; she conveys the ignorance of fellow Indians about the people of the Northeast as well as the prejudices and insecurities of the locals.

The literary narrative of Shillong will move forward as more poets, novelists and short story writers draw on a tradition going back to the fifties and build on the groundwork done by the contemporary poets and writers. We look forward to more voices from the the Northeast presenting the unique points of view and sensibilities of seven fascinating cultures.

Janice Pariat and Anjum Hasan have won earned much acclaim for their writing.