Nartiang’s Intriguing Heritage

I had heard about this place a million times but never had the opportunity to be here. While my cousin parked the car, I walked ahead and found myself standing right before the red-white unassuming structure. So, this was that temple! The corrugated tin-roofed temple looked extraordinarily simple and plain. No ornate carvings, no elaborate dome, no decorative entrance. If not for the brass bells, I would have thought it was somebody’s house. While I admired the unusual simplicity of the temple, my cousin walked up nonchalantly, and we went inside. She’s been here several times.

Pic 1: The Nartiang Durga Temple

It was a late but comfortably warm autumn morning. We had driven 65 Km. from Shillong and arrived at Nartiang Village. The village is located in West Jaintia Hills. (Meghalaya comprises of Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills, and Garo Hills). Rich in coal reserves, Jaintia Hills is exquisitely beautiful and scenic. Our destination on this day was the 600-year old temple, located at Nartiang Village that was part of the Jaintia Kingdom. Dedicated to Jainteswari or Jayanti Devi, an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, the temple has interesting legends associated with it.

Jaintias or Pnars are the indigenous tribes of Jaintia Hills and their traditional tribal religion, known as Niamtre, is largely influenced by Hinduism. Nartiang Village is dominated by the Niamtres. In this village, the traditional Niamtre religion blends with Hinduism and the Hindu deities of Durga and Shiva are worshipped in tandem with tribal deities.

Pic 2: The temple deity – Jainteswari Devi, an incarnation of Goddess Durga.

Inside the temple, we sat on the clean marble floor as the priest conducted a puja for us. The marble floor did appear a little out of place though and was clearly done only recently. Originally the temple was constructed like a typical local house of those days having a central wooden pillar (locally known as dieng Blai) and a thatched roof. It was reconstructed by Ramakrishna Mission in 1987. The shrine inside the temple was again simple and unexceptional. The priest informed it was made of Ashtadhatu (also known as octo-alloy, it is a combination of gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead, tin, iron, and mercury).

My cousin pointed out to a pit in the floor that leads to an underground tunnel, which in turn is connected to Myntang River down below. During the time of the Jaintia Kings, human sacrifices were conducted in this temple to appease the goddess. Through this pit, the severed head would roll down to the swift flowing waters of the river. An open window lay just above the pit. I looked out at the lush green hills dazzling in the bright sun, the air was crisp, and the sky clear. I could feel strong positive vibes all around. It was difficult to comprehend the rituals that would have transpired within the walls of this temple centuries ago.

Pic 5: Mynteng River flows silently through the village.

We walked through the village towards the Shiva temple, which is located in another hillock not very far from the Devi Temple. The houses in the village wore a pretty look and we were told that most of them were painted anew due to Durga Puja, which is just two weeks from now.

Pic 6: A pretty little village home. Grains of paddy rice spread out to dry in the sun.

The Shiva temple was nondescript but had a mysterious charm of its own. There were several small Ashtadhatu idols placed in a single row inside. Only one was that of Lord Shiva. The rest were that of Devi in various forms. Interestingly just behind the idols, lay a row of ancient cannons that belonged to the Jaintia Kings. The right place of which should have been a museum.

Pic 7: The nondescript Shiva Temple

There is a prominent pillar in both the temples. These pillars are supposed to be energy centers that are consecrated once in a few years. The pillar in the Devi temple had some inscriptions, not all of it is legible but it did have a date mentioned.

Interesting Stories Associated with the Temple

  • This temple is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas of Hindu mythology, Devi’s left thigh had supposedly fallen here.
  • King Dhan Manik of the Jaintia Kingdom had built this temple. It is said that the goddess had appeared in his dream informing him about the significance of this place and instructing him to build the temple. Nartiang used to be the summer capital of the Jaintia Kingdom.
  • The royal priests of the temple were brought by the Jaintia chieftains all the way from Maharashtra centuries ago. Apparently, priests in and around the region were not ready to conduct the ritual of human sacrifice. Three brahmins from the Deshmukh clan agreed to the ritual, probably because of their upbringing in kshatriya tradition. The temple is still run by the direct descendants of the Maharashtrian Deshmukh Brahmins.
  • Symbolic human sacrifice (locally known as blang synniaw) continues to this day in the form of a strange custom. At midnight of the second day of Durga Puja or Asthami, a spotless black goat is dressed as a human with a dhoti, turban, and earrings. A white mask with a human face is placed on the goat’s head and it is then beheaded. (See the mask in Pic-2 above). The head of the goat rolls down the old tunnel into Myntang River.
Pic 10: Nartiang Village as seen from the Shiva temple

The Good Old Pumpkin

Remember the pumpkin coach built by Cinderella’s fairy godmother so that she could attend the ball? And, which had turned back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, to be trampled by the palace horses?

Like many little girls of my time, Cinderella used to be my favourite childhood fairy tale. It was her glass shoes and the pumpkin coach that fascinated me. There was another favourite too, Rapunzel. Her long tresses allured me, and I would dream of having the same long golden plait. That was probably because my thick glossy jet-black hair was trimmed to the shortest, so that it could be easily managed. I can clearly remember the glossy feel of the pages of those childhood books. I have no idea if children today are still fascinated by these fairy tales. I only hear of Doraemon, Shizuka, Nobita, Elsa, Barbie, and so on. These characters never existed during our childhood.

My childhood memories of Cindrella’s carriage was rekindled by a pumpkin – a very special pumpkin. Not the orange-red Cinderella pumpkin but the green one with scattered spots of yellow.

We have a small little kitchen garden in our Shillong home. It’s an extended part of my father’s garden that he tended with a lot of love and care. The kitchen garden boasts of a variety of produce. Some of these are chayotes, beans, colocasia, chilies, lemons, tree tomatoes, corns, and the good old pumpkin. The pumpkin vine happened to be his eternal favourite and he nurtured a special attachment to it. His bias towards the vine and the pumpkins would sometimes reach unreasonable heights. The full-grown pumpkins would never be allowed an immediate entry into the kitchen. They would be safely kept, carefully guarded and shielded on the terrace. They would often be smeared with a dash of lime. Probably to ward off insect attacks – I really don’t know. Never asked him. The pumpkins would grace the kitchen only on special occasions.

When I came home in August, I did notice the yellow flowers of the pumpkin vine. It’s quite a common site during this time of the year and I didn’t pay much attention. One day I spotted a tiny little round ball popping out of a flower. It was way too adorable and impossible to ignore. There on, I would take stock of it every single day and watching it grow was sheer delight. In the meanwhile, several other tiny green rounded baby pumpkins made their appearance, but my eyes remain glued to the first one. I was partial in my love and adulation. And, I think I now understand my father’s over-protective attitude towards his pumpkins.

It does surprise me significantly to think that the pumpkin vine was always there, but I never ever bothered to take a close look. The garden was my father’s arena. I loved the greenery all around and admired his passion but never really participated alongside him. My father is surely smiling watching his pumpkins grow.

Now for some Google-gyan, attributed to my new-found pumpkin interest. Pumpkins or Cucurbita, as they are known scientifically, have originated from Central America over 7,500 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. Green pumpkins come in two varieties – Japanese pumpkin or ‘Kabocha’ and Italian pumpkin or ‘Marina di Chioggia’. It’s the sweet-tasting Asian pumpkin that grows in our kitchen garden. The Italian counterpart is small, dark green with a very warty outer rind. There’s also a pear-shaped variety, known as Lakota squash. Pumpkins possess abundant vitamins and nutrients besides being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antifungal. Pumpkins are high in protein and fiber. They are an excellent source of iron and vitamin A.

Pumpkins are extraordinarily versatile when it comes to cooking. They can be cooked in a variety of ways on their own and also in combination with other vegetables. Pumpkins make great combination with fresh-water fish and dry fish too. Pumpkins make for great desserts too!

Here are two simple pumpkin recipes from my mother’s kitchen.

Midnight Drama

Awakened from deep sleep, I lay on bed for a couple of seconds trying to figure out what the commotion was all about. The rest of the family was already up, and their buzzing voices came floating into my room. Everyone seemed to be talking together and I could not make out a word. Stumbling out of bed with half open eyes, I stepped out. The noise was coming from my parents’ room, where everyone seemed to have gathered. Had mom fallen ill? The thought was immediately put to rest as I saw everyone perched on her bed, looking out of the window that is situated just adjacent to the bed. The window curtains were drawn open.

I looked at the watch and was surprised to see it was just 12.30 AM. Oh! Not all that late. On second thoughts, it is quite late for Shillong. The sun sets earlier in the hills and consequently the evenings are longer, unlike Bangalore.

“What’s going on?”, I asked. No response. People were engrossed peering out of the window. I joined them. All the drama was happening in our neighbouring house. Several people had collected in their open garage that had three cars parked. As the scene unfolded before my sleepy eyes, I was finally able to make sense of the confusion.

A petty thief had broken into their compound, smashed the window of a van, and had tried getting his hands onto the car stereo. The thief had also filled a sack with things like toffees, chips, and biscuits. Those were things stacked in the car to be taken to the grocery shop owned by one of the tenants living in that house.

The thief wasn’t smart enough and was nabbed by the people in the neighbourhood, while he tried to flee. We could clearly see the thief through the window. He was petite and frail. His demeanor quite effectively drew our collective sympathies towards him. A lot of people from the neighbourhood had collected around the thief, who in turn was held tight by two other people. We wished they would let him go with a warning. Our neighbours, however, called the police and the thief was handcuffed away in a matter of time.

The commotion died down and we went back to bed. My sleep had disappeared by now and I continued to feel sorry for the thief. My thoughts drifted towards my home in Bangalore. There I live in a flat in an apartment, which is very different from my parents’ home in Shillong. They live in an independent house surrounded by other independent houses in the neighbourhood. There are striking differences between the two set ups. The petty thief drama is a case in point. A petty thief may never be able to break into an apartment with all the security paraphernalia – security guards, CCTV cameras etc. Robberies or other complicated crimes do happen but not petty thefts. At least, I haven’t heard of any.

My thoughts took off into comparing life in big cities with that of small towns. What one has, the other lacks and vice versa. I dozed off speculating the hits and misses while trying to decide which one is more preferable than the other. I think I know my preference though.

He’ll Live On For Me – Forever

At the back of my mind, I always feared this day. I knew I would have to face it someday. Yet, I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t prepared, I guess one can never be prepared for this day.

It was the fateful evening of August 15, when my father suddenly left us forever. It’s exactly a month today. Still to conquer the shock and disbelief completely, it feels like he has just stepped out and will be back soon.

He was hale and hearty even two days back. He wasn’t ailing. The heart and BP related problems were under control and none of these had ever stopped him from leading a perfectly normal life. Physically, he was frail, which can also be attributed to his lean frame. Mentally, his strength was beyond compare.

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Pic 1: He loved traveling. This one’s at Agra.

He had just turned 80 and was anything but an 80-year old. His extraordinarily active nature had earned him the nickname of Dennis the Menace in the family. He would spend most part of his day in the garden, which he painstakingly created over several years. On a typical day, he could be seen tending to his plants in the garden, pruning the hedges, climbing ladders to fix the bamboo support for creepers, mounting the compound wall to tie up the wayward branches of a tree, and so on. His hyperactive nature would worry my mother and she would chide him like a little boy.

We would often discuss that his plants know his touch, they know his presence, and they bloom with happiness for him. His flowers, fruits, and vegetables must be missing his presence in the same way, if not more. His precious little manicured garden will never be the same anymore.

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Pic 2: His precious garden where he spent most of his time.
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Pic 3: Another section of the garden.
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Pic 4: The more I talk about his garden, the less it is. I will share more in future.

My father was a typical Bengali Babumoshai in his love for fish. His passion was not so much in eating as it was in going to the market to examine the fresh catches of the day, and also in scouting for the exotic varieties of freshwater fishes. The latter would reach exponential proportions whenever we would come home for holidays.

Another passion of his was politics and current affairs. He was extremely opinionated in matters of governance of the country. His antipathy towards a certain political party and a few selective political figures would find unique ways of expression. His introvert nature notwithstanding, he wouldn’t shy away from swearing and using cuss words, which was most of the times amusing but at times irritating too.

The year 2020 is bizarre for humankind. I had never thought this year would also bring about the biggest personal loss for me. My father’s case is a collateral damage of this pandemic year. A fatal fall leading to a cerebral hemorrhage sealed our fates forever. The limited medical facilities in Shillong, where they stay, left us helpless. Bangalore, with its advanced medical facilities would have been ideal. But we could do nothing. The pandemic made immediate interstate movement nearly impossible.

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Pic 5: He loved the sea. This one’s at Diu Fort when I captured him enjoying the view.

My father seamlessly transitioned into the Afterworld. That remains my greatest solace. He had it easy and did not suffer at all. He was blessed in that sense. Moreover, he passed away indulging in activities he enjoyed the most. He fell on a Tuesday, was fine on Wednesday – did his usual gardening, fish market visits, and swearing at the politicians while watching the evening news. Thursday he was admitted to the hospital, was fully conscious and doing fine. Friday, his condition suddenly deteriorated and he had to be operated. Saturday, he passed away.

I wasn’t there by his side when he breathed his last. Losing a parent is the most difficult thing to come to terms with. I thought I understood when it happened to others, but no I didn’t. Now that it happened to me, I know how it feels.

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Pic 6: Easily and effortlessly, he walked away from this world….

My life feels like it has fallen apart and as though I am caught up in a whirlwind. Everything feels meaningless. Tsunamis of powerful emotions hit me every now and then. Each time, I try to steer my thoughts towards the positive side of how this has happened. And what could have happened but didn’t. 

My father had a good life. I will celebrate his life rather than grieve his death. I owe it to him. I will always remain grateful that he touched my life in such powerful and beautiful ways. I have no regrets and I know that his love and blessings will remain with me for the rest of my life.

It will take me time to adjust to his physical absence. Whenever I’m reminded of him, I will use it as an opportunity to cherish his memories.

An Alert From a Random Stranger

Why is it that we almost always mistrust our fellow human beings? Isn’t trust supposed to be central to human relations of all kinds?

Here’s what happened last week.

I received a random email from an unknown person who claimed that my photographs were being used by others in social media without giving the due credit. The man, as I deciphered his gender based on the thumbnail picture in the email, also advised I start watermarking my photographs. My immediate reaction was suspicion as thoughts of phishing, social engineering, data theft, and the like hovered over my head.

After a while, I decided to write back asking how he knew those photographs were mine. He responded back stating that he had visited my blog and read my posts. Based on that, he saw someone posting photographs clicked by me as their own in Facebook. He also provided the Facebook link. And, yes, the photograph in question was indeed mine. This kind gentleman even went out of his way and confronted the plagiarist by writing a comment. The plagiarist obviously denied the same.

That a random unknown person bothered so much is a great story to tell. More so in today’s world where nobody cares or even has the time. Made me wonder if I would have done the same.

We are almost always suspicious about people’s intentions. We always question the motive of someone doing some random good to us. We find it difficult to accept that someone can do a good just like that. This becomes even more profound with strangers and our immediate reaction is mistrust. Trust is one of the cornerstones of human connections, governing all interactions we have with each other. Yet, mistrust rules the world.

Our basic personalities may also have a role to play in how much we trust or mistrust. Some people can trust others easily while some are more cynical. By and large, I belong to the former category. While that has landed me in many a trouble, I do have several wonderful trust stories to tell. There’s no denying of the terrible things that happen around us, which only breed mistrust. As a result, instinctively we may have become more suspicious than ever. Is that a very good thing to happen to human kind? I can’t tell. Maybe not. Maybe we need to have the right balance. My experience says – when in doubt, trust your gut.

Well, trust needs to be earned and the least we can do is be trustworthy. Afterall, we can control our own selves, our own actions, and our own thoughts. We have no control over what others think, say, or do.

And, follow Shakespeare’s advice – Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.

An Identityless Identity

“Going to my native…….,” is a phrase that I often hear in my office. The word “native” is commonly used in Bangalore, which simply refers to one’s home. Sometimes, it is used in the context of one’s ancestral home, usually a village or a town, that maybe located in the same state or another state. The popularity of the word “native” in Bangalore is natural, given that half the city’s population constitute people who have migrated here for jobs from other places of India.

In my understanding, the place you’re born and brought up in is home to you, you may or may not be a native inhabitant of that place. Hence, Shillong is home to me. But I often find myself in a dilemma when asked questions like, “Where is your native?”; “When are you visiting your native?”. Shillong is my home but is it my native? No, I don’t think so. I am not an indigenous tribe of Meghalaya. I am a Bengali. So, is Kolkata my home? Or maybe some other place in West Bengal? No, certainly not! So where do I belong?

Often times, my Kannadiga, Malayalee, and friends from other parts of South India are unable to comprehend the fact that I am Bengali, yet West Bengal is not my home. I have had to get into elaborate explanations to drive home the correlation of being a Bengali whose home is Shillong and not Kolkata. I once told a Kannadiga friend, “If you were born and raised in Bihar, would you call yourself a Bihari or would you be still be a Kannadiga?” He remained confused. While we are all Indians and such discussions may seem petty, we cannot ignore the wide diversity of our country.

Today I bring to you Shatavisha’s story in connection with my earlier post on my hometown. The experiences she’s had throws a glimpse into the identity struggle of the Sylheti Bengali. Some of the things Shatavisha experienced is exactly what I have experienced. Hence, this is my story too.

Shatavisha’s story was originally published in an online magazine, Ishan Kotha. The editors of the magazine have been kind enough to let me use the story in my blog.

Read on…

Shatavisha Chakravorty’s Story

“Where are you from?” asked my mentor. The year was 2013 and the question was asked to an eighteen-year-old me.

“Shillong”, I answered.

“Ceylon?”

“No Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. A state in the North-Eastern part of India”,  I tried to explain.

“Ah, I see. But your admission slip says that your mother tongue is Bengali.”

“It is, Sir”

“But, if you are a Bengali are you really from Shillong?”

I didn’t know what to say to this. For as long as I remember, Shillong was the only place I would associate with the word ‘home’. It felt like it is here that I belonged; and yet deep down the teenager, I knew that the place did not consider me it’s own.

To be honest, the first realization of this happened somewhere in my early teens. My parents were looking to get a place of residence. We have always lived in a rented place. As the housing search began (as an 8-year-old I got comprehend only bits and pieces of whatever was going on), everything seemed to center around Kolkata.

“Ma, why are you looking for a place in Kolkata? Why not here?”, I asked.

“Because we cannot buy houses here. Meghalaya is a sixth schedule state, my dear. Only tribals can buy land in most parts of the state. Yes, there are some European Wards like Jail Road or Oakland. But property prices there are just too high.  And moreover, if we take a flat in Kolkata, we will be more easily accessible to you when you grow up and work.”

Things the 8-year-old me comprehended out of this conversation .

Shillong is not my home as I had thought it to be. It is not providing my parents with a conducive environment to set up a place of permanent residence despite having spent almost all their career here.

I had to go out of Shillong to make my career.

Fast forward to a couple of years from the day of this conversation, I became active in various co-curricular activities. I would ace the debates, science seminars, essay writing competitions, and others at the school level. This would make me qualify for the district level events. And that’s when the divide started to show up. I would not go past the district level events. Even if I did manage to make it to the state level, never would I be selected for national-level events.

I started to lose hope, believing that something was lacking in me. That’s when elders (parents, teachers, and others) reached out to me and pointed it out that this has nothing to do with my talent and the people qualifying are all tribal residents of the state. The state does not consider us, the non-tribal Bengali as its residents and hence the step-motherly treatment .

Once it was pointed out to me, I started noticing the pattern. It was everywhere. Meghalaya did not consider me its daughter. I had no option but to accept this. This made me firmer in my resolve to study out-of-state and with that, a few years later, I found myself in the conversation we started this article with .

Today, its been 7 years since that conversation. Let’s talk about 2017. Some 4 years since that conversation, I find myself with an engineering degree and two job offers. I join my present organization as a bubbly 22-year-old girl. And that’s when I have my first encounter with non-North East Bengalis.

At first, it was a matter of great excitement for them to have spotted a fellow Bengali. Having been brought up in a cosmopolitan setup, the last name of my friends did not mean much to me. But to them finding a ‘Chakravorty’, ‘Bhattacharya’, ‘Ghosh’ or ‘Sen’ in a land that’s 1000 km away from their home meant finding gold.

Again, the same set of questions. “If you are a Bengali, how are you ‘really’ from Shillong?’. By now I had grown used to this question and knew how to dodge it. But what followed in the next few months is something I was not ready for.

It started with making fun of my Bangla. Everything from the use of an English word in a Bangla sentence to being completely unaware of the technical terminologies in my mother tongue came under the scanner. I was a subject of ridicule among the ‘Bengali group’.

In the initial days, I would be upset about it. Befriending other people at work (a cosmopolitan group consisting of people from all over the country) made me realize that nothing was wrong with me. Yes, I did not fit in the ‘Bengali group’, but that does not hamper my confidence.

Yes, I am a Bangal. My place of birth is Shillong. My father’s was Silchar. My mother’s is Imphal. This is a fact. All three of our passports say the same. If my maternal or paternal grandfathers were to be alive, theirs would say ‘Part of undivided India’. So would that of my great grandfathers’. This is my lineage. And , I am proud of it.

If the fact that visiting one’s ancestral village every Dol, Nababarsha, or Bijoya is what it takes to give him or her an identity, then I do not need such an identity. My identity is that of an Indian. An Indian Bengali.

My place of birth is Shillong and the place has given me 18 years of beautiful childhood memories. These , I will cherish for a lifetime. My place of residence is Bangalore today. It can be Kolkata, Delhi, Chicago, or New York tomorrow. For me, home is where I live, where my family lives. So is Shillong was my home yesterday but is not so tomorrow, I have no regrets. I have my priorities sorted and more than 2/3 rd of my life in front of me (hopefully!) to carve a name for myself on the foundation of Indian Bengali – an identity passed on to me by my parents and ancestors.

The lockdown which unlocked the shadows

The apartment I live in shares one of its boundary wall with a well-known school. As a result, my balcony opens to the school field. With the ongoing pandemic and schools being indefinitely shut the field is being renovated. Children in India and in many parts of the world are attending classes from home – one of the many positive outcomes of technology, even though it doesn’t replicate the experience of being physically present in class.

This reminded me of my school days when we had a similar experience in my hometown, Shillong. We could not attend classes for one whole year. Those were days before the mobile phones and the Internet had happened. Perhaps, television and landline telephones were the only technology we were exposed to. I remember collecting assignments from school, completing them at home, and then submitting for evaluation.

With this thought, today I share Shonali’s story, which outlines why schools didn’t happen for one whole year. This post is part of the series of personal stories I am bringing to you in context of the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis, the community that has been been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam more than seven decades ago. (Read my previous post for context.) As mentioned before, my aim is to raise awareness about this marginalized community. Over the years, atrocities spread beyond the Bengali to all non-tribal, in general. However, the fact remains that it is the Sylheti Bengali, who remains homeless and stateless. I do not intend to paint a loathly picture of my hometown Shillong and its people. Shillong is too dear to me, it’s my home, the place where I was born and raised. But, these are my stories. Stories that need to be told.

Shonali writes, “We left to find safety and security never to look back to those dark times which haunts us in our memories and nightmares. In many, including me who grew up in the perpetual fear of being persecuted on racial grounds, those dark times have left a permanent imprint on us as PTSD and we live with it.”

Read on…

ShowerScape

woman wearing brown shirt inside room Photo by Felipe Cespedes on Pexels.com

A microbe. And that’s what it took to bring the human species down to a lockdown. We have been thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic, something this generation had never experienced in this magnitude before. Normal life as we knew it is suspended indefinitely. The whole of humanity is in this together without any exceptions of caste, creed, religion, colour, race, political orientation, sexual orientation- one and all in a way which we witness only in movies. The image of a gigantic UFO towering over the earth fills my vision. I only wish the world came together not under such dire circumstances but in a manner which was more pleasant. We were not prepared to handle this crisis and it’s almost like taking one day at a time but also having to plan and prepare for the next several weeks. Tesco yesterday breathed panic. It…

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Once upon a time…

My previous post was on my hometown, Shillong, described in the context of Hindu Sylheti Bengalis – the community that has been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam, more than seven decades ago. It’s a tragedy that most of my fellow countrymen don’t know about. I had mentioned that I would share few stories written by other bloggers. These are my stories. Stories that I would have told. My aim is just to raise awareness about this marginalized community through these posts.

Today I share Sharmistha’s story. Her story reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s family. They lived in Shillong for generations. My grandmother and her siblings were born and brought up in Shillong. Every single person from that family has now moved out of Shillong. The last member left just 2 years ago. Same is the story of an aunt (father’s younger brother’s wife) and several other relatives and friends.

Sharmistha writes, “Not in his wildest dreams did Baba think he would one day have to leave his home and hearth and become a refugee in his own land. There was no other place we could call ‘home’ and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we felt dispossessed, displaced, homeless and uprooted. No matter how many words I use to describe our plight, nothing can truly express how traumatized we were.”

Read on….

Shillong: Reflections and remembrances

A book that I like to read time and again, specially in these troubled times, is Rahul Pandita’s “Our moon has blood clots”.Browsing through this memoir of emotional turmoil in strife torn Kashmir took me to disturbed times in my hometown,Shillong.

The year was 1979 ; it was the month of November. Although I cannot recall the exact date, I do remember that something happened on that day which changed our lives forever.For the first time in our lives we heard words like “outsider”, “non-tribal”, “curfew” – words which made the air heavy with hatred , animosity , confusion and uncertainty.

Schools had shut down, final exams were cancelled (We were in class 8 then ) and only ICSE examinees reached school amid heavy security . Curfew was imposed in the city and there was tension all around. The desecration of an idol of Goddess Kali in the Laitumkhrah locality…

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The Place I Belong to, Yet I Don’t

Shillong is my home. No other place, I can ever call home. Though I live in Bangalore now and have been here for the past 10 years, after having spent a couple of years in Kolkata and Hyderabad. Bangalore can be my second home and for two reasons at that – first, this is the longest I have stayed at any place outside Shillong; second, this place has given me a job and I have invested in buying a house here. My heart however beats only for Shillong – the place of my birth and the place where I grew up. My parents still live there.

But every so often, in different ways, I am told that Shillong is not my home. The reason being I am a non-tribal. More importantly, I am a Bengali – a Sylheti Bengali. Why? Because certain thoughtless leaders had decided my fate by signing some papers, years before I was born. They had conveniently divided the country into two nations, which later became three (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). Everyone knows about the great partition of India that had happened through the two provinces of Bengal and Punjab. Hardly anybody knows about the third province, which was also affected by partition. The province of Assam. In this case the wrath of partition fell upon the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis. A lot has been talked about the sufferings of the people from Punjab. Not many are aware of the sufferings of the Bengalis from Sylhet.

Who are Sylheti Bengalis: The Sylheti people are a Sylheti-speaking Bengali sub-group which originated from the Sylhet region of the Indian subcontinent. Current population is divided between the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh, three districts of the Barak Valley and in the Hojai district of Assam in India. There are sizeable populations in the Indian states of Meghalaya, Tripura in North Tripura district and Manipur. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The merciless act of drawing a line across the map of East India affected the sub-community of Sylheti Bengali like no other. That the line was drawn by cheating the community at large, based on what suited the vested interests at that time, is a different piece of history altogether. While the country jubilantly celebrated its independence from 200 years of British Rule, this small community had lost everything. Hindu Sylheti Bengalis, belonging to Sylhet district of Bangladesh, were displaced from their homes and became refugees in their own country. Not only did they lose their assets like property, homes, and other material wealth, they had lost their identity. Their sufferings had just begun. Many of them had moved to the state of Meghalaya (part of Assam at that time), as that was logistically the easiest. Moreover, in many cases, friends and relatives were already living there. Meghalaya became a separate state in 1972. Just a few years later, trouble started with the indigenous tribes wanting the non-tribal Bengalis out of their state. The Bengalis suffered atrocities and alienation in many overt and covert ways.

The community, docile and meek by nature, silently accepted all the atrocities and humiliations hurled upon them. They never protested about being made to feel like encroachers in their own country. Instead, they chose to focus on the upbringing of their children, provide them with good education, and equip them with all they could for a better and brighter future. Fighting the stigma of being refugees and facing hardships with their limited resources, they were putting back pieces of their lives together as they tried to settle down. Starting life from scratch, some managed to buy land and built their own homes before the Land Act was passed (according to The Meghalaya Transfer of Land Act, 1971, only tribals are allowed to buy land in Meghalaya).

Their choice of selecting meekness to aggression did not quite work in their favour and the ghosts of partition continued to haunt them. Over a period, in the hope of finding peace and to protect themselves, many left to other parts of the country. Those that had to leave their own houses and property lament that they lost everything for a second time just in two generations. Many preferred to stay on, still facing alienation and humiliation, as that is home to them.

It’s been a little over seven decades now. The ghost of partition still rears its ugly head every now and then. The Hindu Sylheti Bengali remains displaced forever. They are Indians that are strangers in their own country and have no place to call their own. The community continues to struggle in their 3rd and 4th generations down the line.

Recently, I came across a couple of blog posts that are individual stories of this marginalized community of people. I will share a couple of them in the hope that some of you will care to read even though you might not completely relate. They’re written by other bloggers, but they are my stories – stories that I would have told.

Click the links below to read the stories:

Curiosity Kills Cats, Not Squirrels

It was morning, not very early though. I was still in bed, neither fully asleep nor fully awake. I could sense my sister was up and was at my bedside jabbering something rather frantically. My half-asleep state didn’t register a word but gathered that something needed my immediate attention. While it appeared urgent, it didn’t seem serious. I turned over and decided to sleep for a little while longer.

A good 30-45 min later as I got out of bed, there were tiny oval grayish pellets strewn all over the floor of the house. It took me no time to recognize these were squirrel droppings. So, this is what my sister was trying to tell me. All the doors and windows remain closed at night. How did they manage to get an entry? And, when did all of this happen? I don’t remember hearing any noise at all. My sister declared that she did hear some mild rattling as dawn was breaking in, but she was too sleepy to bother.

It did not take me long to piece together what could have happened. The chimney in kitchen hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I usually call in for a service expert twice a year. At other times, I do the cleaning myself. So, I had removed the flap that absorbs the fumes, scrubbed, washed, and left it outside to dry. The flap also forms a barrier between the exhaust pipe and the hob.

Tuntuni, the garden squirrel who lives in the tree just outside the kitchen would have once again entered the chimney pipe. Over-inquisitive as she always is, she would have accidentally fallen onto the kitchen counter. I am not sure if she was alone or was goofing around with her siblings. The confusedness that would have followed is only left to my imagination! She would have felt trapped having no idea how to get out. She would have agitatedly gone around the house trying to figure a way out. Droppings all over the floor and the dining table are tell-tale signs of all the commotion that would have happened.

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I cleaned the droppings – dry pellets, nothing messy. Heaving a sigh of relief and not realizing that the mess was yet to begin, I opened the kitchen sink tap. Water gushed right into the kitchen floor and there I was suddenly marooned in a sizeable pool of water. While trying to escape and looking for an outlet, Tuntuni had damaged the sink drainage pipe. That was not the end. Bewildered, she had even managed to extract some kitchen waste from the garbage bin, which is usually kept below the sink. All that foul-smelling unwanted waste material was now floating on the pool of water.

Certainly not the best way to start a day for the cleanliness freak that I am! That aside, the plumber had to be called and dealing with plumbers is something I loathe to the core. With zero knowledge on the subject, I always feel cheated and exploited. It has never been a pleasant experience.

All of this just for some unadulterated and pure squirrel happiness. Phew!

I still have no clue how she might have escaped. The same chimney route is all that I can think of, which would have again been an accidental discovery. And what relief that would have been! It’s all the fault of the Myna, who had built a nest in the chimney. The squirrel until then had no clue about this hideout. In all her innocence, Tuntuni is just a hyperactive and playful little curious squirrel.

[Click here for a previous post on the squirrel.]