The rules of the game are simple – you pick a random alphabet and jot down nouns in the form of name, place, animal and thing in the allotted time.
Shillong-born author Daribha Lyndem orchestrates her debut fiction Name Place Animal Thing’s namesake with each of its chapters, as each section is warmly wrapped in a noun that recounts a Khasi girl D’s formative years in Shillong. Through this coming-of-age narrative, the reader enters a rarely visited region in the world of Indian fiction whose degree of fidelity is sustained through the sights and smells of the city.
Abrupt and often long spells of rain accompanying the chilly wind of the hills is a pervasive presence in the novel. Like the antecedents of women’s writing from the Northeast such as Mamang Dai and Temsula Ao, Lyndem displays an acute awareness of Shillong’s ecology. It appears in the form of D’s ruminations on the plants in her garden, abundant pine trees, weeping willows, the eucalyptus trees at her school near Hydari park and the cyclical arrival of cherry blossoms. In addition, Lyndem’s unembellished prose chiseled with Khasi inflections and names also harmonises with the quaintness of Shillong in the 1990s. It is an era when greeting cards are circulated on special occasions and DVD stores were a thing.
The novel progresses through people, places and events that precipitate into D’s consciousness, shaping her understanding of the world up till her youth. And within this narrative, non-Khasi immigrant lives find a special place. In particular, the immigrant vocations emphasised are from the service sector. For instance, Bahadur, a Nepali is employed as a help at Nongrim hills and Mr. Baruah, an Assamese, works as a shopkeeper in Barik. Through D’s cogitations on the trauma they endure in the form of racial prejudice and hostility, the reader will recognise a larger symptom of the society. Lyndem herself diagnoses it in chapter three by elucidating on the Khasi word dkhar which is used to address non-tribals. She writes:
“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”.
The often denigrating manner of addressing non-tribals colloquially can also be found found in various other dialects of Northeast, like the word haring in Arunachal or as Nandita Haksar in her introduction to the 2016 anthology The Exodus is not Over cites “the Mizo word bhai or the Meitei word mayang…”. But it is important to note that these words are distinct from a racial slur like ‘chinky’. Lyndem in an April 2020 article on Firstpost explains the dissimilarity as she writes that unlike ‘chinky’ which entirely rests on racial disdain, a word like dkhar or gringo used for non-Hispanics is not innately racist but that it can be.
In the Indian metropolis, more so with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial crimes against Northeast citizens have been rampant – the media has frequently emphasised on such incidents and rightfully so. The novel’s distinction lies in its honesty as it does not attempt to represent the pre-modern Northeastern hill as an innocent utopia but lays bare its own historical racial antagonism.
D and her best friend Yuva, who is a Nepali, find themselves in an unusual position as students inadvertently practice ethnic separation during school lunch. And by incorporating a crucial history of insurgent groups such as the ‘Saw Dak’ who sustained their separatist endeavours by taxing lucrative ventures of immigrants like the Chinese restaurant Avva owned by Tommy Lu, Lyndem makes a striking point on the overt exhibitions of ethnic privilege. Further, the political rally of the Saw Dak, “Khasi by blood, Indian by accident” also sheds light on the existing separatist sentiments in the Shillong of the 80s and early 90s.
While the novel’s distress over racial practices is sincere and important, the book shines in its quieter moments. The nuances of the modest events in the domestic space of a Khasi home, like the dynamics between Bi (house help) and Mei (grandmother), merging of Christian-Khasi beliefs and monthly jingpynkhuid shnong (community cleanup) sit firmly in the narrative. And within the steady erosion of a pre-modern Shillong, peculiar Khasi practices like a broom being used to drive out spirits stay intact and others like the informal iashong also called ‘khasi style’ of having children out of wedlock lessen.
Readers more attuned to such stories can assume Lyndem picks up these intricacies from her own childhood in Shillong. But the novel’s task is greater than mere nostalgia and being a repository of a gone era. It stirs something elemental in the reader’s own formative memory — a reappraisal of the seemingly less significant people and events.
Noduli Pulu is an independent writer from Roing, Arunachal Pradesh.