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In Bijoya Sawian’s short-listed in the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020 book, Shadow Men, insurgence by the local Khasi tribe and occupants of Shillong, against the so-called ‘outsiders’, people from other states of the country, who are settled in Shillong, is at boiling point and as an election is forthcoming, it might once again become the agenda on which winning rests. Besides, the age-old system of matrilineal and matriarchal structure of the Khasi society itself is being hugely contested, and the question of inheritance exclusively of women and the angst of the men about their children taking lineage from the mother continues to ail society.
In this background, where, corrupt politicians mix and match the greedy demands of businessmen, who would like to fill their pockets at any cost, a willing killer, for cash is not hard to find. The outsider problem is still boiling as Sawian points out, through the characters Strong and Ksan, due to unemployment and opportunities of the youth leading them to all sorts of crime. Will this be an issue in the forthcoming elections?
While the reader is trying to hurry through the pages to find that out, who killed Suresh, the author, skillfully, takes the reader away to a soul-stirring beautiful and rich tapestry of natural beauty and social customs, culinary extravaganza which the British called, Scotland of the east – Shillong. In 1972, Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya.
“The Sanskrit name Meghalaya, Abobe of the Clouds, was suggested by the linguist, Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee.” It is a collection of three hills, Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo hills. God’s picture-perfect little town, sits at an elevation of 1, 525 m above sea level, its terrain painted green, with stretches of green grass, lakes, little rivulets, gigantic waterfalls, tall monsoon grasses and a sky, forever, changing colours, from thick grey skies, laden with clouds to crystal clear blue skies, its weather, warm in the day time and cool at nights, in summer, and biting cold in winter. The entire terrain is spotted with flowers, of the temperate kind, Maple Leaf, Rose, Pomegranate, Lotus, Iris, Knapweed, Sunflower, Tulip, Chrysanthemum, Cherry Blossom, Golden Wattle, Kowhai, asanias, roses, forget-me-nots, daisies, dahlias, pansies, and even datura. Hills and dales undulate to make for the constant ups and downs of the roads, never ever, really giving a respite from climbing up or down.
An assortment of flavours meet the nostril and the tongue – partly British, and mostly typical Khasi cuisine, like jadoh, boiled cabbage, and beef, mutton chops mixed with pork pickles made with Khasi herbal masala. A musical race, the Khasis play multiple instruments and often music becomes their livelihood too.
Hard to believe that the wrath of the angels hound their minds and killing can become their source of livelihood too.
If the plot of the story has been laid on a town so beautiful, any review will be incomplete without praise to the storyteller. Bijoya Sawian has dealt with a story of crime, without spilling a single drop of blood on the pages of the book. There are no gory descriptions and the words are chosen and strung together like a bouquet of flowers, the language perfect and simple. Not once, does the reader have to open a dictionary to look for the meaning of a word.
However, a glossary of names of the persons in the book, followed by their relationship with other characters in the book, would have been good for the reader, unfamiliar with the region. Second, if the reader is new to Shillong, then the details of food and culture and history can be overwhelming. Thirdly, the political and social issues faced by the people in Shillong, may not gel well with the reader, who is looking for a crime thriller. But, then, without that background, it is hard to cull out the killer either.
Finally, to quote the author, "This is not a typical whodunnit. I chose this genre so people would read the book and learn about the region and also the dire consequences of unemployment, the pitfalls of the blame game and the futility of violence."
Name of the book: Shadow Men
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Author: Bijoya Sawian
No. of pages: 98
Price: Rs 179