Monday, June 01, 2020

Book review: Shadow Men by Bijoya Sawian # Short-listed in the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020

Photo credit HERE
Protagonist Raseel Singh needs a break from Delhi, where her parents have been murdered by the trusted man-servant in the house. She has planned with her giggly school friend Aila from Shillong to visit the hill station town for a few days. Aila is touring China with her businessman husband, Aibor, and would return just in time to be with Raseel. However, the latter has arrived a couple of days earlier than planned, and much to her dismay has become witness to another murder at Aibor’s house in Shillong where Raseel is a welcome guest. The gardeners, from Bihar, called Suresh and Ravi, living in the cottage outside the main bungalow, have been attacked by three miscreants. The two other occupants of Aibor’s bungalow, Robert Nongrum, a cousin and the lady caregiver and mother figure Kmie U Flin, apparently is not aware of the incident, until the next morning. Kmie U Flin is naturally shocked. The book then proceeds to nab the killer. As this procedure develops, Raseel is now caught, despite herself, in the whodunit herself and suspects that people around her know much more about the murder than they are willing to share with her. So what is the reason behind this gross act upon a man, who has left his home in Bihar to find work in Shillong? The answer is not as simple as whodunit it seems, because, in the next few chapters which are short and extremely crisp, the author, Bijoya Sawian, opens up an entire pandora’s box full of issues that are ailing the small town of Shillong, in northeast India.

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

Click HERE to know more about the author.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020


Chorda (March 01, 1952 - Feb 1, 2020)
Dhanmama passed away one cold winter morning in Shillong. He had been ill for a long time, and always wanting to die in Shillong. He returned from Bombay, where he ran his own business. Existence had heard his plea and granted it.

The eldest son and first child of the scholar, Late Shrish Chandra Gupta and Srimati Suhasini Gupta, Dhanmama was a product of prayers and manath to the Gods for a child, two before him having died at childbirth.

God, as man, Dhanmama was kind, gentle, soft-spoken and compassionate. His passing away at age fifty-one, caused immense instability in the lives of his wife, Mamima, his two sons, Borda and Chorda, who suddenly had to take up the duties of looking after their mother and themselves, financially.
I was holidaying in Shillong, from boarding school, when this happened. I remember clearly, both Mamima and Borda, left asunder, with the passing of Dhanmama and with the fact that Chorda, was still in Bombay at the final year of his graduation. Alas, he had to complete it six months later, because, he had to rush to Shillong to be with his mother and elder brother.

I don’t remember Chorda very well when he came to Shillong. But Borda and I had struck up a great friendship as brother and sister, what with the additional and sudden appearance of Cupid, striking the hearts of Borda and my close friend at school, Chhaya. In the midst of the grief, love blossomed, as if putting a healing balm of their hearts. Soon Chorda arrived and the love seems to have expanded, spreading its wings towards Chorda as well. While Borda was more of a doer, Chorda burst into passionate poems, recited from well known western poets and some poems flowing out of his own heart.

The spring of joyous love was broken for me when I returned to boarding school. Mamima and Chorda and Borda returned to Bombay.

For a long time, I heard nothing of them at all, until, for the winter holidays I started to visit my Mashi, in Bombay. We would then visit them at their beautiful Mayur Pankh house, in Diamond Garden, Chembur and spend a few days there. It is, however, only in 1973, when I moved to Bombay, to continue my schooling and higher education did a re-association with Borda and Chorda start all over again. I went to Mayur Pankh house and stayed there for one or two weeks during the short holidays. We were a great family and if I had found brothers to rely on, they had found a sister in me, whom they cherished as much.

However, again from 1985 onwards, this connection was again broken, as life speeded up and I left Bombay with a partner, first back to Shillong to stay and do business there for a year. Hence, our family, consisting of Mejo, my mashi, Mesho, her husband, and other people spread across the country, were not aware of Chorda’s marriage to Shoma baudi.

Sometime in 1986-87, Mejo moved from Bombay to Poona because I lived there. One day, as I was coming up to our flat, in Poona, I found a postcard from Chorda. The card was addressed to Mejo, my mashi, the content of which was so sad, that as soon as she read it, she threw herself on the bed, weeping miserably. The boy, whose birth she had seen with her eyes, had passed away. Borda, had died of liver cirrhosis, leaving us all, his younger brother and mother. It was shocking, to say the least!

Mejo, dashed to Bombay, after a brief call with Chorda. This began the long unbroken relationship with Chorda, Mamima, and the two additions to his family – his wife, Shoma and their lovely and cute daughter, Almitra.

In the absence of his brother, Chorda, primarily, held on to me, for a confidante. This bonding grew stronger as times passed and I too got close to the family. When, Mejo, left for Kolkata, from Poona, to settle down there, I thought that the best thing to do for me now was to move to Bombay, because Chorda and baudi were there. I bought a small tiny flat in Vasai, with much help from my baudi, emotionally, and took that step to relocate to Bombay, not a city I loved most, but a city, where my brother lived. I felt, safe and secure, although he and I lived quite a distance from each other, yet, we were in the same city and that was a great solace to me.

In Chorda, I found a listener, a friend, a strategist, and a confidante. I could tell him everything. My baudi took it upon her to help me settle down in Bombay. She was a rock of Gibraltar, for me. I found my backbone once again, in a city, which was so large; I had to re-discover it once again. In the process, it helped me rediscover myself as well. I made new friends and banked on the family for emotional support.

But then, I moved again. Like a wheel, in constant movement, my next destination was Delhi.

I flirted with the idea of returning to Bombay, many times, but every time, I came close to that decision, I also ran away from it. It was my need to stay in a new city to write a new story for myself. It is still fulfilling itself.  

It is truly said that, unless you burn your bridges behind you, you can never move on.
There is nothing to look back upon now – the final connection having died at 4.23pm, on 1st, February 2020. And although I knew the end was neigh, I never thought, it would be so fast.

Alvida, my dearest older brother, Chorda, like leaves drop from trees because they are weary, you too have gone, but will surely return, when, the journey you have embarked upon, from earth to an unknown destination, comes to the bivouac of afterlife, you will return like Khalil Gibran's continuation of life – Almitra.

Until a new beginning……

Do click on this LINK to read Khalil Gibran