Debu got off the bus at Police Bazar. It was Shillong’s high street—home to many of its iconic shopping destinations like Lila Brothers, Radharani Stores and Ratna’s Mascot. It was early evening and the place was bustling with office- goers finishing the day’s shopping on their way back home.
Police Bazar had always been too noisy and crowded for Debu’s liking. But today it seemed like a haven of peace. He felt grateful for the warm, safe embrace of the hordes of people thronging about him. He stopped for a breather and treated himself to a rupee’s worth of chana masala. It helped him calm down and, after a while, he felt that his legs were steady enough to walk back home.
Home was a wattle and daub Assam-type cottage with a red tin roof and a small garden on Upper Jail Road—a residential colony that had sprung up around the high walls of the Shillong prison. Once in a while, a police van would arrive at the gates of the prison and deliver its consignment of sullen-faced convicts, hands tied behind their backs. Debu would watch with a fearful fascination as they disembarked from the van and slouched to their new lodgings at the far end of the prison grounds.
When he was about eight years old, Debu used to have a recurring nightmare. He would dream of the prisoners breaking out of jail and sneaking into his bedroom in the dead of night. Grinning evilly at each other, they would pounce on him and swiftly bundle him inside a thick blanket that muffled his cries. They would then spirit him away to some nameless place, where they would commence to torture him in a variety of unspeak- able and embarrassing ways. Why me, why me, what have I done?—he would yell in his dream. But he would never get to know the answer, for he would always wake up at that point, quaking in fright. It was a fear that gnawed at him for weeks on end, until one day, his father came to know
Debu’s father sat him down for a man-to-man chat. There is nothing to be scared of, he assured Debu. Jail Road prison is the second-most secure prison in the whole world. Which is the first?
Debu asked. Alcatraz, his father whispered into his ear, in a voice filled with dread. It was a most terrible prison where only the most blood-thirsty and dangerous criminals were sent. It was located on a desolate island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—and no one had ever escaped from it alive. The few who had tried had been shot or drowned, or eaten alive by sharks.
Jail Road prison was equally secure, his father went on. Of course, it was not surrounded by an ocean or patrolled by man-eating sharks. But no one in living memory had ever escaped from it. And even if someone did (which they never would), his father said nonchalantly, there was nothing to worry about. Why not? Debu asked. Because, his father replied, the police were very clever. Much cleverer than the chors. That is why they had built Police Bazar right next to Jail Road. Every inch of the locality was bristling with policemen. But most of them were plainclothesmen, which is why no one noticed them. Any prisoner foolish enough to attempt a getaway would be caught at once and thrown right back in. We are lucky to have so many policemen here in Jail Road to protect us, his father said. It is the safest place in the whole world—after Alacatraz.
That was one of the things that Debu really liked about his father—the way he could make his fears go away with a simple chat. So, when he arrived home that evening, it was very comforting to see his father seated in his usual chair on the verandah, sipping on his tea and puffing at a cigarette.
‘How come you are home so early today?’ Debu asked. ‘Business is bad,’ his father shrugged. ‘The farmers are all busy at the Shad Suk Mynsiem dance festival. No point in keeping the shop open.’
Debu’s father, Mr Dutta, owned a small pharmacy in Iewheh, which in Khasi meant big market. True to its name, it was the biggest market in Shillong, much bigger and far more rustic than its urbane cousin, Police Bazar. Farmers from the nearby villages came here to sell their produce— vegetables, poultry, beef and pork. They were simple, hardworking folks, largely untouched by the complexities of urban life. They would often drop into Mr Dutta’s shop for a quick chat over a kwai.
The farmers were pleasant company but poor customers. They were blessed with robust health and hardly ever fell ill. And even when they did, they needed a fraction of the medicines that a city dweller might need to get well. It wasn’t easy running a medicine shop in Iewheh, and Mr Dutta had to work hard to make a living. He did not earn a great deal but was happy to make enough to take care of his small family.
Indeed, it was a matter of some pride for Mr Dutta that he could afford to send Debu to St Edward’s School. It was Shillong’s best convent school for boys and had acquired quite a reputation for itself across the entire Northeastern region. St Edward’s attracted students from states as far away as Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland, and counted among its distinguished alumni an assortment of Generals, Admirals, Ministers and IAS officers. But its two most famous products were the actors Utpal Dutt and Victor Banerjee,who had studied there briefly. But its most famous products were two Bengali actors, who had studied there briefly. They had gone on find fame and fortune through their memorable roles in the films of Satyajit Ray as well as in Bollywood. They were often held up as inspiring ex- amples of what a hardworking and ambitious Edwardian could achieve if he set his mind to it.
Debu’s mother hoped that her son too would reach great heights someday—although preferably not as an actor. Such careers were too exotic and uncertain for Bengali middle-class people like them. Mr Dutta however, wasn’t too worried about Debu’s career. The boy seemed to be serious enough about his studies and usually stood first or second in his class. If he kept it up, he would do all right in life.
‘So how are things at school?’ asked Mr Dutta. ‘Okay,’ Debu replied.
‘You are looking a little out of sorts today,’ Mr Dutta said. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Yes, some boys—’ Debu began, but came to an abrupt halt. If his parents came to know what had happened, he would almost certainly not be allowed to travel alone anymore. Until recently, Debu’s father had dropped him to school on his scooter and brought him back home in the evening. But of late, most of his school friends had started making the journey on their own—by bus or on foot. They lost no time in ganging up on Debu and ragging him for being such a sissy, a mama’s boy, who was too scared to go out alone. It soon became quite unbearable and Debu took up the matter with his parents.
But it was no use. His mother especially could not abide the idea of her only child roaming around the streets of Shillong without adult supervision. The roads are full of dangers, she said ominously, and teenage is the time when boys like you are attracted to dangers. What these were, she did not spell out. She only hinted darkly at two particular perils that she believed were the Scylla and Charybdis of wayward teenage boys.
These, in their order of danger, were: girls and drugs. There was no knowing when some young boy would fall into the hands of these twin menaces. Debu had tried to assure his mother that he would stay miles away from both, but this only made her more skeptical.
It took weeks of begging, threatening and sulk- ing before Debu could finally manage to convince his parents that he was perfectly capable of going to school by himself, and that he should be given the chance to do so. It had been a hardearned privilege, and he wasn’t going to give it up so easily.
Even the possibility of getting beaten up seemed to be better than the certainty of being teased by his classmates—if he was seen coming to school riding on his father’s coat-tails. More importantly, he loved the sense of freedom and space afforded by his walks between home and school. It was a welcome relief from having some adult or the other badgering him all the time.
But the afternoon’s incident had shaken him badly. He felt the need to talk about it to some- one, although he would have to be careful not to reveal everything. ‘Baba,’ he resumed hesitantly, ‘something happened today on the way back from school.’
‘Yes?’ said Mr Dutta.
‘Some boys were calling me dkhar,’ Debu replied. ‘What does it mean?’
Mr Dutta did not reply. He puffed on his cigarette and silently watched the smoke curl upwards. After a while he said, ‘These boys…they know who you are? Where you stay?’
‘Don’t think so. Never saw them until today.’ ‘I see. Make sure you stay away from them.’
‘Yes, that I will. But you’re not telling me, what does dkhar mean?’
His father stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and said, ‘It’s the Khasi word for foreigner.’
‘Foreigner? Wow!’ Debu exclaimed. ‘You mean like those people in English movies?’ He had recently seen a film called Dr. No, which had some extremely good-looking people. The lead actress, in particular, had been permanently etched into his memory. Most of the English movie actors he had seen so far were really handsome—so much better looking than the baby-faced Hindi and Bengali film stars that his mother seemed to be enamoured by. Maybe that’s why those boys were after him…maybe they were crazed with jealousy that he was so handsome and they were so ugly.
But this seemed a little far-fetched. With his round face, skinny build, hair glistening with oil and large eyes framed by oversized spectacles, he looked like the quintessential Bengali good boy— not some Indian avatar of Sean Connery.
‘But why would they think that I look like a foreigner?’ Debu said. ‘I don’t have white skin or yellow hair.’
‘Obviously not. You are no Englishman. They called you a foreigner because you don’t look like them.’
‘Them? You mean Khasis?’
‘That’s right.’ ‘Thank god for that. Who wants to look like a Chinky?’
‘Chinky?’ Mr Dutta’s eyes narrowed. ‘Did you just say Chinky?’ There was a sudden chill in his voice.
‘Yes…umm…I…mean…no. I—’ Debu mum- bled, startled by his father’s reaction.
‘Chup! I heard exactly what you said,’ Mr Dutta snapped. ‘Where did you learn such things?’ ‘But so many people say it,’ Debu protested. ‘My friends in school, in the—’
‘You are not everyone. You are my son,’ Mr Dutta said. ‘I have tried to raise you with some values, I have tried to provide you the best of edu- cation and this is what comes of it? If I ever hear you uttering that word again, I’ll give you such a thrashing that…anyway, never mind. What you must understand is that it’s insulting to call Khasis by such names.’
Yeah right, Debu said to himself. He couldn’t call them Chinkys, but they could call him dkhar. They could stone him to death, but that wasn’t in- sulting was it, he wanted to ask his father. But he held back, reminding himself that it was in his own interests not to reveal anything to his parents.
‘They call us dkhar. We call them Chinkys. Where will all this end? It’s 1987 for god’s sake! Forty years since Independence. And we are still fighting with each other like cats and dogs! I don’t know what will happen to this country,’ Mr Dutta ran his fingers through the small patch of hair on his otherwise bare head.
He was a short man in his late forties with a thick moustache that had grayed prematurely, and an incipient potbelly that seemed to be unsure of how much further it should grow.
‘Can I ask you a question, Baba?’ Debu asked meekly. It was unusual to see his father in a bad mood. He was an easygoing man, with a gentle manner and a ready smile which caused the crin- kles around his eyes to fan out like sunrays.
‘Yes?’ said Mr Dutta. ‘Why is it wrong to call them Chi—’ he stopped. ‘I mean calling them…call- ing them…whatever I shouldn’t be calling them.
After all, they are from China, aren’t they?’
Mr Dutta threw up his arms. ‘For god’s sake, who has been telling you this rubbish! Khasis aren’t Chinese.’ ‘But they look like them—you know…slit eyes, no hair on their faces…and the other day, Sub- hashish’s father was saying that they eat snakes, just like the Chinese and also—’
‘Nonsense! Total nonsense!’ Mr Dutta said as he flung his cigarette into the garden with a snort. ‘Eat
snakes! I don’t know who this Subhashish character is and why his father has been poisoning his ears with these rubbish stories! It is such third-class people like him who are destroying this place,’ he fixed his gaze on Debu. ‘For the last time, Debu, let me tell you that no matter what Khasis look like, they are not Chinese. They are Indians. As Indian as you or me. Do you understand?’
‘But if we are all Indians, then why were they calling me a foreigner?’ demanded Debu. ‘They didn’t mean it in that way,’ his father said with a sigh. ‘They were calling you an outsider.’
‘An outsider?’ Debu said. ‘But why? I am from here, aren’t I? I even remember going to Tiny Tots nursery in Dhankheti when I was five years old.
And you told me that I was born here.’
‘Of course you were born here, right here in Shillong—in Roberts Hospital,’ said Mr Dutta. A smile came over his face. ‘It seems only yesterday that the nurse brought you to me and I held you in my hands for the first time—a little pink bundle wrapped inside a white blanket. Such a sweet baby you were—always smiling. I still remember your first day out. You were four months old and we had gone to Lady Hydari Park. You were—’
‘Yes, yes Baba, I know all that,’ Debu cut in. He had heard the Hydari Park story many times be- fore. It was one of his father’s favourites, and usu- ally led to the recounting of several other amusing and, mostly embarrassing, episodes from Debu’s childhood. ‘Those boys also told me that I should go back to Bangladesh. Why?’
The lines on Mr Dutta face deepened, making him look much older than he was. ‘Have you heard of Winston Churchill?’ he asked after a pause. Debu groaned. That was the problem with his father. He loved giving gyan whenever he got a chance. ‘Yes, of course I know who Churchill is. He stopped Hitler and won World War II.’
Mr Dutta shook his head. ‘No no, that was Stalin. I don’t know why schools are still teaching you these colonial versions of history.’
‘For god’s sake, Baba! Will you please come to the point! What has Churchill got to do with Bangladesh?’
‘Patience, patience,’ Mr Dutta wagged a finger at him. ‘Churchill was a great man and he said many great things. Like, once he said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop to throw stones at every dog that barks.”’ Mr Dutta beamed at Debu.
‘But they were the ones throwing—’ Debu replied indignantly, but realized that it would un- wise to tell his father about the stone-pelting.
Mr Dutta’s eyes narrowed. ‘Throwing what?’ ‘Umm…nothing, nothing!’ Debu hastened to ex-
plain. ‘They were throwing…umm…dirty looks at me. That’s all.’ He tried to steer the conversation back to safe waters. ‘But what does Churchill have anything to do with this?’
‘You young people think you are so smart,’ his father said irritably. ‘Never want to learn anything. What Churchill is saying is that one should not give so much importance to what people say. Those boys were talking nonsense. You should not bother about them.’
‘Okay, fine! But what if they bother me?’ Debu said.
Before Mr Dutta could reply, a voice called from inside: ‘What are you two doing phus-phus in the verandah for so long? If you have no work, then come inside and help me. The house is a mess.’
‘There, see what you have done,’ Mr Dutta muttered. ‘You’ve gone and upset your mother.’
‘Me? What did I do?’ Debu protested. ‘I was only asking—’ he stopped mid-sentence as his mother swept into the verandah.
Mrs Dutta had the sort of demeanour which immediately made it clear that she considered life to be A Serious Business, and that she expected every- one else to Take It Seriously. She was tall and bony, and the severe cotton saree draped over her gaunt frame accentuated her angularity. She had a long nose that was adept at sniffing out lies, and piercing eyes that would have been the pride of a medieval inquisitor.
‘What is there to talk so much about?’ she asked Debu. ‘Go inside and change out of your school clothes.’
‘No, Baba has to tell me first,’ Debu replied. ‘Why did those boys tell me to go back to Bangladesh?’
‘What boys?’ Mrs Dutta said. ‘What are you talk- ing about, Debu?’
‘Arre, it’s nothing to worry about,’ Mr Dutta said. ‘Just the same old story. Some boys were teas- ing Debu today—they were calling him Bangladeshi.’
‘And I want to know why,’ Debu said.
‘Look, Debu, it’s quite simple. We are Bengalis,’ said Mr Dutta. ‘And there are some people here who claim that all Bengalis are from Bangladesh. They say that we came here illegally.’
‘Oh. And did we?’ asked Debu.
‘Of course not. I told you. You were born in Shil- long,’ Mr Dutta replied.
‘Yeah, yeah—that I know. I was asking about you, Baba. Did you come here illegally?’
‘What is this nonsense!’ Mrs Dutta exclaimed. ‘How dare you ask your own father if he is illegal? One tight slap I’ll give you.’
‘No, no let him be,’ Mr Dutta said. ‘How can you expect him to know these things? It’s good that he’s taking an interest in the family history. Listen, Debu,’ he lit up another cigarette, ‘our family has been living in Shillong since 1935, over fifty-two years now. It’s true that your grandfather grew up in what is Bangladesh today. But, at that time, it was part of undivided Bengal, of India. You, me, my father, we are all Indians—by birth. Satisfied now?’
‘Yeah, I guess,’ said Debu. ‘Accha, Baba, do we eat rotten fish?’
‘What sort of question is that?’ Mrs Dutta snapped. ‘We may not be rich like Tata-Birla, but your father is still not so poor that he has to buy rot- ten fish. Did those teasing boys tell you that?’
‘Yes.’ ‘They were Khasi boys, right?’ asked Mrs Dutta.
‘I knew it! What else can you expect from these people? Rotten fish, indeed.’
But Debu was not convinced. ‘What about that thing you sometimes cook on Sundays, the one with that horrible stink—isn’t that rotten fish?’
‘It is NOT rotten fish you stupid boy. It’s shutki! Dried fish. There is a world of difference between the two.’
‘Smells quite bad, if you ask me.’
‘Dried fish can smell a little strong, I admit,’ Mrs Dutta said. ‘Takes a person with taste to appreciate it. And we can’t expect that from these uncivilized Khasis. You think these tribal fellows are capable of understanding fish? Do you know what they eat themselves?’
‘What?’ Debu asked.
‘Pigs and cows!’ replied Mrs Dutta. ‘If you go to Iewheh market, you can see it for yourself—huge hunks of meat hanging from hooks in the butchers’ shops, dripping with blood. Pigs, cows—god only knows what they are.’
‘Really? They have full cows hanging from hooks? Like goats in the Jail Road mutton shop that Baba goes to on Sundays?’ Debu asked. ‘Aiieee, chup! Don’t talk of things you don’t understand.
Mutton is different. But cows and pigs? Chhee chhee. I have even seen them carrying dead pigs on their backs. Even the thought of it makes me feel like vomiting. And these people are mocking us about rotten fish. Some nerve they have, don’t you think!’ Mrs Dutta turned to Mr Dutta. ‘Here, I’m talking to you,’ she tapped him on the shoulder.
‘What do you have to say about this?’
Mr Dutta wasn’t expecting his wife to ask him for his opinion. She rarely did. ‘Me? Umm…yes,’ he finally managed to say.
‘Yes? Yes, what?’ Mrs Dutta said. ‘Is that all you have to say? How can they insult us Bengalis like this?’
‘I don’t know,’ Mr Dutta shrugged. ‘They are just boys. They don’t know any better. Does it really matter what they say?’
Mrs Dutta threw up her hands. ‘Oh, you are hopeless. Nothing matters to you. But I am telling you one thing. This town is going to the dogs. I feel scared every time Debu leaves home. One day, these Khasis will thrash him and break his bones. You mark my words.’
‘Ah, you worry too much,’ Mr Dutta said. ‘The Khasis are good people. It’s just a few hot-heads who are trying to stir up trouble.’
‘I don’t know what you see in these uncivilized tribals, these junglees,’ Mrs Dutta said. ‘Have you forgotten what happened in ’79? I’m telling you, we should move to Calcutta before it’s too late. It’s the only place in India where we Bengalis are safe.’
‘Calcutta?’ Mr Dutta shook his head. ‘You must be joking. It’s so hot and dirty and crowded. Plus the load-shedding! We are lucky to be living here—in the Scotland of the East. Leave Shillong? Forget it!’
‘Don’t be so sure,’ said Mrs Dutta. ‘You may have to eat your words someday.’
‘Listen to me, Debu’s mother. You are worrying unnecessarily. You did not grow up here like I did. You came here only after your marriage. You don’t understand this place. You don’t know the people here,’ Mr Dutta said. ‘But I was born and brought up here. I know my Shillong like the back of my hand. It will all be fine.’
‘Okay, whatever you say. When have you ever listened to me?’ Mrs Dutta said. ‘But if something happens to us, then don’t say at that time that I didn’t tell you,’ she marched out of the verandah, her slippers flapping angrily against the wooden floorboards.
‘Arre baba, don’t worry so much,’ Mr Dutta called out after her. ‘Nothing will happen to us.’
Nilanjan P Choudhury is the author of four books including his latest, Shillong Times. He confesses to having studied at IIM Ahmedabad and IIT Kanpur.