Title: Shillong Times- A Story of Friendship And Fear
Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited
Price: INR 335 (paperback)/278 (kindle)
Reading Time: 4-5 hours
Snapshot: This is story of innocent friendship between three teenagers against the backdrop of turmoil in the Shillong of 1987, between Bengali's and Khasis (the native population).
The Review: A little innocent Bengali boy named Debu is living happily amidst the natural beauty and laid back life of Shillong until he turns fourteen and hears the word "Dkhar" meaning "foreigner". Not knowing the meaning of the word he is clueless but soon senses malice in the intentions of the three boys who had called him that, a chase follows and he barely escapes being beaten up. Thus one is introduced into the story and the underlying turmoil of Shillong between Khasis (the native population) and Bengalis (originally from Bangladesh residing in Shillong from two generations) . Its 1987 and this atmospheric turmoil of 1987, brewing underneath what looks to be a peaceful existence between the two communities, is the backdrop of the story.
In the midst of such confusing times, when one hear talks of hatred from some and peace from the others, Debu and growing teenager finds a friend in Clint - a Khasi. Clint introduces him to the forbidden pleasures a boy his age growing up in a conservative Bengali household hasn't been exposed to but when has curiosity of youth known bounds. Clint is a happy go lucky guy, an artist by soul whose carefree ways, kindheartedness and exploratory nature makes Debu, somebody who has been brought up to study well and find a job by his middle-class parents, wonder "how". Most importantly Clint introduces him to Audrey, not only the most popular girl in town but somebody as studious as Debu and shares his love for Mathematics. You know the feeling when for the first time you feel understood? Debu feels that and the connection between the three is just beginning to strengthen when the dormant dragon of hatred decides to wake up slowly. The friendship is put through a rough test, lives are tested as the dark beast awakens wanting to burn all that is built. What survives this test? Read the book for that.
To begin with the writer spends a good first half in character building, which might feel a little slow to some, but his language, the history of Shillong and its people also the beauty of its landscape is to be savoured through the writers words. He paints a very vivid picture which absorbs the reader like a wormhole (I picked up this book on 31st December 2018 and spent the entire night reading). Further the beautiful forest where the three friends go for a picnic, is so pure and untouched that truly makes you want to travel there. This concoction makes it a read comparable to a Khaled Hosseini.
The book slowly picks up pace and the events thereafter are portrayed with the right measure of reality which makes it a compelling read. The underlying uncertainty further grips the reader, making one pine for their favourite character and for all to be well in the end, but as is life the ending will be bitter sweet for most.
The book poses many raw questions relevant current times where immigrants are considered "a huge problem" by many powerful world leaders, the book's basal, raw question being "Till when is a person or his family, residing in place an immigrant? Is it one generation or many? Is it not enough to be love the place, respect its nature, live in harmony with its citizens and build its infrastructure for it to accept you? Ultimately is a peace of land greater than all human relationships?"
Overall the book is one of the most wholesome reads ever!
RC Rating: 5/5. Nilanjan P Choudhury is India's Khaled Hosseini . A highly recommended read and our best read of 2018.
About the author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury’s most recent novel is "Shillong Times", a coming of age story set against the insider-outsider conflict in Shillong in the 1980s. His debut novel, a mythological thriller entitled “Bali and the Ocean of Milk”, was a (very) brief best-seller. His subsequent writings include “The Case of the Secretive Sister” a contemporary detective caper set in Bangalore and "The Square Root of a Sonnet", a pioneering play on the history and science of black holes, both of which received wide critical acclaim.
Nilanjan confesses to having studied at IIM Ahmedabad and IIT Kanpur and hopes that this will not be held against him. He grew up in Shillong and now lives in Bangalore with his family.