(excerpted from a short story by Prajwal Parajuly, who is on the shortlist for the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize)
Studying abroad was a malaise that was yet to afflict the northeast the way it had swept over the rest of India. It was uncommon, especially during Asim’s times, for a native of Shillong to study in England.
When Asim received a scholarship to the University of London, friends and relatives piled in so they could gawk at his visa. They twiddled the paper, commented on its texture and the careless way it was pasted on Asim’s blue Republic of India passport, the mere sight of which excited some visitors.
Only Mr. Lyngdoh didn’t ask to see the visa. He had been to America. When the Indian government jolted awake to the northeast’s needs, it sent a cantankerous officer on a trip abroad and hoped he would shut up about the centre’s step-daughterly treatment of his state, and Mr. Lyngdoh had been one of the lucky few to accompany some illiterate minister to Boston. He pronounced that Asim’s UK visa wasn’t aligned to the stem of the passport the way his now-expired US visa had been.
He praised American efficiency. He blasted British inefficiency.
Mr. Lyngdoh commended Asim for making such strides in a land like Shillong, where not many Nepalis were well educated.
Asim’s mother flushed with euphoria. The rebel father – now bedridden – talked to himself. He might have used a word or two to describe Mr. Lyngdoh in unfavourable terms.
“I want you to come back and prepare for the civil services,” Mr. Lyngdoh said.
Baba – body weakened but rancour unfaltering – declared the civil services weren’t for people like them. “No quotas for us, like you tribals have,” he said. “We have to compete with all those Indians.”
“And what are we?” Mr. Lyngdoh asked.
“I mean the Indians from the plains,” Baba replied, surprising everyone with his civility.
“He earned a competitive scholarship to London University. What makes you think he won’t crack the services?”
“It’s easy for you to say,” the father said. “You Scheduled Tribes think everyone has as easy a life as you do. Reservations here, reservations there. Quota here, quota there. It’s easy for you to say. You tribals have all the facilities.”
Asim counted the number of colours on his visa.
“Quota or not, Asim will pass the civil service exam,” Mr. Lyngdoh said with an air of finality. “He should come back and serve his land.”
“Which land?” Asim’s father said. “We have no land.”
Mr. Lyngdoh said India was their land.
“Let India show it by giving us our own state,” Baba replied. “Let India show it cares for us by giving us Darjeeling.” If he couldn’t gesticulate, because his hands did not have the energy of his youth, his voice rose a few decibels.
You can take the rebel out of Darjeeling, but you couldn’t take Darjeeling out of the rebel, Asim thought.
Christina was a product of Loreto Convent, the daughter of two lecturers. Asim was one of the lucky few Nepalis who went to St. Edmund’s, the son of small-time shop owners. Christina was among the burgeoning number of Indians who chose the UK for a second master’s degree – as though the one they earned from an Indian university wasn’t good enough.
Their paths had never crossed in Shillong. At the School of Oriental and African Studies, they gravitated towards each other the way people from northeastern India – united by the rest of the country’s combined ignorance of the area – often do.
In a question Christina asked the miserable professor their first class together, she pronounced “comfortable” much the way he did – with the “for” elongated and the “com” slimmed down. Before Asim could recover from the elation of the solidarity brought about by this mispronunciation, Christina told the class that she was from northeastern India.
“Guess where I am from,” he asked her after class.
“India,” she said sheepishly.
“Of course – the state?”
“Sikkim?” she asked.
“Still no. And Darjeeling isn’t a state – not yet at least.”
“Who cares?” Christina said. “Shillong?”
“How did you guess?”
“Oh, I’ve known all about you. I read about you in The Shillong Times.”
She explained that inspired by the piece about his getting into the University of London in The Shillong Times, she had applied to Oxford and the London School of Economics – only to be turned down by both. “Thank God the University of London accepted me, so here I am,” she said. “No profile on my academic victories in the papers, though.”
“It’s my third master’s,” Asim said in a tone reserved for his compatriots. Only Indians would be impressed with three masters’ degrees.
“What a waste,” Christina said.
“I like academia,” he lied and added, “Wow – you knew about me?”
“For the wrong reasons – the kind of publicity you garnered when you first came to London, one would think you had won the Nobel.”
“Oh, Shillong,” he said.
“Oh, Shillong,” she said.
She wore braces. He wore glasses. Later, they would both claim they found these accessories terribly unappealing in the other. Lenses replaced his glasses in a year and Invisalign her retainer.
With physical attraction taken care of, they were free to fall in love. In London, where no one knew what the Jaintia Hills were, they cooked jadoh – pork, beef and chicken. They spoke Khasi – Christina driving home the point that Asim’s grammar was indeed awful. They bragged about being from the rock capital of India while they privately ridiculed the sobriquet.
It was a course dominated by Indians, and they let the lovebirds be. A Delhiite had risked getting into an argument with Christina about border security in the northeast and had given up in despair. Since then, beyond polite greetings, the other Indians stayed away.
Asim and Christina felt foreign among their own countrymen – just the way they did in India.
Three weeks later, they moved in together. Both later admitted they tried not to think of what people back home would say.
Home was so far away. This was home.
Asim had a responsibility. That perfunctory trip abroad taken by the few parents lucky enough to have children studying outside India hadn’t quite materialized for Baba and Ama. As his first graduation ceremony loomed, his father asked him if they should visit him in London.
“They won’t give you a visa,” Asim had said.
“We’d still like to come,” Baba countered.
Asim couldn’t bear the thought of wheeling his father everywhere and negotiating steps and escalators with a man in a wheelchair. He lived in a third-floor walk-up. He’d have to carry his father up to his flat.
“You aren’t an officer, Baba,” Asim had tried reasoning. “Why will they give visas to a shopkeeper and his wife?”
That had temporarily quieted the older man.
But as Asim’s second graduation drew nearer, Mr. Lyngdoh intervened. He stated that Asim’s parents had enough money saved in their State Bank of India accounts not to be considered immigration threats to the UK.
He even offered to accompany the parents to Kolkata for their visa application.
“It’s not every day that your son graduates from London University,” Mr. Lyngdoh said to Asim on the phone. “They need to see you walk the stage. They need to be proud.”
“Our son graduates from London University every year.” Asim heard his father in the background.
“Every year,” the mother repeated.
Asim couldn’t explain to Mr. Lyngdoh the difficulties that his father’s presence would trigger.
He couldn’t justify the presence of Christina in the flat.
Christina had started living with him just a month before. She’d now have to move out.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” he asked her for the tenth time.
“You’d have to do the same if my parents came,” Christina said. “I don’t mind.”
“Pragmatic.” She corrected him.
“Yeah, that, too.”
“What will you do at Rashi’s?”
“Put up with her terrible obsession with Bollywood.”
“I am surprised you are friends with her – you are so different.”
“We aren’t friends. I am pretending we are until your parents leave.”
It was a perfect relationship.
He was seeing his parents for the first time since he left Shillong three years ago.
The lack of Baba’s mobility was the least of Asim’s problems.
On his first day there, his father refused to eat anywhere he saw beef served, which for someone who lived in Shillong, where a cow was a delicious meat and not a manifestation of a goddess, was slightly over the top. On the second day, at a Starbucks, an elderly English gentleman smiled at his father. His father spoke to the English man in near hero worship, much to the latter’s discomfort.
“You do not have to please him just because he’s white,” Asim shouted.
Baba was confused. “He smiled at me,” he said proudly.
“They smile at everyone. It doesn’t mean you’re special.”
“He spoke to me.”
“Great – he spoke to you. God spoke to you.”
His mother poured some coffee on herself.
“That’s it – you people are uncivilized,” Asim said.
The mother soaked the coffee with her napkin.
“Baba, you are like a dog – a kukkur who’s happy because his master – a gora – just smiled at him.”
Asim shouldn’t have said that. The poor man couldn’t even walk.
Of course, Baba had taken offence, the reverberations of which were to be found throughout the trip in clipped sentences between father and son.
Asim admitted his father wasn’t entirely at fault. The people of South Asia thrived on racial epithets. Bengalis were thieves, Marwaris were miserly, the Khasis were unlettered, the Biharis were dark and ugly, northeasterners were chinky, the Jats were hirsute, the Punjabis had low IQs, the Tibetans were stinky, and the Nepalis were all watchmen or whores. Conversely, whites from English-speaking countries were rich, often sponsored Indians to move abroad, and the women were all sex addicts.
The political correctness of Western societies was yet to seep into India.
Far more colourful variations of words outlawed and outdated in the West existed in the country. And they were casually meted out, happily disposed of – in mouthfuls, in between guffaws, as jokes or in insults and often matter-of-factly.
You’ve lost hair. You’ve become fat. My child was born blacker than a Madrasi, but I applied regular doses of Fair & Lovely on his face, and he has become fairer, like a Kashmiri.
Apparently, it was worse in the US than in England. Asim remembered the horror expressed by an American classmate when Asim did the unthinkable – he identified another person by her race.
“Where is Kim?” Shaun asked.
The class had two Kims. “Which Kim?” Asim said. “The Korean?”
“Isn’t that racist? Shaun replied.
The West was that different from the East.
And as long as they spoke better English than you, the people of a Western nation deserved to be fawned over.
No surprise then that Baba, flattered, smiled ingratiatingly at the white man down his street – the lice-infested loser who hawked The Big Issue.
Father and son said cold goodbyes at Heathrow. The mother cried.
The proposal, like everything about their relationship, was without frills. After the parents’ departure, Christina moved back to the dingy flat. Asim brought up the idea right after he wrenched out a handful of hair that had clogged the tub for a few weeks. Christina had been relieving the sink of the beard hairs sprinkled all over it.
“Do you think we should get married?”
“Perhaps,” she said, back in the bedroom, where she dusted their leather sofa – almost always an immigrant’s first big purchase.
“Sooner or later?” she said.
They both laughed.
Christina was three years older than he. They didn’t care.
She was a Christian, and he a Hindu. It didn’t matter.
She was a Khasi, and he was a Nepali. It didn’t bother them.
In London, nothing mattered.
“We need to figure out what we are doing after we get home,” Christina said, right after she consented to get married. “Civils?”
“I can’t sit the state civil services, woman – remember?”
“Oh, yes, poor you – non-tribal. That’s what you get for not having backward ancestors.”
“When I can guarantee you my ancestors were probably more backward than yours,” Asim said. It was their favourite joke.
“I know. Sucks for you. NEHU it is for you.”
“It was always a last option for me. I’d say I’d lecture at NEHU if I achieved nothing in life.”
“There will be a lot of adjustments,” Christina said.
“Don’t worry. There won’t be a baptism.”
“I wouldn’t do it even if there were one,” he said.
“I didn’t need to know that,” she said.
Shillong had a majority Christian population. In his family, Christians were parodied but not derided.
“And our children – will they grow up Hindu or Christian?” Asim asked Christina.
“Let them decide.”
That seemed fair.
Religion was taken care of, but a problem still remained: Christina was Khasi. The Khasis were matrilineal and matrilocal. Asim and Christina’s children would have to take her name. Asim would have to live with Christina and her parents.
This, his parents would definitely not like. His father perpetually babbled about manliness, and the idea of a son-in-law living with his wife’s parents was the very antithesis of masculinity.
Worse would be the children adopting their mother’s name. All these years of living in the midst of a matrilineal society, and the Nepalis and Bengalis of Shillong had still not made peace with the custom.
Had Asim and Christina continued residing outside Shillong, they’d have circumvented the issue of living with the in-laws, but they had chosen to return, and they knew well Christina would have to live with her parents.
“What if both pairs of parents lived together?” Asim asked.
“Our marriage will not survive four parents,” Christina reasoned. “Think of it – your father and my mother. No.”
“No,” Asim echoed.
Asim’s-son-or-daughter Chettri would have to be Asim’s-son-or-daughter Mukhim. At least he wouldn’t have to change his name.
The thought of bringing a child into this world – so what if he couldn’t bequeath his last name to him or her – made Asim feel responsible. It took him back to his own childhood – and to Christina’s – and also drove home the many differences and the few similarities that divided him and his fiancée.
He belonged to a Hindu family from Shillong – by way of Darjeeling, where the agitation ebbed and rose depending on the mood of whichever political hooligan managed to weasel his way to the top. Christina was a Christian from Shillong – with patriarchal roots in Cherrapunji, where the monsoon rains never let up.
He came to Shillong in 1988 when his father, a serious supporter of the movement that thousands hoped would bring a separate state to the Nepali-speaking residents of West Bengal, lost his radicalism and left testicle on account of a bomb blast. Defeated, the entire family moved to Asim’s mother’s natal home, where the wheelchair-bound father, after a few months of introspection and catheter adaptation, embraced acrimony as a way of life.
Christina’s father left Cherrapunji for Shillong so he, like all Khasi men, could join his wife and her family. Christina’s parents worshipped Jesus, loved him and feared him. Non-Christians, to them, were non-marriageable, and that was non-negotiable.
Sure, there were similarities, too. Asim and Christina both spoke Khasi. They preferred beer to wine. They had big eyes. They were both dark.
Back in Shillong after five years, and armed with degrees, Asim saw that things hadn’t changed much.
The Nepalis still lived in clusters in Upper Mawprem, Jhalupara and Barapathar, somewhat isolated from the Khasis. As non-tribals, the Nepalis could only own property in circumscribed areas.
A few Bengalis had moved into Asim’s neighbourhood in Lalchand Basti, known increasingly as Nongmynsong, its Khasi name.
Most Nepali-speaking Indians Asim had come across in London hated Bengalis, thanks to West Bengal’s high-handedness in dealing with the Darjeeling issue. In Shillong, an unusual friendship had been maintained for years between the two minority communities, elicited by their not fully belonging there even if their ancestors had made the city their home many decades ago.
But that was about to change.
The Indian version of American Idol quickly became the most popular show on TV. Among the five finalists of the third Indian Idol competition were Prashant Tamang, an ethnic Nepali from Darjeeling, and Amit Paul, an ethnic Bengali from Shillong. The Nepalis in Shillong all voted for the Nepali from Darjeeling. The Bengalis from Shillong were not very happy with their neighbours’ change of loyalty.
A new kind of friendship was forged. The Khasis and Bengalis were now in it for the Shillong lad to win. The Nepalis voted clandestinely for the boy from Darjeeling.
Despite exhausting all their time and meagre incomes to ensure that their Nepali brother won Indian Idol, which they did by averaging a couple of hundred text messages a day, the Nepalis of Shillong, laden with small gifts, dropped by Asim’s place to congratulate the family.
“The Indian Idol will be a Nepali from Darjeeling, and the most educated Indian will be a Nepali from Shillong,” they said.
Visitors were treated to a litany of letters trailing Asim’s name – MA, MA, MSc – at all the entrance doors of the Chettris’ double-story cottage.
Asim’s parents, having decided that they wouldn’t make another foreign trip after the London debacle, occupied themselves by populating their walls with their son’s degrees. No certificate was too small to be placed on a pedestal.
Where the paint peeled off, where the wood discoloured, where the glass shattered – a framed certificate conveniently concealed it.
The son feigned embarrassment. The parents told visitors about their son’s discomfiture. The visitors laughed. Asim cringed. The parents beamed at their happy son.
Visitors teased Asim.
“You know what we Nepalis say – when so much as a line of moustache appears on a boy’s face, we think he’s ready for marriage.”
“You need to get married before you lose all the hair on your head.”
The guests broke the Marie biscuits in two, littering the Chettris’ new carpet with crumbs, slurped their tea, and retched nuggets of wisdom.
“A man so well educated needs a woman to take care of him.”
They sent texts to vote for the Indian Idol as they spoke. They made comments about the amount of money they spent to make Prashant Tamang the next Indian Idol. Asim fidgeted.
“Kee, is there a kuiri in London? Those whites are always unbathed. You’d much rather marry a Khasi girl than a kuiri. At least the skin colour is the same.”
And Asim’s father, raconteur that he was, repeated his favourite story.
“Not all whites are superior – the Eastern Europeans can’t speak English at all. They are so slow.”
The guests roared with laughter at the way he imitated Russian waitresses. Only Mr. Lyngdoh, the one Khasi who didn’t mind crossing the border to Lalchand Busty, stayed silent. Asim and he exchanged looks.
Mr. Lyngdoh asked Asim when he’d start preparing for the Central Civil Services.
“What about blacks?” someone asked. “Did you see any?”
The father mumbled something about the Nepalis being the blacks of India.
On TV, the Indian Idol judges requested viewers to vote based on talent and not on ethnic pride.
The Nepali-speaking Indians trebled their text messages. The Nepali-speaking residents of Shillong quadrupled them.
The only female to reach the Top Four of Indian Idol was voted out. The three left were a Bengali from Kolkata, a Bengali from Shillong, and a Nepali from Darjeeling.
Shillong, long inured to the far-reaching influence of Bollywood, had become an unrecognizable place.
Shillong, the rock music capital of the country, needed just one Indian Idol contestant for it to embrace a musical genre that had never caught its fancy.
Soon, Hindi wasn’t so alien a language anymore, and Bollywood music found more acceptance than ever before.
Groups solicited donations from residents.
Asim and Christina got into a shared cab to head to the Cloud 9 Hotel. Every one of their co-passengers was sending texts.
“I hear things are even crazier in Darjeeling and Kalimpong,” Asim said.
“I can imagine,” Christina replied.
The driver caught on. “The other man can’t sing,” he said, before spitting out some kwai. “He can’t. But we have a problem – the Bengali votes will get divided between Amit Paul and the other Bengali – the fool with the glasses.”
A co-passenger interrupted. “That’s why we should vote even more.”
“Yes, let’s, let’s, let’s,” Asim said.
“Why aren’t you voting?” he asked Christina. “Where’s your phone? Vote, vote.”
Christina asked him to shut up.
He retrieved her phone from her purse. “Here,” he said. “Vote, vote.”
Christina took the phone away from him.
“The votes will get divided between the two Bengalis,” Asim said.
The others probably guessed the two were having fun at their expense, so they went back to texting.
“You’ll get beaten up,” Christina said.
“Sure. I hate these share taxis.”
At Police Bazaar, eager volunteers accosted them.
“It’s for Amit Paul, the son of Shillong,” the leader declared.
Christina handed them two fifty-rupee notes. “This is from both of us,” she said.
“Even rich people giving us only fifty each?” the leader barked. “Or is it because he’s a Nepali?”
“If you talk too much nonsense, I shall take the money back,” Christina said.
“Is he voting for that Nepali constable who can’t sing?” the leader demanded. “People from Shillong have to vote for the Shillong boy.”
“Do you want my money or not, boy?” Christina said. She nearly snatched the notes away from the leader.
“Kong, you should tell your man not to vote for the Nepali hawaldaar.”
“I’ll tell him to do exactly that,” Christina said.
“Yes, pick fights,” Asim said.
“Better I than you.”
“Stupid Dkhar,” the man said.
It felt good to be back.