Title: Shadow Men
Published by: Speaking Tiger
Rating: 4/5 stars
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Shadow Men – A thick mist envelops an isolated house and a cottage atop a hill. Raseel, looking out from her window, hears the sound of shots. Suddenly the mist parts, and three men come into view, furtive, quick. Then they are gone, and there is silence.
Raseel, visiting her old school friend Aila in Shillong, is determined to get to the truth behind the strange death of a ‘dkhar’, an outsider, in the grounds of her hosts’ house. Why was he killed? Who are the killers?
As she begins to unravel the mystery, Raseel finds herself caught in a tale of intrigue and violence that mirrors the world of insurgency around her.
The tense and dramatic undercurrents that emerge in Shadow Men continue in the stories that follow. In ‘The Flight’, eighteen-year-old Mawii has to make a difficult decision between her ‘own people’ and her one true love—when that love involves a ‘vai’—yet another word for ‘outsider’. And in ‘The Limp’, octogenarian Nipendro Roy finally feels he ‘belongs’ in this hill state to which he came as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Bengal.
Shillong remains the true hero in these stories, as Bijoya Sawian draws the reader into a world where the downside of a matrilineal society, the scourge of drugs, alcohol and corrupt politicians, the disconnect with mainstream India, and above all, the fight for identity and belonging, threaten to rock this idyllic hill state that was once a paradise and, perhaps, no longer is.
About the author:
Sally Bijoya Sawian is a translator and writer who lives in Shillong and Dehradun. Her works essentially deal with the life and culture of the Khasi community of North East India. The Teachings of Elders, Khasi Myths, Legends and Folktales and About One God are three of several books that she has translated from Khasi into English.
As someone who grew up in insurgency torn Manipur, reading Bijoya Sawian’s Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories set in Shillong (one short story set in Aizawl) is familiar territory for me: the uncertain atmosphere of not knowing whom to trust, the fear of something bad about to happen and the manner in which people push unwanted thoughts/actions under the carpet just to make it through another day. This is not to say that this book is only about issues relevant to North East India for given the current climate of xenophobia, the three stories in this book are prime examples of how the suspicion of the ‘other’ brings out the worst in people and lead to violence that tears apart fragile ties and leaving behind scars.
The writing is atmospheric and when you read the title story, you can feel the cold and damp air of Shillong along with a sense of dread that unravels soon enough with the sound of a bullet being fired. The characters are well fleshed and balance out the outsider-insider narrative that was at its peak in Shillong in the early 80s. Shadow Men also places its main protagonist as someone who has sought treatment from a psychiatrist for her depression and anxiety and uses this track brilliantly to mirror the malaise that suspicion of the ‘other’ brings out in people. When the protagonist who is aware of her mental health issues constantly ask herself if she is imagining everything around her, it mirrors the dichotomy of the life and society in Meghalaya and to a certain, many parts of North East India. One realizes immediately that the author is using these imaginary anxieties (that are actually a true portent of things happening) to portray how the region looks placid and peaceful and beautiful and is yet marred by not just the violence brought upon by arms but the thoughts and actions of people.
The other two stories in the book: The Flight and The Limp takes further the same themes as the main story. ‘The Flight’ looks at young love and passion that comes undone when confronted with the harsh realities of life: does young love know the boundaries that societies place on one’s identity and roots? ‘The Limp’ carries on the theme of ‘otherness’ as opposed to ‘belongingness’: one where a young man, an outsider has lived for decades in a place but situations flare up that ends up making him an ‘outsider’. It does end with a positive note with a twist that is bittersweet.
The writing is nuanced and effective in the way it takes readers to the layers that exist in small communities that stay aloof and yet remain connected to the larger world.