A road invariably weaves stories-some simple, some winding, a few knotty and a few liberating. The journey from the valley to the hills is complex, multi-layered. Amitabha Dev Choudhury* details the dreamy contours of a journey across Silchar- Shillong road in his novella Uponashyer Khonje (In Search of a Novel). This remarkable journey could possibly be performed around twenty five -thirty years back. When he writes about this journey, he weaves in and out of the past. Twenty-five years ago, the world had not converged as it has now. My memories of those past journeys organically blend with the author’s recapitulation dating a few more years back. His past and my past wage no war. As I read him, I can relate to that unique journey covering more than 200 kms long road.
It was a lonely, long winding road meandering through the hills. It existed in isolation then because it was not pitted against better, comfortable and well-equipped highways of the north, the south and the west. It was an era of pre-globalised understanding. Access was limited, the outside world entered in small measures through Doordarshan and Calcutta bred newspapers. People were substantially happy with this share. Back in eighties and early nineties, private travel operating agencies like “Capital,” “Jagannath,” “Moti,” “Network” had not opened their services in the valley. The travels were ritually monitored by the government time-sheet produced by ASTC (Assam State Transport Corporation) and MTC (Meghalaya Transport Corporation).
These buses would ply every morning and evening. Not all passengers boarded the bus from the bust-stand, the point of origin. The bus had its assigned set of stops from where it would fill up its leftover vacant seats. As the bus approached the periphery of the town and proceeded towards the suburbs, the wheels speeded up along the road. The red and yellow hued bus was the monarch of all it surveyed. With no rival to bully around, it regally traversed the route with all possible flamboyance. As Moitreyo says in Uponashyer Khonje, “The bus like a proud lion with its swelled up manes conquered all the curves and turns of the road it covered. The bright rays of the sun outside celebrated the triumph of its maleness as it passed by.”
Interestingly the bus is conceived of as a domineering male presence on the road. A series of uneven bursting greenness on both sides of the road appeared to gallop hurriedly with the bus. These travels collected communities together and celebrated hybridity. Passengers hailing from different backgrounds would initiate conversations in Sylheti, Nepali-Hindi, Anglicised Khasi, Khasi-ized Hindi and so on. This mix, this overlapping of identities was/ is emblematic of lives in the northeast.
The landscape shifted slowly from the lures of greenness to a different array of colours and sights. The transition from the valley to the hill had begun. Then the bus would stop at Sonapur in East Jaintia Hills. Does it not sound like El Dorado? Is it the myth mapping the real or is it the other way round? The most dominant self of Sonapur for us was its intimate connection with the river Luva and violent landslides which it experienced periodically. Fortunately experiences of transhipment and landslide hazards do not feature in my childhood memories of these journeys. It was also the place where the passengers had their meals in small hotels.
I vividly remember one of them, Hotel Mahamaya. One had to negotiate a narrow sequence of stairs to enter the hotel. The hungry travellers revelled at the sight of hot rice, dal, fried potato served in neat stainless steel dishes. Soft melody of cascading water fall merged with echoes of popular film songs emanating from a transistor in the nearby paan shop. The travel continued through the passage between silent, solid and unyielding hills. As the journey progressed a sense of otherness heightened, an otherness which the hills usually offer to the plains. Through the abbreviated view of the windows I would count with fascination the series of half broken cement slabs erected on the sides of the road. Busy bazaar of Khlyeriat gave way to rows of fruit and vegetable shops in Ladrymbhai. Pear, plum, orange, pineapple piled upon one another, kongs selling kwai made for an enticing visual.
The bus took a few intimidating turns escaping those jagged, unorthodox edges of the road. And then arrived Jowai, dreamy, misty and beautiful. Here summer, monsoon, autumn, winter and spring lived happily together. Clouds playing peek a boo eventually settled in another horizon. A cup of steaming hot tea, chops and spicy chillies were savoured with delight followed by puffs of smoke dispersed randomly.
The journey would soon come to an end. If Jowai comes can Shillong be far behind? The moist warmth of Jowai was magical. We had to leave the magic to reach our destination. The hilly fringes of Shillong soon floated before the eyes. The layered fabric of houses at different heights, one above the other or one below the other defined Shillong from a distance. Shillong signified an elsewhere, elsewhere which home was not. The longing for this elsewhere was also a kind of love. It held the promise of telling other tales.
Amitabha Dev Choudhury is one of the finest creative voices from Barak Valley. His poems and stories His writings explore an expansive span of subjects and an equally challenging sequence of narrative techniques. His debut novel Uponashyer Khonje (2003) is a profound narration of the protagonist’s engagement with his roots spread across Sylhet, Shillong, Silchar and Calcutta.