Rainy, misty, hill-circled Shillong, ‘Scotland of the East’, former capital of undivided Assam, now of Meghalaya — this elegant remnant from British India, plays a lead role in Assam-born writer Ankush Saikia’s third book, The Girl from Nongrim Hills.
This dark and detailed thriller takes the reader on a languorous yet compelling ride through Shillong’s steep roads and squishy maidans, Tibetan eateries and colonial clubs, Assam-type houses sheltering simple hardworking parents and faded old hotels harbouring femme fatales — it’s a world of slow corruption and decay going hand-in-hand with militancy, guns, politicians, mining-mafia, rock bands, extortionists — the whole Northeastern syrwa (the rice-beef stew that protagonist Bok occasionally consumes), served with panache to a readership more familiar with Delhi-Mumbai bhaji.
It’s a desperate tale of misguided young people taking patently disastrous paths that can lead to nowhere but doom. But when quick money is the need of the hour, perhaps reason goes for a toss. The novel’s lead is a Khasi youth Bok, guitarist with a Shillong band. His elder brother, weak-willed Kitdor, has lost Rs 50 lakh on a Nagaland trip involving arms purchase for militants. The crooks have given Kitdor a bloody-nose warning, plus a week’s time to come up with the money, or face certain death. The pathetic Kitdor (married, with two young children) turns to Bok for help — and the latter decides to find the money quickly, any which way, all for the sake of his brother and family (including the unsuspecting parents).
An encounter with a mysterious female Christine sees Bok being lured to a risky solution. Expectedly, he falls into a trap. The major part of the novel now details Bok’s attempts to get out of the mess, help his brother — and get even with his tormenter. From here, it’s a non-stop ride, all the way to the climax, at Nongrim Hills.
Besides being a thriller, the book, like many more in this genre, is also a portrait of a society, place and time. Changing Shillong (‘a stew of tribals and plain-dwellers’), the restive Northeast with its relative isolation from mainstream India, the politician-industrialist nexus — Saikia‘s gaze sweeps it all. He is acutely obsessive in his detailing of Shillong’s geography, food, language-mix (bah, mei, bohni), straight-haired tribal girls — all the nostalgia.
The book’s varied characters contribute to the mood and tone, simultaneously kindling reader-response. One gets irritated with the sensible Bok for being aware, wary and yet foolish. Christine is a seductive vamp; her encounters with Bok and others reveal a sexy, tough woman with a back story of exploitation and torture by an Indian Army unit. Other characters like Nobleson, the rich coal-mine owner cum politician, graceful people like the virginal Daisy (Bok’s patient friend), band members with a life beyond the music — all play their parts.
It’s a moody thriller that picks up speed gradually. The early chapters seem to be steeped in unnecessary minutiae, resulting in sluggish prose. Store-assistant Eva with her medical problems seems unnecessary as does one Wanlam, who, thanks to a syntax error (page 7), is initially understood as a locality, not a person!
In essence though, Bok is literally on the run, furious at being fooled; gritty, bloodied but unbowed, determined to get even, save a sibling — the hastened pace and the geographical mapping giving the story a film-noir feel. Whilst Northeast Indian readers may relate to the book on a personal level, others get a peep into an India whose mainland links are fragile and tenuous, the society slightly foreign — an indigenous matrilineal society, comforting Christianity and attendant lifestyle (slow dancing at weddings, country and rock music, easy drinks, and a perpetual cigarette haze ). Saikia talks of Shillong’s ‘unique milieu’, a ‘culture equal parts rock music and Hindi film songs’. Eventually, Saikia’s blemished hero fights inner and outer demons, reveals and faces truths, finds love and peace.