For as long as I can remember, ‘fitting in’ was an essential part of growing up in Shillong. It wasn’t mandatory, but it wasn’t optional either.
As a Bengali in Shillong, many of my acquaintances still don’t believe I’m from there. It is true, not all Bengalis find their roots in Kolkata or Bengal. My breed traces back to Sylhet. We are refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). While my maternal grandparents moved to Shillong (then a part of Assam) soon after the Partition, the paternal lineage of my family has lived there for many generations now.
(And yes, Shillong does have a very healthy though diminishing population of Bengalis, Sindhis, Punjabis and fewer Marwaris.)
Things were always different for a non-tribal or ‘Dkhar’ in Shillong. My friends circle in school was a diverse mix of Khasi, Punjabi, Marwari, Mizo, Jantias and of course, Bengalis. I didn’t succeed in picking up and learning the dialects, customs and nuances of the other communities, just as I didn’t of my own. In all fairness, I thought school was a very odd phase— when I was more focussed in my academics than social growth and well-being.
Evidently, I didn’t make the best of friends in school. Because I didn’t know who I was and the entire exercise of ‘fitting in’ was too exhaustive.
Ironically, as I graduated to my Pre-University course, I started to feel more at home with my Sylheti friends. The batchmates I avoided associating with throughout my school life were suddenly the ones I wanted around me. Was it a step to belong?
While I continue to unfailingly revisit Shillong every year, this year was somewhat different—refreshingly different—if I’m allowed to flatter myself. Apart from my customary visits to old relatives’ houses, I met an old batchmate from school.
Karen has always been one of the brightest women of my acquaintance and having met her after 14 years, I can still say the same. Not delving into how prosperously she has shaped her career, I was incredibly amazed at how self-driven, aware and humorous a person she continues to be.
I allowed myself the pleasure of being a tourist—a cloak I have often hidden beneath. This wasn’t tough. For me, Shillong isn’t the Living Root Bridges or Ward’s Lake. It is the local haggling at Bara Bazar in my Khasi-Bengali-Hindi exclaims, the unknown hikes in the outskirts of the town to which I have no reference points, and aimlessly walking around PB (Police Bazar) just because I have the time to waste.
The only difference is now it takes me a couple of days of practice to fit into the actual way of my Shillong life.
We are strangers in our own minds, you know?
A lot of things set things right in this trip. And a lot continue to support the divide. I’ll focus on the former, because I’m no longer choosing. I have grown up to be every thing I learnt as a Sylheti in Shillong, and as a proud Northeastern while I moved life across eminent cities of India like Delhi, Mumbai and now Kolkata. Luckily, we just have to remember where we come from. And that is the tricky part, too.
The best part of life is that we grow up. Grow up not trying to fit in, impress, or find an identity. It is has been more and more about being content and quiet. And what no one ever tells us about growing up is that it is a lot of fun.
Read: Looking back at Shillong
Where do you belong?