The barrel of a pistol stares at you and a girl with unkempt hair and piercing eyes has her fingers on the trigger. The cover of Ankush Saikia's 'The Girl from Nongrim Hills' sets the mood for what is to follow.
A novel set in Shillong. And comparisons with Anjum Hasan's Lunatic in My Head and Bijoya Sawian Shadow Men obviously come to mind. While the earlier novels were from the point of view of an outsider who is both a spectator and a participant, but Donbok (Bok in short), the protagonist in The Girl from Nongrim Hills, is a rooted local and is more of an active participant than a spectator. Also the tribal versus non-tribal divide that characterises much of the last three-and-a-half decades of the city's history gets only a passing mention from Saikia, whereas much of the other two books was built around this chasm.
Shillong's overcast weather provides a perfect backdrop for this noir thriller that moves at a pace much faster than what Bok on his bike can ever manage with consistency in Shillong's notorious traffic.
As a Shillongite, it felt like taking a ride through the city roads in a drizzle that just refuses to stop. Saikia also makes a it a point to highlight the city's many landmarks. The one place (page 175) he didn't get it quite right is that on the forested ridge overlooking the city isn't the AIR station but the Doordarshan Kendra. AIR Shillong is near the Raj Bhavan (Governor's House). Or at least it was there when the last time I was there.
Nitpicking apart, The Girl from Nongrim Hills is unputdownable. The book doesn't set to explain what Amitabha Bagchi describes as "a troubled town" in a blurb on the back cover, but it does via the plot and the characters hint at what ails Shillong and the north east of India.
The mention of a former rowdy student activist now knowingly hiring migrant Muslim labourers from Bangladesh for his construction business, tells a lot without being explicit about it. This becomes more poignant in the current circumstances, when there is an occasionally-violent agitation on to restrict the entry of non-locals into Meghalaya. The recent incidents have brought back unpleasant memories of Shillong of the late 1980s and the 1990s.
Had I been a filmmaker, The Girl from Nongrim Hills would have been an ideal book to make into a movie. Shot on location. In Shillong.
Take the city out of the story and you lose its soul.
I always have a complaint about books that refer a lot to a local culture but don't bother to explain the peculiarities for a reader who might not be as knowing as the author about the place and its people. There can be many creative ways to achieve this without coming in the way of storytelling.
Growing up in Shillong, I always wondered why there weren't as many books based on the city as there should have been? There was always an interesting tale to be told at every turn of the winding road. Now that the stories are being told more frequently, I am glad that much of it is of a quality that we Shillongites would proudly display on our bookshelves (I prefer ebooks, though).
(The Girl from Nongrim Hills; Penguin Books; Rs 299; 231 pages)
Preview of Ankush Saikia’s The Girl from Nongrim Hills