Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories by Bijoya Sawain
Published by: Speaking Tiger
Rating: 4/5 stars
At 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.
*Thank you Speaking Tiger for the review copy. All opinions are my own.
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 tittle 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 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.
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 while The Limp makes for a much needed positive note with the turn that the story takes.
I would recommend this book to readers who are keen to know more of the people and their concerns in North East India.