A writer’s first book is usually deeply rooted in the environment she is familiar with, a world close to her heart.
Writing means so many things to so many people. For me it simply means connecting, communicating and, finally, liberation. The incomparable lightness of being I feel after I finish a piece of writing is the freedom I need to move on and to evolve further. That for me is the purpose of life.
I write with a sense of responsibility for I know I represent a section of society in Meghalaya that needs to be projected to the world with the honesty and clarity that it needs.There are too many people misrepresenting it.In an international conference in New Delhi recently a participant said that the Seng Khasi was inspired by the missionaries and another said that before the missionaries came in mid 19th century to our hills, the Khasis had no concept of ethics and morals!
Fiction is my first love. It took a long time to get there because I had so many responsibilities raising a family and establishing a school in rural India,in a place where I was not so familiar with. Both were imperatives then for I was in my thirties and we also had to think of making a worthwhile living and a secure future as well. For fiction one needs mental space and peace and no outside intrusion and stress. So when my hands itch to write I would translate because one did not have to tax one’s brains too much or plunder one’s memory and mindscape. I am very happy I did that because the first book I translated was an important work by one of the luminaries of Khasi literature, Radhon Sing Kharwanlang. His masterpiece, Ka Jingsneng Tymmen (The Teachings of Elders) the Khasi book of moral ethics and etiquette published in 1897. I translated it in 1997. It was tough for it was in verse, 109 beautiful stanzas that rhymed perfectly. The teachings, of course, had been handed down the generations through the oral tradition for we had no alphabet till the Welsh missionary Thomas Jones introduced the Roman alphabet in 1843. Soon after I did the myths, legends and folk tales followed by About One God and The Main Ceremonies of The Khasis. The best part about my translating years was learning about my own culture and tradition while doing the translations.What I already knew became thorough knowledge.
Fiction happened as only fiction can. Totally unexpectedly .Something that I had been waiting all my life happened when I least expected it.
I started Shadow Men on a turbulent August night. I seldom spend the summer and monsoon in Shillong. Winter was when I would come and that was the part of the year when it was quiet and the action had ceased with the closing of the schools and colleges and the chill setting in. That year I was in Shilllong because my father had just passed away and I decided to stay on with my mother.
My late sister-in-law and myself were walking up and down the hill in our compound, chatting. She was telling that I must write a book,the book that I had always wanted to and begged me not to destroy it like I did to two previous ones because I thought they were not good enough (actually I destroyed one but one is with me – am going through it).
We heard what we thought were crackers — actually it was the shattering of glass panes. We saw fires burning on the other hill and we thought people were burning dead leaves.It was only when we heard a sudden thundering of running feet that we rushed into the house to find the family already crouched in safe corners as the bullets whizzed by.The police were firing from the opposite hill. The running feet belonged to the militants who rushed down our compound to the safety of the gorge below.
When my mother asked me with bewilderment in her eyes — What has happened to our people? I told my sister-in-law — I think I will write a book. I made a few notes that night
The next morning I walked up to my younger brother’s house.No one was there I chanced upon Bob Dylan’s collection of songs. One struck me hard. “He was a clean cut kid but they made a killer out of him/That’s what they did …”
I knew I had heard these words before — similar, not so blunt but the suggestion was the same.
I knew I had found my story. I completed Shadow Men in one week but I didn’t think it would get published. My friend ,Neena De thought the opposite and she was right. I am deeply grateful to her.
With the short stories it was different. Images would dance in my mind.
Bijoya Sawian is a translator and writer who lives in Shillong and Dehradun. She is the author of several books, including Shadow Men.