I grew up in Shillong in the 1970s.
My father had gone to work in a government office, my mother joined him, both of them young and full of love for themselves and for this pretty place where Tagore’s Shesher Kobita was born. Within a year my sister arrived, some years later me. My sister went to Loreto, me to Pine Mount, and in that insular world of ours all that mattered was the grades we got in school and the prizes I won for the (mostly Bengali) songs I sang at Ananda Sammelan.
Then we left.
Then we chose to leave.
Then we had to leave.
Yes, it was all of those things in one; the leaving, the choosing and the forcing. As I try to make sense of Shillong now, this is how I see it. A simple set of words, but they contain in them a very complex history; rather, many different and often conflicting histories.
For twenty-five years I did not go back to Shillong and did not need to either. Then it was my work in songmaking and field recording, with sound recordist Sukanta Majumdar, which took me back. First time when I was on my way to Cachar; I went and saw our old house and my school from the outside.
Another time, on our way back from Silchar, we stopped and made new friends, people I would never meet in my Bengali childhood. We also made two presentations, one at NEHU and the other at Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. During Q&A at the latter one, someone in the audience (whom I later met as the historian Binayak Dutta) asked, have you ever thought of the shared songs and stories between Meghalaya and Sylhet?
When I was small, we would take our family guests from the plains, to Cherrapunjee, to the place of ceaseless rain. We would go with a picnic. And there, beyond and behind the mist, we thought we could see a fine trickle of the Mawsmai Falls. Beyond and behind the mist were also the hills of Sylhet, we knew. I thought, Mawsmai was from the word ‘mausam’, which means rain or monsoon. Someone must have told me such a thing. So, was my name, ‘Moushumi’, which means ‘of the rain’ (we Bongs tend to make everything into a round ‘o’ sound and all ‘s’s are ‘sh’ for us; well, mostly). That must have been a special bond then–between a waterfall and a little girl! .
At that time, I did not know about the stone songs of this land where my father had come to make home. I did not know that ‘maw’ was stone, and ‘smai’, oath. So I did not know that between me and the waterfall, there was none of the bond that I thought there was. Why did I not know about the stone songs? Why did Miss Hynniewta never tell us about her clan’s burial ground near Sohra, while also teaching us songs from ‘Joseph and his Multicoloured Dreamcoat’? What was it that made it possible to cross some borders while others got drawn more firmly around us?
The border is a recurring motif in my own work and the work Sukanta and I do together as The Travelling Archive (www.thetravellingarchive.org). Having lived in and between many lands, recently we have started to work on a research and recording project on Borders and Freedoms. It is based on several texts, which look at different borders between Bangladesh and India, and different ways of listening to borders. One of the books this project is based on is Delwar Hussain’s Boundaries Undermined: The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh-India Border (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013).