Listening at/to the border

I grew up in Shillong in the 1970s.

Home Shillong, 1977
Home Shillong, 1977

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.

Prize distribution, Ananda Sammelan, possibly 1978
Prize distribution, Ananda Sammelan, possibly 1978

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.

Pine Mount School, Shillong, 2015
Pine Mount School, Shillong

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! .

With Bandana Deori at the piano, Pinemount School, Teacher's Day 1980
With Bandana Deori at the piano, Pinemount School, Teacher’s Day 1980

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). 

Sound artists Gilles Aubry and Robert Millis were in India on an art residency programme till 10 January 2016. We all went together to Shella, as part of our project, and theirs too. Renee Lulam, our friend from Shillong, was our navigator on this trip, showing us our way around the place and with people.
We made a presentation on our collaboration at Studio21, Calcutta, on 23 December 2015.

SOUNDS

https://soundcloud.com/raiot-webzine/border-mic-faced-towards-india

Recorded on 13 December 2015, at about 11 am, by Sukanta on a Sound Devices 633 recorder, with a Sennheiser MKH 418 microphone and a Rycote Softie windshield. Gilles and Sukanta made a synchronised recording near the  border fence at Shella. Gilles was using an Audio Technica AT 835ST microphone and a Sound Devices 702 recorder. His mic was facing Bangladesh, Sukanta’s India.The idea is to eventually play both recordings together through four speakers, to give a sense of our different listenings to the same border.At Studio21,Calcutta, though, we could play only one recording, which was Gilles’. Here is the other one. On Sukanta’s side, about two kilometres away was the Lafarge conveyor belt and you could see their watch-tower up on the hill.

These are recordings made by Sukanta at the quarry of the Komorrah LImestone Mining Company, in the Shella-Bholaganj area of Meghalaya on 14 December 2015. The 17 km ropeway from this quarry goes up to Chhatak in Sylhet, where the Chhatak Cement Factory Limited has its production unit. This company was formerly known as the Assam Bengal Cement Company Limited, and it was founded in 1937. This in fact is the factory Delwar Hussain writes about in his book

Recorded by Sukanta, with the same equipment, on 12 December 2015, on way to the Lafarge conveyor belt, crossing the bridge over Shella river. The time was late evening, as the sky was darkening. Once at the belt, after we had been told off by the Lafarge guards, we felt big drops of water coming down from above. Renee handed Sukanta an umbrella. Soon a heavy rain came tumbling on the tin roof of the tea shop. The bridge was wet when we came back. Sukanta made another recording, of the bridge after the rain. This is the one before.

This track was first edited by Robert, with some input from me since he does not speak the languages; this is a shortened version of that first edit, which was played at Studio21, re-edited by Sukanta, The recordings were made by Sukanta, using the same equipment, at different times on 12 and 13 December, in different places in and around Shella. The voices included are of the Shella town-crier, Deepak Dutta, an anonymous BSF jawan, an anonymous old Khasi woman, Kordor, Subarnarekha Acharya, Jehan Lytmon, Sukanta, Moushumi and children of Sohbar village, in the Sohra (Cherapunjee) area.
The recordings extracted here are copyrighted to Sukanta Majumdar and The Travelling Archive. They should not be used for any commercial project. If cited or used for anything else, it will only be proper that we are first asked, and properly acknowledged later. To contact us, you can write to info@thetravellingarchive.org  
Photographs with the soundtracks are by Robert Millis and for those you may write to climaxgoldenrob@gmail.com. To contact Gilles Aubry, write to gilaubry8@gmail.com

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