An extract from Nilanjan P. Choudhury’s recently published novel Shillong Times
It was that still, silent time between late afternoon and dusk when Shillong stretched out like a drowsy cat, savouring the last lazy moments of its siesta. The children were yet to return home from school and the grownups were still at work—an army of babus huddled inside their offices and shops, wading through stacks of dog-eared files…human calculators muttering under their breath as they ran their ink-stained fingers down unending columns of numbers, adding them up and jotting down the totals with a flourish of their well-worn Wing Sung fountain pens.
Not a vehicle was in sight, nor a single person, as Debu and Clint walked down a narrow, crooked lane that meandered through Laitumkhrah like a strand of forbidden pork chowmein, an unwinding skein of thread leading them into the minotaur’s lair at Kalsang. They were in a residential area, some distance away from the bustle of Laitumkhrah market. On either side of the lane stood rows of pretty cottages, their white-washed walls of wattle and daub punctuated by a broad lattice of timber beams painted black. Slanted red tin roofs peeked out from behind the hedgerows, a yellow-green border that diffidently separated the inside from the outside. Most of the houses had a well-tended garden in the front yard, with blooming gladioli, the glistening, waxy leaves of camellia bushes, and clumps of azaleas and monkey-faced pansies lining the cobbled stone pathways up to the front patio. By the wooden gates of one house stood an orange tree, its boughs weighed down by clusters of ripening fruit. A plump tabby cat sat at the foot of the tree, lazily grooming her mottled ash and white coat as she soaked up the mellow warmth of the evening sun.
It was a serene Shillong evening just like any other, watching with amusement the excitement bubbling inside Debu’s heart as every step brought him closer to the secret pleasures of Kalsang. A short walk later they had arrived at their destination—a large, slightly run-down cottage that had been converted into a restaurant. Clint and Debu stepped inside, the wooden floor planks creaking in protest under the tread of their Naughty Boy shoes.
Clint scanned the room for a suitable table as Debu took in the sight greeting him. It was just as he had imagined—waiters gliding about bearing bowls of sizzling hot momos and soup, the exotic aroma of unfamiliar herbs and meats inside the dishes curling into the cool Shillong air like fumes of incense. A row of dimly lit private cabins stood on either side of the hallway. Curtains had been drawn across the openings to shield the occupants from the public gaze. Only their legs were visible—pairs of stockinged, high-heeled feet, brushing against their boot-clad companions, offering tantalizing glimpses of the secret trysts unfolding within. From behind the drawn curtains drifted the delicious tinkling of feminine giggles, along with a whiff of perfume entangled in the fragrance of pork chowmein. Debu felt like he had been transported into the world of the Arabian Nights. Pleasure and peril lurked in every corner.
Through an unspoken agreement, Debu and Clint decided that it would look odd for two boys to be holed up inside a private cabin. They sat at an open table with a view of the street. Clint lit up a Capstan cigarette.
Ah, Kalsang’s! thought Debu, as he sank into his chair and soaked in the charged atmosphere. This was so much more glamorous than having masala dosas and chhola baturas in the sanitized confines of Regal and Chirag’s. A waiter approached them and asked for orders.
‘We’ll have the usual. Okay?’ Clint asked Debu.
‘Umm…yeah. Sure. Fine. The usual,’ Debu said. He had no idea what the usual was.
‘Waiter. Two plates,’ Clint said. The waiter nodded knowingly and left the two boys by themselves.
‘Umm—I don’t have any money,’ said Debu. ‘I mean I do. But just enough for the bus fare.’
Clint waved away his concerns. ‘No probs. I have enough dough,’ he said, taking a deep drag on his Capstan. ‘It’s cold. Want some whisky?’
‘Okay, I’ll have a shot then. Tell you what? Why don’t you do my maths homework for me while the food comes?’ Debu was in no mood for maths. But he felt it would be impolite to refuse his benefactor’s homework. Besides, Clint would probably not force whisky on him if he was doing maths. Tearing himself away from the pleasures of Kalsang, Debu battled the sins of trigonometry as Clint sipped on his whisky and smoked.
An English song was playing on the rickety tape recorder kept by the cash counter. Clint closed his eyes and swayed to the music. Debu hadn’t heard the song before, but he found himself instantly drawn to it. It was unlike anything he had ever heard before…
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone.
‘Nice song,’ said Debu. ‘Who’s sung it?’
Clint’s jaw dropped. He removed the cigarette from his lips and exhaled an incredulous gust of smoke into Debu’s face. ‘You kidding me or what? You don’t know who that is?’
Debu’s face turned pink. ‘No, sorry. I don’t,’ he admitted. ‘I only listen to Hindi film songs on the radio. And once in a while my mother makes me listen to Rabindra Sangeet,’ he said. ‘Which I really hate,’ he added as an afterthought, hoping it would make Clint think less poorly of him.
‘Who’s Rabindra Sangeet?’ Clint asked blankly.
‘Not who. What. It’s…anyway never mind. Who’s singing this song?’
‘Man! Don’t you know anything except what’s inside your school books? That’s Pink Floyd man! Greatest band in the world. Ever. The Wall! Greatest album ever.’
‘Oh,’ Debu said, feeling really dumb about not having even heard of the greatest band in the world. Ever.
‘Just listen. It’ll blow your mind.’
And it did. Debu had never experienced anything like it before. He didn’t know that music could sound like that. It touched a place inside him that Hindi film songs with their ishqs and zulfeins and chandnis had never reached. He soon found himself singing out loud along with Clint and head banging to the refrain:
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone
All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
He felt as if the music was seeping into the marrow of his bones and flowing into his bloodstream. It was an epiphany, a revelation. He felt like Buddha under the peepal tree.
‘This is too good. Simply amazing,’ he said after the last bar of music had faded.
‘Yeah, sounds even better with whisky,’ Clint said. ‘Want a shot?’
Go on, sissy! Have your first drink! It’s good. Trust me, hissed a nasal voice inside his head.
No cruel boy! You will bring shame upon the family name, a second voice pleaded, much feebler than the first. Don’t listen to him. He’s such a boring old fart. I’m your friend and I’m telling you. This stuff is good. Go on, drink up. Believe me, you won’t regret it. Go on now—live life a little! said the first voice in a honeyed whisper.
Nahiin, nahiiin!! Kabhi nahiin! screeched the second.
‘What are you thinking so much about?’ Clint said. ‘Want that whisky?’
With a great effort and willpower, Debu said, ‘No, thanks. Don’t think I will.’
‘Suit yourself,’ Clint shrugged. ‘Actually, better that way. More for me.’ He winked and raised the bottle to his lips.
Debu watched him with fascination. ‘You drink everyday?’
‘You crazy or what? You think I’m an alcoholic?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘Yeah, but I bet that’s what you thought. It’s okay. You Bangalis think we Khasis are all drunkards, right?’
‘No! When did I say that? I didn’t mean to—’
‘I know what you meant. Anyway, it’s no big deal. Everyone drinks in Shillong. It’s cold. A nip of whisky makes you feel good and warm. That’s all there is to it. Go to Eee Cee Restaurant in the evening and you’ll see them—Khasis, Bangalis, Nepalis, Biharis—all of them drinking away to glory.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Debu lied. His mother had taken him to Eee Cee Restaurant a few times to treat him to the occasional pastry. He knew there was a bar in the basement, although he had never been inside it. But Clint was probably right. Every once in a while, his own father would come back home with a happier-than-usual smile, a slight slur in his voice and the whiff of alcohol on his breath. On such occasions, he would avoid all conversations with Mrs Dutta and head straight to the bedroom, quickly tucking himself into bed and claiming that he had a headache.
‘The only difference is that we are open about it,’ said Clint, as if he had read Debu’s thoughts. ‘But you guys hide when you drink—as if it’s some big crime or something.’
‘Will you please stop now?’ Debu exclaimed. ‘You’re being too touchy about a simple question.’
‘Yeah. Well—maybe I am. It’s just that I don’t like being asked so many questions.’
‘I only asked because you are the youngest person I’ve ever seen drinking.’
‘Hey, I’m not young. I’m seventeen and a half—an old man compared to you.’
‘When did you start?’
‘Oh, a couple of years ago.’
‘Just about my age then. Not an old man. Why?’
Clint frowned. ‘You ask too many questions, man. Why don’t you finish off my trignometry homework while I have my drink in peace?’
‘Okay,’ Debu agreed, not wanting to start another quarrel. He opened Clint’s textbook and turned to the chapter on trigonometry.
But just then the waiter arrived with two steaming plates of chowmein and trigonometry became a tangential concern. The aroma made Debu’s mouth water. He quickly pitched a heaped forkful of noodles into it. His eyes closed in bliss. Just like the Pink Floyd song, it was completely different from anything he had ever experienced before. It was rich, delicate and filled with subtle new flavours and textures that made his taste buds explode in pleasure.
‘Umm…delicious!’ Debu mumbled as he chewed on a particularly succulent morsel, ‘never ate such…good chow in my life.’
‘Yeah,’ said Clint. ‘This place makes the best pork chow in town.’
Debu’s fork fell clattering on the plate. Inside his stomach, the noodles turned into a pack of writhing snakes. ‘P…p… pork?’ he stammered. ‘What the…why didn’t you tell me?’
Clint was busy eating. ‘You never asked,’ he replied shortly.
Debu felt like throwing up. He was about to make a dash for the bathroom when Audrey Pariat walked into Kalsang and his life.
The pukish feeling in Debu’s stomach disappeared. A flutter took its place. The most wonderful girl in the world had just walked in. He had experienced similar feelings in the past but this time it felt different. There was something about this girl that made her very special.
He could not say what though. She was attired in the standard grey skirt, grey blazer and red tie uniform of Loretta Convent. She looked like any other school girl. And yet, there were tiny details that lifted her above the pale of the ordinary—the hazel eyes sparkling with intelligence, the lock of hair falling across her forehead, the tiny mole delicately poised just above her lip…he stopped himself, suddenly conscious that he was staring at her. Reluctantly dragging his gaze away from her, he tried to concentrate on the job of twisting a strand of chowmein on his fork. By now, he had quite forgotten that it contained pork.
Luckily, she did not seem to have noticed him gawking at her. She sat down next to Clint and immediately launched into an animated conversation with him. She seemed to be talking about eagles. It was a strange topic to discuss, thought Debu, because as far as he knew there were no eagles in Shillong. Must be a bird lover, he concluded, as he sneaked another quick glance at her. This time she noticed him.
‘Hi there, I’m Audrey,’ she sized him up with a quick glance. ‘And you are?’ The cool insouciance of her hazel eyes reduced him to a sticky strand of chowmein.
‘H…hhi…Um…D…D…Debu,’ he managed to mumble.
Audrey let out a little giggle, ‘Dabboo? That’s our dhobi’s name. You from Bihar too?’
Debu cheeks turned crimson. ‘Not Dabboo. Debu—short for Debojit. And I’m Bihari not Bengali…I mean the other way round.’
‘Okay. Whatever. Nice meeting you Dabboo,’ she said. ‘Hey, can I have that chow if you don’t mind? I’m starving.’ ‘Sure,’ said Debu and pushed his plate across the table. He wondered whether he should have reiterated that his real name was Debu, but her attention was on the food and he felt it would be impolite to intrude on her meal. He watched as she lifted delicate forkfuls of noodles to her lips and chatted away with Clint. Their conversation revolved around a range of unfamiliar subjects—J.J. Cale, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and once again, those eagles.
Presently, he realized that ‘the eagles’ were their favourite English music band, and his tension ratcheted up. He fervently hoped that they wouldn’t ask him to join the conversation. He didn’t want his ignorance of such matters exposed in his very first meeting with Audrey. To his relief, they ignored him and continued talking amongst themselves. She spoke with a confidence and an energy that was infectious. Debu thought she was quite simply the most fascinating girl he had ever met in his life.
Not that he had met too many girls before. St Edward’s was an all-boys’ school and female presence there was as rare as a sunny week in Cherrapunjee. Though there was one notable exception to this rule—the Annual Sports Day. On this hallowed occasion, St Edward’s School played host to the young ladies from the neighbouring Loretta Convent and Pine Hill School. Other boys’ schools of Shillong were also invited to participate, but they weren’t of much interest to most Edwardians.
The Annual Sports Day was a red-letter day for the sporty types. They would compete fiercely for a place on the podium, hoping to make a good impression on the Loretta and Pine Hill girls watching them from the stands. Such hopes usually came to nothing, but that didn’t stop them from trying year after year.
For the athletically challenged like Debu, the situation was gloomier. The sports day did not include cricket and football, the only games he was half decent at, and was restricted to a variety of races and jumps—none of which he was fit enough to participate in. Relegated to the class drill, he was deported to a distant corner of the field where he gamely twirled batons or flung his limbs about in abrupt jerky movements like a malfunctioning robot—far from the admiring gaze of any crazed female fans. He felt like a desert traveler who could see the hazy outlines of an oasis on the horizon, but knew that it was only a mirage.
The situation on the home front wasn’t much better either. Of late, he had started noticing that the girls of his neighbourhood in Upper Jail Road behaved in a highly affected manner whenever he was around. They moved about in tightly-knit packs and would start whispering and giggling amongst themselves whenever their paths crossed. This would cause his cheeks and ears to turn red, which would only lead to more fervent whispering and giggling. He did not know the reason for this. He could only guess that there was some defect in him which was the cause of their amusement. When separated from the pack, they would purposefully avoid eye contact or look through him as if he didn’t exist. As far as Debu was concerned, girls were exotic, unreachable fairy- like beings who would never have anything to do with mere mortals like him.
But Audrey seemed to be different. She had none of the typical feminine airs that made him feel so awkward. She didn’t stare at him and then nervously turn her face away to hide her giggles like the others. She treated him as if he was perfectly normal. Over time, Debu’s nervousness began to subside and with every passing minute, he felt more and more at ease in her company. She even seemed to be interested in him—a completely novel experience as far he was concerned.
‘So what’s your favourite band?’ she asked him.
The old tension reared its head again. ‘Umm…Pink Floyd,’ he replied.
‘Yeah, right!’ Clint chuckled. ‘He just heard Pink Floyd for the first time today.’
Debu’s face turned red. ‘Shut up, Clint,’ he muttered.
‘Hey, just relax, Debu,’ said Audrey. ‘Stop being mean to him, Clint. What’s the big deal if he doesn’t listen to Pink Floyd? Everyone’s got their own tastes.’
‘Hey, I was just teasing him, okay? He’s a good guy,’ Clint slapped Debu on the back. ‘Helps me with my maths. He’s damn good at it.’
‘Yeah?’ Audrey gazed into Debu’s eyes. He felt a sudden rush of blood and hoped his face was not turning red again. He hated the way he started blushing at the most inappropriate moments.
‘What’s your favourite topic in maths?’
Debu perked up, greatly relieved to find himself in familiar territory. ‘Geometry,’ he replied confidently.
‘Same here. I love pretty much everything in maths. But geometry’s my favourite too,’ said Audrey.
‘Really? How come?’
She frowned. ‘What do you mean, how come? You think girls can’t like maths, is it?’
‘No, no, that’s not what I meant,’ Debu hastened to explain, even as he cursed himself for his uncanny ability to shove his foot into his mouth as soon as he opened it.
Luckily Clint stepped in: ‘I really don’t know how the hell you guys like maths. It’s so boring.’
‘It’s not!’ Audrey said. ‘It’s really interesting. It’s just like detective work, like solving a murder mystery. You’re given the clues and you work through them logically, step by step, until you solve the mystery.’
‘Exactly!’ Debu said excitedly. ‘Just like Sherlock Holmes.’ ‘Or Miss Marple,’ Audrey countered.
‘Holmes is better,’ Debu said.
Audrey shrugged her slim shoulders. ‘Well, to each to his own. Holmes has more adventure. But Christie’s plots are better. I love solving those complicated murders she writes.’
‘Yeah. Same here,’ Debu said. There was a goofy smile on his face. He felt a connection with her that he had never felt with anyone before. Suddenly, the world seemed to have become a better, brighter place. The geraniums wilting in the pots by the window sill perked up their crimson heads, the black tabby that had been scrounging around for scraps grinned happily at him like the Cheshire cat, and even the harsh cawing of a raven flying past seemed like a nightingale’s warbling.
A peevish, half-amused voice shook him out of his reverie. ‘Man! What crap you guys talk about,’ said Clint. ‘maths, Miss Marple and whatnot. You two should try and get a life outside your books.’
‘And you should try reading a little more,’ Audrey countered. ‘That way you might finally get to know that there’s more to life than pork chow and rock bands.’
‘Books are boring,’ said Clint. ‘Anyway, I gotta go now. Anyone wants a last shot of whisky?’
‘I don’t mind a small one. It’s chilly outside,’ Audrey said. ‘Debu, you want to join us in a toast?’
‘Ummm…’ Debu mumbled, taken aback by her question. He did not know what to do. On the one hand, he would look like a proper, blue-blooded sissy if he didn’t have a drink, especially when she was having one—in spite of being a girl and all that. On the other hand, how could he? It was a sin to drink alcohol. Good boys didn’t do such things. Besides, his mother would surely skin him alive if she came to know of it. She only had to catch a whiff of alcohol on his breath, and he would be finished. But this was no ordinary drink. It was a momentous occasion. None other than Audrey Pariat—the coolest, hottest chick of Shillong—had personally requested him to join her for a toast. How could he say no?
Clint was watching him with amusement. ‘He’s the goody- goody types,’ he informed Audrey. ‘Doesn’t drink.’
That settled the matter. ‘Bullshit! You don’t know anything about me!’ exclaimed Debu. ‘I drink, okay? I drink all the time!’ Clint rolled his eyes. ‘Okay. Cool. Whatever you say brother,’ he said. ‘So what are we waiting for?’ He carefully poured out the whisky into three glasses and added a little water. ‘Cheers,’ he said and raised his glass.
‘Cheers,’ said Audrey and Debu. They clinked their glasses and downed their drinks.
A rancid liquid filled Debu’s mouth and toxic fumes exploded inside his nostrils. He would have gagged at once, had it not been for the thought that he simply could not vomit in front of Audrey. No matter what happened, he just could not appear like a complete idiot before her. With a supreme act of willpower, he forced himself to swallow the vile liquid. A strangled gasp escaped his lips as a river of fire gushed down his throat and settled into a pool of lava bubbling ominously in the pit of his stomach.
‘Oooof,’ he whimpered as he bent over and clutched his belly. His eyes were watering and, through the blur, he thought he could see the Cheshire cat watching him with a slowly widening grin.
‘You okay, Debu?’ he heard Audrey say. Her voice was faint and muffled, as if she was speaking from a great distance. But even through the haze of alcohol, he was thrilled to note her apparent concern.
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,’ he somehow managed to gasp.
‘Okay. Then finish the rest of your drink and let’s split,’ said Clint. ‘Cheers!’ he said and raised his glass.
‘Cheers,’ said Audrey. She raised her glass and was about to knock it down when she paused. ‘What’s the matter, Debu? Not joining us for the toast?’
‘Yes, yes. Cheers!’ Debu croaked. Praying furiously that he wouldn’t throw up, Debu somehow managed to gulp down
the remaining whisky and sank into his chair. It seemed to be swaying below him. He held on to it tightly with clammy hands, hoping it wouldn’t melt away from under him. The pool of lava was spreading outwards from his stomach. It felt as if an army of red ants was crawling all over inside him. Beads of sweat popped up on his forehead. He felt his tie tightening around his neck like a hangman’s noose. He tugged it loose before it strangled him to death.
He felt a gentle touch on his hand. Audrey was looking anxiously at him. ‘Are you okay, Debu?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, I’m okay,’ Debu squeaked in a high-pitched voice. He had a feeling that the syllables were sliding unsteadily past each other like riders in a slow cycle race. But apart from that, he was okay. More than okay, actually. He was feeling good, pretty damn good.
‘Yeah, I’m fine. Absholutely fine,’ he slurred. He was totally relaxed now, limp with contentment, at peace with the world. Audrey’s face swayed and shimmered before him, the lines blurring gently into the background, like in a watercolour painting. He was damn sure he had never seen anyone more beautiful in his whole life.
‘Hey, Debu. I’m planning to have a birthday party at my place soon,’ said Audrey. ‘Wanna come?’
Debu sat bolt upright. Of course, I’ll come, he was about to say but instead a loud burp came out. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, pressing his palm against his mouth. ‘What were you saying?’
‘I said, I’d like to call you home one of these days for my birthday party. Think you can come?’
‘Party? Your birthday party?’ Debu gave a big, happy smile. ‘Of course, I’ll come. No question about it. Definitely, positively,’ he thumped the table with a new-found confidence. There was a niggling thought at the back of his head about what his mother would say. But bolstered by the whisky, he swatted it aside like a pesky mosquito.
‘Great! Clint knows my place,’ said Audrey. ‘He’ll bring you. Make sure you come. I’ll let you know the exact date soon. Most probably on a Saturday evening.’
Debu nodded vigorously in agreement. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘It’s getting late. We should leave now,’ Audrey said. ‘You guys go ahead,’ said Clint. ‘I’ll pay the bill and come.
Need to buy some kwai too.’
‘Okay, we’ll wait for you near the bus stop,’ said Audrey.
‘Yeah, coming,’ said Debu, the whisky stretching out his lips into a goofy grin.
Audrey and Debu headed out to Don Bosco Square. Debu had been there many times before, but it had never seemed as beautiful to him as it did that evening. A soft, mist-like haze had shrouded the statue of Don Bosco—it seemed to be floating on clouds that had descended from the hills beyond.
Audrey pointed at the statue and asked, ‘Do you know who he is the patron saint of?’
Debu shrugged. ‘What does patron saint mean?’ he asked.
‘Christian saints like Don Bosco are supposed to be like guardian angels of certain people or certain things—their friends and protectors. That sort of thing. They are supposed to watch over their people, keep them away from harm and so on,’ Audrey replied. ‘Like Saint Francis is supposed to be the patron saint of animals and nature, and Saint Anthony is the patron saint of lost objects and lost souls,’ she gave a wry smile. ‘People like Clint, I guess.’
‘Clint—a lost soul? Really?’ Debu asked. ‘He seems pretty cool to me. A real smooth guy, you know.’
‘Yeah, I guess he comes across that way. But appearances can be deceptive. Clint’s got…issues.’
‘What sort of issues?’
‘Well…I guess you could say…family issues.’
‘Oh, that’s nothing. I got family issues too. Big ones,’ said Debu, hoping she would be impressed by the size of his family issues.
‘Yeah? Like what?’
‘You know—like my mother. She’s pretty dominating. Doesn’t let me have a moment’s peace.’
‘I know what you mean. Mothers can be like that sometimes.’
‘Yeah. Mothers. I bet Clint’s got the same problem?’
There was a pause before Audrey replied. ‘He doesn’t have a mother,’ Audrey said.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Debu. ‘I didn’t know.’
‘Yeah, well. She died a few years ago. When he was around twelve or so.’
‘That’s really sad.’
‘Yeah. I know. And twelve, thirteen—what a horrible age to lose one’s mother. As it is, there are so many crazy changes happening inside you—hormones and all that.”
Debu blushed and examined his shoes as Audrey went on. ‘Clint doesn’t talk much about her these days but I know they were very close. He told me once how badly he was hit by her death. That’s when he started losing interest in studies. Plugged a couple of exams and then…just sort of switched off. It’s sad—he’s a pretty smart guy, you know. He would have done just fine in studies, if he wanted to. Or if there was someone around to guide him.’
‘No brothers, sisters?’ asked Debu, who had often felt the loneliness of being a single child.
‘He’s got an elder brother who lives in Sohra. Has his own business there I’m told.’
‘And his dad?’
‘I think Clint and his dad…sort of drifted apart after his mother died. Hardly spends much time with him. He’s always busy with his business and…politics and stuff. I guess that’s why Clint’s become a little wild in his ways. It’s been pretty lonely for him these last few years.’
‘Oh,’ Debu said, suddenly grateful that both his parents were alive and they spent enough time with him…although once in while he wished they wouldn’t. ‘What’s his dad’s name by the way?’
Audrey smiled. ‘John. John Wayne Lyngdoh. Quite a filmy family, the Lyngdohs—shooting at each other like cowboys.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t think Clint and his dad get along very well. They’re fighting all the time.’
Audrey turned away from Debu. ‘I don’t think Clint likes the…the…business…that his father’s in. He’s just not cut out for that world. He’s a different sort of guy, you know. Painting, music, friends—that’s what makes him happy. He wants to become a painter.’
‘I know. He told me.’
‘He told his father too. But Mr Lyngdoh just laughed at the idea. He wants Clint to start working in the business, and eventually take it over from him. But Clint doesn’t want to. He would hate that life. They have quarrels over it—all the time, he tells me. And now that Clint’s growing older, it’s becoming worse. That’s why he tries to stay out of the house as long as he can—hanging around in the streets, killing time in restaurants, drinking, smoking.’
‘You seem to know a lot about him. How did you guys meet?’ Debu asked.
‘Oh, we bumped into each other at an inter-school art competition a few years ago,’ Audrey replied. ‘He won, of course, and I was like, third from the bottom or something. But I just loved his painting. I thought it was brilliant. I went over to congratulate him after the prize distribution ceremony. We got talking and realized that we liked each other’s company. Bumped into each other a few more times and soon we became pretty good friends. It was a few months after his mother’s death. He was quite vulnerable at the time. I think my being around helped him through those days. He was a lost soul, like I said. Still is, I think sometimes?”
‘Who’s a lost soul?’ Clint drawled from behind them. ‘No one…’ Debu muttered feebly, caught unawares.
‘We were just talking about Saint Anthony,’ Audrey came to his rescue. ‘The patron saint of lost souls—isn’t that so Debu?’ ‘Yes, yes that’s right,’ Debu agreed in relief.
‘Alright, enough chit-chat. It’s late. We should call it a day,’ Clint said.
‘Yeah,’ Debu said reluctantly, watching the fiery orange clouds as they drifted over the far hills beyond the statue of Don Bosco. ‘Who’s Don Bosco the patron saint of?’
‘Youths, juvenile delinquents and magicians,’ Audrey replied.
‘You mean us,’ Debu and Clint said together.
‘Exactly,’ said Audrey and burst out laughing.
Clint clasped his palms together in prayer and looked up at the statue. ‘O, Don Bosco,’ he declaimed. ‘Bless us, your devoted devotees. Remember to protect us and help us, especially when the shit hits the fan. Amen,’ he said and made the sign of the cross with his fingers. ‘Say amen, you lazy dogs.’
Audrey and Debu sank to their knees. ‘Amen,’ they said solemnly and crossed themselves.
They lingered there, passing the time over rambling conversations and shared sips of whisky, until the shadows of the evening began to lengthen and the inevitable moment of parting arrived.
When fourteen-year-old Debojit Dutta meets the slightly older Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh in his maths tuition classes, he is wary of his cigarette-smoking, whisky-swilling ways. Besides, Debu has only recently escaped a bunch of local ruffians who wanted him to ‘go back home to Bangladesh’. But Debu is unable to resist being friends with Clint. For, in return for doing his maths homework, Clint introduces him to a completely new life: the heady charms of Kalsang, the Chinese restaurant forbidden by Debu’s mother; the revolutionary sounds of Pink Floyd; and most importantly, the coolest, prettiest girl in town—Audrey Pariat. Audrey loves maths and detective stories, just like Debu, and does not make him feel awkward or exotic. Together, the three of them look set to embark on many adventures. But when tensions between the Khasi and Bengali communities boil over, Shillong becomes a battlefield—old neighbours become outsiders and the limits of friendship are challenged. Nilanjan P Choudhury’s Shillong Times is a coming-of-age novel set in the troubled eighties of Shillong.