“In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous.”
– The Decameron (1353) by Boccaccio
The last day
Khang Iew, Market shutdown. Iewduh, Meghalaya’s biggest market, has been shut quite often this year. Citizenship Amendment Act. Inner Line Permit. In Ichamati, on Khasi Hills-Bangla border, residents attack an anti-CAA meeting and a driver from Sohra dies. Khang Iew. Iewduh can’t remain shut for many days. There is a knifing spree. A migrant trader from Assam dies looking for distress prices on tomatoes. Curfew. Khang Iew.
And then it opens again. Iewduh is in a quiet panic. He sees a Nepali porter’s cortege. Hears of Khlam, pestilence, rumours. Of public curfew.
She knows. He thinks he knows. They have grown up with curfews. Police. Public. Stock up on potatoes, rice, dal, oil, eggs.
He remembers telling her later one night.
“I think I had seen the last day of the old Iewduh.”
Such are their habits, they play parts that’s already been played. Drizzle. He tells her about the conversation near Iewduh with a comrade from the hawkers’ union.
“You know what she told me… I am sure rain will wash away the Khlam.”
“I don’t like her voice,” she tells me once again. Announcements begun. Khasi, English and very bad Hindi. “I have never liked these Indian paramilitary in Shillong,” she whispers.
The diary of distance
They remember the excitements of curfew relaxation. The crowd, the throng, rushing off to the neighbours. Few deaths. Burning of a house on the outskirts.
There are three Shillongs. British Shillong, Army’s Shillong and what people call Khasi Shillong. They live in a village of Khasi Shillong.
The village public announcement system needs a replacement. In a feedback-filled voice, they announce the opening of village shops. “I don’t like her voice,” she tells me once again.
Shillong is just a small town
It has been weeks. She asks, “What do you expect from tomorrow’s day?” They would venture out from their village.
“What could we do, khlam or no khlam, we have to eat,” vegetable vendor confides in her.
“I am sure rain will wash away the khlam,” the illegal vendor smiles at her and furtively looks for the patrolling paramilitary.
“I want to go to Iewduh,” I tell her. Nothing is too far in Shillong.
Shillong would have been called Iewduh, if Tokyo wouldn’t have been Ido. If you were going to make a town of your own you can’t have it sounding the same as Ido. She never believes this trivia of mine.
“What would they do for pomblang, ritual goat sacrifice, this year?”
We are staring at the monolith to which the sacrificial goat gets tied before being taken for pomblang.
They come home. He takes a look into the face of his own and remembers a poem by that blighted Russian Osip Mandelstam:
“I must read only children’s books,
Cherish only children’s thoughts,
Scatter all big things far and wide,
Rise up from the deep-rooted sadness.”
And dreams of the dead Nepali porter when it all began.
Tarun Bhartiya is a picturemaker, poet and political activist based in Shillong. This article first appeared on his blog.