On the night of January 23, the entire population of Rongchugre village in West Garo Hills, Meghalaya, stood waiting in the cold for Sillian A Sangma to come home. His parents, Nedilla A Sangma and Wellingston R Marak, both ageing hill farmers, felt like they had waited a lifetime to see their son. Four years ago, Sillian, who was then a young man of 21, had disappeared without a trace on a train journey between Chennai and Guwahati.

That December in 2012 was the first time Sillian had left home, and it was to find work. Days later, disappointed at his job prospects, and eager to return home for Christmas, he boarded the train on December 12, with two companions. Somewhere en route, he vanished.

“He left despite our strong objection... and got lost,” his father said, blinking back tears. “Before he disappeared, he was the leader of the youth group of the local Baptist church.”

The day after his disappearance, Sillian had made one last call to his mother saying he had got off the train and was lost. “We were desperate but could not contact him anymore,” she said.

The lost years

Reunited with family and friends. Image credit: Linda Chhakchhuak

The events of December 12 are still hazy in Sillian’s account, in part because he is still recovering from the shock of losing and finding his way home again. When the train stopped at Howrah station, Sillian said, he followed his companions on to the platform. In the rush of passengers and hawkers, he lost sight of them and in the ensuing confusion missed his train, as it pulled out of Howrah. Sillian was left stranded on the platform all night, unable to speak or understand Bengali.

Upon his return, Sillian revealed that he was picked up by the Kolkata Police for vagrancy and taken to the lockup for questioning. Terrified because he could not understand or answer their questions, while he was being taken to be produced in the court next day, Sillian ran, away leaving all his belongings – including his cellphone and identity proof – with the police. Wandering around the city, he finally landed up in the Sector 5 area of Salt Lake. This is where he lived on the streets for the next four years.

“Do you remember where you came from?” Curious passers-by would frequently stop Sillian to ask. He looked different and only spoke Garo, which he would mutter unintelligibly, asking for food. Soon after he first arrived there, Sillian began to be called Danny by locals, a common name for anyone with North Eastern features. Occasionally, people offered Sillian food, though more frequently, he was shooed away from storefronts and restaurants, sometimes beaten and abused.

A team of social activists finally helped to locate Silliam via Facebook and WhatsApp. Image credit: Linda Chhakchhuak

As a result of his distinctive features and partly because he was considered mentally ill and, therefore, dangerous, Sillian became a familiar face for those who lived and worked in Sector 5. One local auto-rickshaw driver, Golok Mondal, took pity on the young man and occasionally brought him food. Mondal tried to speak to Sillian in a smattering of Hindi and Nepali, asking him what he remembered of home, but never received a response.

One day around last October, Sillian finally responded to Mondal with a single word – Meghalaya – and a number, which he was struggling to remember. Mondal dialled the number with his cellphone but got no response. The next day, Sillian gave him another number, with a few digits altered. This time, Mondal said, the tone alerted him that the number was invalid. The two kept this ritual up for nearly two months, until December 17, when someone finally answered the phone.

“I told the person that there is a boy here who says is from Meghalaya,” Mondal said. “I gave the phone to him and they spoke, but neither seemed to make a connection. I felt so sorry for him because everyone knew he was a good man. He had no vices like drinks or drugs.”

Finding his way home

A few days later, Mondal began to be bombarded with phone calls demanding to know where he was and the location of the lost man. The final number Sillian had given Mondal was of his own old cellphone, which was being used by his brother-in-law in Rongchugre. It had taken the village a few days to figure that the indecipherable Bengali- and Hind-speaking man who had called wanted to tell them about Sillian. Once they realised this, they found a distant relative who knew some Bengali to help them communicate with Mondal.

The man the village called for help, Shoshon A Sangma, was a social activist. Sangma posted details about Silliam on his social media pages and urged other social activists in the area to share information about him on their Facebook and WhatsApp networks.

Soon after, Sangma was contacted by Supratim Sinha, a resident of Tura in Meghalaya who was studying in West Bengal. Sinha saw Sangma’s post, went to Sector 5 and sent Sangma a photograph of a dishevelled Silliam.

Four years of living on the streets have taken their toll on Sillian’s mind – for the first few days after his return home, he refused to speak. When he spoke, he would insist in Garo that he did not speak the language. The story of the last four years has begun to be revealed in fits and starts, some of it pieced together through the accounts of those who rescued him. But for the village of Rongchugre, the return of their lost son is nothing short of a miracle.