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Thursday, 4 December 2014

Uncovering my Family's Past in Shillong

After leaving the peaceful rural village where I taught some English, I spent one week moving about Sikkim, more as a tourist than a traveler, shuffling from one city to the next, from monasteries to big holy statues. The hours wasted sloshing about in the Jeeps tackling the relentless hillsides took a toll on my butt muscles – and my patience.  
A beautiful monastery near Gangtok... but it took 1 hour just to go 20 km to find this place
The next stop was my father’s hometown – Shillong. I was finally looking forward to slowing down and relaxing a little, but not completely without purpose either. I wanted to understand how my family on my father’s side grew up, and learn about this relatively unknown and unvisited part of India.

Shillong is a city with a metro population of around 350,000. It is the capital city of the state of Meghalaya (sounds like ‘regalia’) in Northeast India, which is like one big arm swinging north around Bangladesh, then down, draping its eastern border.

Meghalaya boasts “the rainiest place on Earth” – Cherrapunji, just 50 km south of Shillong (it recently was overtaken by a place nearby, also in Meghalaya). The English arrived centuries ago, looking for tea, and in exchange brought Christianity, now the dominant religion here.
See? I wasn't kidding.
Northeast India is incredibly diverse, containing tens, and maybe hundreds, of tribes, each with their own language and culture. The diversity here is a double edged sword. Historically, the entire region has been troubled by violence by guerrillas vying for independence from India. Meghalaya is currently peaceful, but rebel activities still occur in neighbouring states like Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

There are continuing tensions between the Northeast and the rest of India, and I've been reading recent articles in the papers about hate crimes against people of Northeast origin. In addition, the locals prefer to use English over Hindi to communicate outside of their own tribes, so English is much more common.

After World War II, many Chinese fled to Northeast India during the Communist Revolution, ending up in places like Shillong. But in 1962, following the brief Indo-Chinese War, India, still bitter towards the Chinese government, decided to imprison its own citizens of Chinese origin in internment camps. My family spent 4 years in one of these camps. After they were released, they eventually fled to Canada.
Helping out a rice harvest in Victoria's village
I think I overhyped Shillong before coming. Upon arriving, I realized Shillong was generally underwhelming and just like other big cities in India, but this time I had more time to absorb its bores and challenges. The city is hilly and riddled with narrow high-walled streets that add to the drab and claustrophobia. Traffic for a city its size felt brutal, or maybe my extended time here allowed my frustration to build to a fever pitch.

Speaking of fever, I got pretty sick. The whole thing was quite ironic - I got sick for the first time on my trip, and it happened while staying in my most luxurious accommodations all trip – the home of my father’s old landlord, Victoria. I suspect that my body is vulnerable to the laziness and temptations that lie within four comfortable and sterile walls, yet stands up well to the filth and thrills of adventure, of mean streets beckoning to be explored.
Angeline, my adopted mother in Shillong
I have Angeline, a third degree family connection, to thank for nursing me back to health. I moved to her place for the second half of my Shillong stay. Angeline was a strong motherly figure, smothering at times, but providing tender loving care and attention when I needed it most. We got along well and I even cooked a little for her and her husband.

Back to full strength, I got back to exploring Shillong. I visited the old home of my family on my father’s side, a humble three room house. I visited the schools they attended. I walked around the fascinating Bara Bazar, where my family worked in a shoe shop making shoes, and where they purchased their vegetables and meat. The bazar was one of the most amazing I've seen in India. It was deceptively huge, with a network of narrow and dark but busy alleyways, like tentacles, extending well beyond the main street.
An aisle of butcher shops as far as the eye can see - Bara Bazar
I got to join Victoria's son Sherrard on one of his projects to his own family's village, and got to witness them harvesting rice. And on a day tour to Cherrapunji, I saw a nice waterfall (which gets much bigger during the monsoon) and explored a small cave. I regret missing out on the living root bridge, an actual functioning bridge made from intertwining tree roots, formed naturally by villagers.

Back in town, I met many people who knew my family. Everyone said my father was a brilliant and smart man. His nickname was “tuition ako” where ako means brother and tuition implied that he was a tutor. They also said he was simple. And quiet. They were right.

I told them how I came to this point of my life – unemployed and travelling. We got to knowing eachother and, with every meeting, I got to understanding my father just a little more, and the extent of the roots that my family set down, and which still exist in their hometown.

I hope I did my whole family proud by visiting their hometown of Shillong, a sort of archaeological site of ancestral memories. I think I sparked old memories and reinvigorated connections among old friends. One Skype session proved that those memories and connections are still strong.
My family on my father's side grew up in this home. You can see all 3 of the rooms in this photo
I gained appreciation of all the hardships my family went through, growing up poor, being imprisoned, and working hard to get to Canada – all so I could grow up privileged and choose to be unemployed and travel around the world. It sounds like poisonous humour, but I'm living the stereotypical family of Asian parents raising their children on traditional values in the Western world. I sympathize for my father, but I have to be my own person. I think we both understand eachother these days, and me coming to Shillong was a positive step for our relationship.

Shillong itself isn't a great city, and the local tourism sector isn't properly developed yet, but I’m glad I came here as part of a family pilgrimage. Up next is Calcutta. My mother and her siblings were born there, but there’s not much evidence left of their time there, since they all left for Hong Kong when my mom was only 8 years old.

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