New Delhi, May 8 The perfectionist that she is, Bijoya Sawian wishes she had not destroyed so many manuscripts in the past and whose just-published "Shallow Men", set in her native Shillong - actually a novella and two short stories - has been nominated for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize for 2002, instituted to honour the Nobel laureate for his outstanding contribution to Indian and international literature, as well as to the cultural, educational and humane ideas he pursued throughout his life.
"Writing is my passion and words and stories come easily to me. Now I wish I had not discarded so many manuscripts. I am very grateful to my school friend, Neena De who made sure that this one did not suffer the same fate. We used to write the best essays in school in Loreto Shillong," Sawian told IANS in an email interview.
True to its title, "Shadow Men" (Speaking Tiger) begins on an ominous note.
"Ghostlike, the mist floated up from the gorge below, encircling the gardener's cottage and the trees, seeping languidly through the flowering shrubs. It climbed up the hedge of azaleas and gently made its way past the tall monsoon grass. It parted slightly and I noticed three figures climbing up the west-facing slope. Something about the way they moved caught my eye for it wasn't the easy, after-work saunter of household staff. They were quick and furtive yet clumsy, clearly unfamiliar with the terrain and the path that zigzagged through the plum and pear orchard
"The mist thickened, now rising quickly to form an impenetrable curtain And then suddenly it broke to expose three young men in the dimly-lit verandah of the gardener's cottage below. One of them had a gun. Rooted to the ground and cold with fright I watched his sinister silhouette."
The pace thus set, Raseel, the narrator, hears the sound of shots. As suddenly as it happened, the three men are gone - and there is silence.
Raseel, visiting her old school friend Aila in Shillong, is determined to get to the truth behind the strange death of a 'dkhar', an outsider, in the grounds of her hosts' house. Why was he killed? Who are the killers? As she begins to unravel the mystery, Raseel finds herself caught in a tale of intrigue and violence that mirrors the world of insurgency around her.
The tense and dramatic undercurrents that emerge in "Shadow Men" continue in the stories that follow. In "The Flight", 18-year-old Mawii has to make a difficult decision between her ‘own people' and her one true love - a ‘vai'or an ‘outsider'. In "The Limp", octogenarian Nipendro Roy finally feels he ‘belongs' in this hill
state to which he came as a 20-year-old immigrant from Bengal.
The three stories, with Shillong as the central theme, came naturally to Sawian.
"I did not have to do any research except go back and forth in my mind and recollect incidents which I had experienced and read about people I had met during the time when insurgency was at its height in Meghalaya in the late 1970s.
"When I wrote this novel in 2001 it had dissipated and in that turbulent August night when I started the book that was part of the last burst of militancy so to speak," said Sawian, whose works essentially deal with the life and culture of the Khasi
community of northeast India.
"The Teachings of Elders", "Khasi Myths", "Legends and Folktales" and "About One God" are three of several books that she has translated from Khasi into English. Her original works in English include "A Family Secret and Other Stories".
Several institutes of repute, including the Sahitya Akademi and the Institute of Folklore Studies, Bhopal, have published her short stories and critical essays.
Sawian studied at Seng Khasi High School and Loreto Convent in Shillong, and did her Masters in English at Miranda House, Delhi, after graduating in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College. She now divides her time between Shillong and Dehra Dun.
"I go to Shillong at least twice a year to see my family and also to keep up with my translations of indigenous Khasi culture and religion (from Khasi into English) - a top priority for me in spite for my love for fiction," she said.
Marriage to her university friend,Alark Singh brought her to Dehra Dun, "a place not so different to Shillong - not the Dehra Dun we live in at least. We are both educationist and run a senior secondary co-educational School affiliated to CBSE (The Annfield School). My in- laws are from Himachal and Nepal so the adjustments problems are almost nil! The ideal place to write too.
What of the future?
"I am working on my next novel and fairing out my short stories and, of course, translating ...the songs of Seng Khasi These songs were composed over 100 years ago when the indigenous Khasi religion (which my Shillong family practices) became an organized religion" Sawian concluded.