Imagine a city where you can tell a person’s social position, what language they speak and their background just by looking at them. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head tells us that Shillong, in India’s north east, is such a place:
Firdaus knew that the woman waving to her from the window of the beauty parlour, her friend Sharon, was a quarter British, a quarter Assamese of the tea-planter variety, and half Khasi.
Firdaus is an outsider, a teacher at the Loreto Convent. She has no Khasi blood, unlike the majority of Shillong’s inhabitants – she is a dkhar, an outsider, a ‘permanent guest of the hills-people’. Four years into her PhD, and she still thinks of ‘English literature as a vast grey 19th century amorphousness’. Her supervisor, Dr Thakur, is as scattershot and adamant with his advice as Thor on a bad day, and her thesis topic is sadly undercooked: ‘Something like the values of characters like Elizabeth Bennet … how she manages to get around … prudishness and arrogance and that sort of thing.’
Another local, Aman Moondy, is preparing to sit the Civil Services exam. It’s his second attempt; having been assured by his philosophy teachers that there was no future in that ancient art of knowledge, the exam seems like the only way out of Shillong. What he really loves is music – Aman’s band, The ProtoDreamers, imagine themselves as Pink Floyd and as the trigger for a new creative scene.
This part of India bears the marks of its neighbours – Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma and Nepal. Chinese restaurants jostle for space among the kwai (betel nut) sellers and aloo-wallahs. But this doesn’t mean that its inhabitants attend harmoniously to life and each other. Instead, Firdaus and Aman are uncertain of their welcome. For dkhar, violence can bloom like a terrible flower: see a street vendor pummelled for fun by Khasi youths.
Eight-year-old Sophie feels alienated, too. Not only from the people in the Ladybird books she has read (‘Jane, will you help Mummy bake a cake?’), but also from her parents. In fact, she thinks that she’s adopted – how else can she become Khasi, like the others?
Anjum Hasan was born in Shillong. She writes it as a loose tangle waiting to be tightened – racially motivated acts span the gamut from merely rebarbative to fatal. Lunatic in My Head is an immersive way of discovering a part of India we know so little about.
(Cross-posted from mwfblog.)