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Post-colonial flight

Post-colonial flight
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First Published: Fri, Jan 21 2011. 06 49 PM IST

Still life: (Clockwise from top left) The church at Tyrna, a village near Laitkynsew; a tea vendor; the living roots bridge near Laitkynsew; and the post office. Photo by Dilip D’Souza.
Still life: (Clockwise from top left) The church at Tyrna, a village near Laitkynsew; a tea vendor; the living roots bridge near Laitkynsew; and the post office. Photo by Dilip D’Souza.
Updated: Fri, Jan 21 2011. 06 49 PM IST
Strolling along Laitkynsew’s main road—perhaps its only road—we spy a post office on our right. We need stamps to put on the postcards we want to despatch to different parts of the globe. But will this place have them? The doubt arises because it is just another small house, no different from the other houses in Laitkynsew except for the red “Post Office” sign. The sign doesn’t convince me because in my own home— don’t tell anyone—I have a green American street sign on one wall, and my home is certainly not on Tom Green Street.
Still life: (Clockwise from top left) The church at Tyrna, a village near Laitkynsew; a tea vendor; the living roots bridge near Laitkynsew; and the post office. Photo by Dilip D’Souza.
This “Post Office” sign, I suspect, might be similarly deceptive. But my less sceptical wife walks up a few stairs, over the green porch, and rings the bell. Minutes later, the door opens slowly, silently, and the first thing we see is a ghostly, lacy curtain billowing outwards. Then two people peer from the frame: a small old woman with dangling earrings and piercing eyes, and a small bent old man with a blue band on his head and red slippers on his feet.
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These are the post office personnel? No disrespect, they seem like they make very nice grandparents indeed, but they are clearly decades past retirement. They speak no English or Hindi, my wife no Khasi, and yet somehow they communicate to her that yes, this is a post office, but no, they cannot sell her stamps because whoever’s in charge has gone to Cherrapunji for the day.
And that seems to be the signal for a stream of children to pour forth from behind the curtain. Boy in a vest, another in a red sweater, girl in a pink frock, another in a pink tee, a third in a green frock. More post office personnel? The woman vanishes and the children pose with grandpa for my camera. Then, with a swish of the curtain, they’re all gone, back inside.
If I had to sum up Laitkynsew, the post office encounter might be a good place to start. A post office populated by bouncing children and their grandparents, now that’s something you won’t see in Mumbai or Bangalore. It’s not just that this is a rustic place, back of the beyond, all those clichés we city slickers let slip to show that despite our urban habits, we really, really, God promise and cross our hearts, love the off-the-beaten-track vacation, and now we’ll return to Juhu in our SUV, thank you.
No, what Laitkynsew sports is an appealing end-of-the-road kind of feel. Thus far and no farther, so stock up on those stamps—though maybe pick a day when whoever’s in charge is actually at home. I’ve felt like this in exactly two other places: Kodikkarai in Tamil Nadu, gateway to the sumptuous Point Calimere sanctuary, where the road does indeed come to an end—when we went, it did so at an incongruous portrait of MGR. And Baracoa in Cuba, where a handsome bust of Hatuey, hero of the indigenous struggle against the Spanish, graces the dusty central plaza. To those icons, I shall now add in my mind a grandfather at the Laitkynsew post office.
The road through Laitkynsew runs past the post office, going west along a ridge with steep drop-offs on either side. To the north are some spectacular views—lush green Meghalaya hills, a sinuous river in the valley below, and slopes lit up by the autumn sunset—you know, more of those city-slicker clichés that we all take photographs of, to place on our walls. Walking along, I do look over in that direction, but in truth I’m not really interested. For the thing about the Laitkynsew ridge is the way my eyes are constantly drawn to the south. To a sprawling riverine plain 3,000ft below, dotted with water bodies, that stretches into the same autumn sunset. To the distant smokestack of a factory, and the just recognizable buildings of a town. To a bridge across one of the rivers, and I try hard to discern cars crossing it. To the long line of lights after dusk that I think must be a road but turns out to be a conveyor belt system carrying raw material to the factory.
To Bangladesh.
Because that’s Bangladesh. Specifically, Sunamganj district in the North-East, and that town with the smokestack is Chhatak, and one of those winding rivers is the Surma. I know all this because I looked up a map.
But as I stand on the ridge and look down from this brink of India into Bangladesh, I’m struck, and saddened, by how I know so many frivolous details about what I really don’t know at all. And how much I really do want to know. Over six decades ago, somebody drew a boundary here. Could he have anticipated the induced yearning I feel all these years later?
Simply by running down the slope, I’d be in Bangladesh in about the time I would take to walk back to the little hotel where we’re staying on this trip. That’s how close I am to this other country, this neighbour once carved out of India. Naturally, there’s no way I would attempt such a crossing today. But six decades ago, I could have done it without a thought. Geography permitting, I could have crossed the Surma and wandered to Chhatak in much the same way as I’ve been wandering through Laitkynsew: stopping to chat with people on their porches, stopping to buy a packet of biscuits for the children, stopping to pat a friendly dog on the head, moving on.
Over and over, my eyes are drawn there, as are my thoughts and dreams and even feelings about who I am, Indian in this place at this time.
At a viewpoint overlooking the plain, I rip a page from my diary and fold it, forlornly, into a paper plane. If I can’t make it to Bangladesh from here, maybe my little creation can. As I fling it out over the vegetation below, a gentle breeze picks it up and swirls and twists it away from me, away and down. I know it ends up in some trees far below, but in my mind it has reached our neighbour, reached it in proxy for me.
In the slanting orange of the setting sun, I look over at Chhatak. Maybe there’s a post office there too.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
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First Published: Fri, Jan 21 2011. 06 49 PM IST