Lesson 1. Let go of expectations. My second night in Shillong turned out to be a techno dance party at the girls’ hostel to celebrate the birthday of one of the nuns. And these girls can move. The music was loud, electronic and pulsing. Once the music ended the evening concluded ended with a hymn.
Shillong. St. Anthony’s College. Northeast India. None of it is what I expected which just shows how easy it is to have misconceptions about other cultures, other countries. St. Anthony’s is run by the Don Bosco Society, a Catholic organization with a strong focus on education. And while Shillong seems to have a lot of different faiths–walking through town I saw Muslims, Hindus, Sheiks, and a Buddhist monk–it’s primarily Christian, dominated by St. Mary’s Cathedral, a big blue church on top of a hill. There has to be a lesson here for this Christian cynic. At the moment it all feels slightly surreal.
Northeast India, however, is fascinating. As I’m told over and over, it’s not like the rest of India and while I would love to spend more time in “the rest of India” there is so much to absorb here. Over 200 tribal people, each with their own distinct language and culture live in the northeast hills. Shillong is mainly Khasi, Jainita and Garo. English is spoken pretty much everywhere which makes it easy to get around. Tomorrow is Independence Day, but the northeast corner of the country will not be celebrating like the rest of India. According to Sanjoy Hazarika even after years of independence in India “people in its North East…realize how marginalized they have become in relation to the policy-making apparatus in New Delhi and their own ruling elites at home, and how great remains the ignorance of officials and politicians who govern them despite all attempts to educate them. The mindsets in Delhi and Dispur remain largely unchanged” (Rites of Passage, 2). I certainly had no idea about this part of India before coming here. It’s also a land of fluid borders, especially between here and Bangladesh–but I’m nowhere near understanding that issue!
In the meantime Strangers in the Mist and Rites of Passage by Hazarika are two of the best books I’ve come across lately for bringing alive a culture–or many cultures–and a place.