I grew up in Shillong and for the first sixteen years of my life, experienced a childhood unlike that of any of my friends who have grown up in the cities where I’ve lived since I left home. Everything is so strikingly different and it’s no wonder that most of my stories about home are met with curiosity and even wonder sometimes. Cycling on a forest path, picnics near clean lakes, falling asleep to the sound of rain on a tin roof, saying hello to at least a dozen close acquaintances on a trip to the market, listening to the local headman expertly sing Elvis covers, and so many more of my childhood memories, are to most of my friends, experiences from a very far away world!
It is in this uniqueness that I’ve felt both the joy of being able to talk about home to an intrigued audience, and on the flip side, the tinge of loneliness that comes with sometimes not being understood and not completely belonging. There’s also no denying the strong influence that growing up in North East India’s central hub has had on deciding how I’ve chosen to live. I am who I am today because of it and I feel fortunate to have had a life with such a diverse range of experiences, from small town living in the North East to the big city life in Mumbai and Bengaluru.
To begin with, there’s the obvious power (with the accompanying great responsibility) of being (partly) a Khasi woman. The sense of self-sufficiency and independence that I grew up with, has been a constant refrain in every phase of growing up. The internal reassurance that no matter what happens, I think (and do) all by myself and therefore I am. This spirit of action is not restricted only to the Khasis and I’ve seen it in so many friends of mine from all across the North East. The fundamental base of “it’s up to me and I need to make it happen”. So many of us leave the comfortable familiarity of home to make it in an outside world that might as well be a different planet for all we know, when we first venture out.
There is also, the slightly uncomfortable truth to how difficult it is to get used to the patriarchal (sometimes disrespectful) attitude to women inherent in a lot of men from other parts of India. It isn’t easy to adjust to the sense of not being taken seriously and having to work so much harder to prove oneself. And yet we persist and in most cases, thrive, in our endeavors to adapt, learn and apply. We leave home to study or work and to make more of ourselves elsewhere in India, with the benefit of better infrastructure, higher education and job opportunities. It’s tough enough to be growing up in general, and when you add to that the trials of adjusting to life away from home, we’re up against a lot! But the struggle is definitely worth it when you consider the returns, in terms of all the different kinds of people you meet, the job opportunities and the strong sense of purpose and drive you can’t help but develop.
I remember my first few days in Mumbai as a sixteen year old (that had till then lived a very sheltered life). The crowded train stations with more people in one place than I’d ever seen, insanely long commuting distance to college, the unbelievable number of beggars and pavement dwellers, overflowing sewers during the monsoon, that made walking more of a ‘wading-through-muck’ situation and the never-ceasing din of everything happening all at once. The sudden shock of all of that and more, however, is what builds a resilience and edge that sharpens all other efforts and tops off hard work with a spirit of competition, the kind I perhaps never really felt back home with its more relaxed living. Then again, it is always a welcome escape to return home for the holidays, to de-stress and get back some sanity before venturing out again. It is like feeding this deep rooted need in me; the longing for the hills, greenery, fresh air and the ease of having time to smell the flowers (and pines and eucalyptus).
In an ideal world, I’d like both: The infrastructure and opportunities of the big city and the accessible peace and idyllic beauty of Shillong. I do believe things are changing and now, more than ever, there has been a growth in opportunities, with improved accessibility, not just in terms of roads and transport, but with cultural exchanges and investment interests in the North East. Often I’ve been slightly envious of people who’ve grown up in cities, who continue to work and live among their family and friends and stay rooted. It would have been wonderful to have been able to spend more time closer to my family and friends, surrounded by the scenic beauty and cultural influences of Shillong, with access to all the natural beauty of the North East. Hopefully soon we’ll have even more convenient flights, faster trains, and better roads, making the journey home quicker and less expensive. Maybe then there’ll be a better balance between satisfying the longing for home and seeing what lies beyond its beautiful hills.
(by Stephanie Shaw)
(Brand Manager at a leading MNC)
The views reflected in this piece are that of the author and need not necessarily be that of TNT-The Northeast Today