‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’ is Daribha Lyndem’s debut novel of 199 pages published by Zubaan books, which is an independent feminist publishing house. They publish fiction, nonfiction, academic and children’s books for, by and about women in South Asia. The book has been longlisted for the JCB prize for literature and named by Vogue India as one of the best summer reads of 2020. Daribha Lyndem works with the Indian Revenue Service as a Deputy Commissioner of Customs. The book consists of interconnected stories that throw light on Shillong as seen through the eyes of the protagonist as she grows up in the 90s. As someone who has never been to Shillong and who can’t recall reading any book set there, I was eager to read this book, which was sent to me by the kind people at New Asian Writing.
The name of the book immediately brought to mind the game ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’ we played as children. The game entailed receiving a letter of the alphabet per round and all participants coming up with a name, a place, an animal and a thing that started with that letter of the alphabet within a specified time and awarding points based on how uncommon the names were. The game is referenced in a couple of chapters of the book.
Brief summary of the ten chapters
In the first chapter, the author tells us the story of Bahadur, a Nepali in Shillong who had five children, one of whom was mauled by dogs. The author goes on to say that hardly anyone came to the boy’s rescue, except for her father.
Chapter two is the story of Mr Baruah who ran a shop that sold cards, stationery, toys and curios located in Barik, the centre of Shillong. Mr Baruah had married a Khasi. In this chapter, we read about a racially motivated hate crime.
Chapter three is the story of Tommy Lu, a Chinese immigrant who owned a Chinese restaurant called AVVA. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Tommy’s forefathers had moved to Kolkata from China. His wife ran a nail salon, his father was a dentist, and he had two children, a son and a daughter. Tommy had to sell his businesses, pack up his things and move to Kolkata with his family since he was a victim of extortion.
In chapter four, the protagonist talks of a yellow bear that her father gave her as a present when she was five. It is the first gift she remembers receiving from her father. She talks of moving from Nongrim hills to their own house in Rynjah when she turned eight. The reader is also introduced to a man known as Cousin Muscles whose moniker was inspired by Jerry’s brawny cousin in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. What happens to the yellow bear as the protagonist grows up forms the theme of the chapter.
Chapter five is about Mrs Trivedi, the Hindi teacher who did not get along with the other teachers. The school children came to their own conclusion that it was because Mrs Trivedi was a divorcee or because she smoked too much. Incidents involving Mrs Trivedi are described and in the end, she leaves the school. “Some said she was back with her husband in Kanpur and that they had made amends. Many joked that she had finally been institutionalised. But soon, people forgot about her.”
Chapter six is about Mr Sarkar, the mathematics teacher and stories involving him.
Chapter seven titled “the Lawmali Graveyard’ is about the protagonist’s grandfather who died in 1984 and the subsequent visits by the family to his grave. “It allowed us to remember those who have passed on, not in a reverential way with stiff sombre faces bowed over a cold stone structure, but in a mellow mood where we retold funny anecdotes. We became comfortable with the dead and more comfortable with our own dying.”
Chapter eight titled Bishar Mary is the story of Bishar Mary or Bi, who came to the house when the protagonist was thirteen. Bi and her husband were not married in the traditional sense although he was the father of her children. They lived together. The protagonist and her friends used the term “Khasi style” whenever a girl had a baby out of wedlock.
Chapter nine or “The revival” is about God and religion in the protagonist’s life. Chapter ten or the final chapter called Yuva is about the protagonist’s best friend Yuva.
I attended an Instagram Live on 2 October 2021 by Zubaan books at 5 pm when the author read out from one of the chapters in her book. However, due to a technical issue, we all lost audio and couldn’t hear her. When I rejoined the talk, the reading out from the chapter was over!
Details I gathered from the Instagram Live I attended of the author
The author mentioned that she had bought a kindle mainly to read her own book, which had initially come out only on Kindle, but now the hardback has arrived. The book is semi-autobiographical, but some of it is fictionalised. She called the book Name, Place, Animal, Thing to give a sense of familiarity to the reader since it was a game we all played in school. She also mentioned Flames, which was another game we played. She aimed to make the book “nostalgia-heavy” by “not lachrymose.” All the chapters are named after Names or places or things. Names of people, place- graveyard, thing- the yellow bear.
She started writing the book in “October of 2017 or 2018” and finished it in February the next year, which was five months. She said she was already thinking of these stories since she was sixteen. The last story in the book is the least fictionalised. The characters were inspired by real people, but she changed all the names. Her close friend Yuva is the only name she hadn’t changed. Yuva died when the author was twenty. It was important to Daribha to write about this death since Yuva was a very close friend. This book will not have a sequel but she has ideas for a second book, which will take time since she is working full time. She is giving it “years and years”.
Quotable Quotes by the author
“I don’t think my book is an all-encompassing novel on Shillong. I only wrote through the eyes of a child”.
“I find the term “NorthEast” and “Seven Sisters” very reductive. I wish people would bother to learn the names of the states.
The author’s favourite books and short stories
She is reading a book called “A swim in a pond in the rain” which is by George Saunders, which was recommended to her by her friend Priya. She likes Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” and Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg. She tried emulating the work of Ray Bradbury and was inspired by “Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg, which drew heavily on memories.
“There will come soft rains” by Ray Bradbury is one of her favourite short stories. She likes Saki’s stories ‘The open window’ and ‘Dusk.’ When she was 14 years old, her favourite novel was “The Lord of the Rings”. It meant a lot to her ‘coz her dad gave it to her. When she was 22, “One hundred years of solitude” was her favourite novel. She has read “Wuthering Heights”, “Middlemarch”, “Great Expectations” and “One hundred years of solitude” more than once. She has read fairy tales more than once as a child.
The author’s advice to new writers
She gives advice to new writers, “Think of it as a job. If you decide to write five chapters, write five chapters every day. Keep an hour every day for writing. Shut out your YouTube and Instagram. I like to keep a book I admire next to me and when I feel stuck, I open it for inspiration.”