By Adity Choudhury

Shillong of the 90s was a vibrant time, a cosmopolitan city where one could occasionally spot an Afghan businessman with kohl-lined eyes and intricate turbans. They would sell expensive Pashmina shawls and dry fruits. They would also become markers of “men who would abduct naughty little kids” … or so parents would say. In hindsight, a stereotype that we understood later on, as adults.

Then, there were sweetmeat makers who would sell different kinds of sweetmeats, including mishti doi (sweet curd), on saucepans of different sizes, hung on a pole, and carried over the sturdy shoulders of the men.

Quilters were prominent too, calling out to people in distinct sing-song voices, accompanied by the sound of the dhunki that could pass for a folk musical instrument for us, impressionable children, as we absorbed the friendly banter between such varied groups of people, under the warm autumn sun.

Away from the romanticism of the city – winding roads, deep gorges, beautiful forests, daunting treks, and soft undulating valleys – lay stories of migrations, and the stereotypes that travel wherever they go.

One such migrant group is quilters, rarely seen now. Many have lived in the city for decades. One can hardly listen to the music of the dhunki… sign that a quilter has entered a locality, in the quest for money and, of course, to make an old quilt look new.

Meet Abdul Ali and Noor (identities withheld on request), quilters who had migrated all the way from Bihar. While they refused to divulge the name of the district, they’re from, they live in the same village, and had come to the city in the 90s.

Over the years, they have witnessed changes; though not all are pleasant.

Both lived in Calcutta for many years before coming here. Ali said, “My father worked in a cotton mill in Calcutta and I also worked there for a few years, before shifting to Assam, and then Shillong,” adding they learnt the art of quilting from the mill.

Echoing his sentiments, Noor said in Hindi, Mere bade bhaiyya yahan ke hain… darzi ka kaam karte the. Ab woh ghar pe rehte hain, aur main tosak banate hain. Yaha rehte rehte mann lag gaya. (Translation: My brother already worked here as a tailor. Now he is old and stays at home, while I make old mattresses and quilts look new. My heart lies in this city after living here for so long.)

Nowadays, people do not opt for their services. Most people prefer to throw away old quilts and get blankets. In addition, machines have affected their traditional method of making a quilt. Technology has invariably altered their lifestyle.

Ali added, “In the plains, there are machines that run on the motor, which cut through the wood. We still use the dhunki because it does not ruin the thread, leading to better quilts, which last for years. Machines cannot guarantee this.”

In light of this, both highlighted how this has affected their wages. Both will return to their ancestral village in March, and work on their lands. Farming is the alternative when quilting does not ensure a steady income.

“We will be in Bihar till August and then come back to Shillong. From September onwards, we go from one locality to another, to see if people require our services. Some of our customers have been loyal faces, and they wait for us,” both said, smiling.

A brief pause in our exchange later, Noor also added how many of them may not be allowed to enter certain localities. This, however, depends on the political mood of the city. On better days, they can enter the very localities they are barred entry on a bad day. “Many ask us who we are, what our names are, and whether we have identity cards. Thankfully, we (referring to Ali) have our labour license,” he said.

Ali said, “We’re aware there may be dangers involved when we venture out. But that doesn’t deter us. We need our roti, kapda aur makan (food, clothes and shelter).”

Both were unwilling to speak about the numerous instances of violence their community has faced. Be it in Assam or Meghalaya, they’ve been reminded of their identity with a certain tone of disgust.

Here in the city, they live in a locality where rent is cheaper. Both are neighbours and pay Rs 4000 on a monthly basis.

Some days they make Rs 300-400, while on other days, Rs 1000. Ali said, while stitching an old mattress, “Some days, we earn nothing. So, you can see… it all depends on who needs our services.”

Our conversation steered towards the dhunki, used for making the quilts. It is in the process of fixing old quilts that its distinct sound is produced. It is made of five different kinds of wood – sal, katahar (jackfruit), khiri (cucumber), seesham (Indian rosewood) and bamboo.

A white string produces the famed, distinct sound. It is made of plastic. Earlier, it (the string) was made of leather. There is a restriction on the use of leather now. Ali recalled how it is leather that contributes to badhiya dhunaai (wonderful quilting).

As our conversation came to a close under the autumn sun, both Ali and Noor suspiciously enquired if their real names would be mentioned, citing how it may affect getting work.

The sound of the dhunki echoed in the air, gradually fading in the distance. It makes us wonder about the nuances of survival, and how binaries brush them under the rug… the making of a multicultural society is often volatile than we care to admit.