A Faraway Place11xNotions of “faraway” suggest a form of provincialism; they assume that where you are is the baseline or center of things. But since this essay describes a youth culture that is geographically and culturally distant from most Americans, it seems an appropriate term.
My wife Sylvia and I first visited Shillong in the summer of 1962. I was directing a relief and development program in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. I had developed a serious case of amebic dysentery and had lost about fifteen pounds, and it was recommended that we go to a “hill station” in Shillong, India for both medical treatment and rest. Sylvia was several months pregnant with our first daughter so we had delayed the trip a month or so until she got over morning sickness.
The trip began with an overnight train from Dhaka, where we lived, to Syhlet, a district town in the northeast of then East Pakistan. From there we took a “country bus” to the Indian border about forty miles away. The bus had a largely wooden cab built on the chassis of a World War II Dodge army truck—whose suspension systems were designed to carry heavy equipment, not cushion the ride of passengers on wooden benches. At the border we spent the usual two or three hours going through the “formalities” of Pakistani and Indian immigration and custom officials. Finally there was another five-hour bus trip from the Indian side of the border to Shillong.
We spent a wonderful two weeks there, and I gained nearly a pound a day. Unsurprisingly, we became very fond of this place, and we took brief trips back there in the mid-1970s and again in the mid-1980s. In 2007 I returned once more as a visiting Fulbright Fellow. While there, I began a study of Indian youth, which is in some respects parallel to an earlier study I did of American teenagers, which was reported in a book entitled Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption (2004). This essay is a “first report” of part of the current study, which is now underway.