The Mawphlang Sacred Forest lies on the outskirts of Shillong. It is one of the most peaceful places on earth. On the day we visited, with sunlight slanting through the overhead canopy, birds and butterflies taking wing, rare orchids clothing the trunks of trees, the guardian spirit of the place (revered by the Khasis) seemed to have infused the grove with what seemed like happiness and the possibility of rebirth. It is the place I travelled to in my mind when I began writing this tribute to my friend Sambha Lamarr who passed away ten days ago.
A gale force
Reflecting on this, I realised my thinking of the Mawphlang Sacred Forest was not accidental, for most of us who knew Sambha would readily describe her as a force of nature in the best possible way. She gave of herself fully, without guile, she lifted you up with her enthusiasm for everything she cared about. She was like a gale that blew through your life, a guardian spirit who infused you with a sense of big things waiting to be done.
She lived her life in a way that exemplified this can-do spirit, which was one of her best traits. Among other things, she ran a wonderful book store in Nongrim Hills and founded CALM, the first arts and literature festival in Shillong.
We shared a love for bookselling and the arts (I worked with her on CALM in 2014). Although we had these things in common, I found it remarkable that, even though our friendship dated back only three or four years, I came to regard her as one of my oldest and most cherished friends. She would call frequently and would often bring me food and mementoes from her beloved Shillong. This was a Sambha trait.
She was able to insert herself so effortlessly into the lives of her numerous friends because in all her relationships there was never any expectation of benefit or reward. When news of her passing broke, dozens of testimonials from around the country and the world bore ample testimony to just how much she had meant to every one of us whom she had touched.
I first met Sambha when my husband David Davidar was invited to CALM. Her approach to David (a reluctant festival speaker) was original. Along with the usual festival director’s pitch, she stressed how much it would mean for Shillong to get more mainstream.
She wrote that she found it somewhat frustrating that there wasn’t enough traffic between her hometown and the rest of the country. She wanted to clear misconceptions, she wanted folks who lived outside Meghalaya to visit, and she wanted to transmit the enchantment of her region to the rest of India. He could speak on a subject of his choosing, she wrote, and spend the rest of his time there discovering Shillong. But if he didn’t want to speak at her festival, no matter, they could still be friends on Facebook.
For the love of books
That is why I say Sambha always gave without counting the cost, an impossibly rare quality in today’s world where so often the act of giving is carefully calibrated for maximum return.
Sambha loved books, writers and everything to do with literature and would crisscross the country in search of great writing, both for her bookshop and her festival. She would call me and ask to go to book launches; she would visit literature festivals across the country. It was an outstanding achievement to have been able to establish CALM as quite possibly the most magical festival of its kind in India within just three or four years. Every writer I have spoken to about it always wanted to return to it.
The still centre of Sambha’s life was her family, her husband Hansel and sons Kormiyaki and Chwamiki. They stood solidly behind her in everything she did. Every time we spoke she would spend a few minutes talking about them before going on to other things.
I don’t want to dwell too much on Sambha’s illness because that’s not how I want to remember her. I first heard of it in June of last year when she wrote to me. She was still coming to terms with the news but in true Sambha style she said that the cancer was at an advanced stage, but really otherwise she was medically fit and was going to stare it down. I believed her, but it was not to be.
Sambha passed away on March 25 at 5.20 pm at the Bethany hospital in Shillong.
I’d like to end this tribute to my indomitable and unforgettable friend with one of the dreams she had. She owned some land on the outskirts of Shillong and her long-term goal was to make it a cultural settlement, a place to which writers, thinkers, artists could come and create works that would light up the world.
That is what Sambha was like – every moment that she lived was filled with visionary projects that she hoped would make things better in some way. She is gone now, but her passionate engagement with life will ensure she will remain with us, those of us who were fortunate enough to come into her orbit.
Rachna Singh Davidar is a literary consultant and bookseller based in New Delhi. She is currently the Programme Director of The Hindu Lit For Life.