Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Trailing Clouds

August 15th 2007; 8:15 p.m. IST. It is one of those rare evenings when Hyderabad is relatively cool. Sipping coffee, I reach the terrace where a whiff of fresh air, pregnant with a drizzle, brushes past my face. I turn on the FM and RJ Addonica succeeds in making me addicted to her aptly-titled show, Addicted to Addonica. As I scan for other FM channels once her show is over, I chance upon AIR where they are playing Gulzar’s “Chhod aaye hum woh galiyaan…” from Maachis.

Almost simultaneously, I notice the skyline of Hyderabad. A veritable concrete jungle it is. A jungle where one has to be at the mercy of the occasional drizzle to feel fresh air on his face. And for someone who has been born and brought up at a hill station, such things as muddy lawns, a mosquito coil or net, and warm dusty winds and curry-leaf-garnished Chinese food is definitely not what I call bliss.

As the song gathers tempo, it transports me down memory lane and I arrive at Shillong. Let me shed all trappings of journalism here. This cannot be an ‘objective’ report simply because the place I’m writing about has been my home for the last two-and-a-half decades. This is the place in which ‘every stone has been a boy’s book to me’ (Charles Dickens, David Copperfield).

Named after the deity U Shyllong, my native town still likes to relish it’s past. For one thing, it cannot think of shrugging away the vestiges of the Raj. And why should it? It was one of the first bases of the British in the Northeast, the capital of undivided Assam, and the first city of the Northeast until Guwahati took over in 1972.

The average Shillongite converses in English and loves rock fests and burgers. They also have their own Bob Dylan, Lou Majaw! They attend Sunday mass and do a jive and salsa. And very endearingly cling on to the city’s colonial past. After all, the Englishmen left behind them the legacy of some of the best educational institutions run by the missionaries and gave it the endearing epithet of ‘Scotland of the East’.

Shillong might not feature as prominently as the Taj in the tourist maps of India. But as Kolkatans swear of their ‘city of joy’ that it has soul, so I revel in my ‘toy city’ (it actually is a town 10.36 sq km in area, where the most you pay to be ferried around in the taxis is a mere Rs. 10-15), it has spunk; and verve. But let me first take you through to the city. It is a pleasant 100 km drive uphill from Guwahati (or about 20 from the Umroi airdrome). And the fares, Rs. 65 for a tedious journey by the government buses, Rs. 110 for a shared Tata Sumo and Rs. 150 for a shared Alto ride. Reservations are anything between Rs. 1200-1500.

The drive uphill is punctuated by sharp curves and turns and a mounting chill in the air. As the cars jog along (and seldom above 40 km/h), the eyes can feast on the lush greenery and the stubble pine forests. Yes I shall go with ‘stubble’, for the dense forests are vastly cleared first from jhumming and second, to make way for settlement and timber trade. There are several beautiful waterfalls punctuating the highway. The balmy countryside air is heady with the scent of marigolds, orchids and pineapples. It makes you both heavy with sleep and desperate for the red tea and ‘kuwai’ (raw betel nut and leaf served Khasi style with a slice of ginger) the smiling ‘kong’ (elderly Khasi woman) hands you over from her rag-tag shop lining the highway.

But wait, the car has suddenly pulled up to investigate a pretty common occurrence here, an accident. Yes, this narrow hilly road is not exactly a video-game route, though it definitely looks like one. Accidents are a common phenomenon on this highway. And the road definitely doesn’t encourage rash driving with hoardings like ‘This is an accident-prone area’ and ‘No whisky, no risky’ (seriously!), splattered generously across the entire stretch.

About half-way into the journey, halt at Nongpoh, the headquarters of the Ri-Bhoi district that has developed into a busy commercial center in 10 years flat. Look for the famous egg-chops, chilly and bamboo pickles or any western meal in the jostling-with-life restaurants. And shop for souvenirs on the street-side shops. There’s all you can get to qualify as the occidental connoisseur’s delight: exquisite bamboo, pinewood and cane furniture, decors and jewellery.

And if this isn’t enough, stop a good 16 km from the city at Umiam (Barapani) lake and bask in the bounty of nature. This lake, and the adjoining Orchid Lake Resort look straight out of a picture postcard. It is best to be there in the late afternoon when the setting sun envelopes it all in a coat of wine. Being there is like testifying Newton’s inertia; once there you just cant drag yourself to get out of it. Mostly the resort is choc-a-bloc with visitors: delegates at a formal convention, Dil Chahta Hai types friends groups and the beer-guzzling youth straying out of city limits.

Then, as you actually enter the city, one of the several arteries branch out to the scenic North Eastern Hill University campus. It is another visual treat where they’ve managed to make even such a dull academic building as the central library, resemble a cake. And just when you thought that the town is getting on your nerves, with the scent of dry fish, the lime-smeared walls and the stench of urine, voila! you are into city traffic. And just by the way, Shillong has one of the country’s highest man-car ratios, whatever technical term there is for it. And this explains why sadly like most other Indian cities, this city too seems ready to burst at the seams and is practically getting choked with smoke. And come to think of it, this is the very city in which there were no flies, no mosquitoes and no fans used, not very long ago. A textbook example of global warming.

And all around you, you notice swarms of schoolchildren. Just behind the place where the Tata Sumo draws up to stop, is the beautiful Ward’s lake where schools of fish gobble up the puffed rice the moment it falls over the tiny wooden bridge. Adjoining it is the tiny botanical garden. And both overlook the Raj Bhavan. Both man-made attractions, one wonders if Shillongites were not happy at nature’s bounty that they had to concoct their own. To continue with the other man-made attractions, there are the sprawling Polo grounds (one of the oldest in golf-courses the country and the first 18-hole golf course in Asia), Lady Hydari Park (with a small animal park and aviary), State Central Library and auditorium, State Museum and the fruit gardens and Fish Dale opposite St. Edmund’s college.

The town broods with spirituality with churches (some of the finest and oldest in the region, with even a wooden one!), chapels, mosques and temples in abundance. And there is no religious intolerance, which is why in a predominantly Christian town, there are close to 60 Durga idols lined for immersion on ‘Dashami’ and Christmas sees the entire town decked like a bride. Even Hindu families have their stars and cut their cakes. Yet, Shillong is a city that has made ‘bandhs’ and curfews a part of it’s calendar. Terrorist factions haven’t been too merciful on this cute hill station and separatist / extremist attacks are not any lesser than the neighbouring states. Having a BSF base and the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command here doesn’t seem to be of much help either.

A stone’s throw away, there’s Police Bazaar, replete with Chinese restaurants and shopping malls. For authentic Chinese food step into Bamboo Hut, Kim Fa or even Broadway. Police Bazaar is also strewn with ‘jadoh’ stalls. ‘Jadoh’ is the local delicacy, rice cooked in pork blood and served with pork and ‘turumbai’ (mashed dry fish chutney). Then, there is the great Delhi Mistan Bhandar and every Shillongite shall swear by their sweets, especially ‘jalebis’. And for the conservative, there is North Indian and South Indian fare at Baba, Regal and even Broadway. Shillong has a thriving bakery culture and delicious cakes, biscuits and pastries are practically available at every departmental store. A hotel suite in Police Bazaar, costs anywhere between Rs. 500-1200 per day. Shillong has no 5-star hotels, only 3-star ones like Polo Towers, Center Point, Magnum, Alpine Continental and Broadway.

But before you get in, stand and stare at the beautiful fountain. And if you are a nocturnal creature like me, the lights glistening in the spray will have you mesmerized. As you venture in, shop for trinkets and souvenirs in the handloom shops. For jeans, head to Glory’s Plaza (where you even have a Hong Kong market) and bargain shamelessly. And stooge into all the stores to find just the right cuts and fits and the very accessories you thought only designer stores kept. And then Shillong has its regular brand outlets and stores in place too. Only, everything seems a little over priced. But then I guess the comfort of finding practically anything on earth within a very small area more than compensates for that. But shop early, for Shillongites love to sleep early and wake late. The city practically comes to a standstill by 8:30 p.m.

A little way off is the commercial centre of Burra Bazaar (Iewduh) where the Khasi farmer arrives early in the morning to sell his yams and poultry and return by sunset. The market is a riot of colours for the Khasi farmer has pumpkins, mustard leaves, and sweet potato. And the pork and beef stalls would have the Shiv Sianiks up in arms. But avoid this place if you mind muck in your shoes and hate scooting behind heaps of outrageously stinking dry fish.

Within the city, experience the verve of youthful energy in the commercial area of Laitumkhrah, around Don Bosco square. Also make sure you visit the sprawling campuses of institutions like St. Edmund’s College, St. Anthony’s College and St. Mary’s College. Lady Keane lies just beyond Police Bazaar. For the sheer thrill of the outdoors, try moving towards Mylliem or the more touristy Shillong peak, Sohra (Cherrapunjee, 65 km), Beadon and Bishop falls, Elephant falls or even a Spread Eagle falls in the heart of the city.

All said and done, Shillong still retains its mystic charm and (I’m sure every Shillongite reading this blog will agree with me when I say this) no other city becomes your home once you’ve lived in Shillong. On rain-washed afternoons the sun still vies for attention with the rainbow in the azure cloud-rimmed sky. Groups of youngsters wind their way across cobbled streets to congregate at Police Bazaar. Little wonder then, that Shillong is the muse of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, (who wrote his famous Shesher Kabita here).

The distant chime of a church bell lulls my senses as I stare blankly and something drones in my ear. The song is over and AIR has shut down. Clasping the empty mug of coffee, I scoot downstairs. ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new’.

Shillong is the capital of the North-Eastern state of Meghalaya formed in 1972
Nearest railway station & airport: Guwahati (102 km)
Best time to visit: Between October and March
Tourist Points: Lady Hydari Park, Golf Course, Waterfalls, Shillong Peak
Travel advice: Shillong is not exactly easy on the pocket. So carry lots of cash. And travel with a lot of warm clothes for whenever it pours in Shillong, it gets quite chilly.

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