If anyone wishes to realize ‘slowness’ of life without succumbing to a lethargy of spirit; if anyone wishes to move ahead without exhausting the zest for life, then I would suggest: live in Shillong.
Three years in Shillong wasn’t quite what I had in my mind when I was planning for my under-graduation. But it turned out to be the best destination after all. Perhaps not in some senses, like the syllabus, which was quite outdated compared to Delhi University’s reading materials, yet some places teach us the virtues of patience and non-violence and Shillong is undeniably one of those. Unlike the cities of Delhi and Kolkata, Shillong seldom has cases of road accidents or people dying in a stampede; of rapes and murders. Yes, ethnic clashes like those in other parts of India do raise its head from time to time but very infrequently.
I remember once a career counsellor , who came from Mumbai, letting us know the reason behind the backwardness of Shillong compared to the rest of the towns in India. She told “Look at Mumbai, there’s a train coming and another leaving the station every five minutes, pedestrians and passengers looking at their watches and rushing every other second. Life is fast in Mumbai, no time to look behind but here…?” she rolled her eyes and laughed.
Yes! One feels the slowness the instant one enters Shillong.
In the course of three years I changed a lot of places. At first I started out living in Moti Bagh, which like Laban, is a place occupied by many Assamese people. My college was also near an Assamese locality: Dhankheti. Hence, for around four months I missed the opportunity of living around people from a community other than my own, except when I was in college. Later I experienced living in a Bengali neighbourhood in Rinzha and finally I passed the last two years in Laitumukhrah, which thankfully allowed me a chance to observe and participate in the lives of the tribal people: especially the Khasi and Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya and the Naga Tangkhul tribe of Manipur.
The Tangkhuls mostly (at least all of those who I knew) were Christians. The hostel I stayed in was established by a few Tangkhul people and consequently there was a ritualistic mass prayer session every Saturday evening. It is through these mass prayers that I, a Hindu, came quite close to Christianity. The presence of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Shillong, with one of the largest churches in the world, very near to where I stayed was an added boon.
At college, I was surrounded by people from all the North-eastern States, although there were hardly one-two from Sikkim; Sikkim being closer to West Bengal than Meghalaya. As a result, my ears got attuned to hearing quite a few alien but wonderful languages; some languages which when softly spoken felt like chanting to the ears.
While relatively sophisticated in outlook compared to other places in Northeast, this place set priority to religiosity above all and the community hold could be felt even by a stranger living midst them for a prolonged period. In Shillong, people live their lives instead of spending their lives for want of another life.
Few days go without celebration in Shillong. Tribal festivals are always celebrated with much gaiety and outsiders are expected to take part, or else, the simplicity of the people can make them wary of the outsider’s scepticism. The more an outsider is easy with them; the more they take him/her as a part of their own community. It is this very fact that nobody is forced to change his/her way of thinking or acting and at the same time is expected to trust the merriment as a proof of solidarity of the community, which suggests that the tribes in these parts are more cosmopolitan, despite lacking the kind of individualism prevalent in the metropolitan cities.
I never had any reason to be wary of their ways and I was as free as the wild grass to roam around the roads alone while the sun was up. There are two reasons why no one dared venture out at night: firstly, while by the day the town appeared as sophisticated as wine, it is that very same wine which took away the senses of many men at night and they loitered on the streets along with the wandering souls of the dead. The Khasis being a matrilineal society where women took hold of the responsibility of earning as well, the men often found themselves quite free to splurge their evenings in liquor. Secondly, the people who by their way of living were still more villagers than city dwellers, preferred to go to bed by 8 pm at the most and the hill station was left to weep in its loneliness the whole night.
Its eerie silence and the whistling winds offered company to the restless souls abounding with questions, who kept the nights for themselves to reflect and contemplate.
Sundays never can be as distinctive as they are in Shillong.
On Sundays, Shillong donned an entirely different look: lazier, merrier; as if the people basked in the freedom of having a day all for them. Such is never the effect of a Sunday in other cities in India. Maybe because the ratio of Christians to people from other religions is far higher in the far east (Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya) of India than it is in the rest of India and thus fetching a distinctively Christian ambience everywhere one looks.
Just imagine a group of young lasses strolling down the lanes towards the church, each of them dolled up in their best, with a Bible tucked up in their arms. The easiest way of making friends with a stranger is to go to the ‘Glen Eagle of the East’ on a Sunday and kick back a strayed football or share a picnic. Glen Eagle is world’s wettest and one of Asia’s largest natural golf courses. On Sundays, this golf course carpeted with unique local grass becomes the picnic spot for elderly people and the football ground for young boys. Even Police bazaar, which is always teeming with youngsters dressed in the latest fashion, is deprived of its crowd on Sundays because along with them the shopkeepers of the quaint shops and the hawkers too are engaged in prayers, picnics or feeding the grass carps in the Ward Lake. The more adventurous ones go straight off to the Orchid lake resort in Barapani or Umiam Lake where they enjoy kayaking, water skiing, water cycling or simply boating.
People, who are quite busy on other days, wait for a Sunday to rock Shillong. Shillong has produced many a legends in rock music, which are greatly recognized all over India. Bands like Soul mates, Revel Soul, Great Society and King Apple took birth in the rock music capital of India. Live concerts of world famous music bands like Scorpions, Micheal learns to Rock, Iron Maiden, Mr. Big (Eric Martin’s Band) take place in Shillong at least once a year and the aura hangs about in the air throughout the year. Young boys get together along with the strings and drums and make Sunday a real fun.
This merriment included special dinner dishes as well. But I came upon this information quite by chance:
One afternoon, as I and my friend walked back to our hostel she said pointing at a small dark spacious room by the roadside near the lane to our hostel building.
“Do you know they opened this place just to treat people with Jadoh?”
“Jadoh?” I asked inquisitively.
“Yes. Don’t you know about it yet?”
“It is rice cooked in beef blood.”
“What!” I was nauseated. Till then, I had no idea that even blood was used as a food in many places. And it was unimaginable for me to consider anything cooked with blood as food.
Still cringing at the thought, I said:
“Anything other similar item I should know of?”
“Yes, Mojo; it’s rice cooked in pork blood.”
“Waw!” I scorned in disgust again.
Like the advent of every new element in life contrary to the elements already present condemned with wariness, I condemned the idea of Jadoh and Mojo with my whole person; so much that I couldn’t even eat our Assamese dish- rice fried in alkali, appearing red in colour, without feeling sick. But just as we don’t know when such elements get ordained into our lives by sheer exposure to it, it didn’t take me more than a couple of months to adjust with the idea of eating such dishes. Although I never tasted them, I always suggest my friends to taste them, for I have seen the pleasure in the local people’s eyes when they had such special dishes and I knew that they must taste wonderfully good.
Thus, the merriment of a Sunday ended in a feast with Jadoh, Mojo and locally made liquors.
And the Sunday nights were lonelier.
I’ll never forget my solitary walks on the pavements of Shillong, getting soaked in the drizzle often on my way back to hostel from college; feeling the light familiar breeze, while studying on the terrace; the smiling faces of the taxi drivers who enjoy driving as much as the passengers enjoy riding and who are never in a rush to overtake other cars; the poverty ridden Khasi ladies, dressed in their traditional attire- Jainsem and selling kwai (areca nuts) by the roadside who loved to gossip and laugh as if they had no sense of misery…and of course, the aroma of the Chinese and local dishes prepared in the cosy small restaurants. I’ll bet Shillongites have the finest sense of fashion and design.
Every place has its pros and cons. But in a slow and steady growth, cons have better chances of tailing off. Already a major tourist attraction and a center-point for North-east India, at least Shillong has a chance of balanced and holistic growth if the right steps are taken.