My first encounter with Shillong was when I was 16 – hardly appreciative of distant lands and their unique cultures. I was abidingly focused on friends, a train journey and extremely grateful that I was allowed to go on an actual trip without my parents. I returned this January, precisely 19 years later, only to remember nothing. Nada. But that wasn’t too bad. Unbiased and sans memories, I had a fresh chance at the town and calling it anything less than enthralling, would be heretical. Here are my favorite memories from the trip.
Maruti 800s – The Lifeline of Shillong
The ‘middle class’ car of yesteryears still holds sway on the streets of Shillong. They are delightfully efficient – swift and easy to maneuver through traffic. And Shillong traffic can be quite menacing. Perfect to navigate the slim and sinuous streets of the city, the yellow-black shared hatchbacks stretch themselves silly, by stuffing 5 people other than the driver. But then that’s also a great time to strike a conversation with locals.
Tip: Hire a car for daylong sightseeing for approximately `2000 (incl fuel, driver allowance; book with Mr. Parimal Pal on 9862102512).
One of the most memorable images that will leave imprinted in your mind is that of the fruit sellers of Shillong. Dressed in their jainsems, women line the pavements with mounds of berries, cubed pineapple, strawberries and other fruits propped on a stick. They make for a delicious and healthy snack for a mere Rs.20. I must have got a clutch of three packets each time I stepped out.
Meeting Lou Majaw
Filling in Bob Dylan’s shoes might be a hard task, but who better to try and be in them than Shillong’s veteran musician, Lou Majaw. He galvanized India’s rock scene almost five decades ago, and he is still going strong – singing originals and many of Dylan’s classics. Catch him at Café Shillong, Cloud 9, La Gallerie and even his own home. Majaw is happy to host people at his own home for casual gigs during Christmas.
Ja Doh Stalls
Local Khasi food joints go by the name Ja Doh – also a word for traditional rice and meat-based dish. Dingy, budget, but most of all, characterful, these are run mostly by ladies. Expect narrow benches and even slimmer tables to be seated at. What the stalls might lack in charm, they make up in their offering the best of local cuisine. Some of the regular items on the menu include ja doh (rice and chicken), ja doh snam (rice and pork), doh khleh (fat from a pig’s head boiled with onions and chillies), turumbai (fermented soyabean), doh shiar ngiong and doh ngiong (meat curries with chicken and pork with sesame), doh jem (pork liver and intestines), doh kpu (meatballs made of pork or beef) and dai doh (pork dal).
A tryst with Tagore
Thanks to my driver, I slid off the tourist trail one morning and decided to pay homage to the master of Indian literature with a visit to Rabindranath Tagore Art Gallery. It was in the early 1900s that Tagore spent significant time in Shillong and wrote ‘Shesher Kobita’ and ‘Raktakarabi.’ He found a host in an Italian officer, Louis Joseph Dalingrad and spent two months. Till date, his desk, bed and memorabilia are objects lure interested travellers.
Teer (rongbiria/archery) is a word that you will often hear in the afternoons, as local men start walking towards small lottery ticket kiosks and buying two tickets for the daily duel of archery. A small field in Sophlong becomes the hotspot for betting, as local archery teams shoot hundreds of arrows into a cylindrical target made of hay. After Round 1, the arrows in the target are counted and announced. In half an hour, a second round ensues, with results in the next 20 mins. Every single rupee is multiplied by 80 if one aligns with the last 2 figures of the count that is achieved. If one guesses both numbers correctly, the bounty multiplies to 4000. The archers carry the weight of making fortunes each day.