The moment you get out of Gauhati airport, you hear a bunch of people announcing ‘Schlong. Schlong’. Jewish travellers should be warned that this is not a celebration of penis references but hired car drivers offering Shillong as a destination.
The road to the capital of Meghalaya is paved with good intentions and little else. But once you survive this three-and-a-half hour stretch of bouncing death, you enter a town unlike any other. Shillong is not a city in the sense of having expanded to such an extent that some bits of it have become unfamiliar with others. You can actually walk the length and breadth of Shillong without registering any ruptures in its ‘single townness’. The sense of belonging for the resident here becomes all the more easy than it is for a hapless Mumbaikar, Kolkatan or Delhiite.
And yet, Shillong is not a hick town. The first thing any visitor from one of the big cities will notice is that this is not one of the coolest towns in India; it is the coolest town in India. It’s not a snoozy getaway or retirement haven like Mussoorie, Gangtok or Pondicherry whose only draw is that it’s far from the madding crowd. Real urban life happens in Shillong — according to its own beat and tune.
There is something honest about the way every person below the age of 90 loves Elvis or Iron Maiden and variations thereof. (One of India’s finest bands, Soulmate, is from Shillong.) There is no nervous doubt here about whether reading a Chetan Bhagat book is uncool or not; no hand-wringing about how girls and boys should behave in public. Even with its outbreak of brick and concrete glumblocks — and, more seriously, reports of longstanding ‘mistrust and dislike’ towards non-tribals — Shillong smacks of innocence. It is doubly innocent because the innocence isn’t turned into a fetish by its practitioners.
This goes a long way in explaining Shillong’s infectious coolness that even cynics once from there can’t deny. The manner in which everyone goes about, whether in the narrow lanes of Kew Duh bazaar or along the undulating roads in the centre of town, is of Parisian proportions. Not only do you see Khasi stunners of all ages walking about town — as if going to shop for veggies or returning from work is as special an occasion as attending a Hohenzollern wedding or returning from a Davos jaunt — but you also discover in this uber-coolness a jet stream of warmth. This is transmitted by the way people shift a tiny bit to make way for each other on a narrow footpath, are matter of fact even when being sentimental, and how they take themselves far less seriously than their counterparts elsewhere.
As part of a panel I was in that discussed ‘The Serious in Comedy’ at the Shillong 2013 CALM (Creative Arts Literature and Music) Festival, Robert Lyngdoh, a former Meghalaya home minister, and William Richmond, a former director general of police, bore no sign of VIP-itis. On stage as Bill’n’Bob (“Bob’s my uncle,” Bill intoned), one of them kept making sex jokes including one about the Delhi Police tagline ‘With you, for you, always’, while the other recounted a politician’s obsession about getting an office room with a loo. There was no fawning over them before or after the event. Real respect was real fondness.
Leaning against the railing on Shillong Peak, a popular picnic spot about 10 kilometres away from town and about 6,500 feet above ‘sea’ level, I could see Shillong sprawled before me like an upturned palm. It would be rich to call Shillong in circa 2013 ‘The Scotland of the East’ — unless Scotland has suddenly sprouted direly designed, noxiously constructed structures and is now overflowing with uncontrolled traffic. Shillong, like the whole of India’s north-east region, deserves much more than early 20th century infrastructure to hold up a creaking, choking 21st century town.
But with the breeze still bracing, the air cool, the clouds perilously low as if by request, and my body fondly remembering the rice cooked with pork broth — jadoh — that I had consumed a few hours before, and looking forward to listening to Danzig’s great song ‘Black Hell’ before I started my evening’s drinking expedition with some friends, Shillong existed.
Last Sunday, making a pit-stop halfway between Shillong and Gauhati in a road journey that could only be compared to a cluster of metal cans being dragged across a lunar surface, I encountered one of the most astounding sights I have ever witnessed. The daylight had suddenly blanked out. Looking up above the road, above the third world shacks and shat-out constructions that served food and snacks and beyond the swaying, thick vegetation, I saw it: black horses with swirling hooves and tumbling manes hurtling through a furious grey sky.
It seemed to be the opening act of an Apocalypse to come. It could also have been a sign to herald Shillong Lajong FC’s improbable victory over the venerable East Bengal in the football I-League in faraway Kolkata in a few hours’ time. (Lajong would go on to win the match 1-0.) Since it’s Shillong, my bet, as I stood transfixed looking up at the demonically churning sky, was that it was both.