Unlike so many of my friends and acquaintances, I have no deep-rooted connection with Shillong. I didn’t study here for my school nor did I spend any time in my college years. Yet somehow, the city beckons me and I feel a sense of homeliness whenever I am here.
Legend has it that when the British first arrived here, its hills reminded them of Scotland and so it became to be that it was (and is still) called ‘Scotland of the East’. Regardless of how the moniker came to be, Shillong is a beautiful place.
The present day capital of the state of Meghalaya, Shillong served as the capital of undivided Assam under the Raj and continued to be so until 21 January 1972, when Assam moved its capital to Dispur.
Up until the early 2000s, Shillong was the educational hub of the Northeast of India. While newer schools across the region have eaten into this reputation, with schools and colleges like St Anthony’s, St Edmund’s and Assam Rifles Public School, Shillong continues to be a hot favourite among many parents and guardians.
I, myself have a number of friends who finished their formal education in the hallowed halls of some of the aforementioned institutes. And although I have no personal connection to Shillong, the city with its narrow lanes, black and yellow Maruti 800 taxis and kwai ladies, feels like home.
Located at an altitude of 1,520 metres, Shillong enjoys a pleasant weather throughout much of the year but gets quite chilly during the winter months. Home to the Khasi people, the lingua franca of the Meghalaya capital is the Khasi language but English and Hindi are understood and spoken as well, aside from Garo, Jaintia and Assamese.
A popular destination amongst tourists from West Bengal, Assam and other north-eastern states, Shillong offers many options to visitors wishing to stick to the typical tourist trail. From Ward Lake to the Shillong Peak and the numerous waterfalls that pepper the city, there certainly isn’t any shortage of ‘tourist spots’ to visit. And while one must take in these places, the soul of Shillong really lies in its streets.
Walking around its narrow streets, it becomes evident that Shillong has major traffic issues. Small roads and too many cars mean that the streets are often packed to the hilt. Driving in Shillong itself is an art; one that the local taxi drivers have mastered well.
The main city is spread around an area of 10 square kilometres so obviously walking all the time is not an easy task. Taxis, either Maruti 800s or Altos, are a useful mode of travel within the city.
Driving on half-clutch is pretty much standard fare and do not be surprised or scared if in the middle of your commute the taxi driver turns off the engine. Driving in neutral when going downhill to save fuel is practice as old as the city itself.
All over, whether in busy market places or the narrow back alleys of the city, one can see Khasi women wearing the traditional jainsem or dhara selling kwai– areca nut.
The Khasis, like the Garos and Jaintias of Meghalaya, are a matrilineal society and hence trace their lineage through the mother’s side of the family. Little surprise then that the women play an active role in the daily lives of the people.
Peeling away the skin of the kwai with their small and handy knives, the women (called kong which is Khasi for elder sister) may not appear to have all the worldly desires that engulf our lives but seem happier and content than most of us caught up in the web of ours.
Of course, where there is kwai there’s also chuna or slake lime which marks its presence all over the city’s walls.
Kwai is eaten pretty much the same way that paan is in that the nut is chunkier than the supari and does not contain any tobacco or other flavourings. The way to eat kwai is to simply wrap it in a betel leaf that has been smeared with chuna. What one will notice however, is that not all of the chuna is contained on the leaf alone as any excess slake lime is smeared on the closest wall. Therefore, the walls that line the streets often have white markings on them. They are not by design.
Kongs and kwai aside, Shillong is quite a busy city with the main shopping centres located in Police Bazaar, Bara Bazaar and Laitumukhrah. Shops in these markets sell everything from branded apparel to ‘Bangkok goods’ to everything in between. And while new cafes and restaurants offer a wide variety of cuisine, no trip to Shillong can ever be complete without tasting the local Khasi dishes.
Small eateries, colloquially referred to as jadoh stalls, are dotted all over the city. Jadoh is a rice and meat dish that can most closely be compared to the pulao. However, make no mistake, jadoh is very clearly an authentic Khasi dish often paired with dohjem (pork belly cooked with sesame seeds). If you are lucky you can also sample the dohshine, a blood sausage that is guaranteed to make a convert out of any apprehensive traveller.
Of course, while food is an integral part of any city and its culture, Shillong is much more than that. It takes a visit for its magic to charm you. Twenty years since I first started to visit the city, Shillong continues to charm me.
A version of this story first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Himalayan Pulse.