I couldn’t think of leaving Shillong without looking in at the Laitumkhrah market. So, on the day we were to drive to Sohra I dashed into the municipal market after breakfast. It was early yet, and the market was not yet buzzing. I could have spent a good hour there chatting with the shopkeepers about the produce, but the Clan was getting ready to leave, and I did not want to hold them up. So I sped through the place with my phone in hand and a smile on my face.
There were no exotic vegetables; almost everything that I saw here was what I would see in Mumbai, but infinitely more fresh. I think the morning’s supply had arrived and had been stacked up for display. The lady selling tea outside the market was doing good business; I saw several of the people in various stalls had glasses of chai in their hands. It was cold, and the steaming chai was very tempting. The fish stalls had some action; people were already here buying fish. I didn’t see the dried fish that you find in Bengal and parts of the north-east. One stall was open for meat, and it seemed to have finished most of its stock. When I walked out of the market I missed a wonderful shot: meat was piled into a navy blue hatchback. The contrast of the red meat and the shiny blue of the car was fabulous. But just as I raised my phone for a shot, the owner closed the door. This was probably a restaurant getting its supply of meat for the day.
I’d managed to take a photographic inventory of the vegetables on display. Banana flowers, spring onions, an interesting flat bean, large chilis which are perfect for stuffing and grilling, karela, lots of leaves and roots. Everything looked much fresher than the freshest produce we see in Mumbai. If The Family had come with me she would have been heartbroken at the thought of not being able to take some of this back with us. Outside the market were fruit stalls. Again there were no unexpected fruits. I eyed the oranges, but we were going to Sohra. “Carrying oranges to Sohra” is the Meghalaya equivalent of the English saying “carrying coal to Newcastle.”
There were two shops outside that caught my eye: Hollywood Tailors was a little more apt than Volga Mistan Bhandar. This political balancing act from the last century ignores the fact that Russia probably never saw the sweets that you can get in Shillong.
The last shop in the market was a Kong’s shop: a local restaurant. It was already open for the morning’s tea. Whenever I see these places I feel like going in and sitting down for a meal. I’ve had wonderful jadoh (a Khasi speciality, ja=rice and doh=meat) whenever I’ve had a lunch at a place like this. But it was too soon after breakfast, and time to say goodbye to Shillong.
When I don’t have much to do I go around taking photos of restuarants. At the Mawsmai caves, while I waited for people to make up their minds about which way the arrows point, I decided to record for posterity the variety of food available. No matter what food you could find, all the restaurants around here were neat and very clean. Indian and Chinese food, of a kind unrecognizable by any Chinese, are expected, I guess, but one restaurant added Bengali to the list. Interesting. I don’t suppose they have many visitors from Bangladesh, although the border is not far away.
Another place was no less inventive; it threw Assamese food into the mix. Indian food should mean food from every part of India. If you start differentiating between Bengali, Assamese, Goan, and Guajarati food, then I wondered what Indian food meant. Perhaps roti, dal tarka, and paneer, typical truck-stop food on the highways. I suppose the subtext is that these places do not have Khasi food.
But the chocolate cake goes to the little board which you see here. No fancy names like Victuals or Spring, this cut to the bone: it was a Fooding Center. It meant that this tea stall did not serve momos. We had to find our chicken momos at a different stall, next to a restaurant with the Khasi delicacy called jadoh, rice and meat.
The thing I usually enjoy about traveling is talking to people who see the world differently and seeing the world they have built around themselves. I was a little apprehensive about traveling with my clan of cousins and nieces: would we be sitting somewhere chatting all the time? That’s a lovely way to spend time, but then why not go to nice beach resort and stay there? To my surprise, traveling with the clan turned out to be very interesting. I was surrounded by chatter and Instagram at all times. But also, everyone was happy to take in the kinds of things others wanted to do. This meant that the number of things we could each do was smaller than what each of us might have wanted to do on our own. What we gained was that we did things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. So here is my view of Shillong; please add a soundtrack of constant ribbing and laughter, and conversations about what to do next.
I love these little local restaurants of Shillong. The food you get is simple: rice and meat, ja and doh. The Family is not into tiny roadside eateries. Niece Moja was on a keto diet and refusing all rice, but Niece Mbili was game for anything, including jadoh. I’d tried jadoh snam (jadoh cooked in blood) on my previous trip to Meghalaya, but this time around I didn’t get to try it again. These small restaurants are clean, very crowded at lunch time, and invariably serve jadoh. We passed the place you see in the photo above at a time when service hadn’t started. Momos are a big draw too, but to my experience it is treated as a snack and you need to go to different places to get them. Usually a cart piled with steamers will be waiting at the exact spot where the urge for a momo or two comes over you. What a coincidence!
This century old building, now turned into a hotel was the most distinctive Assam style house that I saw. This beautiful style uses some brick and mortar, but also a lot of wood and always has corrugated metal roofs. The chimney sticking out of the roofline in this connects to an old fireplace. Hotels have switched to electrical heating these days, fortunately, but a century ago a blazing fire would have kept you warm in a draughty place like this.
In the evenings these little restaurants in Shillong attract their regular clientele. They seem very special to this part of the country: serving up a small selection of food, mainly momos, and tea, they fill a social niche which cafes do elsewhere. We noticed groups of young people gathering at these places quite often. I liked the look of this place as we passed: bright colours, a mural on the wall, seating along the sides, the kitchen right behind the counter.
Shillong peak was inaccessible on the one day we could actually make up our mind to go there. Not a problem for us. We stopped for chai at a roadside restaurant and found a good view. This must be well-known, because a large friendly signboard told us that we were standing at Lumpdeng View Point. Shillong looked warm and welcoming in the late morning sunlight. From here we could see that the Assam style houses have not given up the good fight against the concrete monsters. Perhaps the monsters will win in the end, but perhaps heritage conservation movements will kick in to preserve some neighbourhoods before that cancerous growth kills the town.
On a really wet day we drove out from Shillong to Mawsynram, a village in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. The village is known as the rainiest place in the world. We couldn’t see a thing because of the rain.
On the drive back The Family remembered a rock concert which was supposed to be held in a large ground on the way. There was no way we could miss it: the highway was jammed with cars going to the concert. Eventually we made our way there. The music was pretty much what local rock bands produce: okay most of the time, dipping below now and then, and soaring sometimes. The rock concert attracts a lot of young locals, and the major politicians. Between songs there were occasional speeches in Khasi.
Since we didn’t know the language, we felt free to walk over to the food and drinks stalls. It was late and they had run out of dohneiiong: pork cooked with sesame seeds. We got some jadoh: the basic rice and meat, with some wonderful soya chutney. Raju, our driver, told us that the rock concert was held every year, and was started not too long back by the local member of the Parliament. That explained the speeches.
We walked back to listen to the music again. We’d spent a long time on the road, and the traffic had not improved. Listening to the music was a better option than spending time in the traffic, we thought. Raju was sure that staying longer would not help. He was right. We spent a long time stuck in traffic on the highway afterwards. But we had all eaten and enjoyed the vigourous music.