No maga dog

While wandering around the Mawlai Phudmuri area of Shillong, I was complaining bitterly about our inability to find local music venues in town. The winding road was bounded by high walls. There was a gate in one wall and a sign on it said “Three Little Birds Bistro”. I’m always ready for a coffee, so I stepped through the gate and saw a long low building with a large portrait of Bob Marley painted on it. Could this be what I was looking for?

A young girl behind the counter said that I couldn’t get a coffee since lunch service had already started. The bistro part of the shed was quite empty, but through an open window behind the girl I could see another half of the establishment which was indeed full of diners. There was clearly no more conversation to be had. I stepped back out and found that The Family and the nieces had found props for instagram photos of themselves. I was briefly roped into helping them out, but soon I left to walk around the property.

There was another door to the bistro and this proclaimed reggae even more forcefully. Just as we were about to leave I decided to go in again and ask about music. There was an older lady at the counter now, and she said “Yes, we play music in the evening.” That was promising. I asked “Live?” She said “No, from the computer.” I smiled a goodbye. This was disappointing again. As I was leaving I saw a shed off to one side. I haven’t seen hay drying inside a town in a long time, so I moved that way to take a photo.

There was movement in the hay. As I approached I found a litter of really young pups. They were still unsteady on their legs. The mother looked at me and moved a bit to be able to defend her litter. I didn’t touch the pups, although they were adorable and just the age when you want to pick them up. These were no maga dogs. Nor was there any reggae. I left.

Love me two times, baby

Coming in to Shillong from Guwahati the road passed over the dam on the Umiam river. We had a quick glimpse of the enormous lake before the Clan Bus turned on to the bridge. On one side of the dam I could see large pipes threaded through the channel of the old river. They lead to a power generating station (approximately) 150 meters lower down. I was reminded of the time, five years ago, when we’d stood on the far side of the lake and watched the sun go down over a lonely fisherman in his boat (featured photo). The sun was going down again (photo below), although the day was not as spectacular as the previous time I’d come here. This second time round I found the place quite as charming as I remembered.

This 220 square kilometer lake was created by damming the gorge of the Umiam river in the early 1960s. That was a more idealistic, more naive, time. Little was known about the smaller questions of geology: how much silt is carried by rivers, how future deforestation would affect waters, how often small earthquakes occur. The inauguration of the project, eventually costing USD 15 million, on January 9, 1960 by Nehru signalled the opening of the flood gates of US aid to India, in the form of PL-480 funds. Across the world new dams were being erected. The previous day Gamal Abdel Nasser had inaugurated the Aswan high dam. In those days engineers and planners didn’t think of the rapid silting of these dams, or the incredible amounts of bio-waste which would be discharged, untreated, into the rivers of the plateau. The north-east of India is also geologically unstable, being caught between the Himalyan arc in the north and the Indo-Burmese arc in the west. In 1897 there was an earthquake of magnitude 8 on the Richter scale; the Shillong plateau rose up by about 11 meters (yes, meters!) as a result. A dam would not survive an earthquake of this kind. Smaller quakes, of the kind which happen a couple of times a decade also call for regular maintenance of the dam.

The Clan Bus stopped at a spot designated as a viewpoint. This meant, of course, that most of the view was obscured by shacks and temporary structures built by people who are eager to sell you tea and snacks. We walked down the bank until we could get an unobstructed view of the lake. The calm surface was broken by the wakes of speedboats; apparently the lake has become popular as a sports destination. What a strange thing to do to the water supply, I thought. That was before I discovered that the lake’s water is so polluted that it would require heavy cleaning to be potable. I took this last photo, like the first one, five years ago. I found that I love to stand here and stare at the calm waters of the lake, watching the sun go down. But this calmness is deceptive.

A curiosity shop

Four of us climbed off the Clan Bus and meandered into an incredible shop in Shillong. From outside it was not clear what the shop contained. The Family peered at the window, which was full of blankets and little figurines. The clay figures piqued her interest, so we walked into the shop. Very little light filtered into the place, but the little that came in lit up a trove of marvels: tribal clothes, metal and glass chains, arrows!

There are three major tribes in Megahalaya: the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo. The tribes had maintained independence from the Ahom kingdom, and lay on the periphery of the sultanate of Sylhet. With the fall of Bengal in 1757 CE, the Jaintia and Khasi tribes expanded into parts of the plains of Assam and Bengal. By the end of the 18th century CE, British interest in the limestone quarries of modern-day Meghalaya drew them into this region. Following the discovery of wild tea in Assam in 1821, and the British-Burma war of 1824, the British East India Company entered in force into this region. The city of Shillong, in the middle of a plateau raised over the north-eastern shield of India, was a creation of the British administration. It needed an administrative capital for the north-eastern frontier, which it then called Assam, and created this town in 1829, making it a municipality in 1878. In 1972, when Assam and Meghalaya were separated, it became the capital of Meghalaya.

A young man came out of the house behind the shop and sat down at a counter full of feathers and began chatting with us as he worked on a head-dress of feathers. I asked him which tribe would use the things he had. This was the best question I asked, because he gave me a complete run down on the differences between the headgear, clothes, and arrows of the three tribes of Megahalaya. A quick and limited reply is that the headgear is nearly the same; the length of the feathers is the main difference between the usage of the different tribes. We pottered around the enchanting shop. Christian symbols have been incorporated into tribal life today, since the proselytising British rule. However, more ancient tribal customs, like matrilineal inheritance, remain intact. The man was working in his mother’s shop, and would eventually leave when he got married.

All was calm, but not quiet

To say that we arrived in Shillong on Christmas Day would be to stretch definitions a little. We left Guwahati airport on Christmas morning, but the Clan Bus made very slow progress. It was after five in the evening when we rolled up to Laitumkhrah. Not only had the sun set, it was pitch dark on the road. The Family was not going to let the family loll back on their cushions. We had tea and broke open the Christmas hamper we had bought from Bandra. Then, suitably ballasted by the wonderful plum-cake, we set out to the well-lit cathedral on Laitumkhrah main road.

The grounds were bustling. A good fraction of the population of Meghalaya is Christian, and the area we were living in not only had this cathedral but also a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church, and a Mizo church. We passed bunches of impeccably dressed young people hanging out in the church grounds. I spotted tea being served and made a beeline for it. I can’t overdose on caffeine. A long queue shuffled forward quickly, and I soon had a steaming cup in my hand. What was that flavour? Niece Tatu identified it, “Bacon, isn’t it?” Everyone clutched their cups and set out to explore the place. I stuck to the little chapel on the lowest level (featured photo). A large statue of St. Mary dominated one wall; this must be St. Mary’s Chapel, I brilliantly deduced. A priest stood near the entrance smiling at people and shaking hands with parishioners. Niece Moja plonked down on a pew and started catching up on her messages.

I planted myself outside the chapel. While The Family and a few others went to explore the cathedral on the upper level, the rest of us took photos of each other in different combinations. It turned out that the cathedral was closed, but there was enough of interest to see. I looked for a refill of the bacon tea. Niece Mbili was game. We found some biscuits to go with it. The place looked cheerful with the lights and people, but there wasn’t much happening. It seemed to me that families were coming by to greet the priest, chatting briefly with acquaintances, and leaving. Younger people hung out a little longer before leaving in groups. Soon we had our fill of the lights, gathered stragglers, and left. We were faintly disappointed. We’d expected buskers and music groups, but maybe we were a day late for that. Luckily we had walked, because the traffic was a nightmare. The next day was going to be long.

(All photos by The Family; it seems that while taking photos of people I forgot to take photos of the place we were in.)

Ward’s lake

On my family trip to Shillong I was apprehensive about two things. First, I’d made a conscious decision not to carry my camera, but take photos only with my phone. This was going to be quite acceptable for photos of people, but I didn’t know how it would work out for everything else. Secondly, with almost twenty people in the group, with a spread of seventy years between the youngest and the oldest, I was not sure how slow each stop would be. Both questions were put to test in our first outing in Shillong. We started from the center: Ward’s lake.

It takes time to buy tickets to anything when you have to make sure that everyone who has a camera is paid for, only once, and that the gatekeeper is convinced that the number of tickets equals the number of heads. While this was going on I stood with the Youngest Niece and examined the forbidding set of rules. Would we be able to maintain decency while not fishing? The Youngest Niece went around calling her older cousins, and they all had a good time inventing possible new rules as they walked in.

I was happy with the depth of field of my phone. It allowed me to have foreground details in good focus while having a deep field for landscape photos, as in the featured photo, or the one with ducks, above. This was perfect for Ward’s Lake. The center of Shillong is a well planned area, with the vaguely bean shaped lake at the lowest point. It was named after Sir William Erskine Ward, who, during his second stint as the Chief Commissioner of the erstwhile Assam state, initiated plans for this lake. It was constructed in 1894. The confusing proliferation of alternative names is explained well by a review on Tripadvisor, “The preparatory work was initiated by Colonel Henry Hopkinson, the Commissioner of Assam in 1872 (1861–1874). In the early years it was known as Hopkinson’s Tank. Local people also refer to the lake as Nan Palok, after the Executive Engineer, Mr. Fitzwilliam Thomas Pollock. The story goes that the lake was initially dug up by a bored prisoner, by the name of Jismot Chyne who wanted to kill time and who observed water while digging.”

I couldn’t find anything about the history of the sturdy little wooden bridge which crosses the lake across its middle. On one side of the bridge I could see a whole mass of pedal boats lined up. At this time of the morning one couldn’t take the boats; we would have to come back in the afternoon if we wanted to pedal ourselves around the lake. It took time for everyone in the group to finish taking photos from the bridge and gather on the other side. Another twenty minutes then went in taking photos of each other, and of the group. I was beginning to get an answer to my second question. As the photography tapered off, people started disappearing on walks around the lake.

I had a couple of things to try out. The photo above was taken to convince myself that bird photography was not possible with the phone. If you are really interested, you could search in the patch of darkness below the red plants to see the bird I was trying to take a photo of. Or you could take my word for the fact that I saw an Eurasian tree sparrow here. The long depth of field keeps the leaf litter in the foreground as sharp as the restaurant at the back.

On the other hand, with a little experimenting I could establish that the phone also allows me to take photos with an incredibly small depth of focus. If my nearest camera were not a couple of thousand kilometers away, I wouldn’t have tried this experiment. Satisfied with the result, I followed others in a walk around the lake. On our visit to Shillong six years ago, The Family and I had spent about fifteen minutes walking around the lake, enjoying the sun. This time around it took about thrice as long. The morning was fruitful, I’d answered both the questions I started with.

Winter’s produce

Winter in the north east of India is a lovely time, even if you are not on a family holiday. I was. A bunch of my cousins and their families had flown in to Guwahati over the last day. They’d gathered at the airport when we arrived in the morning, and, after all the hugging and greeting and marveling at how fast the youngsters grow up, we started out for a drive to Shillong. With a seventy year spread in ages (between the Youngest Niece and Aged Aunt), this was going to be an interesting trip. The plains of Assam were pleasant, the air was cool but the sun was warm. It would get colder as we climbed. But we had to stop to take on fruits.

Our driver stopped at a bunch of shacks on the roadside. Mounds of pinapples of course, the east is famous for its pineapples. There was much discussion about it, and eventually we agreed on the considered opinion that although it would be good to eat some, we couldn’t possibly take whole pinapples with us. Family democracy is wonderful; I enjoy the process of talking it out even when the conclusion is something that we each reached in ten seconds. The kids (not really, any longer) had not expressed opinions yet; I guess that would change over the next few days. They hadn’t really spent long times together, and had individually complained to me about this whole trip. “It’ll be so boring, I won’t get along with anyone,” the oldest had said. Now they were carefully gauging the dynamics of the clan.

The shops had a huge variety of squashes, pumpkins and gourds. Even a big inflorescence of banana. That’s a delicacy across the east, and the south. Nothing that could be eaten during the journey. Where were the oranges that had been recommended to us by a fellow blogger? There were dried out large wrinkly oranges here. I wouldn’t mind eating them in Mumbai, but not here. Maybe we would get the local variety higher up. We took on a few oranges in any case. There were some of the large olives that you get in these parts. Bag a few. I love the flavour of fresh turmeric (featured photo) in salads. I should remember to pick them up on the way back.

The pride of the place went to preserves. Pickles of various kinds: chili, olive, lime, mango. I could feel the memory of the spicy sourness in my mouth. But there was also preserved fish, and unfamiliar vegetables. Regrettably, this was not on our shopping list. We got back in our clan bus, and were on the road again. I had an uncomfortable premonition that I would put on some unwelcome kilos on this trip.

Rock concert in Meghalaya

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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.

An evening in Shillong

Meghalaya is famous for nature: the rainiest valleys in the world, numerous waterfalls, large tracts of forests. They are the reason that tourists go to this state. But the capital, Shillong, is also an interesting place, especially after sundown. A sense of humour is just one feather in its cap. The shop in the photo above made us all crack a smile. The strange juxtaposition of a tailor’s shop with one selling smoked hams is something that you should be prepared for in this town.

ssong

Music is a constant in the north-eastern states. Cafes and restaurants often have live music, and quite a few of the singers are talented. This duo here played classic acoustic rock extremely well. They seem to have a regular gig on at the Shillong Cafe. I wonder how long they will do this before they move on to some thing else. It’s a happy thing that in other parts of the country little places are slowly beginning to support live performances; but still too few for a country of over a billion. Take a close look at the photos behind the musicians. Football is the other great passion in this area. The combination of football and music recurs at the other end of the country, in Goa.

smomo

Momos are a staple roadside meal, not just in Shillong but all over the north-east and the eastern Himalayas. The bland steamed momos are served with a slap of terrifically spicy chili sauce on the side. I can’t deal with the chilis, but a few of these momos can keep me going between lunch and dinner. Shillong had something about motorbike helmets. People would do all kinds of things while wearing them. I even saw someone parking a car with a bike helmet on.

smarket

A night market is a must so far to the east. The uniform time across the country means that it is already dark by 5 in the evening, while many people are just about to leave from work. Night markets have great atmosphere: while it is dark and rainy outside, the inside is warm and bustling. There’s a variety of vegetables and fruits on display, sacks bulge with fish, and there are the tiny red killer chilis on every counter.

The town winds down by about 9 PM. After that there are only a couple of late night restaurants open. The traffic comes to a halt, and the city slowly darkens as shops turn off their lights. A couple of hours later the roads are empty except for a occassional bike, or a car full of late night partiers. In spite of appearances, late nights can be busy in Shillong.