Postcards from Shillong

Author Janice Pariat opens up to Sohini Das Gupta about Shillong being more than just her childhood home. It is a place that can shape-shift into the eccentric characters of a story.  
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The forest of lofty pines, visible from Pariat’s childhood home, now looms large in her hometown memories. Photo by: oost Lagerweij/EyeEm/Getty Images

Twenty five years ago, Janice Pariat moved out of her hometown, Shillong.

Over the years, the city—a dark, colourful and misty memory vault teeming with pluralities, lodged itself into the author’s thoughts, often articulated in her poetry and fiction. But through yearly visits, Pariat has maintained a tangible connection to Shillong. She knows exactly where the jacarandas bloom in March, or where you can find that shack offering black tea, cream puffs and ambling conversations. She even touts the city’s pork chow as the world’s best. Pariat, author of Boats on Land and The Nine-Chambered Heart, is the apparent outsider, with an insider’s secret map tucked safely in her pockets.

 

How would you describe your relationship with Shillong?

To borrow from Facebook, it’s complicated. I left for boarding school in 1994, and I have never lived there since, apart from a one-year stint during 2009-2010. Because my parents live there now, after my father retired from working in the tea industry in Assam, I try and go back twice a year, for Christmas especially, when it’s all festive, or for a spring/autumn break in May/October when the weather is loveliest.

 

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Photo courtesy: Janice Pariat/Facebook

Do you still associate the place with a sense of home?

It’s interesting that you say “a sense of home” because that’s exactly how I would describe it: Shillong isn’t home, but there’s a sense of home about it that will always linger. I’m not certain I’ll ever go back and live there—though who knows, life is long and strange—but I carry it with me wherever I go. I think of my room, in the corner of our house, with a view of the pine forest behind, and the hills, sweeping out towards the front. How they’re sprinkled with lights at night. The sound of frogs and insects, as I lie on my bed trying to sleep. We live a little out of town, so it feels like being in the country. I think of jacaranda blossoms in March, cherry blossoms in April, poinsettias in December.

 

What are your earliest memories of the place?

Walking home from school, the smell of pine, the feel of moss, rain, rain, rain, power cuts, my grandfather telling us stories of his schooldays in Goethals as we sat around candlelight, saying the rosary with my grandmother, being dragged out of bed to go to church on Sunday morning, the “trouble” in the late 1980s, curfew, Modern Book Depot in Police Bazar where I bought my Enid Blytons and, later, Agatha Christies, drives to Shillong Peak, to Cherrapunjee, my paternal grandparent’s old house in Wahingdoh with its dark mysterious rooms and uneven floors, many evenings with my father on the guitar, us singing, sitting by the fire making orange peel fireworks, oranges. Candles flickering in the cemetery on All Soul’s Day. Chicken rolls just outside Nazareth Hospital. Momos at Abba. Shiny, patent leather shoes handmade from Three in One, run by a Chinese family. Haircuts at Elegance. It’s impossible to play favourites.

 

Do you have any secret hideouts in your hometown? 

When I was little, the forest behind our house. It was magical and mysterious and filled, I imagined, with fantastical creatures. It’s still lovely for walks, if you feel like a break from town. Now my hideout is a small nameless tea shop in Laitumkhrah (opposite Elegance), where poets, basketball players, aspiring musicians, and generally everyone else wanders in through the day for cups of endless sha saw (black tea) and jingbam (snack)—cream puff, plain cake, toast, and pukhlein, a blushing brown cake of deep-fried ground rice and jaggery. Closer to where I live is Café Shillong, near Tripura Castle, quietly perched on a hillside. There isn’t much to do in Shillong apart from walk, meet friends, go on drives out of town, feed the fish at Ward’s Lake, picnic at Golf Links, watch some football if there’s a game going on. When I’m there now I get a drink at the rooftop bar in Hotel Poinisuk in Laitumkhrah, and then head to The Wok down the road for the world’s best pork chow.

 

Has Shillong influenced your poetic expression?

All the places I’ve lived in do. And to Shillong I owe an immeasurable amount. My love of sitting around, telling, and listening to stories. Eccentric characters. Landscapes both geographical and of the heart. A sense of musicality of language which comes, I think, from the strong oral history of my mother tongue, Khasi. Shillong features rather tangentially in my two novels Seahorse and The Nine-Chambered Heart. My hometown is central, though, in my first book, Boats on Land, 15 stories deeply anchored to Shillong and places around it, where I spent my growing-up years.

 

What are some underrated places you’d like a traveller to see here?

Postcards from Shillong

Clockwise from top left: One of Shillong’s intimate allures lies in the chances of encountering music and musicians in the city’s many cafés, and sometimes even at the local tea-stall or bar; Shillong, with its quirks, is all the characters in a story—its childlike exuberance ready to morph into a musician’s disillusionment in a blink; the lavish greens of Shillong’s mountains are usually cushioned in mist, lending it an air of mystery. Photos by: Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket/Getty Images (musician); Dinodia Photo/Passage/Getty Images (child); Sakshi Parikh (meadow)

Take a walk through Golf Links, feed the fish at Ward’s Lake, and wander around its edges, go for a pine forest walk, visit the Ever Living Museum in Mawshbuit, nine kilometres southeast of Shillong, where an eccentric curator has brought together a wonderful collection of ethnographic objects from the region. Find my favourite nameless tea shop in Laitumkhrah, read a book over a coffee at Café Shillong, visit the Don Bosco Museum, take a walk through Ghafoor Nursery to see incredible orchids, wander the labyrinth that is Iewduh Bara Bazar, apparently the largest traditional market in the Northeast. There’s also Sri Aurobindo Institute of Indian Culture on Bivar Road, with a lovely garden and meditation room. Shop at Glory’s Plaza for sartorial goodies and shoes.

So many things to eat! And best had at little roadside stalls serving jadoh—a rice dish cooked in chicken or pork stock. The menu is seasonal and fresh and changes daily—but strong perennial favourites include dohshain (minced meat cutlets), dohkhleh (pork tossed with ginger and onion), dohiong (chicken or pork in black sesame curry), dohthad (smoked pork, beef, or fish), with turungbai (fermented soya bean chutney) and khtung (dried fish chutney), and delicious teatime treats made with ground rice and jaggery—pukhlein, pusla, pus’ep. There’s fruits aplenty too—tarty sohphie in May, blood plums in July, the juicy, tuber-like sohphlang with black sesame paste and the most delicious oranges through the winter.

 

Have you seen the place evolve over time? 

Like every other small hill station town in the country, Shillong has seen an explosion in building and construction. Its quaint low Assam-style bungalows torn down to make way for high-rise apartment blocks. A friend and I once documented Shillong’s oldest houses in 2009 and we’re dismayed to see only a few remain. The usual complaints revolve around traffic, trash, water, electricity, and a general fall in quality of life. I respond to it in the only way I know how—I write, and hope someone takes notice.

 

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Pariat’s pro tip for a first-time visitor to Shillong is to always carry an umbrella (top); Over the years, many old, Assam-style bungalows have been replaced with high-rise apartments (bottom). Photos by: Dinodia Photo/Dinodia Photo library (children), Hari Mahidhar/Dinodia Photo RF/ Dinodia Photo library (cityscape)

Are there any tips that you’d give a first-time traveller to Shillong? 

Carry an umbrella. If you’re a vegetarian, be warned it is difficult to find local vegetarian cuisine—in jadoh stalls sometimes even the rice has meat, or is cooked in meat broth. You’ll be fine in proper restaurants, though your order for veg momos might still be met with disbelief. There’s usually live music on every Thursday at Cloud 9 in Hotel Centre Point, Police Bazaar. Outside the hotel, at night, like a miracle, food stalls materialise along the roadside selling lots of fried goodies. Buy beautiful handloom and craft gifts at Meghalaya Handloom and Handicrafts. They even sell soh pai rah, a nut used as a natural soap. Mull over a drink at the wood-panelled bar in Pine Wood, or the fancier one at Tripura Castle. Unless you’re looking for a monsoon holiday, don’t travel to Shillong from June to September. It rains. A lot.

 

If Shillong were a person/character in a story, how would you describe him/her?

Shillong could be so many characters rolled into one—the swaggering youth in jeans and a leather jacket, the kong (Khasi for lady) plying her sliced fruit and kwai (betel nut and leaves) on the pavement, a fashionable youngster ferociously texting, the mama (older gentleman) in his tammohkhlieh (tartan shawl) smoking a pipe, a portly bristling politician, a lady dressed in a jainsem or traditional costume, hurrying to work in a government office, school kids in grey pleated skirts or trousers, a disillusioned musician drinking in a dimly-lit bar, young lovers canoodling in the gardens around Ward’s Lake, a dkhar (non-tribal) doling out his wares in Police Bazaar speaking perfect pidgin Khasi, a writer walking the streets, looking for stories.

  • Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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