Shillong Keeps Rocking On

The northeastern city has evolved into a thriving hub of musical jams, literary festivals and hip cafes.  
Shillong
Local music legend Lou Majaw, known for his Bob Dylan tribute shows, frequents Cafe Shillong on weekends. Photo by: Anurag Banerjee

When I quit my job and returned to Shillong last year, after spending nearly 17 years in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, it was with mixed feelings. I loved my home town, but I had only experienced it in a sequence of time-lapse holiday snapshots since I left. It was one thing to visit for a week. What would it be like to live there again?

The April weather was cool and overcast when my taxi drove up to the Khasi Hills from the sweltering plains below. I unpacked, and hung up my waterproof windcheater and my leather jacket in my cupboard where I could reach them easily. I also began to reach out to old friends and schoolmates, many of whom had drifted away over the years. Almost everyone was now married, with children and families to look after, and demanding jobs. Coordinating time for a gathering was no longer a simple matter.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when we were growing up in Shillong, picnics and hikes in the many picturesque spots around town had been our usual way of partying. The Sky Bar for us then was literally that. There was always a lonely waterfall and a bubbling mountain stream of clear water nearby. We would simply pick up bottles of beer and momos and whatever company we could find, and head out to chill under the open sky.

Tourists have now overrun many of our erstwhile getaway spots. The government’s efforts to promote tourism have also led to the building of ugly and largely useless infrastructure in several places. We are older, more prosperous, and prone to taking ourselves more seriously, too. My friends and I drove now to one of the new resorts that have sprung up around town. It has a nice swimming pool, and a pond for fishing, and cottages with the latest amenities.

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During the 1990s, parties in Shillong meant chilling in the rolling hills under the sky (top). The city has a thriving music scene and the cafés in Laitumkhrah are popular venues for gigs (middle). The city also boasts panoramic spots like the Umiam Lake (bottom). Photos by: Anurag Banerjee (hill and cafe), Mahesh/Getty Images (river)

Shillong today has many of the creature comforts that one finds in bigger cities. Some of the cafés in Laitumkhrah are as good as any in Delhi’s Khan Market, there’s a range of restaurants and dhabas, and a couple of pleasant bars. During summer, the rooftop bar at the Poinisuk Hotel is a good place to hang out and get a drink. In winter, the Heritage Club, located in what was once the stable of the Tripura kings, is cosy.

There are often cultural events of various kinds somewhere or the other across the city. Every weekend, Cafe Shillong has an open mic and local legend Lou Majaw, the grand old man of Shillong music, is there, usually perched on a bar stool, keenly watching the scene. Blues band Soulmate sometimes plays gigs around town. One of the first events I caught upon my return was a charity show featuring this excellent band, and a number of less known ones. At least one of those bands caught my eye. It is called Light After Dark and consists of three blind boys…And wow, they can sing!

Apart from the little cafe and bar gigs all year, at which the quality is a hit-or-miss affair, there’s one big annual music festival featuring top bands–the NH7. I was there for the first one, and the atmosphere was terrific. At one point, the state’s then chief minister, Mukul Sangma, made an appearance on stage. Surprisingly, he did not pick a guitar and start crooning; that sort of thing is known to happen at all sorts of occasions. The state’s new CM, Conrad Sangma, who replaced Mukul, can strum a guitar and hold a tune. For that matter, so can the Assembly Speaker. It’s just a very Shillong thing.

There’s also an emerging literary scene. The town has produced a number of published writers and poets, including Sanjoy Hazarika, Siddhartha Deb, Ankush Saikia, Janice Pariat, Anjum Hasan, Desmond Kharmawphlang, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Robin Ngangom, Nabanita Kanungo, and others. There was a literature festival, too, briefly, though it was discontinued as the lady who had founded it passed away. Instead there are smaller gatherings, at venues such as the Asian Confluence, a popular place for conferences. I walked in there one afternoon a few months ago to find a book launch in progress. It felt a little bit like being back in Delhi.

The traffic at rush hour can feel a bit like Delhi too, these days. The narrow hill roads were never meant for half as many cars as that now ply on them. Until the late 1980s, the town had probably never seen a real traffic jam. There was not enough traffic to cause one. Most people walked to most places. It was a great town for walking.

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It is not uncommon to find cyclists trying their stunts in Shillong’s many playgrounds (top left); Ward’s Lake (top right) is a popular recreational spot for both locals and tourists; Seng Kut Snem, celebrated in November, aims to preserve the colourful culture of the Khasi community (bottom left); A walker’s paradise till late 1980s, Shillong’s traffic woes now mimic that of metro cities (bottom right). Photos by: Anurag Banerjee (cyclist, lake and city); Amos Chapple/Getty Images (dancers)

Today, things are starting to come full circle. You can get around faster on foot during rush hours. It’s better than sitting cooped up in a car waiting to travel a kilometre or two. For more pleasant walking experiences, there are still forest trails close enough to town. Weekend picnics and hikes remain popular activities. More serious adventurers can try caving. Meghalaya is home to some amazing caves including the world’s largest sandstone cave, Krem Puri.

The best weekends, for my money, are the ones with big football games at the local stadium. Shillong has its own team, Shillong Lajong, in the I-league. Last year, the stadium hosted the title match of the league between the local team and a rival, Aizawl FC from Mizoram. I had recently returned from Mumbai, where I never made it to a single sporting event in five years because the distances and crowds were too daunting, and I was too busy. Here, I just called up a couple of old friends, bought the tickets from a nearby shop, and walked down to the stadium 10 minutes away. The atmosphere was electric. Singing, shouting, happy fans, great weather, a well-contested game of football under the floodlights… and all of this an easy walk from home. What’s not to like?

  • Samrat spent many years editing newspapers in Bengaluru, Delhi, Chandigarh and Mumbai, before chucking it up to return home to Shillong, where he now writes and wanders around.

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