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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Amid the eastern Himalayas

Well, here’s the little travelogue I promised – though I know by now that very few readers are really interested.

As I said earlier, for my daughter it was her first flight (my first was in class two, and she’s in class nine now), so naturally she was full of eager anticipation. So was I. Mercifully it was an Airbus A320 and not one of those cramped and noisy little Boeing 737s of yore. Strangely enough – and I could be mistaken, my memories being twenty years old – even this aeroplane seemed rather small. It was clean and well-served, but these days on these low-cost airlines the seating is quite cramped, and the stewardesses have been reduced to salesgirls. Not that they have much to sell except a few grossly overpriced snacks and juices. Anyway, the flight was so short that it was over almost as soon as it had started. It was a cloudy day, so though we got a fine view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks before landing at Guwahati, we missed the lovely sight of the Brahmaputra that I remembered from the last time. The road to Shillong is little more than a hundred kilometres, and the scenery is picturesque, though not as formidably grand as in the western Himalayas. But it is horribly congested, and though the widening project is visibly underway (making the trip very dusty), it took us all of six hours to reach Shillong, when it should have taken little more than three. Our hotel was, as always, decent though not fancy, but with all mod cons. That first night was pretty chilly. The next day we made a sightseeing tour of the town. Ninety per cent of the population seems to be cramped into a circle of half-km radius around the Police Bazar Chowk, and it’s basically a very crowded, noisy and flashy marketplace: all very brightly lit up on the occasion of Christmas. The whole city was in holiday mood. Most traders here are Marwaris, most tourists Bengalis, and the locals, the majority being of the Khasi tribe, seem to care little for work and a great deal for drink and revelry. The Elephant Falls and Shillong / Laitkor Peak offered some lovely views. It was good to see that these places are well-tended and guarded, and they help to earn the municipality a pretty penny. The Beadon and Bishop Falls were off-limits, because we were warned against rowdies who haunt those far-flung locations. Lady Hydari Park, the mini-zoo  and the Cathedral of Mary help of Christians all decked up for the season were particularly enjoyable.

On the 26th we drove to Cherrapunjee (locally called Sohra) and back. Lovely drive, with some more picturesque waterfalls (though, of course, if you want to see them in their full fury you must come during the monsoons), and the long stretches of heather and gorse on the low undulating hills quite justified the sobriquet of Scotland of the East. We gave the Mawsmai caves a miss, since we don’t like cramped, closed spaces and they were too crowded with tourists anyway, but the adjoining Sacred Woods were a treat, for the sheer tranquillity if nothing else. Along the way we stopped off at several viewpoints, including one from where you could look down at the plains of Bangladesh, and imagine the great ocean of dark rainclouds rolling in from the sea during June to August, which go to make this the rainiest place on earth.

The 27th was spent lazing, sun-bathing and boating at Ward’s Lake. While my wife went shopping, my daughter and I walked for two hours around the town, since both of us enjoy walking, and have begun to agree that you cannot really see a place if you stay inside a car all the time. It was quite an exercise, since we walked fast, and didn’t spare ourselves the steepest roads. It gave us quite a few photo-ops and a keen appetite, among other things. A large part of the town is under military occupation, it being the headquarters of both the 101 Area Command of the Army and the Eastern Air Command, under a Lieutenant General and an Air Marshal respectively, no less. Besides, there are cantonments of the Indo Tibetan Border Police, the CRPF and the NCC. It’s obvious that India is taking the troubles on its borders seriously, and no wonder, because both China and Bangladesh are only a few minutes by air. But the heavy military presence is largely responsible, I am sure, for keeping the town so clean and green. One awful thing about this place is that the food is prohibitively expensive, especially anything in the line of fruits and vegetables, since everything has to be carried by truck from the plains, so I was told that the locals survive largely on meat, which is relatively cheap, especially pork.

Shillong is special for me because there used to be strong family connections. My mother’s grandfather was a self-made tycoon, and he built a large part of this town, as well as the only highway (still locally called the Gauhati-Shillong Road) and Assam’s first bus transport service and departmental store. The family fortune faded rapidly after his death in 1947, but one of his daughters ran a primary school in her sprawling house where I visited almost forty years ago. Then the huge uprising of the natives began and went through the 1980s, so that most Bengalis had to sell out to the locals and depart. Now all history seems to have been wiped out. The house (N.K. Bhattacharjee and Co.) on Jail Road has been mentioned in Leela Mazumdar’s book Aar Konokhane, but the locals are mostly young and entirely uninterested in the past, and most old buildings have been razed and replaced, so that I could find no traces of what I was looking for. It was almost as bad as looking for Corbett’s house in Nainital…

We returned on the 28th. The drive back was just as slow as the first time round. The plus point was that we had a long panoramic view of Umiam Lake, aka Barapani. The temperature rose rapidly as we came down, so that freezing inside the car was speedily replaced by cooking. En route we stopped off at the famed Kamakshya temple, though I hung back, not being half as religious-minded as my wife, preferring to enjoy the view from the balcony of a house right next to the temple complex. Then back to Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi airport, which, unlike Dumdum/Netaji, offers a smoking room – and yet, they took away my lighter before I could reach it, because here, unlike in Kolkata, the rules stipulate that lighters even in the hold pose a security risk. Bureaucracy is equally cussed everywhere. The view of the lights of the city just before landing was the last bonus. We arrived at my in-laws’ place tired but happy. The next day it was my daughter’s birthday. Yesterday was spent visiting and adding a few more little touches to the new flat: for me it has become a biannual exercise! And this morning we took a Volvo home…

For photos, click on this link.

Four hours of the old year left. I wish all my readers a very Happy New Year.


Rahmath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

Wish you a happy new year and a belated happy birthday to Pupu. I have always been fascinated about the North-East, mostly because my father has told me so much about Arunachal, where he stayed for a year before I was born. All those stories of the Brahmaputra and Lohit river and the Mishmis and living in stilt houses makes me wonder how life would have been for me if he had continued working there. After reading your travelogue and seeing the photos, I wish fondly to visit the eastern Himalayas. But, with so many places left to visit, and that too, only in India, it's always so difficult to plan for the next vacation.
Thanks and with regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Dear Rahmath,
Glad to hear I've got another reader. How did you come across my blog? If you really consider yourself a 'member' you should join this site, you know. I love to see the number growing. I shall be glad to hear from you again. And yes, make that trip, you'll like it. Just wait till you hear that the road work has been finished!

... and Sayantika, thank you for commenting. Yes, I think you should plan a trip to the northeast. A very Happy New Year to you, too.

Aakash said...

Dear Suvro-da,

I'm working on a book on the North-east as I write this. The myths, ballads, and stories of these places are indeed quite fascinating.

I'm sure it must have been quite a moment when you visited your aunt's place after 40 years--as if finding a piece of yourself. Last year, I visited Salem after 16 years and was quite struck by the change in perspective I had undergone in those years.

With regards,


Shilpi said...

Loved reading this one and seeing the so-many-different-pictures. It was the next best thing to actually being there. I’ll try to write a comment instead of a letter.

The first of the slow thoughts that came to my head when I heard about the flight bit was that this was going to be Pupu’s first flight. I’d gone to Gauhati on my first domestic flight when over 22 and remember feeling so incredibly excited, and I’d spent a day wandering around Shillong too, and some odd memories returned. I think planes have become more cramped. Even a shortie like me feels hemmed in with no leg-space… You’d gone to Shillong last when you were 7/8? I was wondering how that experience must have been and what you remember from that visit. Wonder whether you have any pictures from that trip.

I do remember feeling that the mountain roads weren’t as perilous or as breathtaking or as sharp (I like “formidably grand” better) as I remembered from the time I’d gone just once to the Western Himalayas or to Gangtok, and I'm sorry that there had been dust on the way. The rise to Shillong had felt more like a rise along high hills, and the beautiful and windy (and non-dusty) drive seemed to have taken not more than an hour and a half. Maybe I had been spaced out or maybe there'd been a speedy driver at the wheels, which had made the drive feel shorter....Come to think of it though, a speedy, rakish, bright-eyed, and merrily cursing driver made one drive feel a fair bit longer actually, and that drive hadn't even been on the mountain roads. I'm also reminded of being the "official" driver (of a truck, no less) while winding up and through the Appalachians last year, and the out-of-the-blue ascent at 70 m/hr through a mountain road but I don't remember too much from that mountain driving stunt.

Shillong hadn’t felt so crowded though in 1998 – the town itself seemed quiet and felt laidback, although I don’t think I spent too much time there. I remember thinking yes, that it was awfully clean, and I remember eating some mushy chowmein somewhere, which put me off chowmein for some years.

I’m enormously glad all of you gave the far-flung places a miss as well as the caves. Never been to caves and never wish to wander around in caves, and can't think why people would want to. The lovely pictures of the woods and the lake have been swimming around lazily in my head. Walking is good, and walking fast is wonderful and I completely agree that the only way a place can be explored well is on foot. It has to be Elephant Falls that I’d visited but I can’t recognize it all. I keep thinking that the steps (which had been rather broken and slippery) were from another side, and I know I splashed around and in the waterfall (even if I didn't exactly break out into a dance) but that waterfall doesn’t quite look like one where I’d venture in…it looks much too deep, for one thing. The part about Cherapunjee is absolutely brilliant (never been there), and felt like sudden shots, and then a continuous visual image. I could feel myself standing and looking down at the plains…and watching even the monsoon rainclouds roll in with magnificent sheets of bright rain.

...and so to go on to the next part of my comment -

Shilpi said...

That family connections paragraph would require you to hold a long and winding story-telling session, and so I’ll not write anything else but it’s sad that all traces of history have been wiped out in their physical existence and even from the memories of the inhabitants. Both would have been good to preserve. It felt like a loss somehow, and it must have been strange not to find the house or any traces of the house that you’d seen some 40 years ago. On another note, that part about your mother's grand-dad building a large part of Shillong brings to mind that post you’d written about where one might want to live…

I’d seen and sat near Umiam lake and wandered around there. I had just been there for a single day – hadn’t even spent the night in Shillong but some of the memories and even thoughts from my head while on that extremely short trip are rather sharp if not wholly pleasant, and some forgotten and half-remembered ones were brought back. Unfortunately enough I’d been stuck in Gauhati for longer than I’d have wanted. I'd gone mutely while glowering - very mad and very angry - to the famed Kamakshya temple, but seem to remember one single bit of making a very clear and quiet wish near a water body while floating off a little leafy thing with “stuff” in it. I don’t remember what sort of a water body it was but I'm guessing Boudi would know whether it was just a water tank or a stream or something else. But I know I didn’t like the dank, dark place. I'm rarely if ever fond of temple sites and all but this one almost felt like a damp, discomfiting cave.

The photos are marvelous and interesting in many and different ways (I rather liked that new addition…but for some strange reason it reminded me of that utterly non-connected pic of the row of pillars from the Imambara, which is a curious pic). I could write an entire comment on just the photos, but so much for now.

Thank you.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you, the few who commented. But you can see for yourself why I said most readers are not interested - at least, though hundreds visit, heaven knows why, very few them have anything at all to say. I wonder more and more why God gave men minds and voices, when they have so little to say...

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

I have never visited Assam and have always wanted to visit. Your post and the accompanying photographs helped me to visualise Shillong. I am pleased to hear that the town is generally clean. I remember the last time I visited a hill station in east (our very own Darjeeling), it smelled so bad that the “visiting the Mall” experience can actually end up in a pun. Glad that you chose winter to visit the hills. Isn’t it always the best time? I am sure the winter trip to hills must have saved you from many Bengalis who have “thanda lege jabe” phobia.

Very good post Suvroda. May nothing stops you to keep up your regular travel routine.

Now I am moving to read Pupu’s blog.



Suvro Chatterjee said...

Some readers may find it odd that I have addressed part of a comment to someone called Rahmath. That's because this silly female hiding behind a male name had written a complimentary comment earlier, and I had responded out of what I consider natural courtesy. Now she's cheesed off because I wrote back a mildly scolding reply to something both silly and rude she had written on a later post ('Unwilling women') and she's taken off all her comments in a huff. That's no loss to me, of course. Just arouses pity to think of how pathetic the new generation of so-called educated females have become: they think they can be as rude as they like to someone probably their father's age over the net (which protects them from his anger: they'd never dare to utter idiocies like that to my face, I know the type very well!) but they cannot take a reprimand, their self-images are so brittle and juvenile... I wonder why these idiots bother to visit my blog at all, when there are so many written by girls of their own cultural/intellectual level to choose from!

aranibanerjee said...


The good old way of telling a travel tale is back and it makes a great read for those seeking warmth and poise in a read rather than purple eloquence. That's been your style and I absolutely adore it. Thanks!
The last time I met you, or rather 'we' met you, I was on the back of a trip from Shillong. I dare say that it was then that Boudi and you decided on this giving us and Delhi a miss! I visited Shillong on a whirlwind tour and it was difficult to marry business with pleasure. And, I'll definitely remember the harassment at the Calcutta airport when they shifted the flight to the international terminal without bothering to inform unwitting passengers at the domestic one.
The Shillong airport is a beautiful strip. I went in August and the rains loomed large over the Khasi hills--green and verdant--they seemed like magic mountains in mist. I recommend that in your next trip, whenever that might be, you do use this air strip. It opens twice a week for domestic flights (mostly AI). The noisy ATR may not exactly be the best aeroplane but it will spare you the six-hours from Guwahati on the mud track they call highway.
I stayed at the Shillong Club and the food is great over there. The fish in Shillong is fresh and good and I had a lot of ilish, in the Bangal way. And, I did manage some time at the Umiam, and the Shillong peak and the wonderful Elephant Falls. It, for me, was not as uber-European as Ranikhet or Satoli with cottages and Nanda Devi and Trishul, but a quiet and reclusive place, like Lansdowne in the Garhwal hills, very close to the Bengali soul who can pull over himself a shawl and sit quietly staring at the green and the mist, the huge lake, and then walk quietly back before it gets too cold. It gives a quiet mellow pleasure to the reclusive who wishes to repair hurt and weariness with anonymity and good weather.
Shillong is where Nita cried her last, if we remember Meghe Dhaka Tara. The mountains held some kind of a god for the beleaguered girl, relegated to illness and heartbreak by family, friend and the state. It is amidst the Khasi hills that she regains her sense of family and life as she cries, 'Dada Ami Baachte Chai'.
I've seen some wonderful photographs of the Cherapunji in rains and blue mist. Maybe, someday we'll go there, Sir--you and I.

With warm regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Amen, Arani. Let us go then, you and I, but, I hope, not like a patient etherized upon a table, for though I do indeed grow old, I do not yet wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Don't mind my rant. It just poured out when I read your last line! Many thanks.

Arani said...

Wow!! That was good! That's mate for Tom Eliot! Amazing, why don't you do limericks, Sir and I'm serious. Do post some for people like me, please.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Most remiss of me not to respond to your comment all this time, Arani, so let me say sorry. And thanks for the kind words.

Okay, I'll remember the request. Maybe someday the whimsical muse would wake up suddenly...