Until the end of October, 2017 was a lean travel year by the standards of every other year I’ve had post-2009. Aside from a month in Tamil Nadu, a couple of weeks in Gujarat, a trip to Kolkata for my brother’s wedding, most of it was spent consolidating and editing the ton of pictures I had taken over 8 years, painstakingly organizing all my travel notes and replenishing my ever diminishing bank balance by saving up. I also had to deal with travel fatigue, saturation and burn out and my middle-aged body (I’m in my mid-30s) ached for rest after years of bumpy rides, bad food and poor sleep.
So the only reasons I went to Shillong was because NH7 was happening, Steve Vai was playing, some of my closest friends were going and it would be a short trip that I was hoping to finish in a couple of weeks to resume a monotonous routine in Mumbai. One of my favourite guitar players Uli Jon Roth was scheduled to play in Mumbai in mid-November and I was planning to make it back to the city by then. I certainly did not believe that I had another rough, months-long, largely off-beat exploratory journey left in me for the time being.
But as it turned out, Uli cancelled his tour and I am yet to return to Mumbai as I write this. The 3 hour flight to Guwahati turned into a couple of weeks in the Khasi Hills, a month in Mizoram, a month in Tripura, a couple of weeks in Assam, another month in West Bengal, then Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. So I thought I should recount this journey while it’s still fresh in my memory along with my posts about my travels from other years.
The flight to Guwahati might have been painless but getting to Shillong from the airport was a puzzle we had to solve at the airport. A had booked an Ola cab before we left Mumbai to do the transit to Shillong but when we reached the airport, the driver refused to pick us up and canceled our booking. We had arrived at 8.30 p.m., perhaps not too late for a city like Mumbai but the counters for the cabs to Shillong at the airport had shut down. There were a few cab drivers waiting outside, all approaching us with varying levels of disinterest until one gentleman agreed to ferry us to the city for 800 Rs.
I’m continually amazed at how disorienting it feels when you go from Mumbai to any other city in India. While Mumbai would have been bustling at 9.30 p.m., making you curse the traffic snarls you might have to negotiate even at late-night hours on a holiday, Guwahati looked absolutely deserted. The drive from the airport to the city was a breeze through empty roads and haunted streets. Once we reached Guwahati, our driver’s eagle eye caught a Shillong registered vehicle and in a couple of hours, after a quick meal and a swift ride through the foggy hills, we were in Shillong.
We had booked our hotel in Shillong over a month in advance and it’s a good thing we did because the NH7 clientele appeared to have booked out all accommodation in the city and its tentacled suburbs. The hotel we chose was The Best Holiday Inn which, if you have a budget of over 2.5k INR, I highly recommend. It’s in the quietest of lanes in the Lachumiere area of Upper Shillong and was run with pinpoint efficiency. The room, where R, S and myself were staying was on a higher floor with a good view of All Saints Church and Lower Shillong and was quite spacious even for the 3 of us.
The next morning, we began our Shillong explorations with a gentle amble 2 kilometers down to one of Shillong’s photogenically kitschy park, Ward’s lake. I had been to Ward’s Lake on my first trip to Shillong in 2010 and I’m pleased to report that nothing has changed. It’s fairly clean and well landscaped and is a peaceful place to amble about for an hour or two. Hell, if you can find a seat on one of the benches in the shade, you can plonk yourself here for hours reading a book.
But we didn’t have such luxury of time because there was shopping to do, food to eat and a gig to attend. The Police Bazar area is the prime shopping street in Shillong but R had a hard time finding a decent windcheater for himself. It was a bit weird because if there was one place you would imagine would have good windcheaters for sale, it should have been the capital of the wettest region in the world. After much enquiry and investigation, he found a decent piece at an amiable store run by a man from Mumbai.
Ever since I mentioned the fact that Café Shillong, one of Shillong’s best cafes, did great coffee and awesome steaks, S’s paranoia had kicked in. He had been agonizing over the idea that if it was indeed as good as I claimed it was, there would be a veritable stampede of starving people who would be queuing up outside its doors from the wee hours of the morning to finish off all the food they had in a matter of minutes. So ingrained was this fear in his head that as we were making our way to the café, he laboured at length to convince us not to go because he was certain the food must have run out by the time we got there.
To put it mildly, his fears were overstated. It was entirely empty of people and we had a free choice of tables to occupy. S ordered their signature Pork Spare Ribs, which judging by his orgasmic expressions, must have been quite delicious. I ordered the Smoked pork bastenga, a sour khasi curry with bamboo shoots served with rice, which was a bit too tangy for my taste but had enough texture to make me not regret the choice. I did wish I had ordered a serving of S’s PSR after taking a bite though. R, being vegetarian, made do with a vegetarian burger which he assured us was fantastic. A joined us a little later and ordered a sandwich which also appeared to be fairly satisfactory. The cappuccino (light on the coffee heavy on the milk) was strictly okay and looked like it needed another espresso shot to make it taste more like coffee. Caveats aside, if you’re in Shillong and aren’t on a shoestring budget, this little café in Laitumkhrah is likely to serve you well.
This gastronomic excursion meant we were late to catch the shuttle bus to the venue. I was wondering whether to skip day 1 altogether because very few of the bands lined up played the sort of music I like listening to. But since we had already paid for the tickets, we made a rush to the central bus stand where the shuttle buses operated from. An NH7 shuttle bus rolled past as we hurried into the bus stand desperately hoping we hadn’t missed the last bus out.
My room at the ashram wasn’t big. It had a stone platform with a thin mattress that one had to employ as a bed and there were two tiny wooden brackets on the wall acting as makeshift shelves to keep some of your belongings. The message being sent to potential guests was that if you wanted to stay here you better not bring a lot of luggage or have any back issues. For our daily ablutions and nature calls, there were 2 squat toilets and one little enclosure for bathing at the end of a long corridor that had to be shared with 30 rooms. The bathroom ceiling was so low that if you were any taller than 5 foot 5 (most of the guests at the ashram were), you had to wash yourself while sitting on the floor.
The ashram was always full, so there was a long shit-queue early in the morning which made it one of the socializing hubs for the denizens of the ashram. The shit-queue also meant getting to Swami D’s 7 a.m. lectures became a bit tricky. Swami D wasn’t one to take too kindly to people coming late to his pearls of wisdom. So if you woke up any later than 6 a.m. you were probably screwed and would have to fear one of Swami D’s eviction drives. Every single day, I would curse myself for staying there and resolve to look for some other place to stay. But then I would go to the shit-queue and look at the pained faces of Jasbir, Dave, Ranga, Joseph, Pierre, Carol, Jessica, Steve, Linda, Kei, Matt etc., all waiting their turn, all friends I had made in a week at the ashram and all united in their agonies, and I would say, maybe tomorrow.
One of the handful of people who didn’t have to attend Swami D’s lectures was my neighbour, a 78-year old man from Bhadohi named Shambhu because Swami D believed he already possessed all the knowledge and wisdom that he could impart. He was the only ashram guest who had the honour of having chai with Swami D. Shambhuji didn’t have a lot of teeth left and had been staying in his dingy little room for over 4 months. On my first day at the ashram, I slumbered out of bed at 6 a.m. to brush my teeth when I saw Shambhuji standing outside his room looking fresh and dapper ogling at the 6 and a half foot German girl Brenda staying in our row of rooms filling up hot water from the tap in the corner. Jasbir must have seen a scandalized expression on my face because he came up to me and said, “Woh kya hai ki Uncleji ab bhi zindagi mein choti choti chizon ka aanand lene mein vishwaas rakhte hai.” (The old man still believes in taking pleasure in the little things in life.)
Shambhu heard the snide remark thrown in his direction, opened his mouth wide, shook his head and said, “Itni lambi! Itni badi! Hey bhagwan.” (So tall, so big, oh my God)
Shambhuji had spent his entire adulthood working for the Indian Railways as a signalman. Every conversation with him involved at least one story of how he miraculously escaped a derailment and a certain death all thanks to Lord Kishan Kanhaiya. His eyes would well up with tears and he would join his hands to look up to the framed poster of Lord Krishna decorating his shelf at the end of every climax. He had 7 children (4 boys, 3 girls), 18 grandchildren (all married) and 2 great grandchildren and was predictably conservative. He would boast often about how he married off his girls by the age of 16 to give them more time to grow boys because – “…pehle do toh hamesha mahila hi nikal thi hai jaise hamare saath hua. Agar putr nahin hua toh vansh aage kaise badega?” (…the first two always tend to be girls like it was with me. If you don’t have a son, who will extend our family line?)
Nevertheless, the platform outside Shambhuji’s den became the place “the ashram group” hung out every night. The core group, who had been staying in the ashram for at least a week comprised of Jasbir, myself, Shambhuji of course, Jessica – a 19 year old girl from California in Rishikesh to learn Patanjali yoga, Kei – a Japanese guy whose ineptitude in English was matched only by Shambhuji and who was learning tabla at a local hackshop, Joseph – a jilted lover from Goa who was in Rishikesh looking for “new experiences”, Carol – a 40 year old woman from France who was planning a move to India and Matt – a guy from New Zealand who was backpacking round the world and was taking a cheap break in Rishikesh to recover from travel fatigue. Apart from us, there was a constant ebb and flow of backpackers and everyone inevitably landed around where we were because that was “the” place to be.
Shambhuji and Kei never joined in the conversations but perhaps felt a degree of comfort and warmth in human company. Kei gently stroked his tabla every once in a while to keep himself busy. Shambhuji sat on a chair and stared into space with his thick spectacles.
The warmth went missing one quiet day when the ever-mischievous Jasbir took advantage of a lull in conversation, looked up to Jessica and said, “You know, Shambhuji has big family. 10 brothers 20 children. “
Jessica – “Really? Why does he have to live here then?”
Jasbir (to Shambhu) – “Pooch rahi hai ki aapko yahan rehne ki naubat kaise aa gayi?” (She’s asking why you have to live here)
Shambhu – “Bas mahaul accha hai. Log acche hai.” (I like the atmosphere. People are nice.)
Jasbir (to Jessica) – “He saying he likes here. He likes you. Hahaha.”
Jessica, with an expression of mock disbelief – “I can’t believe he said that”.
She turned to me and asked – ‘Did he really say that?”
Me – “No, he didn’t. He said he likes the place and the people here.”
Jessica rolled her eyes at Jasbir who blushed and looked away. Jasbir had a not-so-secret crush going on Jessica, something he had told everyone in the ashram except Jessica. She must have had a hint because she made it a point never to be around with him alone.
Jasbir to me – “Saale kabab mein haddi mat bano. Shambhuji ko jaane nahi ho tum ab tak. Inki jawaani ab bhi jhilmila rahi hai.” (Don’t spoil all the fun I’m having. You don’t know Shambhuji yet. He’s still very young.)
Then he turned towards Jessica and said, “I tell him Shambhuji still very young. He like beautiful people.”
Jessica just ignored him and said – “Before I came to India, I read a story about old people abandoned by their familes. So I hope he isn’t, like, one of them.”
Jasbir, with growing desperation to gain her attention – “No, no, he very happy. He like this ashram.”
Shambhuji who seemed lost in thought all this while now broke out of his reverie, looked at Jasbir with all the intensity his 78 year old eyes could muster and with his aged drawl said, “Raj dharm kya hota hai jaante ho? Tum yahaan jo apna poonch hila kar phirte ho, kuch pada karo apni sanskruti ke baare mein. Sabse ooncha, sabse pada likha, sabse zyada dimaagwala raja hota hai. Hum yahaan ke raja hai. Raja ke jo padosi hai woh uske dushman kehalaate hai. Dushman ka padosi raja ka dost hota hai. Tum hamare padosi ho aur hamare dushman bhi. Yeh jo angrez hai saare woh tumhare padosi hai aur hamare dost. Dekh lena aage se agar koi zurrat ki toh humse bura koi nahi hoga.” (Do you know what the duty of a king is? Instead of wagging your tail around here, you should make an effort to learn about your history and culture. The king is the tallest, most knowledgeable, most intelligent man in his world. I am the king here. The king regards his immediate neighbours as his enemies. And the enemy’s neighbours are his friends. You are my neighbour here and my enemy too. These foreigners here who happen to be your neighbours are my friends. If you misbehave ever again, I will make sure you’ll pay for it.)
There was a pin drop silence after Shambhuji finished and while no one other than Jasbir, Joseph and I could decipher what he was on about, this anachronistic monologue from a man who was the gentlest and quietest people in the group, appeared to shock everyone.
Matt broke the ice as he let out a mighty yawn and said, “Time to call it a day then?”
And on cue, we all said our good nights and left for our rooms.
Jasbir, for all his swagger, got spooked enough to stay away from Shambhuji from that day on and would only meet us outside the ashram.