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Thursday, April 18, 2024

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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Shillong 1974: First Impressions

Back in the seventies, Shillong was a quiet little town inhabited by peace-loving hills folk and untouched by the overcrowding and pollution that has now taken over. Ravindra Bhalerao recalls engagingly his first impressions when he arrived in the hill town as a schoolboy half a century ago.

By Ravindra Bhalerao

I can still see through the mists of antiquity the day when I first set foot in Shillong half a century ago. I was a school-going lad then, and I shall always be grateful to my father, and no less to my mother as well, for the move to this pleasing little hill town.

My father had taken up a teaching job in NEHU, and so following our arrival in Shillong, we were accommodated for a time in the university guest house in Jaiaw, a large home known as Dulcie Lodge – a home that held room enough for several families to live.

My first impressions of Shillong were marked with feelings of wonderment and delight. For the very first time in life, I found myself in a place presided over by a guardian hill range, which was something both wonderful and inspiring. Here was a place graced by winding roads, steep ascents and pretty-looking timber-built homes perched high up on the hillside amidst a jungle of sweet-smelling pines. Add to this the sensation of cold, and a sky across which scudded billowy white clouds, and the magic was complete. I was in the Scotland of the East!

Dulcie Lodge, where we halted, is a heritage building of Shillong dating back to 1929. On our arrival, we were pleased to find that it was furnished with everything a newcomer could possibly need: it had furniture, window curtains, bathroom geysers, running water, and most important of all, it provided warm blankets for residents who might find the cold (otherwise) harsh to bear.

The lodge was well-staffed and kept sparkling clean. A young man had been appointed as the caretaker of the guest house, while each day a lady would arrive in the morning to spruce up the house. I often found her meticulously wiping the glass windows and polishing the brass door knobs and handles with Brasso.

Although complete in every respect, the guest house didn’t have an attached mess, and residents were expected to do their own cooking on electric stoves. Thus, on the very day of our arrival, father and I were obliged to take a bus to Bara Bazar where we bought ourselves a Bajaj electric stove from a large departmental store.

Life in Dulcie Lodge was idyllic and restful, and given a choice I would have liked to continue thus unhindered, but a few weeks later my father announced that he had succeeded in finding a home for us close to the Fire Brigade.

Our new home was a sun-drenched cottage commanding a fine sweeping view of the fire brigade ground, with Wood’s Garage and the Seventh Day Adventist Church in clear view. Across the road could be seen the fire station, a haven of safety in distress, its bright red fire engines always ready for the call of duty. A large brass gong hung at the entrance and the sentry on duty would strike it each hour ding-dong to announce the hour of the day. As there were beats at each half hour too, I couldn’t help suppress the feeling that a clock in the home was quite unnecessary.

The sun rose warming our home and the balcony facing the street. I loved standing in the warmth, watching the traffic move. There wasn’t much of it, for Shillong was not a populous town then. The deluge of motorcars we see today in the city was yet to come. Cars on the street were few: you saw mostly Ambassadors, with a sprinkling of Premier and Standard.

Most people in the town preferred walking to their destination if it was a short way off, or else taking a city bus. Quaint vintage-style buses with bonnets would come screeching to a halt at the bus stop across our home all through the day. With wooden bodies painted blue and cream, these buses were built around the chassis of Tata and Bedford trucks giving them extra hauling power, an essential requirement as the roads led over steep inclines. Following a brief halt, the conductor would yell out Yaah, which in Khasi dialect probably meant, ‘let’s get moving’, and the bus, thrown into gear, would begin to cough and growl and soon be on its way to Nongthymmai.

The Fire Brigade ground gave the feeling of openness, a sense of being in spacious surroundings, uncluttered with people and habitation. Here would be held football as well as other games at various times of the year. At other times, fire brigade personnel could be seen carrying out mock drills that were designed to keep them alert and well-prepared to deal with actual firefighting emergencies.

The first few weeks in the new home were free of care: we spent our days soaking in the enchanting surroundings we found ourselves in. You only had to step out of the house in the day to be greeted by the Shillong hill range, bright, rugged and unmoving, towering high above us, with the microwave tower in full view atop. I gazed up at the hills fascinated. It was an object of mystery, a thing of intrigue. How high was the summit of the hill, and what secrets did it conceal on its pine-covered slopes? In later years, I would discover some of these secrets when I trekked up that hill all by myself on two different occasions.

When night fell, a pall of cold descended from the hills. Then the city would begin to put out its lights, coal fires would be lit in the homes and families would huddle around the fireplace for warmth. The hillside of Nongthmmai was all a glowing tangle of lights, the few people on the streets could be seen hurrying home with their shawls drawn around them, whilst the microwave station silently put out a red lamp at its top that would announce its presence all through the long hours of the night.

This was also a time when we were gearing up for life in the coming days. Useful connections had to be made, friendships were forged, the bazaar explored, the home stocked up with provisions.

Life in Shillong had begun to pick up, preparing us for the days that lay ahead.

(The author arrived in Shillong as a schoolboy in 1974 and would remain here up to 1987. Shillong thus holds precious memories for him.)

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