I am ten years old, and the bane of the neighbourhood, let’s call him Robert, is peering down a chimney, a piece of pipe really, sticking out from a corrugated metal roof. The chimney belongs to the kitchen of a sweet shop. The fragrance of mithai-making – melting sugar and frying dough – often floats up to us when we play on Robert’s lawn which is level with the roof. Robert has spied a cauldron of milk on the kitchen stove, directly below the chimney. He smartly unzips his jeans and urinates straight into the boiling milk.
I do not stick around to find out whether the mithai-wallah has noticed the stream of lukewarm liquid dripping down his roof and mixing with the milk that will go on to become the pristine white peda and barfi in his shop window. Robert, who is nothing if not brave, doesn’t flee. His insouciance perhaps comes from feeling that he has peed on what is already dirty – being from the state of Bihar, the mithai-wallah is an ‘outsider’ in the city of Shillong, capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya; he could be unclean both literally and because he represents something of an unwantedness. At the same time, Robert knows his act of daring is disgusting because sweets such as those the mithai-wallah makes are loved and consumed in vast quantities by Shillong’s populace.
Attraction and repulsion combined to create a sick fascination for Shillong’s street food when I was growing up in that city in the 1980s and 90s. Brightly-coloured ice lollies, whose flavour diminished as their oranges and yellows drained into one’s mouth, were sold out of ice-boxes slung around the necks of their itinerant vendors, and were nicknamed ‘nala-pani’ or drain water. The dubious provenance of the water that went into them made them something of a delicious taboo. The channa-wallahs, who rang little bells to attract customers to their none-too-clean but delectable wares, were itinerant too, unlike the aloo-muri men who always occupied strategic spots outside schools; they did their best business in the late afternoon when bored and hungry children poured out of classrooms. It is impossible to separate the lure of aloo-muri from the unwashed hands of their makers, the weathered, rusting tins that hold powdered masalas, the grated white papaya standing open to the elements, and the muddy looking tamarind water. This mix of puffed rice and boiled potatoes is Shillong’s signature street food; its overpowering spiciness, so strong that it actually kills all taste, and so remote from the milder and earthier flavours of the food native to the city, is a combination of the forbidden, the grubby and the exotic.
Aloo-muri and channa and sweets such as those the prankish Robert once peed on remain as popular as ever in Shillong but that contrast with the pristine town that once made them special is now a thing of the past.
‘Cleanliness is Not Impossible’ says a sign on a traffic island at a major junction in the city. Approaching the island from the opposite direction you read ‘Eradicate Polio Now,’ and I am reminded that polio, which the state of Meghalaya continues to battle along with the rest of the country, is a disease also caused by dirt, by poor sanitation and hygiene. Further along this junction, Police Bazaar, the city’s main shopping area, is evidence of why the administration worries that cleanliness might indeed be impossible. The shop-lined pedestrian precinct of Police Bazaar is a spit and garbage-covered stretch though this does not deter the crush of people; indeed, when walking in Police Bazaar one is sometimes prone to the apocalyptic vision of a shopper falling over and being trampled by the others in their manic hurry to be on their way. The local papers have reported tirelessly on what is known as the ‘Khyndai-Lad Beautification Project’, Khyndai-Lad being the local, Khasi name for Police Bazaar and the beautification project being something of a myth. Meanwhile, goblets of spit stained red with kwai juice continue to rain down on Police Bazaar and stories circulate through the city’s drawing rooms about how its rich prefer shopping in Bangkok and Singapore or, at the very least Delhi and Bangalore, to setting foot in the slummy interiors of this unbeautiful market. Freed perhaps by the absence of the well-heeled, village men selling handmade kitchen tools and pink-snouted rabbits and women presiding over large baskets of fruit have taken over the already cramped street, making access to the old supermarkets and clothes stores even harder. Once inside these shops, one realizes, scanning their half-empty shelves, that their moment has passed, that Police Bazaar is no longer where the upper-class excitement is.
Shillong’s older, traditional market, Iewduh, is a dense warren of narrow lanes packed with tiny shops, each alley specializing in a different thing – schoolbooks, clothes, fresh vegetables, locally made handicrafts, shoes and jewellery. Iewduh is where you head to for local colour, for bargains, and to knock elbows with the small traders who come here to buy their wares at wholesale prices. Approaching Iewduh from the south, one passes an enormous multi-level parking lot for the packed lorries that are Shillong’s lifeline, a hill city that can only be approached by road. Amid the chaos and filth of this parking lot is a LCD sign that displays the day’s temperature and then switches to announce in blazing red, ‘Welcome to the Scotland of the East’. This is Shillong’s familiar moniker, though, given the city’s increasing scruffiness, it has become something of a joke. On World Tourism Day, 27 September, a local paper lists reasons – potholed roads, broken pavements, missing street-lights, piles of garbage – why tourists would be better off staying away from ‘The Scrapland of the East’. The welcome sign is sadly amusing, therefore, but not only because of the scrappy surroundings: Iewduh existed before the British took over Shillong and instigated the comparison to Scotland. The market was established by the Syiem (king) of the Khasi kingdom of Mylliem. Shillong’s Khasi community worshipped their ancestors at the altars of monoliths; climbing up the slopes of Iewduh’s lanes one can still spot a scattering of these stone memorials; religious ceremonies continue to be conducted around them under the direction of the Syiem of Mylliem who remains the market’s owner.
It is difficult to see Scotland in Iewduh. And there is barely anything Scottish about urban Shillong, or – dales, mists and grassy moors, notwithstanding – about the rest of the largely rural state of Meghalaya whose inhabitants, reports indicate, have become poorer over the last five years even as Shillong – judging from the number of cars on its streets, the international brands advertised on its billboards and the scale of construction activity all around – has clearly grown richer. Perhaps it is to the better that the Scottish analogy seems out of place. For a Scotland of the East is, by definition, second-hand, an imitation, its purveyors bound to be in thrall to the real thing. Those who continue to invoke it are perhaps nostalgic for Shillong’s colonial past which, as evidenced by sepia photographs from the period, was marked by, more than any other luxury, the singular one of space.
The steepled roofs, wide verandahs and rambling gardens of Shillong’s British-era bungalows testify to how wide-open space was taken for granted in the nineteenth century. But the relative ease with which both British and Indian settlers acquired mile after mile of pine-covered hill on which to develop this new city does not mean that, in every other respect too, life in the older Shillong was glorious and, seen from today’s perspective, an alien form. What the old photographs conceal are the countless projects and negotiations conducted by the men who lived in those spacious bungalows, which led to the development of the town as a nucleus for administrative, business, educational, medical, cultural and religious activities. This history has today resulted in both the claustrophobic overcrowding and increasing squalor of the city as well as its irrepressible air of energy.
Present-day Shillong – contrary to the beliefs of those who miss its supposedly genteel past of horse-drawn carriages on empty roads and gracious bungalows housing wise and industrious Englishmen and women – is the outcome of its history rather than a break from it. Shillong has been considered, from the very beginning of its establishment as an urban centre, as a place of opportunity. Its ‘salubrious’ (that archaic adjective beloved of nostalgists) climate and relatively accessible location attracted the British who moved their regional headquarters from the rainiest place on earth, Cherrapunjee (or Sohra), to the then market town of Iewduh in 1864. Very soon after, roads and telegraphs were laid connecting Shillong to the nearest hub, Guwahati; entrepreneurs from the state of Rajasthan’s Marwari business community made their way here, eager to do business in a new government outpost; Gorkha regiments of the British Army were stationed in town; missionaries of all stripes set to work, and a certain Bishop George Edward Lynch Cotton (famous for founding schools all over British India) observed on a visit here in 1866, ‘I think Shillong will expand. It is a very fine hill station with ample space for more dwellings and seems likely to have a flourishing future.’ Bishop Cotton was angling for the establishment of a church in Shillong; the All Saint’s Church that was built soon after, with a black and cream Tudor exterior amidst flower beds and pine trees, remains Shillong’s most beautiful.
Records of old Shillong hold a second revelation: the fact that up until the mid-twentieth century most of the town’s institutions were built by those who would today be considered ‘outsiders’. Like elsewhere in the country, Christian missionaries – Welsh, Irish, Italians and, for a time, Germans – established churches, schools and hospitals with a sense of purpose and an unwavering self-belief that now appears brazen. Hindu missionary organizations like the Brahmo Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission did the same, emulating the Christian ideal of service through institution-building. The British set up government offices and built themselves homes as well as places of leisure such as Ward’s Lake and Shillong Club; other settlers too, such as the Assamese, Bengalis, Nepalis, Marwaris and Sikhs, created places of worship, schools and clubs dedicated to their separate communities. Foodstuffs popular in the city are an indicator of the cultural mix that was early-modern Shillong: on the one hand were the famous Italian-run bakeries such as Morello and Guidetti, on the other, the still iconic Delhi Mistan Bhandar, set up in 1929, whose north Indian sweets and snacks caught on quickly and spawned the scores of mithai shops that are today a quintessential part of Shillong’s public culture, having merged naturally with the copious tea-drinking that probably took root here early in the history of tea on the subcontinent. Shillong was the hub of Assam and, starting from the 1840s, Assam was the hub of the Empire’s tea cultivation.
Given such a past, compounded of the dreams and ambitions of those who came from elsewhere, the Khasi community’s desire for the ownership of the city is incontestable. This desire has taken various forms since Independence – some violent, such as the riots that have periodically scarred the city since the late 1970s, and some constructive. The most interesting example of the latter is the linguist, translator and educator Babu Jeebon Roy’s nineteenth-century project to create a modern Khasi identity based both on local cultural traditions as well as drawing from the community’s commercial and cultural links with the Bengalis of Shillong and of nearby Sylhet. These two opposing tendencies have gone hand in hand though the decades – the desire to cleanse Shillong of its settlers, and the desire to make the most of its history as a place of commingling and co-existence, a place that is then likely to become, in the nature of many other Indian cities, either metaphorically or literally dirty. That is, either the racial mix evokes feelings of distaste, or the physical dirt produced by people squeezed into a small city does.
What is hard to miss and impossible not to grieve over is how present-day Shillong has been overwhelmed by the material aspirations of its people, which means that even as physical interiors grow more comfortable and well-appointed, the outside becomes meaner and grubbier. But this loss of public space is not all, for Shillong was up to twenty or even fifteen years ago also a place conducive to the imagination. By ‘imagination’ I mean: the possibility of feeling a bond with the place where one lives; the possibility of finding a language in which to express this bond; and the possibility that this language is then recognized and goes on to become a shared language. Crucial to the idea of place as conducive to the imagination is respect for the intangible qualities associated with it.
So it is not just a question of who, in a material sense, owns the land; what the ethnic composition of a city is; and who, according to sentiment or law, has a right to live and work there. These are important considerations, but they leave out an equally crucial element of ownership and belonging, which has to do with experience. The people one meets and sees on the streets; the nature of the conversations one is able to have in a city; shared memories and the pleasure of sharing memories from the time when Shillong was an even smaller and more tight-knit place; the kind of individuals who teach in its schools, colleges and universities; the books in its libraries; the taste of its street food; the clear perception of the changing of the seasons; the colours of the encircling hills at different times of the day: all of these are part of the experience of growing up and living in Shillong. And because they are shared experiences, they could be given the name ‘culture’.
This culture was in many ways an English-language, public culture connected with college and university life; all through the 1990s many of us wrote poetry, published magazines, organized literary readings and discussed literature informally; did theatre; attended rock concerts (which did not require large sponsorships and were not yet glorified in the national and international media); and performed poetry and theatre for All India Radio Shillong, which was something of a hub for the restless and energetic young. We also moved through the city’s street life of second-hand bookshops, tea joints, sweet shops, small cassette shops, Chinese restaurants and bars. It’s obvious that this culture is dead, that this older Shillong is dying. The sense of value associated with these minor and therefore poetic qualities of the city has vanished. In its place is a greater pragmatism, a money-driven sense of urgency and impatience. Not just space but time too has shrunk. A sense of leisure, intrinsic to this city up to a couple of decades ago, made it possible to loaf around in a way that was considered desultory rather than disreputable. Today, the staggering number of cars in a city which is eminently walkable is one indicator of this loss of leisure.
It is not the absence of institutional spaces that has led to these changes, for institutions, particularly those in the business of education, have mushroomed in the recent past. Since 2008, Shillong has been home to the school that occupies a hallowed niche in the urban Indian imagination – the Indian Institute of Management, the seventh in the country. Other than the North Eastern Hill University, which was founded in the early 1970s and is about as old as the state of Meghalaya, all other ‘national’ institutions here have been set up in the past decade, in a flurry driven by unknown aims except those vaguely associated with the need to ‘develop’ the neglected north-east of the country. We have the North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences, the National Institute of Fashion Design, the Indian Institute of Hotel Management, and a brand-new National Institute of Technology in nearby Sohra. It remains to be seen whether these new spaces, along with the existing ones, will contribute to the rehabilitation of the imagination. At the moment they appear to be battlegrounds for the fight for that ‘clean’, culturally homogenous city. Stories are rife about how non-tribal teachers, appointed to the few college teaching posts still open to them, have in several instances been summarily dismissed by college authorities under pressure from local organizations euphemistically described as NGOs, organizations in pursuit of the same xenophobic dream of a pristine Shillong.
The desire for a clean city has recently taken the form of a strident debate about the Inner Line Permit (ILP). This permit, an expression of a colonial-era act currently in effect in some north-eastern states, requires non-residents to acquire permits before travelling in these states. Many feel that the illegal influx of Bangladeshis into Shillong and the rest of Meghalaya can only be stopped with the introduction of the ILP. Other commentators point out that the ILP is an archaic law, introduced by the British not to protect the tribals of the north-east from the plainspeople but to corral the tribals and prevent them from making incursions into British territory. It will not stop the influx of foreigners, they say; the existing laws towards this end have not. What it will achieve is keeping tourists and investors away from Meghalaya. The idea of ILP, however, continues to be championed; it presents a seductive image of people being stopped at the borders of the state and obliged to prove their identity, an image that seems to allay the unease over Shillong’s persistent heterogeneity.
It is impossible to read the newspaper debates about ILP and then walk in the streets of Shillong without feeling deeply disoriented. The functional architecture of rooms and buildings piled higgledy-piggledy into the skies, the signage, the timings of traffic jams, the composition of the pedestrians, all point to one thing – Shillong’s enormous hunger for self-advancement. The young people who throng the city’s thoroughfares are mostly students, many having come here from elsewhere in the north-east. Every lamp post and electricity pole holds signs advertising educational courses in fields ranging from nursery teacher training to information technology. The names ‘Annamalai’, ‘Sikkim Manipal’ and ‘IIPM’ seem to be emblazoned on every available surface in the city; the nooks and corners are taken by those still working their way up: Punjab Technical University, RR Institutions Bangalore, National Institute of Paramedical Technology, University of Technology and Management. Every other building in the centre of the city seems to be home to a school, college, private university, vocational training centre, or private tutoring set-up. Late afternoon freezes the traffic, for that is when the town’s hundreds of schoolchildren pour into the streets. To stand in Don Bosco Square at 3 o’clock and watch the chattering sea made up of so many shades of blue – the various uniforms of the half a dozen schools all centred upon this square – is to realize that there is something wonderfully vigorous about Shillong. This does not prove anything about the quality of the education delivered by these many institutions. What it does prove is a tendency towards exactly the same dream that the middle classes in the rest of India dream – to acquire an education that will lead to securing productive and well-paid employment, to build homes and buy cars, to live comfortably, and to trust in God and government to the extent that they can keep this boat afloat.
This desire is a form of confidence and perhaps it is out of this confidence that something genuinely new will emerge in Shillong. The student who writes to the newspaper saying that she wants to compete with her peers on equal terms, unshackled by the reservations due to her as a member of a Scheduled Tribe; the boy who sings old jazz numbers in a cafe with a joy so deep it can only come from the awareness that he has made the music his own: these are glimmers of optimism. But are the two sets of hopes driving us compatible? Can Shillong become an island where people of only one race live, study and work and, at the same time, a city connected to that placeless thing called globalization? As per the logic of the latter, the relationship between place and person is redundant – one simply goes where the opportunities are, even as these opportunities increasingly mean that you don’t have the luxury of being rooted in any one location.
What, in such a scenario, is the fate of that increasingly embattled thing called local culture? Perhaps it becomes a tourist attraction. Since in Shillong itself you can no longer experience that Shillong of old, that rumoured Scotland of the East, you have to travel out of town for it. Four hours drive south of Shillong, perhaps five depending on the weather, the build of your car and the varying condition of the roads, through an exquisite landscape of low hills and deep gorges, is a tiny village of 500-odd people called Mawlynnong which has been attracting visitors because of its bizarre tag of ‘Asia’s Cleanest Village’.
Whether Mawlynnong is indeed so is, of course, unproveable. What is easy to see, however, is that the village is a little time capsule of Khasi culture, a culture in which both public and private tidiness is held in extremely high regard. The neat cottages, the impeccable flower gardens, the clean lines of the Anglican church, the little khoh baskets hanging on every second tree for the rubbish, all instill in the visitor a deep nostalgia for cleanliness and an anguish at the very much less than clean places in which they are condemned to live. Our resourceful guide, clearly familiar with every tree and stone in the village, describes the residents of Mawlynnong as being both congenitally clean as well as adopting new hygienic methods such as composting their vegetable waste. Paradoxically, much of the plastic waste comes with tourists, he says.
But hand in hand with Mawlynnong’s beauty – its ‘Assam-style’ timbered, daub and wattle houses and its dignified inhabitants – is its poverty. Growing areca nut and betel leaf is the village’s main occupation. The village is close to Meghalaya’s borders with Bangladesh, and our guide reveals that much from the neighbouring villages – such as cattle, sugar and rice – is smuggled into that country. ‘They cannot do without India,’ he says. In Mawlynnong, the smugglers are kept at bay, however. ‘We are a tourist village,’ he says with some seriousness. ‘It would not do to have the customs officials poking around here.’ He takes pains to distinguish Mawlynnong from its neighbours in other ways too, especially in the most significant one: he promises that we will be wading through dirt if we visit other villages and that Mawlynnong is unique in its cleanliness. At the end of the tour, he refuses to accept a fee for his services, saying that instead I could, if I like, contribute money towards the upkeep of the village.
Driving back through the poor hamlets scattered among the heart-stoppingly beautiful hill country, one cannot help feeling that there is something acutely vulnerable about Mawlynnong. It comes across both as a repository of what Shillong once was and a warning of what it might become.
Is this, then, what the city must choose between: a fragile, carefully preserved cleanliness and an endemic, quintessentially modern dirt?
Photograph © Anthony Knuppel