In ‘Scotland of the East’
There are only a few things over which Neelam and I agree without fighting. After our Agartala trip, I had the impression that she would not question my judgement in matters of travel at least. I was wrong! When I first proposed Shillong as our next destination, she summarily rejected it. Her reason: Shillong is a “clichéd” tourist spot that everyone seems to visit.
“Naya kya hai?” she asked.
“Tum nayi ho,” was my answer.
“Weak logic. Give me a zabardast reason for buying your point.”
“We can make it a motorcycle trip if we go to Shillong.”
Neelam was quiet for a moment. Probably she tried to imagine how exciting it would be to go on a biking trip.
“Mummy ji ko puch kar batati hoon.” My mother has to intervene all the time in our fights. Every time Neelam is about to lose a battle, she invokes my mother’s intervention. And much to my dismay, my mommy always takes her bahu’s side.
“Why do you have to bring in my mother in every situation?”
“Listen, I’m a well-mannered Bharatiya naari. I respect my elders. A girl should always take her in-laws as her own parents. And to obey our parents…”
“Cut the crap,” I interrupted. “Drama bandh karo. Go and ask your mummy ji if it is so important.”
My mother apparently told her that it would be too risky to go on a biking trip to Shillong. “The hills are treacherous,” she told Neelam.
“You know, Mummy ji says it’s too risky. But I think it will be fun. Chalo na chalte hai,” Neelam said with a wicked glimmer in her eyes. She always likes to do things that others don’t approve of or find risqué. All her ‘Bharatiya naari’ logic had vanished in a moment. I sometimes wonder if I have married a reincarnation of Fearless Nadia.
We set out on a fine Monday morning on a hired Royal Enfield Bullet. Actually, it was looted, not hired, from an old friend, but anything for Neelam. She should know the Northeast. She is married to the Northeast. I’m from the Northeast. And being my wife, she has every right to know what my roots are like.
All the way, she kept on chirping like a bird and distracting me with loud expressions like “arre woh dekho baadal hamare neeche”, “arre teri, woh bandar lapka” and so on. She has a thing for hills…nature to be precise.
“Yaar, this is the best road trip I’ve ever had. It feels as if I’m acting in a desi version of Motorcycle Diaries,” Neelam was just too happy.
“Yeah, certainly. And I feel like Che Guevara. You are the horny Alberto Granado,” I quipped.
“What rubbish! Why do you always have nasty things and roles for me? Koi acchi baat bhi kar sakte ho na.”
“Na biwi, tu to superstar hai. Chal fir, I’m Rishi Kapoor and you are Dimple Kapadia. This is the shooting of Pyar Mein Twist.”
“Chee! I hate Dimple! Koi aur, please!”
“Yeah right, it was a wrong name to use. You are Pimple Kapadia!” I laughed out loud even as she kept on punching my back and pinching my tummy.
Shillong is a geographical as well as cultural legacy of the British Raj. The township was established by the English for several reasons: the two primary reasons being its strategic location between the Surama Valley and the Brahmaputra Valley, and the cooler climes similar to the English air.
Shillong also finds mention in several literary works: the most notable ones being Nirad C. Chaudhary’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, and Gurudeb Rabindranath Tagore’s Shesher Kobita.
We reached Umiam Lake where we decided to stop for a while. The scenery was marvellous. Even though I have been to the lake many a times before, this time, there was an added charm—I had come with my wife. The water baby that she is, Neelam had an instant desire to swim in the lake. I encouraged her this time. I told her that if she swims, I will soon make a film and cast her as the heroine. The name of the movie would be Gayi Bhains Paani Mein.
Needless to say, I ended up with several bruises for that mistimed joke.
We had lunch at the Blue Vada restaurant at the Orchid Lake Resort in Umiam. Prior booking is required to dine at this place as it is always in demand. But it offers a breathtaking view of the place so it is a must visit. The food was exquisite.
After lunch, we headed straight towards Shillong, which was just 15 km away. We checked in at the Tripura Castle in Cleve Colony, which is a heritage hotel. It was previously owned by the Maharaja of Tripura.
We kept all our sightseeing for the next day and instead chose to hop the markets and the city centres at Police Bazar and Laitumkhrah in the evening. It was also because Neelam felt a little giddy.
“Yaar, I think I need to lie down for a while. I feel pukish.”
“Pukish? Koi good news to nahin hai na?” This time, my joke was really mistimed and she just glowered at me. The cold weather coupled with the motorbike ride was showing it effect on the poor girl. I also realised I had said enough for the day; anything more would really put my marriage in jeopardy. An afternoon nap could both do us good.
It was almost 5.30 pm when Neelam woke me up.
“Chalo chalo market chalte hai.”
“Arre you were sick na?”
“I’m ok now. Now stop being a quizmaster and get ready. My God, we are late!” she almost shrieked. For a while I had forgotten that there could be no market in this country that Neelam Soni would not loot. My fault, anyway.
We went to a Tibetan market named Glory’s Plaza at Police Bazaar. There, my lady bought an array of warmers and a few souvenir items for everyone back in Guwahati and in Delhi. I tried to remind her that we are on a biking trip and too much luggage would make the return journey punishing, but to no avail.
Back in the castle, we had a nice dinner and retired for the night early. We planned to visit the Shillong Peak early next morning.
Shillong is surrounded by hills. Three of them are revered in Khasi tradition: Lum Sohpetbneng, Lum Diengiei and Lum Shillong. The Shillong Peak is every tourist’s dream destination. The entire city below is visible from the top. The scene reminded me of several Hollywood movies. It was simply indescribable. Neelam was so excited that she kept on clicking photos. And we both bored another couple to death by making them take our snaps in different ‘pati-patni’ poses.
A trip to the nearby Elephant Falls was no different. The view was captivating. For a long time, we stood motionless. I had never come to this spot before so it was new for me as well. After a while, however, we got back to our senses and started capturing it on camera.
The next spot was the golf course or the Gleneagles of the East. It is the world’s wettest golf course and one of the few natural golf courses in Asia.
“Arre wow, it’s such a huge place. So green. Koi Hollywood movie jaisi lagti hai, nahin?” Neelam said.
“It surely is. They say Shillong is the ‘Scotland of the East’. Samajh mein aayi baat?”
We returned to the Tripura Castle to freshen up. We just had another day in hand to complete the trip, and I still had to meet my friend Major Tomojit. I called him up and he invited us to be his guest at the 58 Gorkha Training Centre the next day. But we still had the entire evening in front of us. So, we decided to hang out in the city.
We wandered aimlessly at Laitumkhrah and other places. I showed her the St. Anthony’s and St. Edmund’s colleges, the new IIM campus, as well as the Raj Bhavan and the state library. We then went to a multi-cuisine restaurant and had authentic local food for the first time. We have had momos before but not anything typical to the city. We therefore had a special rice called jastem, which is cooked with onion, ginger and turmeric. We also ordered a vegetable curry despite the waiter insisting that we try their special non-veg items. Neelam being a vegetarian, we couldn’t.
The next morning, our last day in Shillong, we went to the 58 Gorkha Training Centre to see my friend, Major Tomojit. He showed us the place and even showed us parts of the ongoing training at the centre. We saw the cadets learning difficult lessons in warfare, but Neelam wanted to know if there was anything worth seeing. So, we were taken to a regimental museum where I personally had a good time.
But Neelam wasn’t impressed with the vintage weaponry on display. She hates ‘boys’ toys’, and she says that quite often. She, however, impressed my friend a lot, so much so that he offered to send a car to Guwahati with our luggage.
The next morning, before we started our return journey, we decided to check out a coffee shop named MOT in Laitumkhrah. We had Irish coffee there, which made for an awesome treat. They were also playing some live music, which made the experience all the more pleasant. Music comes naturally to the people of Shillong, for it is the self-proclaimed rock capital of India. Several international bands including Scorpions, Sepultura and MLTR have performed in Shillong. Also, this is probably the only city that has been celebrating music legend Bob Dylan’s birthday every year since 1972, courtesy Lou Majaw, India’s own Dylan. Shillong also has several bands that are doing well at the national and international levels: the most notable among them being Soulmate.
On our way back, I had a feeling that we will have to come back to Shillong again someday. We had only skimmed through the city and didn’t quite see too many places. Neelam was also unusually quiet. I couldn’t gauge her thoughts. Maybe she was sad at the thought of leaving the place. Or maybe she was only pretending all this while of liking the trip. I didn’t know. There are times when you don’t understand your spouse. It was such a moment.
“You know, I think we should come back again. I think there is still much to be seen here,” she finally broke her silence.
“As you say, madam. Ghulam aapki khidmat mein hai.”
“No, sacchi mein. And I promise agli baar I won’t shop too much. I would rather see the places. I feel this is home, too.”
I didn’t say anything but only smiled to myself. Actually, when you love someone, you tend to understand the other person’s feelings without even knowing that you do.
The sun felt warm. And so was the hug I got from behind. We just rode on. Our next trip was already taking shape in my mind.
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