Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Adventure in Ri Hynniewtrep

It is my first evening in Shillong. I've just had dinner at a restaurant called 'Bombay Bites' (would you believe it!) and decide to take a stroll in the famous Police Bazaar area. It's close to 9 pm and the place does look a tad deserted. But to my Mumbai mind the night seems young.

Then I get a call from the only person in Shillong who has my cell number. A person I have never met but am hoping to interview the next day. "What? You are in Police Bazaar at this time?? Wait right there.. I will drop you back!"

And true to his word, Z lands up a few minutes later and I sheepishly get into a well-worn Maruti. "Is it really unsafe?" I ask my new found friend. "Well... probably not", he says."But just in case. Why take a chance?"

And sure enough Mahesh - the one man receptionist/ caretaker/ cashier who holds the fort at the Bonnie Guest House - is relieved to see me. "I was going to call and find out where you are..." he grins.

Okay! So lesson # 1 in Shillong. Early to bed and early to rise - in the North east consider that wise!

And quickly, I learnt a whole lot more.

Like Shillong is a small town but small is truly beautiful. I have been to many 'hill stations' and they are generally over run by tourists, touts and terribly unplanned new developments.

Shillong still has that untouched feel to it. Beautiful wooden bungalows, old-style churches, wider-than-expected roads! And oh, it is SO clean everywhere.

Old timers complain that Shillong is now crowded and even experiences traffic jams. Mujhe to bhai kaafi khaali aur khula khula laga. But then my point of reference is you know which crazy city!

And the air - it is so heavenly that I wish you could bottle it and take it home! Cool and crisp but without the chill factor, because there are no icy mountains anywhere near the place.

So what did I do? Well. Since I had only 2 days to spend in the city I decided to skip the various 'peaks and points' which tourists visit and just get to know the city. I walked around. Met some interesting people. Tried out stuff!

Like red tea. Sounds intriguing but it's really only lightly brewed black tea with lemon. Tastes better than it sounds, up there :)

Things that struck me
Shillong is far more cosmopolitan than I would have thought. The area I stayed in - Laban - had a fair mix of people from different communities. The shop signage is interesting to say the least!

Another thing you notice is the long shadow of the Indian government. All over the place! From rozgar yojanas...

... to public sector banks (the Khasi language which uses English script adds an exotic touch to their names!).

And of course, at every turn, there is the Army.

There is no local bus system in Shillong (or perhaps I failed to notice it!) but there is a very efficient share a cab facility. Black and yellow Maruti Altos and 800s criss cross the city, constantly picking up passengers and dropping them off. They charge you ten bucks wonly unless your destination is out of the way or you want to 'reserve' the entire cab.

I wonder if the base model nano might eventually replace them. You really don't need an air-conditioner here!

IIM Shillong
Any batch which enters a newly set up institute - even an IIM! - generally has a tough time. Ask the folks in 'IIT Rajasthan'and so on who are operating from existing IIT campuses.

But IIM Shillong is different. The first batch of 64 students who joined last June actually have a lovely campus! Located in the Nongthymmai area of Shillong this complex earlier housed NEHU (the North Eastern Hill University, which has relocated).

You walk up a winding driveway, past fir trees gently swaying in the breeze. Green lawns and pure air - ah! this could be a holiday resort. Actually it was the summer palace of the erstwhile Mayurbhanj kings. No wonder! There's solid wood flooring and even gazebos which remind you of the 'I am sixteen' song from Sound of Music :)

However it's all quite functional - classrooms, faculty offices, dormitory, auditorium, guest house and what have you. The blackboard I was told is 'the most hi tech' across all IIMs.

And hey, they serve Maggi noodles here... for breakfast!

On the flip side, location is a constraint in attracting quality faculty. When profs visit, they like to cram in the course into as short a duration as possible which means longer hours of classes.

There are some unique aspects to IIM Shillong. Instead of a summer internship, students go on a winter internship program in January and February. That way they not only beat the weather but avoid the maara maari for good roles and profiles in the summer.

IIM Shillong hopes to differentiate itself by positioning itself as a bschool which focuses on sustainable development. That sounds great on paper... but I doubt most companies in Indiacare. Right now at least, it's all about sustaining profits!

The logo of IIM Shillong (designed by NID) is rather nice and has a local flavour. But will IIM be able to impact Shillong in any other way?

The institute is running some short duration programs for locals and soon-to-retire defence services officers. But judging from the numbers taking CAT, overall interest in getting into a management career is low in this part of India (which may not be such a bad thing :)

People are what you may call 'chilled'.

Memorable encounters

* A taxi driver with an MA in Political Science. He also runs a hatchery - this is just his spare time job. He related the story of how a friend landed in Mumbai and was robbed off everything but the shirt on his back, that very day.

"I told him it's not Shillong... things are different in India." Which begs the question: Is Shillong not part of India...??

* I visited the office of Chillibreeze, a content outsourcing company which runs a 20 strong office in Shillong. Chillibreeze is one of the two occupants of a 'Software Technology Park' set up by the government a couple of years ago.

"It is a new thing here," says Teddy, the amiable manager at Chillibreeze who shows me around. To be able to find employment of this kind - in Shillong - is rare.

I traipsed around the place shooting pictures, taking video, asking Teddy questions and none - but none of them! - looked up from their screens. Extreme dedication or phobia of strangers? A little of both methinks.

"We Khasis are shy.. we don't speak so much," explains Teddy. Ask a question, you get a concise answer - not a conversation. English speaking, hardworking staff at a reasonable price. So why can't there be more such companies in this part of the country? 24 hour electricity and net connectivity used to be an issue - the software park takes care of it now. The facility is set to expand soon - it should attract more such ventures.

(A word of advice to whoever manages the park: please also take care of the loos! They are the only dirty place I have seen in Shillong - a disgrace!).

* While most tourists hang around Police Bazaar Laitumkhrah is actually more buzzing as far as the local youth are concerned. My friend Z took me to two happening joints - 'The Little Chef' started by 'Oz', a Shillong native who trained with the likes of Oberoi hotels before returning home to floor everyone with divine desserts.

I vouch - the cheesecakes are to die for.

Then there is 'A Matter of taste' - a delightful hangout which brews much more than coffee. AMOT is a place where creative types congregate. The walls and display units showcase paintings and CDs by local artists, as well as handicrafts. On Sunday evenings there are live performances.

The show is managed by Sharon, who studied in Delhi and worked as Jet Airways cabin crew before returning home because... get this. As per Khasi tradition the youngest daughter is responsible for looking after her parents.

It looks like she is having her cake and selling it too :) But seriously, since Sharon's family owns the building and her brother is the architect I can't say if it is a hugely profitable business in its own right. But surely, it is about doing something new, making a difference.

Ah, despite my best laid plans of not getting touristy, it happened otherwise. Divine intervention extended my stay in Shillong by a day. Gauhati airport was hit by a dust storm which reduced visibility to such a low that planes did not take off for almost two days.

Not that I was complaining. I set off for Cherrapunji - the name imprinted in my brain by geography textbooks as as the 'wettest place on earth'. Alas - no more. It still rains, of course, but the quantity is said to be falling with each passing year.

In any case it has not rained for a while in these parts (abhi season nahin hai) hence there was absolutely NO water at any of the famed waterfalls in and around Cherrapunji. More brown and yellow everywhere than green!

Among other attractions, the Mawsmai cave is pretty cool - my daughter would have loved it coz you enter from one side and exit from the other after negotiating some rather spatially challenged rock formations. It was more of an adventure I am told when the cave earlier - now it's nicely lit up so you don't get spooked or need to carry a torch.

And yes, the drive is nice although I can't say if this really looks like the 'Scotland of the east'. Scotland of the West hi abhi tak dekha nahin hai.

I also spent a bit of time at Ward's lake (pretty but hardly spectacular!).

The next morning I called Gauhati to confirm flights were leaving. A part of me was hoping the answer was "no".

There's a lot more to see and do in Shillong - and in the rest of the Northeast - but at least I got a glimpse of Ri Hynniewtrep - land of the seven huts.

I will be back - sometime soon!


  1. Wow! Almost felt like I'm having a vivid walk thru' of the whole place.
    Will make a trip to Shillong soon.

    I'm guessing you'd a fruitful one :)

  2. Rashmi, hope you had a great trip to the NE.

    I read your blog post. Interesting observations about Shillong and Chillibreeze. I noticed that the link leading to Chillibreeze is incorrectly spelt as chbillibreeze. Can you correct it to

    By the way, did you know that we recently published a North East India travel guide on our website?

    Might help a potential visitor.

  3. Amazing Post Rashmi..
    It brought back memories of my own trip to Shillong 5 years ago..

    I believe even "Rock culture" in shillong is on par with any other cities in India..considering it is the only city which celebrates Bob Dylan birthday every year!!

    North east is truly mystirical yet unexplored part of india.

  4. Good observations !!
    I think since the blog sounds youth-centred, a small analysis of the youth there would have made it a better read. In bengaluru, i see no restraunt or cafe without a North-Eastern immigant at work and i have observed these at various places too.

    Why are people moving out?
    How are the people who live there?
    Culture and identity?
    Its relevance ti "India" (I say this with assertion that north-east is as much a part of India as Mumbai or Bengaluru!!)


  5. jmust say pretty lively description..loved it all along :)

    and we really wish that u come back and we will have some chill out sessions :D

    with new batch coming m sure it will b more rocking!!! n do try for golf cup we are hosting on 18th n 19th april

  6. Very descriptive narration indeed :) liked the bit on the cabbie with the MA in Political Science. That's so characteristic of the NE - dignity of labor.

    And thanks for writing about us at IIM. The most advanced "blackboard" is called the "smart board" which pegs us as the most tech savvy IIM :D

    Thanks again for visiting us. cheers


  7. It reminded me of my trip to Sikkim...pretty similar kind of people..the "Paul Jewellers" pic was a ge. ;)

  8. complete it... :)

  9. Anonymous5:57 PM

    wow! i HAVE to go there, now. :)

  10. Hi Rashmi one request : the first IIM link that redirects to wikipedia is broken I guess since the word Shillong is not complete in spelling. can you please modify the same.


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  12. so elaborative.....anyone reading will easily get motivated to visit "meghalaya" :)

    Even in "geography books" meghalaya looked so beautiful.And with so many places to visit there in noth-east , it is must visit place.

    india is so big.....discovering all of india is itself lifelong process.Good thing you made "some inroads" into that with this visit.

    hey maam, getting so less to read these days from formidable "rashmi bansal"....less blogging from your sides. (but i read a-lot of your previous blogs...big blogger u were then)

  13. Really a nice one. Felt like I myself is taking a stroll in the city. I did my graduation from Sikkim, reading this article brought back sweet memories of the place. North east India is really really beautiful. I just love it.

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  15. I have visited Shillong last year and you made my second trip via your article. Its really great to know about Shillong and the tribal residing there. You will get to know more about tribal culture by clicking Tribes of India

  16. I have seen the Scotland of West but I believe that Scotland of East would be much better

  17. Hi Rashmi,
    Having stayed in Ghty for 4 years, I got to visit Shillong a few times..your review of this place brought back the best memories of my life!!

    Ankit Nagori

  18. wowww!!! this is really amazing !!

  19. Ahh now your post made me very nostalgic...I grew up in Shillong. Used to stay in Laitumukhra...sorry for the spelling...I still remember i used to stay in a wooden cottage with lots of corn gorwing in the back yard,...i also had a dog named brownie and from the back yard of my home we had this grand view of shillong peak:O

    Shillong is very different than other N/E states...
    It has this huge western culture...specially if i talk about rock music and stuff like that....
    Shillong has this big lake where i used to feed pop corn to big fishes which were there in the lake...there was also a zoo and i was quite facinated with the black panter which was kept there...

  20. Anonymous12:30 PM

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  21. I was born and brought up in Laban, Shillong. Studied in St. Edmund's School and college. I can tell you that it was a most divine place to grow up in. Chilled lifestyle, beautiful city, great friends and a longer innocence period than in many other places. Ahh, how I love and miss the ol' place. In my growing up years there were some problems with communalism, but I suppose that's on the wane now.

    I totally recommend the lower route to a point just below Shillogn Peak. Not frequented by tourists, it is a divine drive and unspoilt nature at its very best. I'd also recommend theFish Dale in Laitumkhrah,and the old haveli nearby. Spooky but it shines with the light of some yesteryear glory.

  22. This is actually really interesting regarding your fact article here, This article is very informative.

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