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!
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'.
* 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!