Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Guwahati & Shillong Jul Aug 2010

I was waiting for the lady behind the counter at the coffee shop to finish counting her money and close her previous transaction, but the man behind me seemed to be in a hurry. “Hello—are you waiting to order?”. “Yes”, I say. “Well, you should go ahead and place the order, she is just counting her money—she can hear you”. He was an alpha male type, in a black suit and in a hurry. As I waited to pick up my coffee he proceeded to order a coupled of bottles of Kingfisher Blue and left. I was at the brand new, cavernous, Delhi International airport on the third day past its inauguration, waiting for the last leg of my Air India flight to Kolkata. The airport expansion, timed for the Commonwealth Games, felt unusually sparse for an Indian airport. Airport officials seemed ill prepared for this supersized terminal. Tempers flared. A tourist walks away in a huff yelling at the airline staff, calling them idiots. I am shocked and appalled at the language, but the staff takes the abuse with restraint. It is as if, softened by the heat and pelleted by the dust, we are witnessing the time honored ritual melt-down of the foreign tourist. The airport personnel are generally helpful but often refuse to acknowledge ignorance. I ask around for an ATM machine and I am given six different responses that rout me above the escalator, below the escalator and beyond the escalator. It turns out that the ATMs have not yet been installed.

We reach Kolkata late at night and pass through customs quickly. The night air is warm and sticky and it looks like the rains have flattened the dust. In a sign of the changing times there are no pestering touts. We drive through the empty streets of the suburb of Salt Lake. Families of stray dogs have bedded down in the middle of the street, and the nightwatchman is out on his rounds, banging his baton on the pavement. It is a lonesome sight in this mega-metropolis: bare streets with dark parked cars, a mound of garbage waiting for pickup, warm yellow light filtering out through houses shuttered up for the night, the bustle evaporated out of its bedded down physical shell.

Kolkata owns some excellent old bookstores replete with the ambiance requisite for a traditional old thing like a book, whose format has changed little in over 400 years. I like the feeling of quiet, of mustiness, of volumes piled up in varnished dark bookcases and a manager you can talk to about books. The morning after our arrival, we seek out the venerable Oxford Bookstore on Park Street. In a sign of acceptance of the times, they too will sell you coffees and DVDs, but in addition the place holds a large collection of books in English by Indian authors: from the ones that Naipaul derisively refers to as writing about Chachajis and Mamiji, to the instant fiction by an IITian (this seems to be a fashion trend), to books written by an earlier generation of Indian writers. I am here to look for “My God Died Young”, published in the late sixties by Sasthi Brata. Critically applauded for its honesty, enthusiastically embraced by teenagers for its titillating passages, and viewed with mild amusement in later years for a dated writing style that sought its cues from the English, I wished to revisit the book after decades.

From Kolkata we travel to Guwahati, where I am back after only three months. One evening we drive out of the city, cross the magnificent Brahmaputra river and visit an orchid garden set on a flat of red earth deep in the hills. It is a drive on a narrow two lane road through villages with dense jungles set behind them, much like the countryside that I used to see more frequently as a child. Our host is a young man from the Garo tribe, and he built the nursery in a cost shared project with the state formed to encourage local industry. Inside the huge, climate controlled greenhouse are rows and rows of orchids, set in based packed out of the husks of coconuts, and beneath an elaborate sprinkler system that controls the humidity. He is a successful entrepreneur, his flowers are shipped across the country, and he soon plans to diversify into carnations. There is a little camp built next to the nursery with a small living quarters and a traditional Chang Bungalow, or platform house built of wood on stilts, set at the edge of the plateau overlooking a small gorge and ringed by hilly jungle. It is a beautiful site. We sit there awaiting dusk as they tell us stories of the leopards that come near camp at night to drink water in the brook some fifty meters below, their roars shaking the bungalow. For our hosts, this is the regular course of life. They accept this without fear, even indifference, and the only remedial action taken has been to tether their cows away from the brook for the night. The small residence is neatly equipped with satellite, broadband access, and a flat screen TV. The stories of jungles past when my grandfather was a hunter in these Assam wilds, or the books of Jim Corbett, bring to mind the steely minimalism of the starched, khaki clad hunter of the 1930s with his rifle and his first aid packet of potash and tincture of iodine, are now replaced with this image of the wilderness, where you scroll the web while the leopard roars in the valley below. Our host is a Baptist Christian, as are most of the hill tribes here, converted at the turn of the last century by American and British missionaries. At that time, missionaries formed the fourth leg of the community of the European expatriates, in addition to the administratiors, the box-wallahs (term applied to European businessmen), and the armymen. Their mission and their unique sense of self instilled in them a fearlessness that they carried with them “up-country” where they often perished with infections and ailments foreign to their bodies.

We drive back after dark, through a backdrop of black jungle and paddy fields, passing small villages with threadbare shops, selling essentials, tobacco, and liter sized bottles of gasoline for two wheeled motorists. We pass cow-herds returning from the fields with water buffaloes and cows, cowbells tinkering, moving unchallenged down almost the entire width of the road, like a pack of cyclists in Westchester County. We pass places of worship—Namghars for the Hindus, and Churches for the Christians. Structurally the buildings are similar--Assam type timber framed constructions set back about 20 meters from the road with the churches distinguished by a large cross in the front yard.

I have a meeting with the Guwahati press club the next morning where I speak to them about nanotechnology and solar energy. It is a gathering of young men and women, journalists in the local newspapers. Except for one person, they are all uniformly liberal arts educated, with little involvement in science --yet they listen with rapt attention and ask questions that would not be out of place at a conference in Washington or Delhi.

One morning we hire a small Tata Indigo and drive 100 km up the hills from Guwahati to Shillong, a harrowing three hour journey on a two lane road. The humid heat of the valley turns to temperate up in the hills and the roads and coniferous forests remind us of Westchester. Twenty kms from Shillong we stop by to view Umiam Lake, an enormous artificial lake that was the result of a dam and a hydroelectric project commissioned in the 1960’s by Nehru. Viewed high up from the road above, its calm waters, turquoise in patches, glisten in isolation –largely unchanged from my last visit 30 years ago. The same cannot be said of Shillong, a one time elegant hill-station full of pine forests, wood framed houses with flooring of hard pine (similar, in hardness, to what is called Southern Yellow Pine in the States), gardens and flower nurseries. Today, it has one of the region’s ugliest infrastructures grafted onto this backdrop. As the larger cities like Kolkata have begun streamlining their transportation and civic facilities, the mid-sized cities remain unchecked with their congested roads, open drains , and malignant concrete constructions.

Culturally, Shillong feels like no other part of the country. We wait in a traffic jam for a length of time, but there is no honking. Roadside butcher shops sell pork meat and beef. Dressing habits are more westernized than any other part of India and the indigenous Khasi population of the state is almost completely Christian, speaking a language that has common origins with Vietnamese and Cambodian. Late at night we take a drive through the city and without the traffic, there is a magical transformation. It is dewey and misty, rain is never too far away, we drive fast through deserted streets with embankments that curve and climb next to houses built into the hills—it feels like the Shillong of old, age sheds and slithers off the tail of the vehicle, and both car and occupant—with a stab at the accelerator-- reverie to decades back when this was still a sparse, wooded hill station with suburbs as diversely named as Bishnupur and Lachamiere, and that left you at a loss for adjectives. We stay at the century old Pinewood Hotel, a graceful ageing hotel with three slightly grime encrusted stars in a suburb called the European Ward. The English preferred Shillong because of its weather, calling it their “Scotland of the East” (the comparison is quite appropriate). They came here by the droves from the hot plains in summer, living out their Victorian pretences, with a hierarchy of rank and precedence that was intensified by the distance to home, a lifestyle amplified beyond their stations by a retinue of native attendants, and little work outside of what could be achieved in half a day. The hotel is a single storey Assam style construction with timber framing that holds together walls made of a bamboo reed composite. It reflects its English roots with wooden floors made of wide plank pine, wainscoted walls, working fireplaces, pegged mortise and tenon cabinetry, and foxgloves and hostas planted in the gardens outside.

English ambiance aside, the food to be sought at Pinewood should be Indian. We lunched on fresh warm chapattis, dal fry, a sabzi (a dry vegetable curry) and kebabs that were hot off the grill. I have no idea why Indian restaurants in India do a better job in offering a superior immediacy of taste that the ones in the US. If you are ever eating at Pinewood, however, feel free to ask for the bill at the same time that you place the order. For, in a tip of the hat to colonial English bureaucracy, followed by years of Indian clerkdom, this government run hotel has made a fine art of generating receipts and bills that involves various people checking and making entries, and culminating with the waiter bringing you a sheaf of documents, each bill identifying a different entrée, in the same time that it would take to cook a chicken.

A few days later we fly back to Kolkata on an airline that, about 5 years ago made a splashy entry into the business with a glamour in the skies type of theme. As we wait for the flight to take off, a breathy, purring, “come hither” female voice instructs us on emergency procedures in Hindi—someone unfamiliar with the language would no doubt have confused this with soft porn. I wonder if this same company might benefit from entering the call center business. We sit there, a motley crew of locals, tourists, and folks from the north east hills, seat belts fastened in a nearly empty turboprop plane, the voice now mixed in with the whine of the revving engines, a memorable education in oxygen mask usage behind us, and the promise of a hot vegetarian meal ahead.

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