North East India, Shillong

A rare sight: Seeing the Himalayas from Shillong

A couple of weeks ago, when I could barely see the bumper of the car ahead of me in the smog that engulfed Delhi and its suburbs, Shillongites back home were basking in the sights of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks 250 kilometres away.

Himalayas, as seen from Lumparing, Shillong

Himalayas, as seen from Lumparing, Shillong (Photo via Dipankar Sengupta/Facebook)

As Shillong (1966 metres) is the highest point between the eastern Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal, if you look north on a clear day from the higher reaches of the hill city on the Khasi Hills, you might get to see the looming Himalayas on the horizon (but no such luck with the Bay of Bengal 350 kilometres to the south).

You also get to see Gorichen, the highest mountain peak in Arunachal Pradesh (6858 metres)

Mount Gorichen

Mount Gorichen, the highest mountain peak in Arunachal Pradesh, as seen from Shillong (Photo via Dipankar Sengupta/Facebook)

Shillong being in Meghalaya – the abode of the clouds – a clear line of sight from there across Assam to western Arunachal Pradesh and eastern Bhutan is a rarity. It is usually in November when such a view becomes possiblebecause of the lower concentration of dust particles in the atmosphere in the period just after monsoon, with the southward moist and cold winds from the Himalayas forcing the dust particles to settle down.”

Shillong and Gorichen

The yellow marker shows Shillong and the red marker points to Gorichen. The two points are 250 kilometres away with the Brahmaputra valley of Assam separating them (Image: Google Maps)

I have vague memories of seeing the Himalayas from Shillong but do clearly recall reading about it in tourist guidebooks as one of the highlights of the Shillong View Point (a touristy place near the Laitkor Peak Air Force Station from where you can see the wide expanse of the biggest hill station in the world). Because the snowy Himalayan peaks resemble clouds at a glance, many Shillongites could have mistaken the mountains for clouds on the horizon.

Himalayas, as seen from Hotel Alpine Continental, Police Bazar, Shillong

Himalayas, as seen from Hotel Alpine Continental, Police Bazar, Shillong (Photo via Dipankar Sengupta/Facebook)

And when a colleague pointed it to me on Twitter followed by a flurry of Facebook posts by fellow Shillongites, I rushed to my laptop to do the next best thing than being in Shillong itself: Get a view of the Himalayas from Shillong on Google Earth (see image below).

Google Earth image of the Himaayas as seen from Shillong Peak

A Google Earth image showing the Himalayas on the horizon when seen from Shillong Peak – the highest point in Shillong (Image: Google Earth)

Thanks to Dipankar Sengupta for allowing me to republish here the photos he originally posted on Facebook.

[This is the third part of the series of Shillong Stories on Cutting the Chai.]

Umpling Durga Puja pandal
Bengalis, Festivals, Shillong

Durga Puja in Shillong: Live blog

You do miss home, more so during festivals. And for a Bengali like me what festival is bigger than Durga Puja (Pujo for some, but for us Sylhetis it is puja)? And there are so many like me, away from home but want to get a feel of what’s happening there.

For my fellow Shillongites am putting together this little live blog, featuring posts on how people back home are celebrating.

Pujas in Shillong might not be as grand as the ones in Kolkata or elsewhere, but then grandioseness isn’t the sole purpose. Shillong also has a long history of public Durga Puja celebrations – the first sarbojanin Durga Puja in Shillong goes back 121 years.

Note that I am not in Shillong therefore am soliciting help from fellow Shillongites for photos and other updates. If you have a Shillong Durga Puja update to share, please post in the comments (or you can also email them to me at [email protected] or share via Facebook Messenger and I will add it to this live blog.

Update: This live blog is now closed. Hope to replicate this in the coming years, with greater success, blogging it live from Shillong. A special word of thanks for Premankur Dam for his regular photo stream while pandal hopping in Shillong and also to Dipanjan Dey who has been sending my way Shillong Durga Puja images from Italy.

All Saints Cathedral, Shillong
India, Shillong, Specials

Shillong: Atop the abode of the clouds

[Continued from: 150 and rocking: Shillong – a city amidst the clouds]

Shillong, located on the leeward side of the Shillong plateau falls in a rainshadow area, but irrespective of that geographical barrier rain is a recurring feature all the year around and umbrellas a constant companion.

With unpredictable weather, the morning rarely shows the day in this hill station on the Khasi Hills. It can start to pour without a warning and within minutes the sun could be back shining. But it is the weather of the city that Shillongites and visitors swear by.

It rains a lot in Shillong and the most of it pours down in the months of April to September. In the month of July, on an average, it rains on 29 days out of 31. The average annual rainfall is 3,385 mm (Delhi, in comparison, receives 972 mm of rain on an average).

However, the rain that Shillong receives is only a fraction of that Cherrapunjee does (11,777 mm). It was the rain and Jaintia Rebellion of 1860-63 that forced the British to shift their headquarters from Cherrapunjee to Shillong.

The summers are pleasant and the winters not so cold. The maximum temperature ever recorded in the city is 30.2°C and the minimum it ever reached was -3.3°C.

It doesn’t snow in Shillong and but on some winter mornings the city wakes up to a layer of white frost covering the corrugated roofs and the grass in the lawns.

Tourists flock to the Shillong View Point near the Shillong Peak to get a spectacular panoramic view of the city below. However, heightened security following the 2016 Pathankot attack have resulted in long queues of cars packed with tourists outside the gates of the Indian Air Force Station that is on the route to the peak. Shillong is also the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command.

From a hilltop at Air Force Station Laitkor Peak, a radar stands sentinel over the city, untiringly rotating to keep a vigil across hundred of kilometres. The international border with Bangladesh is only 80 kilometres to the south.

Nirad C Chaudhuri, whose wife Amiya Chaudhuri (nee Dhar) was born in Shillong, in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, recollected the view he got from the Shillong Peak in 1932:

I was on the top of Shillong Peak, sitting on a grassy mound at 6,400 feet. And this is what I saw:

There before and below me the road to Cherapoonji and, branching off from it, the road to Mawphlang. There was the Laidyngkot bridlepath. There was also the place which I thought would be Nongkhrem, famous for its Khasi dance, and the place further to the right where I placed Mawphlang, with the beautiful gorge and rapids of the Bogapani. Turning round, I could see the bare ridge of Lum Dingei, the green and grassy Bhoi country, the dome-headed Sopet Bneng in the middle distance, and farther away the blue hills of Nongkhlaw.

[To be continued. This is the second part of the series of Shillong Stories on Cutting the Chai.]

Classic Shillong city bus
India, Shillong, Specials

150 and rocking: Shillong – a city amidst the clouds

Shillong - as seen from Shillong View Point in Laitkor

Shillong, as seen from Shillong View Point in Laitkor Peak on May 8, 2011 (Photo: Soumyadip Choudhury)

[Have been away from Shillong for 17 years now, but that is the city I still call home. For the last decade-and-a-half have been occasionally writing on Shillong or on themes that somehow connect to place and its people. There’s so much to be told. Some, which hasn’t been told before, and some, that haven’t been put together in a way I would have liked them to be. This series of Shillong Stories on Cutting the Chai is my attempt at a tribute to the city I grew up in, the city I couldn’t continue living in. This post is only the first in a long series.]

Classic Shillong city bus

Chassis and engine from a Tata or Ashok Leyland truck (some vintage ones with Mercedes and Bedford engines still exist), body locally made of wood and tin. They are fast being replaced by more-modern vehicles. The classic Shillong city buses did what they were the best at doing – ferrying passengers at the slowest possible pace. (Image: Soumyadip Choudhury)

A city atop the abode of the clouds. A city that is a town in size but a metropolis in demeanour. A city that wouldn’t have existed, if not for a rebellion and incessant rain on the other side of the hills. A city that is now 150151 years old.

A momentous anniversary that almost went unnoticed last year save for a few instant messaging forwards and an editorial in the eponymous The Shillong Times.

WhatsApp message on 150 years of Shillong

Screenshot of a WhatsApp message doing the rounds on April 28, 2016.

Shillong Times editorial on 150 years of Shillong

Editorial in The Shillong Times dated April 29, 2016.

There are cities and then there are cities that residents (present and past) wear as a badge of honour. Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is one such.

Driving to Shillong up the winding road from Guwahati the breezy four-lane National Highway 40 suddenly shrinks to a narrow two-lane as if to penalise you for basking in the beauty of the Umiam Lake for a little too long.

A flypast GIF of National Highway 40 connecting Shillong with Guwahati, skirting the Umiam Lake. (Source: Google Earth)

Driving further up the pine-lined hills, two things are most likely to welcome you to Shillong – a rain shower and a traffic jam.

Shillong traffic

Typical Shillong traffic, photographed on June 4, 2016. Slow but not chaotic. (Photo: Soumyadip Choudhury)

[Continued to: Shillong – atop the abode of the clouds]

Ball bearing cart

A fidget spinner spins in ball-bearing carts sliding down Shillong slopes

The fidget spinner is easily the toy of the year 2017. And with a 5-year-old who keeps abreast of all the latest toy trends via YouTube Kids, it becomes difficult evading any such toy craze.

While pondering about what to get for Googool (my son, aka Advay) at an airport duty free shop, noticed the spinning sensation neatly stacked over one another on the store shelf and thought might as well fulfill the boy’s long-pending toy request.

And being the father that I am, ended up playing with the new toy. In my defence, a fidget spinner is actually hard to resist.

Animated GIF of a fidget spinner

(Image: Soumyadip Choudhury)

Aimlessly spinning the ball-bearing plaything, my memory cut back to the spinning ball-bearing wheels of a shaky home-made cart rolling down a steep slope at Lower Mawprem that led leading to the graveyards – Christian on the left and Muslim to the right. And the stairs that divided them was the path to the Hindu crematorium up the hill.

Ball bearing cart

(Original photo by Paul Keller/Flickr; edited by Soumyadip Choudhury; CC BY 2.0)

Lower Mawprem in the 1980s was a middle-class locality of Shillong whose fringes are marked by two beautiful waterfalls – Bishop Falls and Beadon Falls. As Mumbai has its East-West divisions of localities depending on which side of the railway track they fall in, Shillong’s localities are often divided into Upper and Lower, based on their relative altitude. Usually a stream marks the border.

While Upper Mawprem had a large Nepali population (along with its neighbouring localities of Barapather and Jhalupara. Jhalupara is home to what is arguably the best momo in Shillong), Lower Mawprem, in which I spent the first 12 years of my life, had a mix of small-time Bengali merchants (running small businesses at Bara Bazar, the city’s biggest market), lower and middle level central government employees (like my father), a sprinkling of Nepali, Bihari, Marwari, Punjabi and Sindhi population along with a sizeable number of Khasis, the indigenous tribals.

Given its heady mix of communities and proximity to Khasi-dominated localities, Lower Mawprem has been a flashpoint of Shillong’s decades old Khasi-non-tribal communal tension and also a regular target of marauding mobs ever since the first major riot in 1979.

The mobs were Khasi, with the exception of one in 1991 when a non-tribal crowd at the funeral procession of two traders, who were stabbed to death at Bara Bazar, turned violent. The repercussion was intense and we (along with many other non-tribal families) were forced to shift to safer localities (meaning one with a bigger non-tribal population).

The new locality Laban, is the city’s oldest and was a little snotty. Kids I got to play with didn’t make ball bearing carts, perhaps because many had bicycles (a luxury in the hills). However, in the relatively bicycle-free Lower Mawprem, a ramshackle cart with three ball bearing wheels – one at the front (that was steerable with the feet) and two at the back was the ultimate thrill.

As some of the population was involved in the business of automobile repair, the supply of discarded ball bearings was steady. There was also a rudimentary brake, essentially a moveable stick held in place with a nail that could be turned to touch the ground and the friction usually bought a racing cart to halt, occasionally with the occupant(s) tumbling out.

One push and you slide in top-speed down the slope. The ball bearings making a distinctive churring noise. The steeper the incline the more exciting it was. And that road to the graveyards was at a steep angle. Climbing up back again with the cart in tow was the only part we didn’t like much.

Such carts were not only fun but also utilitarian – to transport water (another luxury in rain-drenched but water scarce city) or gas cylinders. Though the carts meant for such business purposes were designed different.

Ball bearing cart transporting gas cylinders

A ball-bearing cart to transport gas cylinders in Shillong. Photographed on November 19, 2005 by Soumyadip Choudhury)

I dreamt of someday organising a professional ball-bearing cart race on the long slope from the top of the hump of the Camel Back Road adjoining the Raj Bhawan to the Polo Grounds. Essentially the stretch of the route that we danced along on foot after alighting from the trucks carrying the Durga idols for immersion every Bijoya Dashami.

And as the horses had long stopped running at the Polo Grounds, I also wanted to race of the pony carts, that were common in the city during my growing up days.

As I fell  asleep with the fidget spinner whirring between my fingers, in a dream I saw Googool shrieking with joy as his ball-bearing cart rolled down the hill road.

Ambassador local taxi with red beacon
Advertising, Auto, History, India, Print Ads, Shillong, Vintage Indian Ads

Adieu Hindustan Ambassador. An unofficial (and animated) Google doodle

The good ol’ Amby has finally shuddered to a halt. And here’s an unofficial Google doodle (albeit a little late) honking in honour of the grand old lady of Indian roads.

So long, Hindustan Ambassador. An unofficial (and animated) Google doodle

In the hills, where I come from, the incline is steep and the load is heavy some Mark IIIs and IVs still ply – loyally.

An Ambassador taxi in Shillong

An Ambassador taxi in Shillong

The taxi drivers have another reason to prefer the Amby over the more agile and more fuel efficient East Asian or European cars – within the broad frame of an Ambassador they can squeeze in many more passengers.

It is inside the black-and-yellow taxis of Shillong where most of my Ambassador memories reside. One incident, not involving a taxi though, that I often recall is that of an Uncle’s dilapidated second-third-or-fourth hand (I’m not exactly sure and am pretty sure he isn’t either) Ambassador. Though it came with an MLK number plate (indicating a Meghalaya registration), it spent much of its remaining years in the plains of south Assam. The few hundred kilometres drive from Karimganj to Shillong was a little too much for the ageing engine.

Even though the car didn’t appear to be in the best of health, I commanded the driver and with my cousins in tow took her for a spin around the town. As we should have expected, it started to sputter before coming to a grinding halt. Right in front of the main entrance to the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly (a fine wooden structure, before it got burned down in an accident) and as luck would have it, the Assembly was in session.

The security guards frantically gestured at us to get the car out of the away. We tried (me barely into my teens and my cousins, much younger) to push hard but the sloth just wouldn’t budge. Finally, the Meghalaya Police personnel on duty didn’t have much of a choice but to abandon their positions help us clear the entrance, cursing under their breath, so that other more-privileged Ambassadors with red beacons atop could drive out unchallenged. There’s not much in the tale, but for some strange reason, it remains.

Here’s a far more visual description of the beast that once defined a big car for us (the Premier Padmini and later the Maruti 800 were the small cars):

An Ambassador in Agra

An Ambassador in Agra

Our taxi, the colour of cream, textured with dust, swelled in the anxious curves of an overdue pregnancy, the lines of its frame a throwback to a time some forty years past in the States, a car from a Dick Tracy comic book. The Ambassador was modelled after the British Motor Corporation’s Morris Oxford, originally produced in 1948, copied by Hindustan Motors in 1950. Though a series of cosmetic modifications had been made to the automobile through the five ensuing decades, even the latest model years were flamboyantly antiquated and this persistent renewal, year after year, the continued production of that same, mid-century form after the rest of the world had long since moved on to cars smaller and sleeker, more efficient, more reliable had rendered the immigrant car indigenous. Even after Japanese and American and Korean and German cars made their way into the Indian market, offering higher standards of quality and convenience, the president of India plied the subcontinent’s roads in new Ambassadors.

Shuddering as it started, shaking with every pause, the Ambassador kept its driver busy, pulling the choke or shifting gears. A rush of life, barely familiar, pressed against the car as we left the station. Through this life – bicycles and mopeds, motorcycles and ox carts, camels and vendors, men and women and children — the Ambassador asserted itself on the road in the way a rogue elephant might lord over a stretch of grassland, loudly, its horn blaring, its bulk demanding a path and accommodation.

(Excerpt from Sameer Parekh’s 2002 novel – Stealing the Ambassador)

Back in 1990s, the brave heart might have gone off with his bride on a train but many dulhanias went to their sasural in a decked up Ambassador as this 1998 advertisement beautifully captures (The yellow mustard fields never fail to remind us of the Shahrukh Khan-Kajol super-duper hit).

An finally, an oxymoron static edition of the animated GIF above:

Ambassador local taxi with red beacon

History, India, Newspapers, North East India, Shillong

1962: Newspaper front page from 50 years ago when China attacked India

It’s been 50 years since the ‘Himalayan Blunder’ of 1962 when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unexpectedly rampaged into Indian territory and reached the outskirts of Tezpur in Assam before making an unexpected retreat.

The war was fought much before I was born, but being born into North East India, I heard a lot of stories and sometimes as a kid imagined where would I be and what would I be doing if the Chinese had captured the entire North East, including Shillong, my home town. I, who was struggling with my Hindi writing, in my imagination, was dreading the idea of mastering the complex Chinese script.

50 years later, the Chinese have indeed captured India (and much of the world). It is not PLA’s doing, but that of cheap labour and big factories. The laptop I am typing this post on is made in China and so is so much of what is in my home and also at work.

This reminds me of a joke that my brother shared with me, when my son Googool (Advay) was born:

A boy goes to meet his new born sister at the hospital. On seeing the sleeping infant he starts looking for something, lifting her sleeves, closely analysing her feet and when he tries to turn the baby over, his father interrupts and asks, “What are you looking for?” “A tag, to check if the baby is also made in China,” the boy replies.

The front page headlines in The Sunday Standard dated October 21, 1962, announcing the other kind of Chinese invasion that happened half-a-century ago.

Assembly House, Shillong (1948)
History, India, North East India, Outdoor Ads, People, Photos, Politics, Shillong

Vintage photographs of Shillong from 1948 (also Vallabhbhai Patel calling people of Assam lazy)

64 years later, Shillong is virtually unrecognisable. I could only recognise the Governor House on Bivar Road, then known as Government House, the characteristic Ward’s Lake and the Assembly House (destroyed in a fire on January 9, 2001).

These photographs from Government of India’s Photo Division were taken when Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was on a visit to the city in January 1948, as a part of his effort towards the political integration of independent India. Shillong was then the capital of Assam.

Old images of a city and childhood pics. They evoke similar feelings. Along with a longing for a time long gone, there is also the excitement of identification. Often it turns out to be a game for friends to play together.

I invite my fellow Shillongites to join me in this game and help identify all the places in these photos and correct any identification errors on my part. I could at best make some calculated guesses (the church in images 13, 16 and 17 is probably in Mawkhar, but I’m not sure).

Update (October 16, 2012): Ramesh Bawri, an eminent Shillongite, has provided valuable information to accompany the photographs. I’ve added them to the photographs.

Text of the speech that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, made on January 2, 1948 at a public meeting in Shillong.

The straight talking Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of India did not shy away from calling the people from Assam lazy. Assam is also referred to as the Land of Lahe Lahe (‘Lahe lahe’ in Assamese means ‘slowly slowly’).

I desired to see for myself after 22 years the progress which Assam had made during this period. More particularly I wanted to see how Assam had been affected by recent events including the separation of a part of Sylhet. India has had to shoulder a great burden; this has involved suffering and privation. It has also filled all of us with deep sorrow. During the struggle for freedom although we had borne tremendous suffering we had never flinched or grieved because the very struggle contained zest and keenness which conquered haif-heartedness and sorrow.

We thus won Freedom but if we had not suddenly turned mad we would have started reaping its fruit and enhancing our prestige and reputation in the eyes of the world. Instead of appreciating the value of what we had achieved, we behaved worse than animals. It was in no light-hearted manner that we agreed to partition. This price was necessary to gain freedom and to live in freedom.

However, there is no time now for grieving over what has happened. We must now forget what we have suffered. We must remember that we have still our brethren across the frontier whom we have to evacuate and settle in this country. We hope Pakistan will not give us any trouble; instead it will assist us in that task so that we may accomplish it peacefully and successfully in order that each of us may settle down to the vital task of reconstruction which awaits us. Thereafter there would be no bone of contention.

In this connection, I appreciate that Kashmir and Hyderabad are still the two problems which remain outstanding. Though contrary to what Pakistan contends, Junagadh has ceased to be a problem. Of these two problems, Hyderabad, I am certain, would itself realise the path of wisdom and sanity. But if it did not, the problem would not remain confined to Hyderabad alone, but would have wide repercussions.

There are four and a half crores of Muslims in the rest of India who are bound to be affected if Hyderabad releases what will in effect be a cloud of poisoned atmosphere. As regards Kashmir, I am definite that the problem will settle itself sooner then many expected but if it persists, while it may damage India to some extent it will finish Pakistan…

India intends to wish Pakistan well. All the problems incidental to partition have been amicably settled. Surely, that is not like enemies but like mutual well-wishers. If only the problem of evacuation and exchange of population had been settled successfully and satisfactorily, relations between India and Pakistan would have been much better…

Words cannot describe the horror of sufferings which the Punjabis have suffered. The rehabilitation of refugees is a very difficult task and in that task I invite the co-operation of every citizen of every province. There is no room here for provincial parochialism or for inter-provincial jealousies. If such tendencies develop, it would mean the ruin of India. Instead there must be rivalries in advancement and prosperity. I, therefore, thank the people of Shillong for the purse of Rs 10,000 which has been presented for the relief of the refugees. What matters so much is not the contribution but the spirit behind it…

I recall how only six months ago there was a general talk of Rajastan which if it had materialised would have meant that the whole body politic of India would have been covered with ulcers. Instead we have achieved integration and unity which have promised immense potentialities for glory and greatness. It is now, for all of you either to mend or mar your future. If you want to secure your future you could do so only by unity in which lies strength. I am happy that the people of Assam have forgotten and forgiven the efforts which the Muslim population made for the achievement of Pakistan. I hope that this good turn will be taken up and you will achieve unity. This obviously means that if there is a struggle with Pakistan, Muslims in India must stand by their country. They must tell Pakistan, “You have got what you wanted. For heaven’s sake let us now live in peace.”

I have a special word for the young men whom I see around me. I know that many of you wished to sponsor Socialism but you must realise that unity should come first. It is no use merely crying. “We are Socialists”. You cannot comprehend Socialism by reading text-books or listening to learned speeches. You must first understand what it means in practice and how the ground has to be prepared for it. You must realize how long England took to become socialistic, and America does not even talk of it now. They say I am a friend of the rulers and the capitalists; but I am a friend of the Harijans, the poor and the tribes. I am also a friend of the Socialists. Unlike many who indulge in the parrot cry of Socialism, I have no property of my own. Before you talk of Socialism, you must ask yourself how much wealth you have created by your own labour. If you have created nothing the parrot would have flown and the cage would be empty.

By experience, I am convinced that what is necessary is for us to learn how to produce wealth and then to produce and thereafter to think what to do with it. What the province wants most is not this parrot cry of Socialism but unity and strength. Yours is a land for gods to live in. Its air, its natural scenery, its pure atmosphere, its sweet water would attract even gods if our hearts were pure, but the population was lazy and it did not know how to make the best of resources. You must first, therefore, get rid of your enemy which is laziness. There is so much to be done.

If you produce your own cloth, your own food and abstain from drinks you can change the entire rural atmosphere. You have then to harness your rivers. You have established a High Court and a University. You must concentrate on this useful and constructive work and not lose yourselves in theoretical disputes about Socialism. Some people feel that they can settle all problems by wielding the big stick and by reciting ad nauseam the elementary ideas about Socialism. They forget that it is not coercion or hatred but affection and regard which would prove most effective. That is the divine way of doing things. You have also to look after the border of which you are the gate-keepers. It is a big responsibility for it involves dealing with the enemies and welcoming friends.

The natural sceneries are an asset to your province. There may not be the loftincess of the buildings in Calcutta. There may not be the wealth of the cities but they have beauty and naturalness. Although I am going to Calcutta, a bigger place and would stay in a bigger Government House, I would miss the simplicity and natural life that I have come across in Shillong. I am sure I shall not see anything like it.

I ask you to make full use of your Prime Minister, a self-sacrificing man of ability and truly competent; and your Governor who has been specially selected for you, and who is working for you. His experience of men and affairs is unrivalled.

I wish you create in Assam a model for the rest of India. I hope during the coming few years, I can see something of what you accomplish to this end. In your achievements I shall find the noblest gesture that could ever be the luck of any individual to receive.

The Prime Minister is of course Jawaharlal Nehru and the Governor, Patel referred to in his speech was Ronald Francis Lodge, a retired Indian Civil Service officer who was also the Chief Justice of the High Court of Assam. Lodge served as the Governor for only a month and a half from December 30, 1948 to February 15, 1949.

Akshaye Khanna, Saif Ali Khan and Aamir Khan in a still from Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
Bollywood, Movies, North East India, Shillong

16 years since that summer of 2001: What ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ meant to me

(Dil Chahta Hai was released on August 10, 2001. This post was first published in 2011 and I still feel the same about the movie in 2017)

Summer of 2001. Bhopal. Bharat Talkies. Dil Chahta Hai.

A decade later the experience is still as fresh. On that overcast afternoon, I stepped out of the theatre with a heady head. I had just witnessed something phenomenal. The last time I underwent something similar after a Bollywood movie was when I watched Satya, but that was a different high. Asked my brother to go to the hotel (we were in Bhopal for my admission to a university there) and logged in to the nearest cyber cafe to send across an excited email to all my friends. The subject line read “Don’t miss Dil Chahta Hai. It’s great.”

Till the year 2001, I had lived my entire middle-class life in the small hill city of Shillong and ostensibly had nothing in common with the three well-to-do protagonists from South Mumbai. Yet, there was a connection. The zeal, the fun and frailties of friendship, the pangs of love. Things that are not bound by geography or economic strata. We saw ourselves and our friends in the characters. This film was us.

Akshaye Khanna, Saif Ali Khan and Aamir Khan in a still from Dil Chahta Hai (2001)

Akshaye Khanna, Saif Ali Khan and Aamir Khan in a still from Dil Chahta Hai (2001)

Dil Chahta Hai is not escapist. It is not Yash Chopra. It is not Karan Johar. It is not (the original) Ram Gopal Varma. It is Farhan Akhtar, who has a flair of mixing the bitter and the sweet in a way that his films leave a lingering taste. Pity that he neglects his strengths and instead prefers to pain me with his acting (and singing).

Friends have always believed, and Bollywood further tried to establish it, that friends remain together. Forever. Dil Chahta Hai showed that friendship is not yeh dosti hum nahi todenge, but something that is fragile but also need not be handled with great care.

The film didn’t have the pretensions changing lives. It, in a way showed us our lives, in a different tinge. It made us relish those little moments that we didn’t think had a place of pride in our memories.

Without the burden of expectations and experience this is what maybe only a first time director can deliver. Farhan’s later directorial ventures Lakshya and Don while being good films were not Dil Chahta Hai.

While some reviews initially trashed the soundtrack, it was a film that established the Shankar-Ehsan-Loy trio as one of Bollywood’s music powerhouses. It brought to us a new sound. Something we had, till then, believed only AR Rahman could do. Each song had a different appeal and one listener’s favourite was different from the other. Amongst us friends, at the university, we had one song dedicated to each. Tanhayee was my number (for some specific reasons).

Also not all reviews were very kind to the film. Many branded it as movie meant only for the English-educated urban audiences and left it at that. But then the same reviewers while reviewing later films, lauded Dil Chahta Hai in retrospect. Dil Chahta Hai is wine.

I have always loved films and as a child when someone asked me the question that every child is subjected to, throughout their entire growing up years, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “A movie director,” was my cocksure answer to the bedaffled grownups expecting a familiar sounding doctor or an engineer. And film stars I occasionally aped. I tucked in my pullover inside my trousers for the Salman Khan look, kept my hair long at the back and short on the front because Sanjay Dutt did and (I shouldn’t be revealing this, but what the heck) once had a hairstyle similar to Rahul Roy’s (Laugh. But don’t forget that Aashiqui was a big enough hit for impressionable kids to get carried way). But never has a fad become my style, till Dil Chahta Hai. The soul patch, inspired by Aamir Khan’s look in the film, has been a constant feature on my face for the last decade-and-a-half (also because my then-girlfriend-and-now-wife believes that I makes me look a bit ‘mature’. I still carry the soul patch, even though the grey in my hair adds more than enough ‘maturity’ to my looks).

When my future sister-in-law asked what gift I wanted, I asked for a Dil Chahta Hai VCD, then ripped the audio track out of the movie to make my own Dil Chahta Hai music album with dialogue in it. If Sholay can have it, why not Dil Chahta Hai? When friends come to stay over and browse through my movie collection they invariably pull out Dil Chahta Hai for a ‘friendly’ watch.

None of my friends owned a swanky Mercedes convertible (none still do), so we had to be content with a ramshackle Maruti Omni. As the van drove along the long and winding Meghalaya roads I felt the rain drops on my feet sticking out of the rear window and Shankar Mahadevan’s voice filled the air that smelt of pine. We had created our own Goa in a corner of the North East.

The first year of the millennium was a momentous year for me. It was then when I first stepped out, in search of a future, from the cosy confines of the wet and moss covered hills into the heat and grime of the Hindi heartland. It was also the year when one of my all time favourite Bollywood films released.

I didn’t become a filmmaker. I still aspire to be. A kind that can make films that can leave an indelible impression as Dil Chahta Hai did.

Cutting the CHai - Default featured image
Advertising, Print Ads, Shillong, Technology, Vintage Indian Ads

How to speak on the telephone, the right way

It was an altogether different age, when having a telephone at home was a status symbol. And the waiting list for a new phone connection was sometimes years long. It was also the time when there was no pulse for local calls (at least in Shillong), it didn’t matter how long the call was, you would be charged for only one call (80 paise, if I remember right was the unit charge during my school days). Then things changed with the advent of Internet through dial-up connections. A light lit above some babu’s head in the Department of Telecommunications and the pulse was changed to three minutes.

The advertisement below is from even an earlier era, when telephones fell under the purview of the the Posts and Telegraphs Department (P&T), which was, in January 1985, split into two different departments, Department of Posts and Department of Telecommunications. MTNL happened a little later and BSNL to a decade and a half. In P&T times, telephone connections were few and far between and without exposure to telephones most Indians didn’t know how to use one (the rotary dial flummoxed me as a kid) This necessitated that the department release instructional ads on how to best use the device.

Speaking on the telephone, the right way. Speak close to the transmitter. The nearer the lips, the clearer the speech.

Speaking on the telephone, the right way. Speak close to the transmitter. The nearer the lips, the clearer the speech.

Didn’t happen to notice similar ads when mobile phones first made an appearance.

Cutting the CHai - Default featured image
Bengalis, Books, Shillong

The Bengalis of Shillong

Excerpt from the book Shillonger Bangali by Shyamaldas Bhattacharyya:

Shillong, ruled by the British for 112 years had a large population of Bengalis till 1972 when the state of Meghalaya was created. The present city was constructed only around one existing village in the vicinity then, Laban, in the 1860s. This city, as known as ‘Scotland of the East’ was the citadel of expanse of the British rule in the North East.

The first Bengali, as recorded, who came to Shillong was the successful trader Golam Haider, who was the supplier to the Raj in Cherrapunji, the district head quarters. he established his ‘Golam Haider and Sons,’ the only departmental store in the centrally located Police Bazar (1878) is also proof of the Bengalis as early settlers in this town.

Thus the author Shyamaldas Bhattacharyya, a former principal of Nongtalang College of Shillong, drives us through the 120 year history of the Bengalis in this unique city. This is a voluminous book (almost 300 crown size pages) written by one who has lived in the deep of the changing socio-economic situation of the Bengalis of this hill state. It’s not a tiring reading because it contains not-so-detailed account of the societal documentation.

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