Atop a hill town, a frown
Shillong has come to be turmoil-riddled in unprecedented ways
The green, rolling hills, serene lakes and pine-scented mist were so reminiscent of home that the British referred to picturesque Shillong as the Scotland of the East. Centuries later, when it acquired statehood in 1972, the erstwhile Khasi-Jaintia hills and Garo hills districts of Assam were aptly named Meghalaya, the abode of clouds.
The state that draws tourists in hordes is indeed captivatingly beautiful: the sun shimmers on its pristine rivers and forests, and by night, a myriad celestial lights bathe the valleys. The clouds descend through the stately pines and music plays in the distance, radiating a blessing that can only belong in an oasis of peace.
The advent of June, however, shattered this idyll. Shillong has been under curfew since June 1, with the army staging flag marches, and residents defying curfew to hurl stones at police and adversaries in a manner reminiscent of Kashmir.
After a recent stay in "normal" Shillong, where movement was unrestricted and one felt safe to venture out onto the streets even by night, the news of curfew triggered a sense of déjà vu. I recalled our entry into this curfew-ridden city in 1992. Stranded in Guwahati by the indefinite curfew in Shillong, our truck driver unceremoniously dumped our belongings and left.
When we finally ventured into Meghalaya during the brief relaxation in curfew after three days, the matador van chugged up quite reluctantly, the sense of dread palpable. The hostile glances en route made us shudder. The city and the concept of curfew were both alien to us and had we not been young and adventurous, the journey would have been a non-starter.
We reached our wooden cottage at Laban and unloaded our belongings before scurrying out to buy essential commodities. Over the next few weeks, this was our reality. Our lives were measured by announcements. "Curfew will be relaxed from 9am..." resonated a voice speaking in Khasi and English, emanating from jeeps moving along lanes.
Today, little has changed. The bilingual announcements over microphone, on All India Radio and print media tell people when they can venture out. As soon as curfew is relaxed, activity resumes. As a rookie, non-tribal journalist, these impressions had been the mainstay of my reports.
There are differences, however, between then and now. First, Internet services were suspended this month to prevent rumour-mongering. We didn't have Internet back then. Second, this time residents defied curfew and threw stones at security personnel. Earlier, violence was restricted to stray incidents, like murders in the forests of the upper reaches. Third, the army held flag marches, including in the neighbourhood we lived in, which was not the case earlier.
Night curfew remains in the city but this time, it was the 14 tribal-dominated localities that witnessed stringent security. Director-general of police Swaraj Bir Singh was incidentally the SP when we'd first landed there and had addressed my first press conference. "The home ministry sanctioned four additional CRPF and two ITBP companies. The state's SF10 commandos, a CRPF company and the district forces are monitoring the situation," he said, the young IPS officer I'd first met now a Sahitya Akademi awardee.
Life regulated by curfew had its unique pattern. We dashed out to buy provisions the moment curfew was relaxed. Our home was never without essential commodities, not knowing when indefinite curfew would be clamped, or, being a hill station, visitors/guests would arrive and perhaps get stranded.
Such was the sense of antagonism towards non-tribals (evident from appearance and attire) that even the toddler next door would identify me as a dkhar (outsider). Our feisty landlady, Winnie Kharkongor, born of a British father and Khasi mother, who lived in the adjoining cottage, would drop by every evening to check if I was alone. Universally loved and called Mei (mother), she would answer the door if couriers dropped by with press releases for me. "Give it to me, she is my daughter," I would hear her say. So commanding was the octogenarian's tone that the Khasi delivery boys never dared argue with her, though my name was a dead giveaway in matrilineal Meghalaya!
Winnie Kharkongor is no more. The magnanimity she embodied was the spirit of Shillong of her time. If only one had a magic wand to bring those days back.