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A Memoir of Four Years in Shillong

A Memoir of Four Years in Shillong

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In Arden

As we celebrate the 50 years of statehood of Meghalaya, we present this excerpt taken from “In Arden: A Memoir of Four Years in Shillong, 1974-1978″ written by Brijraj Singh an English professor of NEHU (North-Eastern Hill University) during that period. The four years he spent with his wife in Meghalaya, introduced them to the unique features of the country side and in the process they made many friends. They were also a witness to the fast changing traditional tribal cultures. Read this memoirs expressing his discoveries, experiences and emotions.

When you reach Nongpoh a sign informs you that the sale of venison is an offense under the law. The intention is obviously to preserve the deer population of Bhoi. I used to be impressed by this sign till I was once served some excellent venison at a friend’s house. “Where did you get it from?” I asked.

“From Nongpoh, of course, “he replied. “That’s where you get the best and cheapest venison.”

As you drive up to Nongpoh, you notice hundreds of little pineapple plantations on both sides of the road, and unless you have lived with pineapples all your life your most lasting memories of Nongpoh are likely to be of mounds of pineapples and other fruit like bananas, oranges and plums for sale. Of these, only pineapples are locally produced. The oranges come from Dawki on the Bangladesh border, the bananas from Cherrapunji, and the plums from there and from Shillong. The pineapples that you get in July, August and September are cheap, juicy and sweet; those that you get in the winter less so. The other fruit are all delicious but expensive: bananas, for instance, may cost anything between five and eight rupees a dozen. Prices notwithstanding, Nongpoh is the place for fruit, and every bus, car, taxi and jeep that stops here disgorges people who make a beeline for the fruit shops. Fruit from here is eaten in many cities of the country, and if some evening at Palam or Santa Cruz airport you see passengers carrying a couple of pineapples, you can be certain that they were bought earlier that day in Nongpoh.

Author Brijraj Singh with his wife Frances Singh
Author Brijraj Singh with his wife Frances Singh

You know, when you reach Nongpoh, that you are in a very different part of India from the fact that all the shopkeepers are women. Some may be Nepali or Cachari, but most are Khasis. Our first view of them was disappointing. All had red mouths from too much paan and koi, which is the raw form of betel nut and slightly intoxicating. Their teeth, when they smiled, appeared to be worn down to the gums. They were dressed alike in some sort of a shapeless dress or long skirt, and with a piece of check cloth pinned or tied over one shoulder. The checks were small and could be green on white, or blue on white, or red on white. But everyone wore some kind of check in the way I have described. They seemed to be pleasant but shrewd businesswomen. You could bargain with them and enjoy the experience because of the ready smile they produced and their air of good humor, but you would be a very lucky person if you succeeded in bringing the price down.

I could have spent hours in Nongpoh, but the taxi driver was keen to get on, and Frances, too, was feeling a bit unwell. So we had an omelette each, and some fruit, and pushed on. The drive continued much as before, but about ten miles short of Shillong we were suddenly presented with a vision for which no one had prepared us. As the road crested a small hill, we looked down, and there, stretched out for miles before us, was a sheet of grey, green and blue water. The lake, made by damming a river, is appropriately called Barapani. But the Khasis have an even more appropriate name for the river that has been dammed: Umiam, or the river of sorrow. For at certain times it is given to flash floods, and many a young man fishing in it has been carried away in its turbulent water, to be fished out a week later from the lake by sorrowful relatives.

The drive along Barapani is the highlight of the journey. As the road wound, we got views from different angles of the shimmering surface of the lake, now fully exposed, now glimpsed between the branches of trees. And suddenly we realized that those trees weren’t the ones we had seen from Guwahati until now, but that we were driving through pine forests.

The Khasi pine—yes, that’s the technical term; the Latin is pinus Khasiana—is the Cinderella of pines that has not found a good fairy who will redeem her. In comparison to the pine trees of north Indian hill stations it seems stunted. It does not tap well, yielding only small quantities of resin. Nor does it make good furniture. Its distinction is that its needles point upwards. This fact does not make it more attractive, though it might make it a botanical curiosity. I suppose the great thing about the Khasi pine is that it just is, and however inferior it may be as pine, at least it is pine. The Khasis love it.

We were still contemplating pines when we were in Shillong. The entry into Shillong from Guwahati is anticlimactic. I remember a late evening a couple of years later. We were driving up to Kohima in Nagaland from the railhead in Dimapur. We turned a corner, and there, in front of us, was a whole ridge dotted with electric lights, while low over it hung, as out of nothing and in a very dramatic fashion, the full moon. People who go to Kohima always talk about their first view of the city. Shillong can appear spectacular too if you approach it from the south, from Jowai or Cherrapunji. But for the traveler who has chosen to come via Guwahati, Shillong presents a sullen appearance—or non appearance. You pass a petrol pump, then there are a few nondescript houses, then a few more shacks and houses, and then you are there in the very heart of Bara Bazar. It can be disappointing.

We had had a room booked for us in the Legislative Assembly Hostel and got there in pouring rain. Rain, in fact, is the chief of my memories of our early days in Shillong. We announced ourselves to the caretaker and were shown into a large-ish room, rather dark and very damp. We unloaded our belongings from the taxi, paid off the driver, and shut the door. So here we were at last. Our experiences along the way had left us rather tentative and confused about everything. Frances was very tired, and we did not know what the future would bring. But at least we had arrived in Shillong.

The first thing to do was to unpack Cat. He had awakened some hours ago from his drugged sleep, but finding the world just a bit too full of movement right then, had wisely decided to keep his thoughts to himself for the time being. But now, as soon as he was released from two and a half days of drugged imprisonment, he bounded out and, before we could stop him, jumped out of the window. I followed after him, using the somewhat more dignified, if roundabout, method of going through the door and down two corridors into the lawn outside. No Cat.

Frances felt heartbroken. “We didn’t bring Cat all the way from Delhi just to lose him as soon as we had arrived here!” she kept saying. She refused dinner and went to bed in tears. There wasn’t much I could do to console her, and the truth is that I felt pretty miserable myself. So I, too, got in between the damp sheets, and, so tired was I, fell off to sleep immediately.

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About three hours later I was awakened by a peculiar sensation. Something was trying to burrow itself beneath my chin and into the blankets. I opened my eyes, only to find two dimly-seen green things that looked like eyes glittering in the dark. What strange creature could this be? Horrified, I leapt out and turned on the light. There was Cat. He had explored the neighborhood, found it a bit wet outside, and come home through the open window. Unused to the cold, he had decided upon a course of action he had thought rather silly in Delhi, and was now trying to crawl into bed with me.

With Cat back, I knew that Shillong would be an acceptable home for us.

Excerpt taen from Chapter 1 of “In Arden: A Memoir of Four Years in Shillong, 1974-1978” by Brijraj Singh, with an Introduction by Anjum Hasan, a Foreword by Easterine Kire, and Afterword by Paul Pimomo.  Included here by permission.

Published by Pippa Rann Books & Media, U.K., distributed by Penguin Random House India, and available on


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