In January 2022, I made it a goal to work from the mountains at some point. Another goal was to finish writing my second book.
Come mid February and I was sitting on zero ideas for my book. I was frustrated. Not a single word since January.
No inspiration, no ideas. Classical case of writer’s block!
That’s when the two goals combined – what if I worked from Shillong (the mountains) and wrote (the book)? On an absolute whim, I Googled Shillong flights (on incognito mode – a hack I had learnt earlier that year for cheaper flights). Apparently now there’s an airport in Shillong, but the flights were super expensive. However, the flight from my city (Indore) to Guwahati (Assam) was quite cheap. I got it for Rs 5,200/- including taxes. Phew!
The last few days of March were pure torture. I just couldn’t stand the wait. Shillong is one of my most favorite cities in the world since 2016 – the first time that I had visited. I couldn’t wait to touch that soil, walk those roads again, and most importantly – eat the iconic Lamington cake! A kind acquaintance Jemimah sub-let me her ground-floor apartment in an absolutely prime locality! Voila!
Is this real?
I arrived in Shillong around 8.30 pm from Guwahati via a sharing cab, arranged by one of my really good friends Bob. He waited for the cab until a certain point and then guided us toward my apartment. This is the sort of kindness that I so value among the inhabitants, one of whom is Bob (more on that in my next blog). The original tenant Jemimah was equally kind to have stayed with me the first two nights, helping me clean the apartment, ordering food for me. I couldn’t be more grateful. The first night, I felt so comfortable and cozy in that little bedroom. I slept like a baby.
Following morning, I decided to go grocery shopping and check out the neighborhood. I wanted to do this alone. One peculiar feature of my locality was this – cabs from the city could come and drop you there but if you wanted to catch one – you had to walk at least a kilometer and a half. In Shillong while walking you are really hiking because of the mountainous surface. There are walking pavements in most parts of the city – Shillong has a serious walking culture.
So I walked. While admiring the colonial style houses and bungalows, I felt the breeze – cool and fresh washing through my hair. I was just dying to get a glimpse of the mountains. All I saw in the first few minutes were these magnificent houses, thatched roofs, elaborate gardens, and lots of Khasi women – some in their traditional Jainsem wrap-around or dressed in stylish skirts, or boyfriend jeans.
Meanwhile, I stopped for groceries (the shops close at 8.30 pm) and stashed them in my bag. Bad idea. That handbag was big enough to hold things but really inconvenient to carry on one shoulder while walking. I wrecked my shoulders. Next time, I took a backpack.
I was taking mental notes of landmarks – left from the grocery store, left from the church, right from the Black Tiger Cement billboard. Because, well, I had to come back.
I took a turn and there it was -a magnificent cloud covering the tips of what looked like a mountain range. Not so high really, but boy it was a sight.
The next few minutes I kept walking aimlessly. I was now on the main road. I did not expect to like the buzz of the market so much. Inhabitants of Shillong going about their business. Hundreds of people walking the pavements. I loved the street shops selling clothes, Jainsem, fish, vegetables and fruits, spices, plants and seeds. I also spotted a bakery truck.
I tried veg momos (because by 8 pm, chicken momos were over) from a street shop and a plate of Pakoda that would later make me take that 3-km walk every other day.
It took me half an hour to reach my apartment, and I was ecstatic. Is this real? Did I just really experience the Shillong of my dreams today? With feet aching from too much walking, and a heart so full, I fell asleep in no time.
Forming a daily routine
My rented apartment was located in Pohkseh (pawkseh). I will remember the morning of my first Monday like a beautiful dream. I woke up with the swaying of pine trees and the cooing of a bird I couldn’t identify. Just above my apartment was this prized property named ‘Whispering Pines’ – the home of the leader of Shillong Chamber Choir! And whisper they did, into my ears, every single morning.
I glanced at my phone, it was 7.30 am and 13 degrees. The bed was too warm and comfy to leave for a morning walk. So I went back to sleep and awoke at 9.30 am.
I had no intention of waking up earlier than that. I am an evening walk person. I would begin my day like always with a glass of lemon water, do some squats, planks and stomach vacuums. Then I will put my tea kettle on, pour myself some tea and take it across the street.
There was a small broken culvert that overlooked a green field. That instantly became my favorite tea-break spot. It used to be sunny and breezy and the tea (always made from Amul Taza) somehow tasted better there.
I would then return to my apartment, make myself breakfast. After bathing, I would sit in the veranda and spend some time with the Lord, while soaking in the morning sunlight. That’s how co-habitants of the apartment learnt I was a believer since I got invited by two of them to their church. Hurrah!
The first three days I worked from my apartment and it was mighty productive.
For mental breaks, I would walk up to a brook only a few meters away.
I worked strictly until 6 pm. Then I would walk up to Laitumukhrah from H Elias road just to feel the buzz of the city and have that Pakoda plate. One night, I walked into what looked like a vegetable mall. Whoa!
Fourth day and I didn’t want to work
It was the fourth day when I felt like I needed some change of scenery. That day, I wasn’t particularly in the mood to write. I was in dire need of some inspiration. So taking a friend’s advice, I caught a cab to Ward’s Lake – home to a wide variety of cherry flowers that blossom every November and attract tourists from all parts of the world. This season in Shillong is akin to the Sakura blooming in Japan and Korea.
Facing the paparazzi
People in Shillong really know how to leave you alone. I mean it. I have seen women enjoying their breakfast alone in cafes, or knitting in parks or gardens or sitting on a culvert sipping tea and nobody cares. So what happened in Ward’s Lake that day was kinda unexpected.
I had brought my art tools to the park and I eventually sat down to paint the white bridge. Only a few minutes into the painting, I began noticing people gathering around me. Many of them sat, just a little closer to me to have a better glimpse at my work-in-progress.
Then, all of a sudden, a group of some 20-25 college students (judging from their bags) walked up to me and sat around me, chatting. They tried to not make it obvious, but well, it was. One of them came up to me and asked – you are painting the bridge? Shocked at his eye for detail, I smiled. He then took my permission to make a short reel for Instagram. I am pretty sure my cheeks went red, but thank God, he was shooting from behind and focusing mainly on what I was doing on that canvas.
Now, I am a super conscious painter. First up, I am not that good and I KNOW that all too well! Two, I like to paint alone – in my room or studio or on my balcony. So this was a little daunting.
At the same time, I did not want to appear a snob, so I didn’t leave. Afterall, it was I who had decided to paint from a public park. I decided to go super slow. Sure enough, the group got bored and left the spot. Hurrah!
Did I get ANY writing done?
Let me first quote Phoebe Waller Bridge (Fleabag or Killing Eve, anyone?) here:
As a (screen) writer, you need an enormous amount of time alone.
Writing is 90% procrastination.
No other quote could better describe my writing time in Shillong. The first two weeks, I was caught up in my usual content writing gigs – website content, technical blogs, newsletters – a mix of boring and interesting tasks. Afterall, I still had to pay my bills and expenses for this trip. Initially, my plan was to do the usual work in the first half, and use the other half or the nights for my writing. That worked like 1% of the time since I wrote only one poem in the first week, and was sitting over some nine ideas.
Here’s why I was still optimistic. Since January, I had a vague idea of the theme of my book, but nothing solid and no inspiration. But from the time I set foot in Shillong, I had become just overtly aware of my surroundings. I think I spent at least two or three straight days without talking to a single person. I was with myself for a long time, in a long time. This is the perfect setting for both procrastination and ideation.
Once while returning from the market run around 8.30 pm, I took a usual turn and saw a painter finishing up ‘KEEP RIGHT’ on a wall. That lane was not well-lit, so he kept a torch in one hand and painted from the other. Instantly, I wrote down the title of a poem on the phone – Duty Calls! I found Shillong and its people full of inspiration. There were stories waiting to be told, poems begging to bleed on paper, ideas waiting to be cooked.
Despite the not-so-fruitful first week and a half, my fingers were desperate to type out my thoughts. I consciously used the next week in the city to find new places to write.
Finding the writing paradise
Apart from checking out quaint cafes, I decided to visit Lady Hydari’s Park one day. The first day in that park turned out to be the most productive. I ended up finishing four poems out of the 10 ideas, and an episode of my podcast.
The park had everything I needed – a view of the mountains, thick cover of alpine trees, green carpet grass spread in acres of land, hundreds of flowers, sounds of birds and children playing around, families picnicking, lovers holding hands, sunlight and breeze.
It became my paradise. I visited it thrice and did most of my writing there.
From the moment I got there, it was like someone put my fingers and mind on auto-writing mode.
Either there was something quite poetic about this place or I was just dreaming all this, and the day I wake up will be the day of my utter grief.
Local fish and a candle-light dinner
Rinjah was a local market about 400 meters away, where you could find the most stylish skirts in thrift stores, the cheapest bakery goods (Lamington cake included) and a wide variety of fish.
The day I discovered that market, I decided to try out a new type of fish every other day. To my surprise, I also found a Malabari Kerala Parotha packet (Rs 50/- for five parotas). That was quite the find apart from a certain fish masala.
I would marinate the fish in the local spice, fry it in little oil and have it with lots of salad and either bread or Kerala Parotha on the side. The first night I cooked fish, there was a power-cut too, so I was forced to have my dinner under a candle’s light. Not bad huh!Thankfully my laptop was fully charged that night, and so was my phone.
I have a lot to share. But I guess this is good for now.
And do you see these two people below? They are Prateek and Bob. More about them and the wonderful people of Shillong in my next blog. Stay tuned.