Shillong. April 3rd, 2022. 10.30 am.
It is 18 degrees C. I am wearing a light sweater, green shorts, flip-flops. I am not thinking about all this obviously at the moment, when I step out of my apartment with a cup of chai. I cross the street and find a broken culvert to sit on. As I take every sip, a gentle breeze brushes my face, my hair. I look across the culvert and my eyes find an open field, a brook, and a couple of farmers bent down. And it is beautiful.
This instantly becomes my morning routine, except one morning where I am greeted by an old woman from a nearby balcony. She greets me with a ‘hello’ and asks me where I am from. We engage in what I usually suck at – small talk – for a few minutes. She then concludes – You are my neighbor now, come home for a cup of chai sometime. I beam, and say Yes, and make a mental note of meeting her before I leave the city.
First impression of Shillong
The year was 2016 when I first landed in Shillong – the capital of the state of Meghalaya. Abhishek and I were on a budget trip. Earlier that year, I had watched a National Geographic Documentary that featured living root tree bridges unique to Meghalaya. Through the Rajdhani Express that we boarded from Delhi, we reached Guwahati (Assam)- the Gateway to North-east India. Friends from Shillong had told us to take a ‘sharing cab’.
Picture this. It has been two hours since your drive from Guwahati to Shillong began. The landscape is changing fast and dramatically. There’s this ever-pervading lake (Umiam) that seems to guide you through the way, giving you a sort of a ‘heads-up’ for the gorgeousness. Only a few minutes before you hit the city, the FM begins playing some of the most enduring hymns rendered by contemporary artists, Casting Crowns and a lot of classic rock.
A city that loves music and football (as evident from the huge hoardings that read Manchester City and Chelsea) must be nice.
George and his BnB weren’t any different from our first impressions. Our room had the concrete side of Shillong – paved homes, British architecture spread all over the valley – while the rooftop opened to a football stadium. Back then, we had stayed in Laitumkhrah (pronounced as – Laimukhrah) and we were only a few blocks away from one of our friends Prateek’s house.
Shillong’s street fashion
On our first evening in Shillong back in 2016, we ventured out in our PJs and chappals to the streets of Laitumkhrah. What a faux pas that turned out to be. We were stunned by the street fashion of the city. But that was just a trailer.
I had the pleasure of living in Shillong again for good 17 days in April 2022 again. This time South Korean fashion had descended on the streets. Women wore oversized plaid blazers worn over lose basic shirts. Even their traditional Jainsem dress has such a variety of prints, fabrics and twists – it blew my mind. Men kept it classy with smart joggers over denim or corduroy jackets and large sports shoes. Their semi-casual style gave me fashion goals.
Pleated skirts, crop tops, statement caps and hats, LBDs, high-rise pants, neons, satin and crepe and boy those bags – the trendiest handbags I have ever laid my eyes on.
Once, I stopped to buy fish from this young girl at Rynjah. She sat on a small stool, cutting and washing the fish, while I admired her black velvet overcoat. The whole way back, I kept looking at myself in shop mirrors, just cross-checking if I was looking decent enough that day.
Jemimah is who we call a ‘ fellow UBS-kid’. That means her parents worked at the Union Biblical Seminary (UBS) in Pune, where my uncle and aunt worked too. She grew up with other campus kids including my cousins. Until March 2022, however, we were only Facebook acquaintances.
When I told her about my plan, she instantly agreed to sub-let me her gorgeous apartment. Jemimah works at an NGO in the field of equipping farmers and educating children. The night I moved in, she cleaned her apartment, prepared my bed and ordered dinner. She didn’t need to do any of this, but she did. Because that’s how Jemimah is. She doesn’t know how else to be.
Angeline takes me to Church on Easter
While living in Jemimah’s apartment, I used to do my Bible meditation on the porch every day. Once a petite woman entered with her scooter and greeted me.
“You look like a believer,” she observed.
I laughed and then we chatted some. Angeline is originally from Manipur and lives in Shillong with her husband. On Good Friday, our paths crossed again. Angeline promptly invited me to Naga Christian Fellowship (NCF) for Easter. She and her husband took me in their car, then showed me around the outskirts of the city after church. Not only that, Angeline brought me a special Easter dinner that night. I almost cried.
It still cracks me up how Prateek Suting reacted when he came to our BnB back in 2016. For the first few minutes he just heard us ranting while he processed that some of his friends from Indore (where he studied for some eight years) had finally paid him a visit.
“I still cannot believe you are actually here,” he told us for the millionth time when we visited his family in what looked like a whole apartment.
“This is your house? It looks like a whole district,” Abhishek had quipped.
Picture this. We enter this huge gate and cross the parking area to see this four-storey building. Some flats are occupied by Prateek’s family and some by their tenants. It is like a small community in itself.
What awaited us was a delish eight-course Khasi meal cooked by his mother Aarti. I completely fell for this amazing woman and her spirit of hospitality. Aarti aunty not only just cooked for us, she also made phone calls. Turns out, she had sisters and brothers and cousins at almost every place on our bucket list – Dawki, Sohra (Cherrapunji) and on the way to Mawlynnong. She also arranged a taxi for us through her relative, Solomon.
One of her sisters offered us tea at her shop when we were in Dawki and she also introduced us to Babul Suting and Santana (full story below). We felt like we were just visiting family because there was someone related to Aarti aunty at every place.
I will never forget how she made us feel – well, at home, but also like VIPs. She and Prateek’s father, and other family members sat with us for a long time, asked us about our life and told us fascinating facts about Meghalaya.
Prateek dropped us off early in the morning on our last day at the taxi stand. Even during my April visit this year, he made sure I had the right cab guy at the right price. I felt safe while returning alone to Guwahati in that cab because he constantly kept checking on me. A very Suting-family thing to do!
Babul Suting and his league
Even by Meghalaya’s generosity standards, Mr Babul Suting is a league of his own. He is Prateek’s uncle and he got us a cozy BnB in Cherrapunji (Sohra) and a reasonable cab back in 2016. He is one of the best listeners I have met – he has an ear for travel stories. He is always curious to know about other cultures. It is therefore no surprise that he runs a boys’ hostel and a guest house in Sohra. Prateek studied in Sohra during his school years and has fond memories of living in the hostel.
After we finished sightseeing, we went to Babul uncle’s house for tea. He then introduced us to his wife, his daughter Santana and his granddaughter Mei Mei. Over a sumptuous round of local snacks and desserts and tea, Babul uncle helped us visualize what it meant to live on the wettest place on earth. Sohra gets a long monsoon season that sometimes lasts for seven months.
“We get tired of the pitter-patter by the end of the season every year. When the sun shines, it’s like you have seen God,” he told us. Abhishek kept in touch with uncle for quite a few years after we left. The two can bond over pretty much anything under the sun.
And so when I went back in April this year, I had to see him. He hasn’t changed much. This time he recollected tales of the lockdown, how they managed to get Mei Mei back to Sohra from Kota where she was studying. They were all so genuinely happy to hear of Abhishek’s engagement. After serving me dinner, Santana and Babul uncle dropped me back to the homestay, in his new car.
Santana and Ibanjed
The taste of the French Toast that Santana cooked for us back in 2016 still lingers in my memories. But this year, I got a taste of her unique personality. She now has a Bnb of her own, she divides her time between teaching and property renting while also providing valuable assistance to absolutely far-off acquaintances like me.
What challenges me about Santana’s personality is her keen sense of observation, and networking with people. She can read your body language. When she heard that I was hiking Nongriat’s living root tree bridge alone, she had an idea. She recollected that one of her staff’s son Ibanjed had been pining to hike that place too. Though it took me forever to pronounce his name correctly, I agreed to tag 10-year-old Ibanjed along. One of the best travel decisions of my life, I assure you.
Not even for a second did Ibanjed make me feel like I had to baby-sit him. I thought I would guide him through the trek since it was really my second time, it was he who took care of me -asking me if I was thirsty or if I needed a break.
I wish I had a son like him. In the first hour of our hike, I bought him breakfast and chips. On our way back, he offered to pay for chocolate and water. I didn’t want to belittle him by offering money, so I gave him a 1 Dirham coin that I had brought from Dubai as a souvenir. I asked my cab guy to explain to him that it was a token of thankfulness from me.
“Khublei,” he said and flashed a shy smile.
A resort owner emulates Christ during lockdown
While in Sohra, I promptly posted pictures on Facebook. An old acquaintance by the name of Venio Finleyson commented. He said Sohra was his hometown and he asked me to visit his brother’s resort for breakfast. What? No. Are you kidding? Those were my thoughts. But I didn’t want to be rude, so I texted him on Messenger about the whereabouts of this resort.
Turns out Venio had studied at UBS too and now serves in Arunachal Pradesh alongside his wife and two children.
“Have you seen the huge football?” he asked me.
“Oh yeah! I can see that football from my homestay.”
“The resort is exactly opposite to it.”
So on my last morning in Sohra, I walked the 2-km road to La-Iker Resort to “avail my free breakfast.” Venio’s brother Yai showed me around the cozy cabins at the resort. Yai is sheltering a 16-year-old boy and sponsoring his education. When I asked him about his business during the lockdown, he couldn’t help but share this story.
Like many places around the world, Sohra’s tourism took a major beating during the 2020 nation-wide lockdown. Yai had a staff of 20. Now Yai is a God-fearing man. He didn’t want to fire people. So he invited all his staff along with families to live inside the resort.
“We cooked, played games, watched movies, danced and laughed together. We sang hymns, I shared about the love of Jesus Christ with them for the first time,” he shared.
Yai couldn’t pay them salaries for a good four months. But he provided them with food, shelter and children’s school fees. “They are like family. I paid from my savings for all their expenses. But even after the lockdown, I had no business. Yet, each one of those 20 people has stayed with me till today,” he added.
When I hugged this brother in Christ for the last time, I had tears. I offered to pray for him. What else could I offer a man who emulated Christ himself?
Abhishek and I met Bob Kharkongor at a Bible Study group in our hometown Indore back in 2011. This is one of the most enduring friendships we both have been blessed to have. Bob has caroled with us as a team member of Go Carol during Christmas. He has been our confidante and a well-wisher. Bob was one of the only two people with whom I had shared about working from Shillong. He is going to be Abhishek’s best man.
But during our 2016 visit, he wasn’t in Shillong. So he asked us to meet his mother Polinda Kharkongor. She is Aarti aunt’s sister. Polinda aunty was the one who served us the legendary Lamington cake. She then took us to Don Bosco Church where we spent some time chatting about her faith, her struggles in life.
She is one of those women who you meet and make a mental note to emulate them when you reach their age. Even in her 60s, aunty Polinda was so fit, and despite her many hardships in life, I found her so positive and full of life. She and I felt an instant connection and kept in touch over the phone for the next few years. I had the pleasure of meeting her again in 2018 and Bob’s sister Vanessa when I went to Bangalore. Bob was working there at the time.
But that was the last time I saw aunty Polinda.
When Bob told us about her cancer in 2021, I felt a huge pang in my stomach. It couldn’t be. Why God her? Even as I write this, I am starkly aware how difficult it must have been for Bob and his siblings. My pain is nothing compared to theirs. Aunty Polinda passed away on May 20th 2021.
However, when I met Vanessa again in April, for the first few seconds, it was like meeting aunty Polinda. Vanessa is like her in ways even she doesn’t realize. Aunty must have been so proud seeing Vanessa practise law and becoming the woman that she is. The night I met Vanessa, I walked home crying and delighting that aunty Polinda’s legacy – her warmth, her faith and humility – lives on in her children, especially Vanessa. Hallelujah!
Racism against North-East Indians
Are all the people of Meghalaya perfect? Of course not. They are humans, they have their prejudices and limitations, cultural challenges and mental blocks. Most ethnicities have. But when I was in Shillong, Bob and Prateek set an awesome example for me: they demonstrated how to help an outsider, how to make a tourist feel at home. Despite their work schedules and responsibilities, both of them took me around including ML-05 Cafe in Upper Shillong. They made me try local delicacies and shared about cultural nuances. I slept peacefully every night because I knew I could call Bob or Prateek anytime if needed.
This is why it makes me angrier to know that they have been discriminated against in other parts of India, including my city. Due to their facial features, North-East Indians have been called ‘Chinese’ in a derogatory way. They are belittled for their food habits. North-Eastern girls are eve-teased just because.
Yet they try their best to blend in. Most of my North-East Indian friends are fluent in Hindi, they make friends regardless of ethnicities. So their kindness weighs heavy on my heart, even as it inspires me to be decent.
When Christ descended on Earth, He made no distinction between Jews and gentiles. Even now, Christ invites every race, and every ethnicity and people of every language and religion to His offer of salvation. Praise God for this hope amid racial discrimination.
4 Comments Add yours
That is absolutely right.
Christ called every human to his offer of salvation.
Your eyes and smile continue to captivate, moving my cheeks to peak, and doubly-so in reading of your experiences meeting the sharing, extraordinary people of Shillong and Sohra. In referencing Ibanjed, I’m sure that a woman of strong faith such as yourself, of generous heart and spirit, would instill the same goodness in offspring as a loving mother. As you might know, I love to photograph waterfalls, capturing pristine nature. If I may say, though, such pales in comparison to the truly natural beauty your presence imparts. Wishing you a blessed week ahead, dear Mukti. 🙏😊
Thank you Phil for your wishes and kind words. You leave me speechless 🙂 God bless you.