WANBOR AND I ARE CAUGHT in an early summer storm. Forewarned last night by great flashes of lightning that sliced through a dark, thunderous sky. The kind that, a long time ago, would keep me awake until my grandfather told me stories of a giant named Ramhah who lived on Lum Sohpetbneng, and occasionally liked to rearrange his furniture. I peer up hopefully; as far as I can see there’s a dense quilt of grey.
“I told you it would rain,” says Wanbor.
I maintain a defeated silence.
Irrespective of the stories you’ve heard about Shillong’s prettiness (beauty?) during the monsoon—clusters of dripping pine trees, roadside waterfalls, and bright blossoming umbrellas—there is nothing as unappealing as a wet afternoon in Police Bazaar. Endlessly stamping feet turn its roads into a black, squelchy mess; you’re in clear danger of being soaked by heedless taxis and a queer smell hangs in the air, a blend of exhaust fumes and mushroom dampness. This afternoon, out of nowhere, a faint memory stirs of the scent of pine on long walks home from school.
We take shelter under the awnings of Choudhury Pharmacy, which is doing roaring business as usual. It’s an old shop, evident from the high ceilings and spacious wooden cupboards that the dkhar attendants stand on stools to reach. Shillong has changed a great deal since I left, now plagued by a host of modern urban atrocities—giant concrete buildings, multi-storied shopping malls, rampant traffic—but Choudhury Pharmacy has remained the same, cheerfully doling out medicine and pidgin Khasi to its customers day after day. As busy, a few stores down, is Economic Wine Shop. Across its grilled counter, a congregation of men, young and old, stand in odd yet amiable silence, as though reverently awaiting Holy Communion. They seem unperturbed by the downpour, and I presume they’re kept warm by the anticipation of an impending drink. Wanbor offers me a cigarette—he keeps forgetting I quit during the years we weren’t together—and I refuse. He drags on a Gold Flake, I watch the smoke curl slowly into the air.
There’s an eclectic group huddled here. Two young Naga girls in skinny jeans and pointed patent leather shoes text busily on their mobile phones. “Senti, look, what he sent,” says the one wearing a manga T-shirt in heavily accented English, and she holds out her phone to her friend. They snicker and continue the conversation in a dialect I cannot understand. I imagine he’s asked her out for coffee or sent her a declaration of love—“I Luv U 4Eva” or something equally poignant and abbreviated. “Aru ki koribo pare?” says Senti. I think she’s asking “what will you do now?” I suppose I’ll never know.
At the edge of the party stands a tall man in a bowler hat, with a violin slung over his shoulder. I wonder what kind of music he plays—maybe Indian classical at Aurobindo Hall—and debate whether he’s Assamese or Bengali. He stares out, oblivious, seemingly mesmerised by the rain. He has peppery stubble and a slim face dominated by a long, hooked nose. He’s Bengali, I think, because he reminds me of Mr Duttaroy, my history teacher in school. “History,” he was fond of saying every so often, “is who we are and…” here he would pause dramatically, “why we are the way we are.” This to a gaggle of disinterested teenage girls whose minds were mostly occupied by the frustrations of studying in a convent school. “Please, I don’t see anything similar between Mumtaz Mahal and me,” my bench mate Damaphi would whisper. “She had fourteen kids and I’ve never even held hands with a boy.”
Next to Wanbor is a middle-aged lady wearing a rose printed jainsyiem. Its flowers are large, elaborate and red, and stand out against the greyness of the day. She wears her jainsyiem the old-fashioned way—down to her ankles—and is carrying a beige leather bag. A matching sweater lies draped over her shoulders. For a moment I imagine her life: her name is Mabel, and she’s a government employee in service for about twenty-five years, perhaps in the agriculture department. She has two children who are now in college at St Anthony’s or St Edmunds, studying Commerce and Science. Her doctor husband works in a government hospital, and also has his own clinic somewhere in town. They live in Malki, in one of those new concrete houses (painted an indeterminate green) with a cement patch for a lawn, and go for family holidays to Puri and Manali. Their photographs, enlarged and framed at Highland Studio, hang on their living room walls, important testaments to the goodness of God and existence. Suddenly, she looks at me. Perhaps she felt the weight of my inspection; I hurriedly look down, feeling guilty for having reduced a life into a string of clichés.
My eyes fall on the mud-splattered boots of the boy next to me. I can tell they’d been carefully polished and have now fallen prey to wet weather. Somehow, that makes me sad. He’s young—in his late teens or early twenties. It’s hard to tell. His face is mostly smooth but marked by patches of old pimple scars. Under his fusty black leather jacket, he’s wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt, one of the many sold at the crowded Tibetan Market down the road. I’m sure he plays the guitar, not very well, but, like so many others, good enough to keep alive a small, musical dream. He’s brushing back his greasy hair and stealing glances at the Naga girls, who pay him no attention. Soon, he gives up, and stares at his boots instead. The usually bustling street in front of us is empty except for an elderly man wrapped in a checked tapmohkhlieh, holding a black umbrella. I glance at Wanbor; he’s looking out into the distance and, in a moment of affection, I slip my arm through his.
“Do you remember on our way back from Sohra, when we got caught in the rain?” I ask. Two or three years ago, a dull Sunday afternoon, Wanbor’s old bike, an impulsive plan. The small jadoh stall we stopped at, the coal fire, cups of red tea.
“Yes,” he replies. “Before you decided to leave.”
Raindrops hammer the awning like tiny ammunition.
To study further, to work, I want to say. Things you couldn’t easily do in Shillong at the time. Perhaps even now.
“Well… I’m back.”
The rain continues relentlessly, lulling us all into self-absorbed silence.
As soon as it lets up a little, people break away from the group like loosed birds and disappear into the hurrying crowd. Wanbor has long finished his cigarette. I watch a boy of about eight jump into a puddle. His mother scolds him. “Ale, Jason… don’t be naughty. Ale sha ne.”
“Want some Chinese food?” asks Wanbor.
I take it I’ve been forgiven for dragging him out shopping on an afternoon such as this. Amongst other things.
“My treat,” I offer, just to be sure.
We walk toward the main road past a row of women selling baskets of soh phi, and stop to cross just before Babla’s Clothes Shoppe, where my birthday and school fete dresses were bought. My shiny custom-made patent leather shoes came from Three-In-One in Laitumkhrah, which closed a while ago; the Chinese family who owned it packed up and left when the “trouble” began and extortion notes were handed out like kwai. The mannequin in Babla’s display window has been drinking Thumbs Up for as long as I can remember. All day, she brings the bottle up to her mouth and, before there’s time for a sip, takes it away. I watch her, hoping something will change.
“How’s that for un-attainability?”
But Wanbor isn’t listening. “Come on.” He grabs my elbow and shepherds me across the road. The rain has mellowed to a drizzle and the sky lightened to a pale evening blue. Suddenly, the air is crisp with an after-shower coolness. The streets are damp yet clean.
We climb down a narrow flight of stairs lodged awkwardly between two shops, one selling stationery and the other children’s toys. To our left is Kimsang, a dimly lit bar straight out of a gritty noir flick. Its smoke-filled interiors are dotted with lonely, drowning figures. Faded rock stars, failed businessmen, ex-Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council members. Wanbor and I sometimes come here for a drink; we place ourselves under those tags of struggling writer and disenchanted youth. Today, however, we turn right into Hong Kong, a lacklustre Chinese joint with thin walls painted a peculiar shade of blue. Unlike other restaurants, Hong Kong has little plywood cubicles to sit in, giving it a private yet slightly dubious air. Wanbor heads toward a favourite seat. I follow. There’s barely enough room for me to hang my bag on the chair, yet it’s warm, a welcome change from the chill outside.
“What will you have?” asks Wanbor.
I run my eye down the menu, a laminated sheet of yellow paper framed by twirling red dragons, and choose pork soup chow. He settles for a plate of chicken momos, large.
We give our orders to a shy waiter hovering nearby. His brand new uniform—a silky aubergine-coloured shirt and smart black trousers—seems incongruous in these surroundings.
“No, you can’t smoke here,” he says in reply to Wanbor’s question, and points to a poster on a neighbouring cubicle wall which asks, acerbically, “Tobacco OR Family? Make your choice.”
The rest of the decor consists of a few faux Chinese fans and tasselled wall hangings, all garish in their cherry red and gold brightness. At the opposite end of the room, a row of potted plastic ferns hang suspended from the ceiling. Heavy and dusty, they look as though they’ve been there for years, untrimmed and inorganic. Above the strains of Roxette’s “Spending my Time”, I hear distant kitchen sounds: the sizzle of stir-fry, the clatter of cutlery, quickly barked out meal orders— “Segwan chicken” “Singapur rice”. The smell of onions hangs in the air like stale, cheap perfume. A few cubicles away sit a young couple in awkward almost silence. She’s in a blue salwar kameez and hasn’t noticed her chunni sweeping the floor. He picks it up for her and they smile at each other. Dimly, I remember Wanbor and I on one of our first few outings together: he took me to a tea shop in Bara Bazaar, where we people-watched and he told me he wanted to do something for this place, but he wasn’t quite sure what. I think it was the same evening, when he dropped me home, that for some inexplicable reason, I turned back from the gate and kissed him, and said whatever he decided to do, I would help. I play with the plastic flowers in the vase in front of me. Someone has considerately filled it with water.
In the cubicle behind us, someone is discussing Meghalaya politics. I eavesdrop shamelessly.
“You think Khasi Student’s Union is against uranium mining? Nonsense. They make a fuss now so the government will pay them off. A few lakhs in their pockets, you see nobody will be protesting.” I can’t hear his companion’s reply, but the ardent speaker continues, “People? What people? Everyone only wants to make more money. Look at that Tasiang woman… made some nine or ten crores.”
I glance at Wanbor, who is spinning the salt shaker on the table. The last public protest he’d tried to stage, along with a small group of vaguely interested youngsters, was against the recent Tasiang embezzlement scam: sub-standard CGI sheets given to the poor for housing that couldn’t survive the mad March winds.
“Nothing to be done now,” the voice floats out again, “this government has gone to the dogs.”
“What did I tell you? This is all people do,” Wanbor mutters, as the salt shaker slithers across the table and crashes into the cubicle wall. “Sit and talk.”
The conversation in the cubicle comes to an end, along with, I presume, their meal. One last apocalyptic proclamation: “What has happened to the world?” followed by a loud burp.
Soon, our food arrives. I’m thankful for the distraction. The chicken momos sit squat and plump on the orange melamine plate—they remind me of fat, content priests—while the soup chow is fresh and steaming, topped generously with spring onions. A plate of green chillies and a plastic bottle of virulent “hot sauce” accompanies the meal. We eat in silence. Wanbor’s mood improves a little when I ask him to help me with my rather large helping of soup chow. I fork the vegetables, he picks at the pork. The soup is clear and deliciously wholesome.
“Good no?” he asks.
I nod as an errant noodle slithers down my chin.
“We can organise another protest,” I offer, “gather more people. Maybe make a short video…”
“Maybe,” he mutters, noncommittal. “How’s your article going? The one on traditional Khasi music.”
“Not bad…but I’ll need your help with the interviews. My Khasi is a bit thlun…rusty now.”
He nods. “You should meet this guy who lives in my locality in Rynjah…he plays ksing and duitara.”
“Where exactly does he stay?” The sprawl of Shillong has blurred my geography of the town.
“I’ll take you.”
“Thanks,” I say quietly, trying to catch his eye, but he’s intent on swiping the last bit of hot sauce off his plate with a momo.
When we finish, we ask our well-dressed waiter for the bill. It comes on a saucer of stale supari and sugar that looks like miniature cubes of ice. No one collects it for a long while, so we decide to pay at the counter near the entranceinstead. There’s a middle-aged gentleman in a mustard brown shirt manning the place. His head of thick black hair, done up in a stylish 1980s pouf, is oddly mismatched with his tired, wrinkle-lined face. He also has a lazy eye, which only seems to add to his weariness. Behind him, in stark cheerful contrast, are glass shelves lined with pink-rimmed prawn wafers and custard yellow crisps.
“140,” he says taking the money from me. I notice he has long, slim fingers. Maybe he too is a musician.
“Are you the owner?” asks Wanbor.
“Yes,” he replies, counting out the change.
“Do you also own Kimsang?” Wanbor points outside.
He shakes his head. “No, some Marwari man owns it now.”
“And you? Where are you from?”
He seems amused and stops what he’s doing. “China.”
“How did you land up all the way here?”
I frown, unsure how Wanbor’s candidness will be received.
Yet the man laughs as though no one has asked in a long time. “My family fled during the communist revolution, to Calcutta. My grandparents moved to Shillong in the late 60s.”
“Do you keep in touch with them? Your relatives in China?”
“There’s no one left now…everyone’s gone. To Singapore, Philippines, Canada.”
There’s an awkward pause.
He looks as though he’d like to see us leave.
I pick up my change. “Thank you… bye.”
Outside, the evening has cleared but darkened. The sky is a deep, dying blue. Somewhere, a pale sun has set and left behind streaks of silver clouds. We emerge into a busy main road and are jostled by the crowd. Wanbor offers me a cigarette. I refuse. He lights one for himself. Puddles of water reflect lights that quiver with every passing step. I feel the weight of everyone’s history pressing down on me like relentless rain.