Blog Stories - People Called Shillong
Happy Valley in present day Shillong greets its visitors on a narrow road flanked by shops or shanties on either side. The road culminates toward imposing mountains. One can only imagine the panoramic landscape that must have existed before the concrete shanties surfaced and dotted the mountains with their awry outlines. The buildings diminish as one walks towards the mountains. The homes seem older and fewer. Most entrance gates display an army rank. Many retired army personnel have settled in Happy Valley. The Valley has undergone tremendous unorganized development – open gutters, squatters, incomplete construction and by-lanes emerge from every corner. Trees are far and few. But herein stands a home nestled in history and nostalgia – Captain Nayan Singh Mal’s residence, built in 1940. It was the first of its kind in Happy Valley. The Assam-style building – that once defined cosmopolitan Shillong – with its high plinth rests on stone columns, wooden walls and sloping tin roofs designed to combat heavy rains. The plot is thick with fruit and flower bearing shrubs. Though its vicinity has changed, the home and its precinct are frozen in time. He chose Happy Valley for he believed that the locale was perfect for his children and grandchildren to train for their army life.
Captain Nayan Singh Mal Sardar Bahadur was a recipient of IDSM (Indian Distinguished Service Medal) and OBE (Order of British Empire). An Indian Gorkha, he hailed from Uttar Pradesh. He served the Indian armed forces under the British and when posted in Assam, fell in love with Shillong, the capital of Undivided Assam. Post his retirement in 1940, he chose Happy Valley to continue his tryst with the city. If he thought Happy Valley would forever stay as happy as the British christened it, he was mistaken. His grandson, Padam Singh Malla is the oldest surviving member of his family who spends his days with best friend Bhavan Rai Singh. Together, they are trying to retain their old home, its precinct and the traditions initiated by their dadaji.
“Dadaji didn’t let us wear chappals. He wanted us to emulate him and those of his ilk in the army. There were no concrete roads but a pathway demarcated by stones. We walked on them barefoot to school and back. There were three or four city buses and horse drawn carriages to ferry ration,” recollects Malla. “But we attended school only three or four times a week. We would bunk and got to the forests or went fishing in the streams. I once offered some to my father. He ate some and then asked where I got it from. When I told him, he thrashed me. He had the fish, we had beatings,” interjects his friend Singh. They remember a time before electricity entered their homes. “We scampered for fruits. Stole vegetables from gardens and cooked them in the jungles. During the day we gallivanted, post sunset we lit oil lanterns to study,” he continues. As he completed his high-school education, Bhavan Singh Rai fell in love with his best friend Malla’s sister. “I was not handsome and his sister was the most beautiful girl in the locality. But I was educated and romantic. We wrote letters to each other under her brother, my best friend’s nose. Shillong at that time was the perfect backdrop for love, poetry and romance. Rabindranath Tagore also wrote many poems when he lived here. He stayed near Ribong area.”
In 1967 some affluent homes in Happy Valley began getting electricity connections. “We had radios with batteries four times their size. We lined outside the house on the sly, when the parents would listen to ‘Binaca Geet Mala’. We were not allowed to listen to the radio, we were supposed to study,” Malla reminisces. But in his opinion, Happy Valley and also Shillong gradually lost its splendour to apathy and unfair laws. “Happy Valley became a happy village and slowly witnessed development after the Mizo National Front uprising in Mizoram in 1966. The Mizo population migrated to Shillong. The Assam Regiment in Happy Valley recruited youth from Northeast India. But the development was unchecked. People started taking rocks from the streams for construction. Trees were felled and streams turned into gutters. There are now no fish left.” But while ecological damage can be addressed, it is the political turn of events that worry them. Singh is specifically vocal about political agendas hammering the harmony between the natives of Shillong. “We grew up together with many ethnicities. But this government divided us. Assam was so big but they cut us in pieces for their own benefit. They meted out one law for tribal citizens that were unfair to others. Then there was another law for other non-tribal citizens that were unfair to the tribal community. They pitted us against each other.”
He adds that educated youth are moving out. “The uneducated locals make life very difficult for us and give a bad name to all other Khasis, tribal citizens and clans. The educated Khasis are very progressive. Always have been. But these uneducated so-called tribal locals who occupy government posts create hurdles for the smallest things. The panch devta temple roof needs renovation. They tell us to take permission. We apply, they reject. Being non-tribal, we need a license for everything. Hooligans harass us otherwise.”
The panch devta temple stands on the bungalow plot. The temple was installed as a part of the Durga Puja ritual, initiated by their grandfather. The Gorkha Durga Puja is an amalgamation of Bengali and Nepali traditions. Malla explains, “Dadaji and some army personnel started Durga Puja when they settled here. There were some fifteen families. The Bengali Durga Pujo is sattvik. Our rituals are tamsik. We partake in animal sacrifice. At my dadaji’s time we sacrificed buffaloes, but now it’s a black goat. But we have adopted idol worship from Bengalis. Earlier there was just a framed photo of Durga Ma. The idol’s face is covered when she is brought to the pandal. She is followed by a doli made in bamboo and covered with red cloth, like a bride’s doli. The evenings during puja are lined with activities like drawing competition, fancy dress, dance etc. This ensures that the people stay awake till the sacrifice at midnight.” Of all that has changed, Padam Singh Malla is glad about new rules taking shape. “Earlier we could beat drums all the way till midnight. There were no restrictions on festivities. But things changed after the 1987 agitations. Now we have to wind up by 10.00 pm. Only on the sacrifice night, we have permission to continue the festivities till midnight, but without drums and noise. It’s a good thing. There are infants and senior citizens. Some youth consume alcohol and run havoc.”
But Bhavan Rai Singh interjects, “Despite this, we are not happy. We have to have license for everything. We were born here but we have no privileges. It’s not even about privilege but equal rights.” The conversation steers back in the previous direction, of unfair laws. Singh and Malla’s children have moved to different parts of the country. Some moved abroad. The main reason, that non-tribal citizens cannot buy land in Meghalaya. “We were born here. We pay taxes. Yet we feel like outsiders because we cannot buy land here. We only have what our grandfather bought.” says Malla. Yet both friends still share the same love for Happy Valley. Both travelled across the country, only to keep returning to their happy abode. Bhavan Singh Rai experienced this during his service in the Garo hills. “The people feel that God didn’t pay attention when he created the Garo Hills in West Meghalaya. There’s excessive heat, excessive rains, leaches, flooding. Our Khasi Hills have good roads and great climate; beautiful mountains, rivers and lakes. There is no place happier than Shillong.”