A note on my chronic thoughtlessness

There is this spot in Shillong, close to the IIM campus in Nongthymmai, where I went whenever I felt any extreme emotion. On many a quiet afternoon, I’ve sat at the spot and watched the sun go down and take my anger with it. I’ve watched the sky change colours and let my sadness choose its hues from its palette. I’ve let my lighter thoughts move with wisps of clouds and on other days, I’ve allowed the darker ones to be washed away by unexpected showers. The spot, at the top of a steep lane with rows of houses on either side afforded a clear view of the hills in the distance. There was no uniformity about the houses in that lane. The colour of their walls, the shapes of their windows, the make of their fences, the slant of their roofs were as different from one to the other as people in real life are different from one another. It was a lane full of houses with character. Each dwelling held its own. These were not houses whose individualities had been tamed in order to be allowed a number in a row in a gated society, no. They seemed to have settled down on either side of the lane out of their own free will. Perhaps these haphazard, proud structures shared a taste for the view much the same way that I did. 

I do not know if having made this decision of settling down there the houses or the people who built them felt at home in the lane. 

Once, I caught sight of a girl reading a book in a verandah in one of the houses. Its walls were a pastel shade of orange and it had a bright red iron door. “What are you reading?” I asked her. “Shakespeare” she answered, “I have an exam coming up.” She informed me that she was in school and would make up her mind about college only after the exams. I did not ask what work of Shakespeare’s she was reading, or if she liked it. It somehow made me content to know that in that lane full of houses with character, lived a girl called Mary (yes, that was her name) who sat and read Shakespeare and was prepared to not give any thought to the question of college until it became an absolute necessity. 

Another time, I had made myself comfortable on the raised platform under the window of a house when suddenly the panes rattled and from behind the wire-mesh screen with a small cut-out at the bottom, like at a ticket counter, a small store opened up to the world. It sold momos and soup and lemon tea and biscuits. As the woman behind the counter acknowledged my presence with an expressionless glance, I mumbled a sorry and walked away. She stood there, stoic, in her jainsem, her jaws working away the khwai that stained her lips, awaiting her first customer. In a lane with no sign boards but a splendid view of the hills, stood a shop with its windows open to the world.

The lane also played host to passers-by, of course. It was not a private lane, nor was it dingy, it was steep, but it was inhabited after all, and there was no reason for it to not have passers-by. Not all of them were of the nosy, lingering variety like me, however. School children walked by without so much as looking at the surrounding hills, chatting away amongst themselves. Women carrying cans of water ambled up the steep incline, absorbed in the effort. Groups of young boys, sporting snug skull caps and loose-barely-clinging-to-their-waists denims walked by, leaving the traces of a whistled tune behind them. The lane was not a busy one, but its footfall was not disappointing by any standards, in both – number and variety. 

Amidst its houses, its view, its shops-in-windows and its passers-by, I was often a curious addition. 

I was not stationed there long enough to belong, but I was no passer-by either. The lure of the view, my haphazard thoughts and my own individuality, however half-baked or misshapen it was, sought to claim a permanent address on that lane. It didn’t have a name, but my thoughts had decided to call it home. In the brief period when I lived in the city of Shillong, they pulled me there in person any number of times. I moved to a new city. No hills, no Mary reading Shakespeare in the verandah of an orange house with a red door. Uniformity. A lot of it. In houses. In people. In days. All of this accompanied by long absences of any and all kinds of thought from my mind, leading to a uniformity of another kind – of boredom, from everyday life. It is only now that I realise that unbounded by time and space, when they go missing, they must be there. At home. Unpacking. Dispensing sadness in colours, washing darkness in the rain, watching anger burn out with the sun and swaying giddily to the tunes of leftover tunes whispered by the winds that have been breathed in by the hills. My thoughts go to a beautiful place when they leave me. I can’t complain, I’d do the same any minute, given a choice. 

On Sinning

I am a terrible sloth

In the throes of your memory

I linger on thoughts

And sink and sink and sink

Deeper, farther, in the uncovered wells

Of the past –

Strewn like landmines in my present

I hunger to the point of mindlessness

For that scent that was yours

And the air that filled me

With a peace I haven’t felt since

It is indeed, an unforgivable gluttony.

I take pride in having known you

In being with you so closely

I lust for the gentle curves

Of your fondant-green hills

I envy those who can behold the sight

On waking while I make do with

Feverish dreams

I keep my wrath from coming down on Time

For who knows it may

Bring me, once again, in your vicinity?

Take me back to Shillong, Father, for I have sinned,

And in any other place, a sinner is all I’ll be.

A note on Shillong.

It has only just begun to sink in that I am no longer going to be living in Shillong. When I first went there, I would step out of classrooms, subconsciously expecting to walk into the noisy buzz of Park Street. Having attended classes for three years in a building located in that bustling street of Calcutta, my mind would prepare itself to be assaulted by blaring horns and a sea of people sweating the dreary paths to their destinations. However, gently, by the sway of pine trees and sometimes brightly, with the mad colours of its skies, Shillong would remind me that I had left those days far behind – in both time and miles. Now, back again in the viscous heat of Calcutta, the same subconscious part of my brain laments the absence of the gently rolling hills, my eyes bereave the dusty concrete which has replaced the lush greenery and my heart threatens to stop beating in protest. I long to go back.

Shillong is in the hills but it is quite different from the regular hill station even if no two hill stations are exactly alike. Its woods exist in surprising harmony with its traffic jams. The little brooks that still run through it, untamed, waiting to be discovered in neighbourhoods that are not advertised in tourist booklets, add a musical crackle to the emergent urbanity of its sound-scape. Sunlight filters through its trees and falls magnificently on the many chic and confident women who inhabit the city. Often, pictures and selfies taken in such flattering light are the ones for which Instagram intended the use of the hashtag ‘nofilter’. As indeed these pictures are often tagged, both by the ever-growing student community that Shillong attracts thanks to the presence of one NIFT, one NIT, one IIM and numerable other reputable missionary schools, and by its own, local residents who seem to be far more tuned into social media than the rest of the country. And this is where the uniqueness of Shillong lies – for in spite of being thoroughly ‘commercialized’ as one is often wont to say, it holds a carefree, resilient beauty that refuses to go out. No matter how Police Bazaar expands to surreptitiously include areas of ‘Civil’ and of ‘Anjali’, which now houses a multiplex. No matter how realtors swoop down on its quaint houses one by one and turn their sloping roofs into unimaginative flats and apartments, just like in any other city.

Shillong bears witness to it all. It stands by as an observer and somehow, in some inexplicable way, it refuses to let its beauty diminish by participating in all the clamour. It may seem counter-logical to say so, for after all, Shillong is the backdrop, it is the place where these things are happening, the place to which these things are being done…

And yet, like a person from whom one could learn too much, Shillong refuses to block the view of the distant hills on a clear day, it refuses to stop whatever possessed artist who visits its skies from splashing it with iridescent colours during the day and decorating it with stars by night.

In spite of all that it witnesses, Shillong refuses to stop being itself. For, of course, someone might be looking up to it for inspiration right now, or perhaps just a little solace, a little courage, or some elusive introspection?