‘Everybody in Shillong wears jeans, leather jackets and Beatle boots.’ We considered Prabal to be a bit of a know-it-all. Often we suspected he just made up facts just to be an one-upper. But as Google didn’t exist in the 80’s, there were certain things that one had to accept at face value. Unfortunately, Prabal was also the class topper. And he had just returned from a trip from Shillong, a place none of the audience he was addressing had been to. He nonchalantly brandished the sales receipt for his achingly cool pair of Jordache jeans and stated ‘Even the salesman was wearing Jordache’. Thankfully, the school recess bell rang giving us the opportunity to escape Prabal and his exploits that somehow had the ability to make us feel a bit inferior. We were just happy that he didn’t get a leather jacket and Beatle boots.
Known as the ‘Scotland of the East’, Shillong is the capital of Meghalaya, a far-flung state in the north-eastern part of India. A very popular hill station, Shillong had a certain aura about it. A very stylish and westernized air. There were fine educational institutes. There were bands that featured regularly in magazines such as ‘Sun’ – the northeastern equivalent of Rolling Stone. And of course, everybody wore a jeans-leather jacket-Beatle Boots combo. In Jorhat, the sleepy town where I spent my formative years, ‘readymade’ clothes were a rarity for us. Most of us wore shirts and trousers stitched to abstract perfection by Paswan, the cranky neighborhood tailor. During high turnover seasons such as Durga Puja, he’d regularly miss deadlines or botch orders causing acute grief to youngsters. My friend Arun’s shirt was stitched from material, which was meant for his sister’s frock. Paswan that day watched in awe as Ma Durga appeared in the form of Arun’s mother. While on the topic of mothers, before the onset of winter, they could be spotted furiously knitting sweaters with grim focus and great dexterity. One size too big. The sweaters had to last two winters at least.
Shillong became more accessible once we moved base to Guwahati. It was now only 80 odd km away. But it still took a couple of more years before I found myself in a bus snaking its way up the Khasi Hills along with my mother and brother. After about three hours, the bus regurgitated us at Police Bazaar. To be frank, I was a bit disappointed. It was quite late in the evening. A stiff cold wind made people clutch whatever they were wearing closer. But more than leather jackets, jeans and boots, I spotted a profusion of monkey caps and shawl-clad beings huddled around makeshift bonfires. A quick taxi ride brought us to Assam House, our place of residence located on a small hill. It was a fantastic location. The houses in the surrounding hills were decorated with gaily-lit stars. It was mesmerizing to see these twinkling lights play hide and seek with a gentle mist rolling over the hills.
It was so quiet and peaceful that I stayed out despite the mist settling around me. And then I heard singing in the distance. The mist made it difficult to figure out the direction. But the singing was so lyrical that I wanted to hear more. Also, by then I was drunk with the sense of Shillong. I decided to let my ears guide me to the source of the song. A few steps later I was completely enveloped by the mist. The only sound I could hear was the crunch of gravel and the soulful song that was becoming clearer with every step. The Hound of the Baskervilles came to mind along with a couple of Edgar Allan Poe and Satyajit Ray tales. A tiny prickle of fear that was nervously scampering up and down my spine was somehow kept at bay by the singing. A few heartbeats later I spotted the blurry outline of a red star. A couple of swift steps brought me to a thick oak door. The song became louder. Without much ado, I grabbed the handle and pulled it open.
Whenever the topic of Christmas comes up, the first thing I remember is that misty evening when I stumbled inside the Catholic Church of Shillong. And found myself in front of a choir of young men and women practicing singing ‘Silent night, Holy night’. Young men and women dressed in leather jackets and jeans. I didn’t really notice the shoes. But I am sure they were Beatle boots.