Monday, June 02, 2008

Serenity by the lake and Iilish under the fly-over

The Shillong of ‘Shesher Kobita’ is gone – like most places one read and romanticized over in our youth. The same fate of other hill-stations has also befallen Shillong – ruined by unplanned growth. Being the capital of Meghalaya and the seat of the Council of North Eastern States has further contributed to its concretization.

It’s difficult to imagine the walks Labanya and Amit went on. Ward’s Lake in the center of town is an apology. And, I wouldn’t even dare take that drive to Cherrapunji – now called the ‘wettest desert’ in the world.

The Pinewood Hotel remains tucked away on Rita Road above the Raj Bhavan - now run by the government, it’s a shadow of its former self. But, unlike the desecrated Puri BNR (handed over on contract to a Lalu crony – a hotelier from Patna ), it retains much of its old character – the sprawling suites, the garden, the friendly staff ( if lacking the finesse of the ancient bearers from the days of the Raj ) and, most importantly, the wood paneled bar. The worst casualty, perhaps, is the dining room. It’s run down and looks a bit seedy - tho' the food, I am sure not a patch on what it used to be, is still the best you can get in Shillong (which can’t boast of too many interesting culinary options or choice of restaurants).

Admitted, it’s not easy to know a place and the people on quick business trips – when for the better part of the day ( and, often in the evenings as well ) one is cooped up in meetings. But, a visit to the bar at the local Club usually gives a distilled sense of the social scene. The Shillong Club is as old as the town itself – founded in 1874, when Shillong was declared as the Civil Station of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The new Club House re-constructed after the fire of the 70s has lost its heritage look and feel - something the other colonial institution – the Shillong Golf Club, the third oldest in India – has managed to retain. Once a preserve of British Officers and Tea Planters from Assam, the club is today the watering hole of local traders – who are the new dominant set.
In the midst of all this is a well kept secret across the Bada-pani lake called Ri kynjai - a breath-takingly beautiful alpine-style resort. Promoted by the owners of the Centre-Point (the best known business hotel in town ), the architecture was inspired by traditional Khasi thatched huts built over stilts ( the aerodynamically friendly structures in the shape of upturned boats are designed to face the squalls and storms of the region ). As you look out from its huge French windows –into the serene waters of the lake, you begin to appreciate - a little - why Shillong was ever called Scotland of the East.

On my now regular trips to Shillong – I take a mandatory stop at one of the many Sylheti-Bengali eateries in Guwahati. My favourite being Soham – a tiny but clean joint under the Ulubari fly-over ( near the editorial office of The Telegraph ). There’s also Ramu’s Hotel across the road – which many prefer - but I think Soham’s better in terms of its hygiene, ambience and even the quality of food. A lunch home for sales people and the staff of nearby offices – it serves the most mouth watering, Pabda, Iilish and Brahmaputra Chitol in home-style curries and a mean Mangshor-jhol. Gandha-leboo, kacha lanka and shutkir-acchar are essential accompaniments for satiating the senses.

On the last trip, I was introduced to a new restaurant serving authentic gourmet Assamese cuisine called ‘Delicacy’ – in Ganeshgudi (next to the Dispur Polyclinic on the way to the Secretariat ). It’s more up-market than Paradise ( where I had been earlier ) and offers a wider choice in the menu – ranging from pork, duck and pigeons in the meat section to a whole array of fish preparations all served in traditional “kanshar” (bell metal ) thalis. Tho’ somewhat comparable to Bengali recipes by way of gastronomical genre, Assamese food is less on spices and have more delicate and subtle flavours – gained from the greater use of vegetables, herbs and leaves ( sometimes also fruit - such as dried mangostein, I am told) in their cooking – imbibing distinct influences of other culinary traditions of the North-east and its neighbouring regions, including – probably – the lower reaches of China ( Yunnan ). It doesn’t exactly set my tastes-buds ablaze but the Tenga, ( a light sour curry made with tomato ) is one dish that I have come to like over time – thanks to the slow induction by Utpala (of the "Mosaic" fame ) in Delhi and the Bezboras of Pune.