Travelling to Shillong is fairly easy—most airlines fly to Guwahati from all metros and it’s just a three-four hour drive by car, or if one is on one of the city buses, like we were, it could well take up to five hours. The narrow uphill spiral road that connects Guwahati to Shillong is naked on one side and has a perpendicular mountain slope on the other. We were informed by our driver, in Hinglish with a heavy Assamese accent that there was always an impending danger of a landslide, and more so because of the road extension work. Adding to the adventure was the fact that Shillong was experiencing heavy rains, which obviously increases the chances of a landslide threefold. I popped an Avomin, hoping that it would help me conk off and prevent me from having motion sickness, but his anecdotes about how he nearly got crushed in a landslide the previous night did little to sooth my nerves.
Guwahati has many similarities with Bengal. The moment I stepped out of the airport and onto the road, I realised that everything around me—the road signs, the hoardings, the sign boards, even the bumper stickers on rickshaws and buses—were written in Bangla. Well, almost. The Assamese script is quite similar to Bengali, except for a few characters, which is why anyone who is fluent in Bangla can understand and read Assamese with a little bit of effort.
The look of the city too was similar to any second tier city in Bengal. The flat-topped houses flanked by banana and coconut trees in their backyard within a brick boundary wall, looked all too familiar. The city was decking up for Durga Puja, something I didn’t know was so popular in this region. I asked our driver almost rhetorically, ‘ Ekhane Durga Pujo hoy?’ (You celebrate Durga Puja here?). Emphatic that he wouldn’t have to retort to Hinglish anymore, he gushed out, ‘ Haan, khub boro kore.’ (Yes, with a lot of pomp and show too). Secretly enjoying the conversation in my mother tongue and seizing the opportunity to squeeze out a bit more information, I probed him, ‘How far is Cherrapunjee’s root bridge from Shillong?’ It turned out it was about another three hours from where we’d be put up in Shillong, I looked at Eijaz, my efficient guide and friend from Kingfisher Blue Mile, hoping he’d give us a green signal to go there, but he shook his head disapprovingly, ‘Our schedule is tight and we have many activities lined up.’ Oh well, there’s always next time.
As we kept moving forward, I noticed a visible change in the landscape as we were exiting Assam and entering Meghalaya. The oh- so-familiar houses made way for thatched, mostly asbestos-roofed cottages, and the familiarity of Assamese was replaced by the lullaby-like Khasi, and not to forget a drastic drop in the temperature. The chill in the air made us pine for some hot tea and we decided to halt at Nongpoh, the halfway mark between Guwahati and Shillong.
By this time, it was pretty dark, and the road, sans any street light, was illuminated only by the light from approaching vehicles. In this part of the world, there’s no concept of nightlife, and the only shops you’ll see up and running are tiny roadside eateries which are nothing short of bliss for fatigued travellers like us. We gorged on some Maggi too, and that’s something that was going to be a staple for the next couple of days. Once back in the bus, I decided to sleep, but our driver had other plans—he wanted some music to keep him awake while driving and he played songs that sounded like Honey Singh, the Assamese version. Deep down, we’re all just the same, I guess.