Unlike the Tagorean wooly foggy Shillong immersed in ruminative grey, Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Shillong in his classic Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is full of sharp sun and astute observation of nature and bengali nurture. Nirad C Chaudhuri was married to Amiya (Dhar) Chaudhuri, a Shillong bengali who herself was a well known writer. Just for the sake of memory it is worth quoting the dedication of Autobiography of an Unknown Indian
“To the memory of the British Empire in India,
Which conferred subjecthood upon us,
But withheld citizenship.
To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:
“Civis Britannicus sum”
Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.”
One bright and sunny morning in 1932 I was going up the path which leads to the top of the peak above Shillong in the Khasi Hills (altitude 6,441 feet). The peak itself is only a knoll some one hundred or one hundred and fifty feet higher than the country immediately surrounding it, which is all open and rolling downs. I was greatly enjoying myself, for as I have said I love open spaces and solitude, and that morning, on the wind-swept downs around me, very few men were to be seen and none at all felt as intruders.
But for about one hundred yards the path up which I was going skirted a clump of dark, gnarled, and more or less stunted Khasi oaks, which grew on the northern face of the knoll. The passage of this stretch cost me some effort. The place was one of the few surviving old sacred groves of the Khasis, and there were some menhirs and dolmens scattered about. But it was not these associations which troubled me. Having a taste for archaeology, I went out expressly to see the menhirs and dolmens wherever they were to be found, and particularly at the village of Laitkor, about a thousand feet above Shillong, where there is a fine group. It was not these, but the trees of which I was afraid. And I breathed freely one when, reaching the open top, I recovered unobstructed vision and found everything stretched out to the horizon – the kind of landscape I have always liked.
There was before and below me the road to Cherapoonji and, branching off from it, the road to Mawphlang. There was the Laitlyngkot bridlepath. There was also the place where I thought would be Nongkhrem, famous for its Khasi dance, and the place further to my right where I placed Mawphlang with the beautiful gorge and rapids of the Bogapani. Turning round, and looking over the tops of the trees which a few minutes ago I had thought so sinister, I could see the bare ridge of Lum Dingei, the green and grassy Bhoi country, the dome-headed Sopet Bneng in the middle distance, and farther away the blue hills of Nongkhlaw. It was after sitting for a while on the top of the knoll and having a good look at the landscape and breathing the keen breeze that I recovered the composure which I had lost at the sight of the Khasi oaks. Since the feeling was so strong in me even when I was past thirty, it must have been embedded in my childish being pretty deeply. But the remarkable thing was that at Kalikutch I became completely free from it. I had no fear of trees, although we had very often to pass through wooded areas.
Besides being what it was, Kalikutch had for us an insubstantial and exotic trailer. This was formed of our ideas and mental pictures of the Assam hill station of Shillong. There was no mystery at all behind this unexpected association of ideas. My mother’s brother and his family, and a cousin of my mother with his family had been living at Shillong in the nineties, because they had taken up employment there. My grandmother, too, went and lived with her son for some years, and between 1895 and 1900 my mother visited Shillong thrice. The last time she went there was when I was two and a half years old. After that my uncle took up some work connected with the census of 1901 in a better-paid though temporary post, and having pleased his superior officer (I believe he was one Mr. Allen) was, when the census was over, permanently posted in the magisterial grade and became within a few years what in India is called a deputy magistrate or extra assistant commissioner. But this promotion involved my uncle’s transfer from Shillong to the districts, and with that my grandmother’s return to her village. My mother’s cousin continued to live at Shillong and kept up the bond of the family with the town.
My mother never again visited Shillong after 1900, and I was too young to come away with any recollections of our stays there. But the place was as real and living to me as any place I had actually seen. From the descriptions given to me I could always visualize the town. To give one or two instances of the accuracy of my imaginative evocation; when after marrying into a family of Shillong I went to pay a visit to my father-in-law in 1932, I did not find the polo ground and the lake in any perceptible way different from my imagined picture of them, and the extraordinary thing was that I had in the meanwhile seen no photograph of the polo field and a very small and inadequate one of the lake.
I shall try to give an analysis of the ideas we formed about Shillong. It seemed to us to be a place of very much greater and more diversified natural beauty than any place we had seen. The long and difficult journey from Kishorganj or Banagram was described to us minutely: the successive stages of the journey by palanquin, steamer, boat, and thapa or the cane chair carried on their backs by the Khasis with the help of a strap passed round their foreheads; the steep ascent from Tharia Ghat to Cherapoonji; the careful picking of steps along, and sometimes across, the deep gorges of the southern Khasi Hills; the sudden feeling of having reached the end of a long journey on catching the first glimpse of the pines of Upper Shillong – all this, visualized through imagination and made as real as life, made the place appear more romantic still. My mother told me that when she was going to Shillong with me as a child two and a half years old I sat in the thapa looking solemnly on the fold of the hills, sighed very sadly, and said, “How should we ever reach home!” To hear this incident repeated made me almost as wistful. Our idea of the beauty of Shillong was heightened by the information that all about it were plantations of sweet-smelling pines. We had the sensation of the fragrance in our nostrils because a few logs of the Khasi pine had been sent to us, and my mother burnt one or two pieces occasionally at Kishorganj.
Besides this, we came to know that at Shillong we could see not only grown-up Englishmen in flesh and blood, and at all times of the day, but also their doll-like babies, which sounded too good to be true. We also formed the notion that it was a place full of Gurkhas, as indeed it was, for it was the depot of two Gurkha regiments and always had two battalions of Gurkhas stationed there. My mother told us stories of the training of the Gurkhas, how they came down to the polo field with their mountain gun on their pack mules and before anybody could guess what they were about set it up, and how one day, while carrying out piqueting practice, a party of them trooped into my uncle’s house and climbing the pear tree ate up all the pears.
As regards the Bengali population of Shillong, we formed two rather conflicting impressions. One was that the women were very much more free at Shillong than at any other place we knew of, and the other was that the men were very much less so. It appeared to us that the men at Shillong spent their days shut up in a room and working at their desks. The impression was right because most of the Bengalis at Shillong were clerks in government offices. It also seemed to us that Shillong was a place where monotheism prevailed over polytheism and that in the face of the One-God or Brahma, as we called him following Brahmo theology, our familiar many-gods kept themselves very much in the background. This notion was due partly to the fact that my uncles – my mother’s brother and cousins – had been strongly influenced by Brahmoism (in actual fact, one cousin had embraced Brahmoism, while the other cousin and the brother had not done so only in name), and partly to the fact that at Shillong nearly all the Bengalis affected liberal and reformist religious views. So, when we heard stories of Shillong life, we also heard a lot about going to the prayer hall on Sundays, and about prayers and sermons. One day, when my mother joined in the singing of a hymn, I took it in my head to get frightened and screamed so dreadfully and unappeasably that she was compelled to leave the prayer hall in deep mortification. But I was made to pay for my misbehaviour by being dragged over the stony road for about a third of a mile, receiving more than an occasional box and cuff on the way. This reminds me of another story told by my mother. The fashionable and Laodicean monotheism practised by the Bengali gentlemen of Shillong so annoyed a fervent and real monotheist that one day he resolved to go for the hypocrites who paid lip homage to Yahweh at Shillong and worshipped at high places in their villages. As he sat down to pray he slowly intoned: “Brahma, O Lord! deal justly with them, they that worship you here but in their villages worship the image of Durga, and with an axe smite them on the head, smite them on the head, and smite them on the head.”
All these notions of ours about Shillong, and the medley of images formed by the stories of hills, trees, gorges, English babies, Gurkhas, pear trees, and prayer halls, came surging into our mind when at Kalikutch my grandmother said that she had got a letter from her son or her nephew or her daughter-in-law, or when she and my mother discussed old times. The evocation was so continuous that the idea of Shillong became the intangible fourth dimension of Kalikutch. Soon we saw something tangible, though short of the reality. In 1907 my uncle spent a few months in his village and at that time he showed us his collection of photographs of Shillong, taken by himself, for he was a good photographer. One day he took out two photographs and asked me to say whose they were. I saw that they were of the same man – a young man in a suit, with a beard and a whole head of curly hair parted in the middle – and looking at my uncle, who had both a beard and a good head of hair, I replied, “Yours, Uncle, when you were young.” He was very amused and told me that they were my father’s. I could not remember my father except as a shaven and bald man, and I had never seen him in a suit either. Therefore I was so very much struck by the two photographs that apart from other things they by themselves convinced me that Shillong was very different from Kishorganj. The other photographs of the sights and beauty spots of Shillong only served to deepen the original conviction.
But perhaps the strongest impression of the beauty of Shillong that I received was from my uncle’s orchid collection. I believe at one time he had tried to set up as an exporter of orchids, but had given up the business and remained a simple collector. To collect orchids in the Khasi Hills in those days was not a very expensive hobby. But my uncle had to give up adding to his collection when he left Shillong. Shortly afterwards he sent us quite a number of plants which at Kishorganj we ruined through neglect and ignorance. Later, when he came to visit us himself, he brought two plants, and with his own hands he put one in a box and hung up the other on a tree. For one season – and one season only, because we did not know how to tend them- they bore flowers of dazzling splendour. The one in the box had a profusion of deep pink tulip-like flowers, which lasted for about a month, and the other on the tree bore one single flower, yellow and black like the skin of a leopard, with the similarity heightened by its downy texture.
My uncle’s own collection, when he brought it down to Kalikutch, had dwindled to less than a quarter of its original size, but still it was not very small, and it was varied. He kept the plants under three mango trees. When they flowered the bloom was of such loveliness that, had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed that even the world of flowers was capable of giving birth to so much beauty and beauty of such duration. My uncle looked after each plant as if it were his child. It is still my dream to see, for I cannot hope to possess, a good collection of orchids. But I have not seen one other, whether at Shillong or elsewhere.
When there were no flowers it was a pleasure to go over the photographs of my uncle’s orchid house at Shillong. In monochrome the flowers seemed to be possessed of an unearthly purity which they had substituted, not to their disadvantage, for the hues of their real existence. Not satisfied with this version of orchidian beauty we went for a different effect by looking at the negatives of these photographs. We took out the boxes which contained my uncle’s negative plates and examined them carefully. The impression was disturbing. On those shadowy rectangles of glass we thought we had caught sight of the disembodied spirits of the orchids sighing for their lost colours. It was a queer and weird experience to pursue the image of the orchids from life into the negatives.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if orchids had reached Europe along with roses and been as common. One consequence would certainly have been that some of the most splendid European poetry would not have been written. Waller would not have admonished, “Go, lovely rose!” nor Ronsard coaxed, “Mignonne, allons voir si la rose…”, but beauties would have been spared even larger quantities of special pleading on the part of poets. Compared to orchids in preference to roses, they would have gained confidence and not felt so very ephemeral and so relentlessly bound to fall off at the end of the day, “feuille a feuille declose”. Into the bargain, they would gave got some foretaste, even while living, of the floral immortality which was to be theirs among the fields of asphodel, while men, giving up poetry for gardening, would have been building green houses for them instead of strewing beds with rose leaves and graves with sprays of yew.