“In my little town of Shillong, things have changed,” begins Lou Majaw, a parental affection for the home of over seven decades softening his deep-bass voice. There have been two constants in the life of the Khasi musician monickered ‘Bob Dylan of India’: music and Shillong. The first he dabbles in daily, lockdown or not. Of the second, he harbours memories—and a deep, consuming concern.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, Shillong was truly Scotland of the East. Between the 1970s and 1990s it became India’s rock capital. But now it’s a hawker’s paradise, and the greens are also going,” explains the 73-year-old. Majaw refuses to point fingers at the usual suspect of overtourism, instead choosing to shoulder accountability as a local. “A place is its people. Back in the day, you could find a nice frame in every other house, with the words ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. Now people litter, sell their land for money, and cut down trees to park their cars,” he rues.
Sure, one can still marvel at the velveteen golf course, breath lighter in Lady Hydari Park or meditate in the watery calm of Ward’s Lake, but by and large, unchecked real estate growth has led to nature retracting from the northeastern city. “Some places are still pretty cool, so you come after this plague is over,” laughs the musician, listing haunts of choice. The Evening Club, a 1958 bar-cum-restaurant in the bustling heart of Police Bazaar, where blues, rock, folk and reggae find place on the menu; Cafe Shillong, the quaint eatery where local musicians, including Majaw, liven up sweeping views of the East Khasi Hills with Sunday performances; Trattoria, also in Police Bazaar and serving delectable Khasi fare; The small, nameless diners and jadoh stalls sprinkled across the city, best mapped out with a local; and an out-of-town bonus—Mei Duh eatery in Umsning village, “on your way from Guwahati to Shillong.” Majaw, obstinately youthful in his shoulder-length hair and short-shorts, suggests moving beyond Smit and Sohra for a real taste of paradise, after a jaunt around Shillong’s food and music hubs. “The air will be clean, and the treks wonderful.”
The want of air as clean as that of his childhood made Majaw turn to face masks about a decade before the pandemic struck. “You might even see a tear in mine, it’s so old,” he jokes. Growing up in the ’50s, one of his favourite spots was the Wah Umkhrah, its water so clear that one could see their feet and small, wiggling fish. “I’d go for cool dips with my friends,” he recalls. The Umkhrah River is now a shadow of its former self, sewage water from the city feeding into it despite the occasional clean-up attempt. “Another place was a small hillock on the edge of the golf course that we called Sunset Valley. Just climb up there with our smokes, radio, guitar and a little picnic, and watch the whole valley,” Majaw reminisces. But it’s not all grim news, for the lockdown that put music on long pause has also replenished nature’s sounds. “You wouldn’t believe it, the birds and crickets have started chirping louder in these past four months.” If Majaw had his way, every house would have at least two trees—a tree for the birds, and for eating and selling (fruits). And a Christmas tree so you don’t have to chop-chop in December. “No tree, no house.” “It can still change,” says the radio buff, who admittedly survives on hope. “Lou Majaw is lucky. When he wakes up at 5 a.m., the sun still trickles into his little house in Mawlai Phudmuri—baby, that’s a blessing,” the homeboy trills, referring to himself in third person quite comfortably.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.