The time is 3:30 pm. As I get down from the SpiceJet flight, the cool wind hits me square in the face. It’s a beautiful calm and clear day in the interesting city of Guwahati. The sky is clear with just a few clouds lazing around above me and telling me a tale of a good evening ahead. Only, my destination is still far off, about four hours from here via taxi, in the beautiful hill station of Shillong. My father is expecting us (me and my mother) by at most 8 pm, considering the traffic and other modalities of disruption. One of the first things I notice is that my Vodafone network is not giving me a smiling welcome to national roaming rates in a state far off from my own. However, I am assured by one of my fellow passengers that this is just a passing phase and soon I will be receiving a modest amount of network. As I exit from the airport, the taxi arranged meets us. The driver is a young fellow, obviously elder to me but not approaching his thirties for few more years. Since my phone is still not responding, I try a few tried and tested methods to make it work, but they all fail. This time there is no co-passenger to assure me else I would have loved to beat him up. My Mother’s phone is low on balance and will not receive any calls, so obviously I am worried that my Dad will be worried. We head to the nearest market to get a recharge for Mom’s cell phone but on the way her signal gives up and we’re stuck with a recharge voucher and nothing to recharge it with. No worries, we’ve got to keep going, I say to myself and to my mother. So we head on, the taxi driver swishing through the traffic smoothly, enjoying his experience to the most. The time is now 4:30 pm and for some reason, its darker here that it would be at seven o’clock in Chandigarh. I don’t really know why this is so, but I ignore it. We continue smoothly until stopped by a few cops on the road and are asked to park to the side. The driver is not worried, but curious. So he steps out to ask what the fuss is about. I pray to God this guy has a license else we’ll be stuck like crazy. But that seems not to be the problem, he comes back and tells us that the Chief Minister will be passing from this road soon and so we’ll have to wait along with many other vehicles parked there. I groan; considering the way Chief Ministers and zealous about their security, it’ll be another half an hour before we even hear a mosquito from the cavalcade passes us. I am wronged when within ten minutes, a fourteen car cavalcade shoots past us. Then as soon as it moves, we are let go. Ok, interesting state!
Now we’re moving along at a good speed, overtaking traffic and pacing along the winding roads which will lead us to our destination. There are large hoardings of at least five different mobile companies all around us and yet no network in both our cell phones. The sky is now pitch-black and an increasing cold is steadily creeping into the taxi. Suddenly, our driver gets the inspiration to stop by the road side. It seems that one of the tires has gotten itself punctured. Seems like it’s going to be a long drive! I help him change the tire by flashing the LED light from my cell and he gets the work done in a score of minutes. Mom asks for a bottle of water but the shops I can se around are selling everything from CDs to timber, but no water. We’ll just have to wait I tell Mom. I see the fleeting views of village life in the East of our beloved India as we zoom past it all. Amazingly, nearly every house in the region has a shining star or a decorated tree in its compound. I am informed that the majority of the population here is Christian, by history. Interesting, I can only utter. Not soon enough, we are at a well furnished ‘dhaba’, stopping to have tea and to get the faltering tire repaired. What is a ‘dhaba’ doing in this part of the country??? I am told that Punjabis are a biggie here and the restaurant culture is too. Wow.
The tea (coffee in my case) consumed, we make a few fruit purchases in the shops which thrive in the aegis of the ‘dhaba’. It makes Mom happy to see that oranges are being sold at the same rate as we bought in Chandigarh. Next on the items list is a couple of Pineapples. Now the pineapple is an extremely funny fruit. It’s not really related to the apple and bears no resemblance whatsoever in taste and it’s not even a pine because, well, pine cones aren’t exactly consumable. But it’s named the pineapple and is found in abundance in this region. The local tribes have taken up the task to grow these fruits and to sell them far and wide. I take the opportunity to call up Dad to tell of our (mis)adventures and that we are safe and will be home, not soon. The shopkeeper talks to me in Hindi to hand me over the phone to make the call. When a localite comes to buy something from him, he talks to the customer in a local dialect and when a young boy comes to him to ask to make an STD phone call, the shopkeeper amazes me by talking to the English medium educated child in English. I decide that this man is probably very knowledgeable and I ask him about my current predicament regarding my cellphone. He asks me in crisp English as to which connection do I have and from where. I reply that I have a prepaid connection from Punjab. He disappoints by informing me that Vodafone prepaid doesn’t work in this part of the country, never has and probably never will. The only option I had was to convert to postpaid before I came here. With an innocent smiling, he is telling me- Welcome to the SSS, the Seven Sister States on the eastern-most part of India where, at 7:30 in the morning, the sun is nearly overhead and night falls at 4:30 during the winters and my mobile company doesn’t provide network to prepaid users. Amazing.
Our trip continues and after a long back-breaking drive, we reach Shillong. But our destiny wants to lead us about ten kilometers further, across the Army cantonment area and onwards to an IAF base. Now in his element (the cold, the wind, the speed of the car and of course,) at his native place Shillong, our driver becomes talkative. He appalls me by telling me that he is a Graduate in English Literature from the local University. I wonder out loud as to why he doesn’t yet have a job and he replies that there no value of a degree anywhere in India now and it’s not easy to find a good job in these parts of the country. His words cause a pang in my heart, I am aware that after college, I too will be stuck in a dead-end job where unless given high performance in a very boring job, I will be shunted out sooner that one can say the words “spoon-feeding”. He further informs me that his Mother has lived all her life here and does not want to move out for the sake of the future job of her only son. Mom tells me an interesting fact that according to tradition, the property owned by a father in a family goes on to his daughter and not the son as is custom in the rest of the World. What??? Why??? There is, of course, only as much answer for traditions as there is for why the sun is bright. It is so just because it is so. I shrug and move on to the next topic of discussion.
Finally, after a grueling four and a half hours, I arrive at the place I will be calling for some days from henceforth as Home. There is a fire burning steadily in the fireplace and a welcome dinner is the order of the hour. I am told that there is a hidden man-made lake nearby whose beauty is absolutely unsurpassable and the hilly terrain around me also holds a beautiful golf course. My interest in all of this dwindling with the dying fire, all I need is a bed and a duvet to keep the cold out of reach. I tuck in and roll over to my side. My eyes are shut by my brain which is going into hibernation, it’s going to be a long cold night, but I don’t care, all I am aware of is that someone is saying to me- Welcome to Shillong.