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A touch of the vintage, a taste of the modern: making new memories in familiar old Shillong

A writer in search of the nostalgic pineapple soufflé of his childhood in the Meghalayan capital returns with local lore and fresh food memories instead

shillongMeghalaya's Shillong, which the British nicknamed the Scotland of the East, has always carried that whiff of picture-postcard nostalgia about it (Source: Getty Images)

I went back to Shillong to find a pineapple soufflé.

I had had it as a little boy at the grand old Pinewood Hotel. It was served inside a whole pineapple that had been hollowed out and, in my memory, it was divinely airy and delicious, like a cloud of sophistication on a plate.

Pinewood hotel at night (Source: Sandip Roy)

Decades later, the sprawling Pinewood Hotel is still charming, if a little faded. The room key (there is no smart key here) is large and old-fashioned and one needs to jiggle the lock as if opening a treasure chest. A plaque outside the hotel says it was established in 1898 and was owned till World War II by a Swiss couple, Mr and Mrs Peruz. Prior to 1947, only westerners were allowed inside. I like to imagine the pineapple soufflé came from Mrs Peruz’s dog-eared cookbook.

But what feels really different about Shillong now is instead of pineapple souffle and Ward’s Lake nostalgia (Source: Sandip Roy)

When I post a picture on Instagram of the hotel, lit up at night with strings of twinkling yellow fairy lights, it unleashes a rush of Bengali nostalgia. Every Bengali on my Instagram feed, it seems, has stayed at the Pinewood hotel when they were in third grade. And it’s frozen in that vintage.

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Shillong, which the British nicknamed the Scotland of the East, has always carried that whiff of picture-postcard nostalgia about it. There is still the same little white bridge in the middle of Ward’s Lake, the artificial lake in the middle of town, with the fat red, black and orange carp swimming below, just like it was there when I was a boy. Even now when I order a cup of black tea, it comes with two cubes of sugar on the side, instead of a sachet, triggering memories of a time when even sugar cubes felt sophisticated. The little airport, a touch of modernity, is quaint, more bungalow than airport.

When I read Indranee Ghosh’s food memoir, Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved: Recipes and Reminiscences from India’s Eastern Hills (2021) about growing up in Shillong, it jived with my recollection of a place that was in India but somehow not of India at the same time.

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In her memory, Shillong was where her mother made quince jam from the fruit in their yard, and Ketumama grilled freshly caught river trout and they all listened to the Bertie Wooster radio series on BBC. There was also ethnic unrest, the infamous Bongal Kheda (Drive out the Bongals) agitations of Assam that began in 1960, violence against those perceived as outsiders. But now, the air of cute cosmopolitanism seems to be back with Bob Dylan festivals, Shillong choirs and peach wine.

Chillies Market (Source: Sandip Roy)

The best thing is there is no Kangchenjunga.

Iewduh market (Source: Sandip Roy)

There is a Shillong Peak but at 6,433 feet it’s no snow-capped Himalayan peak and thus there is none of the tension of getting up at the crack of dawn just in case the Himalaya deigns to oblige us with a sunrise. Instead, there are waterfalls and living root bridges that can be seen at any time of the day, women in tribal weaves selling yellow betel nuts and pig haunches and wiggling silkworm larvae at the labyrinthine Iewduh market. If you go at the right time of the year, there are cherry blossoms blooming everywhere like pink and white clouds.

Women in tribal weaves sell at Iewduh market (Source: Sandip Roy)

The cherry blossoms of Shillong bloom in November, unlike the sakura of Japan which usher in spring. It’s now the backdrop to Cherry Blossom festivals of music and literature. The cherry trees are a newer addition to Shillong and unlike many new touristy additions, the trees are actually pretty, not tacky.

Cherry blossoms at Ward’s Lake (Source: Sandip Roy)

But what feels really different about Shillong now is instead of pineapple souffle and Ward’s Lake nostalgia I get to learn about more local lore. The writer Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, author of the majestic Funeral Nights (2021), talks about the legend of the bored Khasi convict who started digging a hole in the ground which ultimately became Ward’s Lake although it got named after a sahib, not the convict. He takes us not to the tourist trap of Elephant Falls but the Mawphlang sacred grove with its stories of brown bull sacrifice and leopard and snake omens.

Sacred stones at sacred forest
(Source: Sandip Roy)

The young guide is awestruck because Nongkynrih is part of his school syllabus. He tries to impress us by finding a leaf with a little perfect heart cut in it by some insect. Later, we realise every guide “spots” the same leaf and the same rudraksh. If Nongkynrih realises the subterfuge, he graciously says nothing. In the hush of the forest where you can barely hear any birds, a few touristy touches are forgivable. It just means that next time I go to Shillong I might still find the rudraksh bead and the leaf with a heart-shaped hole.

Pork thali at Trattoria (Source: Sandip Roy)

Unlike that pineapple souffle. I had a pineapple georgette which turned out to look like a bar of soap. But the local pork thali at the Trattoria in Police Bazaar was better than remembrance of soufflés past. Perhaps, it’s just a reminder that one needs to make new memories in old places.

The writer is a novelist and the author of Don’t Let Him Know

First published on: 01-05-2022 at 06:20:32 am
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