Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cleanliness and the North East

Have been away from blogging due to a hectic travel schedule which included 10 days in Guwahati, a city (and area) currently mired in layers of dust. The IIT campus there is charming and beautiful, with ponds, ducks and - inevitably - swarms of mosquitos big enough to carry you away. But it hasn't rained in ages and it really shows. On days when there was a slight breeze, the dust would pile up and visibility would dip. I often felt the crunchy sand in my teeth. Thankfully I don't seem to have a dust allergy, but wonder what happens to those who do.

I was lecturing at the SERC school in Theoretical High Energy Physics, held at IIT Guwahati, and the experience was - as always - stimulating, enjoyable and tiring. So I jumped at the chance to join the excursion to Shillong on a Sunday. We drove through suburbs of Guwahati that were averagely ugly but remarkably dirty. I'm never sure how to calibrate dirt - in India, it always seems infinite. If there is any system of garbage disposal other than throwing everything in the middle of the street and then shitting all over it, it's been too slow coming and has made little visible impact. Sad for a country allegedly poised to be a superpower (on the plus side could we dump our garbage in other countries then??). One doesn't know who to blame: the populace at large or the government. Doesn't the latter stem from the former in a democracy?

I was keen to see Meghalaya, among other things because it has acquired a reputation for cleanliness. The village of Mawlynnong (which we did not visit), 75 km from Shillong, has recently received an award for being the cleanest village in Asia, read about it here. (I've read elsewhere that this award proved to be a mixed blessing, since it caused tourists to visit and mess up the place!). Indeed, on crossing the border from Assam to Meghalaya one sees a definite upward trend in tidiness. Visibly, people seem to care about keeping their villages clean. We drove through the charmingly named towns of Byrnihat, Nong Poh and Umsning, not to mention a village called "Quinine"!

At Nong Poh we stopped for tea at a simple restaurant called, I think, "Sweet Day". It seemed strikingly clean in its category (very inexpensive and serving a variety of chicken, fish and meat dishes). Then I saw the sign behind the cashier: this place was the recipient of an award for "cleanest restaurant in Nong Poh". Given that there are probably just two restaurants in Nong Poh it may not be a huge achievement, but clearly the management and the populace did care about the issue. What I liked especially was that the bathrooms were simple, open to the sky and not fancy at all, but spotlessly clean and entirely smell-free. Yes fellow Indians, it can be done.

This experience built up huge expectations of Shillong in me, which were dashed to the ground when I was decanted into the "famous" Police Bazaar, an ugly winding road dotted with shops and hawkers and offering little space to walk. The road progressively became more and more filthy as I walked on, till I found myself staring at a large pit in the sidewalk that seemed to have been borrowed from the set of Slumdog Millionaire! I'm sure you know the pit I'm talking about.

Well I quickly walked ahead and that was a good decision, for in the brief two hours available to me, I saw other areas of Shillong that changed my view for the better. Chapel Road, in Qualpatty, rises off police bazaar and has churches and graceful homes. The residential area of Mawkhar has little houses whose gardens are so chock full of colourful flowers it can make you weep. I also found, in Mawkhar, a small restaurant that was simple and clean. It had around eight wooden tables and benches, the backs of the latter sporting cheerful red and white checked cloth covers. The same material also featured on the curtains. All this right in the middle of a residential area. For the record, it was called "Blue Heaven" and the few customers all seemed to be local. So I hopped inside and selected "Pork Chow" for lunch (no menu, the waiter reels off the selections). While it wouldn't have received any culinary awards, it was a fairly tasty plate of noodles, low on oil and with no chillies thankfully. The microscopic amount of pork in it tasted fresh. And lunch set me back Rs 50 including a Frooty.

To get back to anywhere, I had to walk through wretched Police Bazaar again. And that ends my ultra-brief Shillong travelogue. Two hours is a little short, after all. But I'll be back, not least to check out the rock music scene - for Shillong is the rock capital of India.


Rahul Basu said...

If you ever happen to visit the North East Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong you will find a charming wooden building which is the Guest House nestling in the middle of a pine forest, with a small well tended garden on the slopes in front. Anticipation turns to despair the moment you enter, though. The beautiful building is -- predictably -- musty, damp, ill maintained and ill-managed, the room furniture and bathrooms have probably never been cleaned for years and there is that typical over-riding sense of decay mainly due to the fungus and mildew that grows on the walls due to the incessant rains. Adding to this mustiness are the carpets/dhurries everywhere, which probably saw a proper cleaning about a decade ago. (I should confess that my info is 3 years out-of-date so maybe (I hope so!) things have improved).

Maintenance has always been our Achilles heel in India and we have a remarkable propensity for ruining some of our most attractive structures. And it has nothing to do with lack of money. Look at the DAE Guest Houses. That's the reason I am impressed with the IIT Guwahati Guest House where they make a concerted attempt at proper maintenance.

Meena said...

Following Rahul's comment: The guest house at IIT Kanpur also impressed me very much when I was there earlier this month. A marked improvement over my previous visit 15 years ago. Sunil, you were at IIT-K too last month; what is your "comparative assessment"? And if you agree that the GH is good, how do you think they manage it? I think the running of the GH is outsourced to a private contractor - certainly they seem to run it like a commercial hotel. The net effect was that even after 11 days there, I was a bit regretful about leaving!

Meena (IMSc)


Cheeta said...

Apparently, there is dust and there is dust. And if one has a "dust allergy" it really means you're allergic to something in the dust.

According to The MadSci Network [], household dust - which is what most people who claim to be "dust allergic" are allergic to - consists of (and I'm quoting here) human skin and hair, waxes, pollen, mold, fungi, lichen, tiny particles of wood, paint, fibers from fabrics such as wool, nylon, rayon, acrylic and polyester, foam rubber, plant and vegetable matter, insect parts, and of course every form of pollution, lots of food waste, and loads of paper fiber...

After reading this I feel it's a wonder everyone doesn't have a dust allergy!

My guess is that the non-household dust you breathed in while walking around the IIT Gauhati campus was largely silicon dioxide, which by itself could have given you silicosis rather than an allergic reaction. The dust inside the NEHU Guest House in Shillong which Rahul mentioned would be another thing altogether; my advice would be to stay elsewhere!