Voice: Sandipan

Every remarkable achievement has a modest beginning and that beginning is first born in  people’s dream. Erstwhile Quinton Hall turned Rama Krishna Mission Vivekananda Cultural Centre, a landmark in present Shillong, was no exception. The hall where Swami Vivekananda delivered his  enlightening speech on 27th April 1901 that eventually was to be the last public speech of his life, had its initiation way back on 28th July, 1890. As the need of a public hall was being felt for some time, a meeting of a few like minded, prominent persons of the then Shillong was held in Babu Kirtiram Baruah’s place on that date.  A committee by the name of “Public Hall Committee” was formed  as par resolution of the meeting. The participants were Babu Sarat Chandra Dhar, Babu Umesh Chandra Majumdar, Babu Shreesh Chandra Banerjee , Babu Keertiram Baruah and Munsee Mohammad Assanulla. The former Three were President, Secretary and Treasurer respectively, remaining two being the members.

        The first  meeting involving the general public of Shillong was held next year and with their liberal financial contribution this public hall was established in 1892.

       This was ages before my father, Late Jagadindra Nath Choudhury, who ultimately succeeded in reverting it back to its original purpose by handing it over to Ramakrishna Mission, saw the light of this world. It happened to be a difficult legal battle over thirty seven years, against its falling prey to commercial exploitation, with his untiring efforts. The series of unfortunate incidents that followed over a long span of time since its inception can be summed up at a later occasion.

       Today, I would like to recollect my personal memories about the hall and and its adjoining area, from late 1940s or early 50s till 1992 when this public property had been successfully restored and handed over to this organisation for the purpose of social benefit.

It  was a sprawling low land, bounded by Quinton Road on the west and north side running at a higher elevation, with a dilapidated structure known as “Singhania Talkies”, a part of the building housing office of VCC today. Behind it two shabby sheds stood near east and west boundaries facing each other, where very few broken cars used to be parked with mechanics working on them.  One or two trucks would occasionally be worked upon. Seemingly casual compared to the busy Bijoli Motors further up on Quinton Road, Nagi Motor Works in Police Bazar and Khan Motor Works on Keating Road to name a few close by, the main attraction being the cinema hall. The small shed on the eastern side of the land contained a space for a terribly noisy Dynamo to cater to the cinema during power cuts, completely shattering the silence of the locality . 

            Between two sheds there was an ill maintained space, parallel to Quinton Road on the west, which served  as part of a straight  thoroughfare between two sides of “L” shaped Quinton Road for some school going children of the locality or people who would compromise with potholes, grease, oil, and heaps of garbage for a shortcut to and from the hall or beyond. The southern most portion of the land, segregated from the other part with a shallow dent created by flowing rain water from the higher level, was a considerable open space for free neighbourhood boys to run about. Some archins loafing around would also venture in evesdropping closer to back wall of the hall for their favourite dialogues from ongoing shows. Of course, they were often relieved of the effort when the sound box threw tantrums and the dialogues along with music did entertain the neighbouring houses as well. To humbly admit, yours faithfully picked up a number of light “film songs” in the process that were otherwise forbidden for her on consideration of tender age. 

     This whole property lay, between Quinton Lane on the south and a wide open, deep, main  municipal drain on the east, serving the greater locality. The west and the north, however, was bounded by Quinton Road, without a formal boundary on any of the sides. Leaving quite a wide space in between the cinema hall and a shallow drain in the west and an extremely narrow pathway separating the dynamo shed in the south, there was a lawn tennis court with a changing room and a pavilion attached, where the middle class Indian youth of the erstwhile society got a chance to learn playing lawn tennis without seeking benevolence of the British dominated Shillong Club and continue to play. This piece of govt. land, the present parking lot with garden, lying idle earlier, however, was added to  the Quinton hall property since 1921, thanks to untiring efforts of U Dohori Ropmay. I remember observing at least two generations playing in that court.  We would enjoy the game from our house, self, of course, without much knowledge about the rules, and supply drinking water for the players on their request.

   In mornings the ball boys of the tennis club would prepare the court with roller, markers, net, etc. for the game in the afternoon. After the game of Tennis every evening, they would sit together  on one grassy patch close to the court near the eastern boundary.They would play games, sing in chorus with tins containers for percussion accompaniment. Once in a while presence of bamboo flute would make it more interesting.They would not only have good time among themselves,but also cheer up the otherwise unhealthy atmosphere. In winter evenings they would have a bonfire lit there to warm themselves up, a red glow of fire brightening their faces and parts of limbs exposed to it. Watching their glowing contented faces in otherwise dark gloomy winter evenings that side from our confinement of comfortable rooms warm with electric heating, many imaginative young hearts used to pine for similar freedom, I assume. I, for example, nurtured a dream, for quite some time, of being born as a ball boy on my rebirth. 

         To their utter dismay, as expressed by the senior members in the neighbourhood, ambience of the locality deteriorated fast since the structure was converted in a cinema hall after 1946. Moreover, due to absence of essential facilities available to the cinema goers, the narrow pathway beside the tennis court served as a public urinal lined up by a class of the male audience, during interval, oblivious of public eyes in the residential area, stench and  general hygiene. It continued over the years. At times this queue would extend along the edge of the main drain, defining the total eastern boundary of the land including the tennis court.

         Yet, it was not devoid of innocent merriment, especially for the children. What was highly attractive to me as a child, was the southern most part of the property where a day or two before the Holi festival busy preparations would start for the ceremonial “Holika dahan” attended by the Marwari population of the town or may be one large extended family only. Our excitement knew no bounds. No where have I seen so far such beautiful Holika made with a  tall  local pine tree supported by piles of log with heaps of dry pine leaves covering them.

         The ladies of the community used to come in the morning before Holi with ritualistic offerings like pulses, flowers, garlands, rolls of thread, incense, sweets and, to the amazement of the children, garlands made of cowdung cakes. Placing them on the sacred pyre one by one with care and devotion performing rituals chanting the mantras, they circumambulated the pyre with the ball of thread in hand a number of times thus encircling it with the thread. The late evening used to host a gorgeous sizable gathering of the families arriving in hoards to burn the holy pyre. Ladies would arrive donning their colourful traditional attires with fineries, singing traditional tunes, all the while. Another set of rituals would follow before the fire was lit on the holy pyre. Merriment would continue till  Holika was ablaze and the fire concluded leaving bright sparks of amber gleaming from dark ashes as a promise for the celebration next year. Most of the neighbours’ attention was drawn as a part of it from their individual compounds around. All became mentally one with the gathering on the field irrespective of race, caste and creed. We would come down to the lowest level of our house with our seats. There would be occasions when our guests from other localities would travel all the way joining us to watch this celebration.

      Depending on auspicious timing, in some years this ritual used to take place late at night. We, being the closest neighbour and the senior members of our family being enthusiastic enough, were woken up by them to enjoy.

       Next morning the male members of the celebrating community, mostly clad in spotlessly white crisp  dhoti and kurta,  would visit the spot in small groups to pay their homage by smearing handful of ashes left from the sacred pyre, on themselves.

       Thus the open, cosmopolitan ambience with a number of significant  minority communities in this small picturesque town opened our minds to the rest of the world as did the main annual festivities involving a large part of the society like autumn festival of DurgaPuja, local festivities of Sad Suk Mynsiem, Eucharistic Procession in November and cheerful Christmas with midnight carols and somber tolls of church bells drifting all over the town through rustling pines, celebrating the arrival of baby Jesus in December. It was much later that we got to know about the societal conflicts of interest, exploitation and divisions that led to so much of sufferings. Luckily, they could not tarnish the inner joy our togetherness imbibed in our hearts way back in childhood.

       My past memory of this above metioned location has gone through sea changes after 1992 and still continuing its journey forward with  dedicated efforts from Ramakrishna Mission, the premier institution first established in Shillong in 1937 and even earlier in some other locations of Khasi and Jaintia Hills with an aim of service . Their contribution towards all round development of the people in this hill area is undeniable. The essence of their toil towards upliftment and assimilation with respect for diversity in language, faith  and cultural heritage surely is a steady light of hope for brighter future. It is gratifying  to watch the  dream of a  few persons flourish in a  significant  proportion over  time and serve  its  purpose of upliftment of the people they loved so dearly, surviving through its long and chequered past.

Champa Sen Choudhury is an acclaimed author. She writes both in English and Bengali. She did her early schooling from Shillong andl ater from Calcutta. Apart from writing she taught in a school in kolkata after completing her Masters in Econimics from Calcutta University.