My work took me to Shillong from Guwahati but my family kept pulling me back to Guwahati. It is a two-hour journey from Shillong to Guwahati one of the shortest distances amongst the Northeastern States in India if one can skip the traffic hours. I usually take late evening taxis after my classes on a Friday and rush back to Shillong on Monday early morning before the traffic gets really tough to crawl. In these journeys most of the co-passengers are from different parts of the country in Sumos, Swift Dzires, Innovas and also in Wagon-Rs. At times I speak to strangers but mostly overhear conversations. I have learnt from these journeys many different perspectives to life. There was one co passenger who came to Shillong for the first time in his life to explore the best quality of Babaji’s Prasad which happens to be a very high-quality intoxicant. He was from Delhi and shared his life about how he landed in Shillong with bare minimum resources and needed help to reach home back as his ATM card got blocked. His family was worried in Delhi and he came to taste the fresh quality of intoxicants in Shillong. He was an alchoholic earlier but now he was more into marijuana. He said in Delhi the quality of Marijuana is not fresh it has a lot of chemicals but here in Shillong one can get better ones.
In another journey I heard an Assam Rifles Officer discuss about higher secondary science with a PhD scholar who came to Shillong to present his paper on some new software mobile technology. Such conversations are rare in North East from armed forces as they would hardly speak to people around them. But it was very encouraging to find knowledge enthusiasts amongst the armed forces as well. Again, in another journey I happened to meet a man who happened to be an engineer but taught maths and science to visually challenged students through Braille at a Shillong based NGO named Bethany Society. He also shared about some interesting initiative of an architect from outside the North East who built some innovative rural housing structures based on the traditional round huts of Meghalaya. That was a good learning for me.
Shared taxis are a common mode transport even within Shillong. When I have to travel to different places across Shillong beyond the walking distance, I bump into many taxis. Some drivers ask me many questions about me and then my family and my profession. I also ask them about their business. One of them was very informative and shared about how different Christian denominations are there in Shillong and Presbyterians are the most prominent apart from the Catholics, Baptists and Protestants. When I asked him the difference then he said Presbyterians doesn’t believe in Mother Mary while the rest believe. But very recently one local taxi driver asked me if I had a family then I said I have then he asked how many children then I said none. Then he asked if I had a husband or not? I said why is family limited to children and husband? Why can’t parents, siblings, anyone who we value become family? I kept wondering if he asked such questions to his male passengers as well. Gender diversity doesn’t seem to exist in this context. He explained why he asked me such questions as Meghalaya is matrilineal. Everything is in the hands of the women. Then when I asked him about his hometown, he said he was from Hajo from his father’s side. His mother was from Meghalaya. He also shared how he left his previous job where he had to report to a woman boss so now, he has his own taxi and he was on his own feet. When I asked what his mother tongue was, he said very skilfully that in Shillong one has to speak all languages as per the passengers English, Khasi, Garo, Jaintia, Hindi, Bengali and Assamese. Shared Taxis have very civilised rules about sharing space and sharing costs too. Both long and medium distances can be covered easily in a low budget of Rs.10-20 without worrying about the shortest routes, parking and bargaining headaches. In all this, woman’s mobility is always a cause of concern for all, particularly men whose interest lies in both protection and predation. In either case, the women are at the receiving end. Most of the taxi drivers are supportive and helpful when I do not bargain the rates which fluctuate according to elections, festivals and availability of taxis. But for Shillong, shared taxis are the lifelines of both commuters and drivers. I remember one taxi driver sharing how happy he was that he was blessed with a daughter recently and his wife was a government employee at the state secretariat. If this was in a patriarchal society, the men would be looked down upon and women will never be so mobile but here it reflects upon the freedom of men in a matrilineal context.