By Nabamita Mitra
“Do not worry about saving these songs/And if one of our instruments breaks,/it does not matter./We have fallen into the place where everything is music. — Jelaluddin Rumi
They heard music in the flowing streams and saw beauty in the forests when they came to the hills of Meghalaya (erstwhile undivided Assam) from the fertile plains of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. They were determined to transform the uninhabitable terrain into a model colony and so they did.
R&R Colony’s journey from a sparsely populated forested area with no basic amenities to a buzzing locality spans over 60 years.
The place in the eastern part of the city where the colony was established in 1958 was earlier known as Jung-Mawrie as “the jungle belonged to the Mawrie clan and the government acquired the land from them for resettlement”.
“The minority Hindu settlers from the then East Pakistan were given two options, either to come to this place or go to Bhaigyakul (Laitumkhrah),” says Nilanjan Bhattacharjee, president of the welfare society of the colony, which sits between Rynjah and Umpling.
Later the place came to be known as Umpling. Bhattacharjee says his family was among the first settlers here “but even before we came, there were a few houses scattered amid the forest”. There were 275 allotted plots and allotment started from 1951-52.
JM Das, a senior member of the welfare society, says when the residents came to Shillong, violence in East Pakistan was spiralling “though Sylhet on the other side of the Surama river was peaceful compared to places like Barisal and Noakhali”.
Though settlers started coming before 1958, the year is considered the beginning of the story “because the first community Durga Puja was held in this year”, explains the current members of the welfare society whose office is housed in the locality’s community hall that came up much later.
Most of the settlers in the locality came from Sylhet and some of them were employees of the British raj. When they brought their families from trouble-torn East Pakistan to Shillong, it was a big leap. The settlers only had government loan and CGI sheets as aid. The rest were left to them.
Himangshu Shekhar Chakraborty was only eight months old when his family came to Shillong in 1959 and settled in the locality. Sitting on the porch of his picture perfect Assam-type house complete with a well-pruned garden, Chakraborty says the house was built by his mother from the refugee money. “We received Rs 2,000 to build the house. What you see now is the renovated structure,” says the former English teacher of Umpling Boys’ Higher Secondary School.
The colony, which was never under the Shillong Municipal Board, expanded and the residents felt the need for a community body to address the grievances as well as take up development works. So in 1961, two years after the settlement, the welfare society was formed and registered, and with this started development initiatives to make the place liveable. The society was then called Them Umpling Welfare Society.
Arnab Das, secretary of the society, says the first road was constructed by the residents.
“In the 1960s, the settlers requested the government to make a gravel road but the government expressed its helplessness and gave an estimate of Rs 28,000. It was a huge amount for the residents back then but they managed to collect it and build the road,” says Bhattacharjee. Before this, it was only a slushy path cutting through the forest.
With the gravel road, the residents began the arduous journey to becoming a model colony and now every house in the colony is connected to motorable road.
“When I came here in 1961, there was no water, no electricity and no black-topped roads. There was only a lower primary school constructed by the R&R Department of the then Assam government,” says 90-year-old Subodh Chandra Chowdhury, one of the oldest residents of the colony.
Today, the colony has four schools — two lower primary and two higher secondary for boys and girls. “Most of the old-timers have studied in the schools here,” Das informs as he shows the old but spacious building of the Dr Radhakrishnan Boys’ Higher Secondary School. Established in 1964, the school’s history is overshadowed by tall RCC buildings which have come up around it over the years.
The residents also felt the need for a dispensary for medical emergencies. The first dispensary was set up by Red Cross through the initiative of late Dilip Chowdhury, who was associated with the organisation.
But due to lack of funds, the society found it difficult to run the dispensary after a few years and “petitioned the Health and Family Welfare Department to extend support”, says Chowdhury.
“There were 150 households and there was no bus service before the pucca road was made. So the residents of the colony sought the government’s help and with special permission two buses started in the morning and in the evening,” he adds.
As hurdles kept recurring, the residents’ determination to develop their “new home” got stronger.
With no water supply to the colony, the hard-working members of the welfare society once again decided to prove their mettle. They stood united to win over the adversities.
“Before we got the first deep well (it is the first locality to get one) in 1988, the society members cobbled up a solution. They would get water from the stream (the Umpling), filter it and pump it to the reservoir. This water was supplied to the households,” says Bhattacharjee.
Even today, the society takes care of supply of the PHE water to all the 275 households as well as the houses in an adjacent neighbourhood.
The society also built a co-operative store, known as the Umpling Multipurpose Co-operative Store, in 1963.
The store is still in existence and has only grown in size and business over the years.
The first extra-departmental post office that came up at late Kumud Bihari Dev Koroni’s residence in 1961 was also the fruit of the society’s endeavour.
There were problems galore but the society members fought back. “In 1984, when PA Sangma came to the locality, we submitted a memorandum mentioning about our difficulties. He helped us,” says Chowdhury.
The welfare society has also been responsible for collecting garbage and maintaining street lights for years now. “We pay Rs 6-7 lakh in electricity bill every year for the street lights,” says Arnab.
The name R&R Colony was coined much later. Earlier the entire locality was called Umpling but as years passed by, a section of the residents of Umpling did not want to be tagged with the settlement.
In 1981, the society members decided to rechristen the colony U Tirot Sing Nagar and sent a proposal to the government. The name was approved. Around 2002, several local pressure groups caviled about the Bengali settlement being named after a Khasi hero. “One day they just came and defaced all the signboards bearing the colony’s name,” recollects Arnab.
In January 2005, the state government, without taking the residents into confidence, changed the name to Ka Them Rynjah.
The KHADC said the locality would be under Rynjah Dorbar.
The government move did not go down well with the Bengali settlers and they filed a writ petition in the Guwahati High Court in 2005 and in the same year the court directed the government to set aside its order for name change. It was after this lengthy process that the name Relief and Rehabilitation (R&R) Colony was coined.
The colony has undergone a sea change since its establishment. The forest and the tin-roofed Assam-type buildings gave way to dense habitation and concrete. “I still remember when I was a child our parents and elders would say not to leave children out in the open fearing attacks by jackals and foxes,” reminisces Bhattacharjee.
Every house had a garden with fruit trees like peaches, plums and pears, says television actor Indrajit Chakraborty, who was born and brought up in R&R Colony, as he talks about his childhood.
Chakraborty, who lives in Kolkata now, was scheduled to attend the inauguration of the year-long diamond jubilee recently but could not.
“I still remember the backyard gardens and plucking fruits from the trees with friends. There were weaverbird nests everywhere and we would collect those. Unfortunately, the gardens are getting replaced by concrete.”
He also remembers the simplicity and warmth of the people and the “community feeling”.
Though the colony has lost its vivacity as most of the youngsters have shifted to metropolitans for greener pastures, the community feeling still exists to a great extent even after incorporation of over 50 Khasi families in the colony.
A visit to the colony during the foundation day celebrations of Matri Sangha, a club, was heart-warming. Most of the residents were participating in the community lunch and other cultural programmes.
“The club, which manages the Kali temple beside other activities, was established in 1976, and has 108 members. The new temple was built by the members with just one mason to help. We would come back from our work and join the construction work at night,” says president Nibaran Chandra Das.
The community hall, which was built with the help of BB Dutta when he was an MP, is another place for social gatherings like puja, weddings and even indoor sports.
“We are a close-knit colony and remain together in happiness and sorrow,” says Arnab.
The model colony too has its share of woes. Arnab says the biggest problem is illegal parking of vehicles.
“The roads are motorable but narrow and anyone just comes and parks his/her car along the road making it difficult for vehicles and pedestrians to move. There are other nuisances like drinking on roads. We had earlier approached the deputy commissioner and the SP’s office but the problems continue,” he adds.
Health Minister AL Hek, who has been living in the colony for the last four years and regularly participates in Bengali celebrations, says he knows about the problem but “an official complaint should come to me so that I can take action”.
Nonetheless, the BJP legislator is all praise for the “model colony” and its “vibrant welfare society”.
“It was part of my constituency before delimitation. The colony is purely residential and the best part is that it is the only locality in the city that is well planned (there is a signboard at the entry point of each lane with lane and house numbers). So I decided to shift to this place from Golf Links. The welfare society is doing true service to the people and taking care of all civic amenities,” he says.
What is encouraging is the perseverance of the residents. It is no mean feat to keep development on track for six decades and keep up the same spirit even today. The exemplary work of the residents is commendable and inspiring and hence the society wants to celebrate the occasion by organising an array of events in the next one year ending September.