It was a great day for me when I met the legendary Ruskin Bond and his good friend Ganesh Saili. I served a couple of drinks to Bond, in Saili’s house. I apologized to the others because my jeans had gravy stains on them and that was the cleanest outfit in my possession that day. Ruskin has a twinkle in his eye when he talks sexy, even at this age. I can imagine the blaze in his youth. Surprisingly down-to-earth and extremely witty, he immediately saw me for the rascal that I am. Humility, graciousness and wisdom equal Ruskin Bond. Mr Bond lives in Landour, in Mussoorie, and is a bachelor who fondly remembered the cheap whisky he used to drink in his youth before he hit the big time. I drink good whisky even though I’m yet to hit the big time. Maybe that’s where I go wrong; I should have stuck to the rum I drank in my youth. Ganesh is a cool cat and an excellent host, with a very gracious wife.
Bends in the Beas: (top) From Pulga-Tulga, the author headed to Manali; and Tenzing’s memoir of his adventures. Raman Virdi / Flickr
Rudra Gangadharan, a senior colleague from Kerala, heads the Academy as its director. He is pretty relaxed for a babu. And I like him a lot, especially as he invited me for a round of drinks at his residence.
Then there was Kishen Lal, the head waiter who worked for a stunning forty-four years in the Academy. I had arrived there just to be present at his farewell, or so it seemed to me. There was a group of scientists on a training programme, and Ashok, their course coordinator, and another friend of mine, wanted me to give them a talk. I agreed, with the proviso that it would be in the evening with at least beer to go around. Imagine a group of scientists interacting with an ex-bureaucrat with gravy stains on his jeans. Sometimes, the weirdest people hit it off—and this was a one-of-a-kind day for me. We took some photographs, we had some beer, we shared some jokes and we contributed a small fund of Rs 8,000 for Kishen Lal who was retiring that day. One of the scientists told me, unaccountably, that I was ‘sucking the fly in the milk of life’. Figure that one out yourself.
This trip to Mussoorie was a closure of sorts. The last time I was there I was ready to imprint my stamp on the Indian public life. This time I came back sealed, stamped and delivered by the same. The full circle. More like the full Monty.
Bilaspur is a small town in Himachal Pradesh I entered in the night. Head constable Manohar is a dashing young man who boxes. I met him at an accident site just an hour away from Bilaspur. It was dark, and traffic was at a standstill. I crept along the side of the road and there was confusion galore. I noticed this young man in civilian clothes taking charge of things. He came to me and said that if I gave him a ride to town he would get me through the mess. I broke another rule that day (‘no hitchhikers’) and agreed to give him a lift. I had had a long day travelling from Mussoorie via Shimla to this place, and besides, I sized the bugger up and he didn’t look like a highwayman.
As he’d promised, he got me through the traffic somehow and we pelted downhill. The man suffered from verbal diarrhoea, boasting about his boxing prowess and his other athletic feats. He followed that up with the advice not to pick up strangers in the night.
The ride was lengthy and tiring. Some stretches of the road looked like they had been carpet-bombed. Shimla had been considered for a night halt but I was sick of hideous concrete buildings on mountainsides. The bike had also been having some electrical problems which were temporarily fixed at Solan, a place at one time famous for its beer. I did not know I had an appointment with head constable Manohar, about to be promoted shortly to assistant sub-inspector of police.
The fellow arranged an indifferent hotel and wanted to give me dinner. He had been to Sikkim and out-boxed everyone there. Getting rid of a grateful policeman is no mean feat. Actually, we’re more used to policemen who want something from you and not the other way around. It was quite unnerving. I even considered the possibility that the chap was gay. Finally, as a compromise, we exchanged telephone numbers and he treated me to a cold drink outside his house. He thought I was a cardamom farmer and introduced me as one to his whole locality. He could have taught a thing or two to a limpet. Or maybe he just liked me.
Manohar’s hotel of choice was one of the dirtiest I have stayed in through the entire journey. You know when dirt has seeped into the woodwork and the fabric themselves. That was the better part. The food looked bad and tasted worse. I have thought long and hard about what I ate and I can’t figure out what it was. This cook could spoil an egg. My dues to Manohar are paid in full.
Many friends had told me garbled stories about a village full of Israelis up in some remote corner of Himachal Pradesh. Even some of the local people were not aware of it. I had finally pinpointed it as the twin villages of Pulga and Tulga. There is a popular Sikh shrine called Manikaran on the way. Hundreds of devotees seem to go there. One interesting aspect was the number of young pilgrims on motorcycles, sporting flags. The dirt road ended in a one-mouse town called Barsiyani.
The bike had to be parked there. I paid someone to watch over it and walked half-an-hour uphill to Pulga, with a porter. Pulga-Tulga is picturesque, to say the least, framed against a juniper forest. Small wooden houses with a few rooms to let. There are also some two-storeyed houses which form the luxury segment, charging a hundred rupees a day. Everything is very basic and that is where the fun lies. The place is full of long-term tourists. The rooms were terrible and I finally landed at the last lodge in town. It was also the biggest. A three-storeyed timber monster. ‘Uncleji’ was the man in charge—or so I thought.
Uncleji was a thin, gaunt, mustachioed character with watery eyes and a weak personality. He was the owner but the wife was the boss. Thick-set, heavy and with a brooding, sombre personality. There was no contest between the two. She eyed me suspiciously and wanted the money in advance. The money and my Hindi softened her considerably. I observed that when any of her would-be clients declined to forward an advance, she demanded to see their passports. Clearly having suffered at the hands of some of her guests, she was severely lacking in the trust department. But with my money in her pocket, she almost smiled at me.
A small canteen composed of tarpaulin above and seats on the ground served great Israeli cuisine. I wiped up great quantities of hummus and tahini with soft pita bread. Uncleji’s pet dog ate only onion soup. Weird. The inhabitants were almost all charas and ganja addicts. It was like a scene from Woodstock. Flower children with their chillums. And me with my bottle of vodka. I had no one to share it with so I called Uncleji over for a toast. He came and sipped hesitantly at the liberal shot I’d poured him. He was a slow and sparing drinker and I was surprised. The next evening, when I invited him across for a drink, he literally ran away, keeping well out of sight till I retired to bed. He was a smoker all right, but clearly not used to alcohol. He must have suspected that two days in a row would be lethal for him, because he never emerged again from his strategic retreat.
The cooks and the waiters were very professional. They migrated with the tourist seasons everywhere. Winters in Goa, summers in Himachal—that sort of thing. What they omitted to tell me is that they all smoked too. The Nepali porter who carried my saddlebags informed me that a large quantity of ganja is planted in the forest and a brisk trade goes on. A part of the dope trail now, but it has a history as well. As usual, the British had been the first outsiders to locate this beautiful place, and a forest bungalow stands testimony to the fact. A walk around the forest trails and the small waterfalls is stimulating—the perfect getaway for young couples. And for lovers of solitude such as I.
Uncleji’s hotel had a very queer common bathroom. There were large windows on all sides without window panes or curtains. Your activities were not too private. I wonder who the peeping Tom in the family was—Uncleji or Auntyji?
Night time was filled with the sounds of rhythmic lovemaking on a creaking wooden bed, on a creaking wooden floor which happened to be my ceiling. The doped-out couple, whoever they were, were patently having an extended ball. No wonder Uncleji is a junkie and looks mortally afraid of Auntyji. The pressure of being compared with, and all that jazz.
Gwendolyn and Gertrude from the United States paired up at their place of stay. My first close-up of a lesbian couple. Without the sexual tension, they were lovely company, although their constant kissing made me a little uncomfortable. I learnt to modestly avert my eyes every time it happened. The Israelis and other foreigners outnumber the locals two to one at least. This place does not look like a part of India. But the view is great, the food is great, the dope is great and the company is way out.
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