“I should have been a mountain boy”, declared Vikram happily as he climbed the sloping roads of McLeodganj. A broad smile showed on the twenty one year old’s face as he walked briskly with long strides and deep breaths.
“And I should never listen to you”, Aditya said as he panted at a distance
“At least have the courtesy to maintain a respectable distance between us”, he called
Vikram stopped and smiled at him gleefully.
“Remember, it was your idea. I would have rather preferred lazing on a beach in Goa, but you wanted nature”
Vikram and Aditya were in the final year of college and had taken a trip to Himachal Pradesh to explore the wondrous and per government ads, unforgettable experiences that awaited them.
However, the holiday, which had been enthusiastically put together by the absent minded Aditya, had all the portents of a disaster.
Initially, it had been for a party of six people to attempt a trek to the famous and spiritually significant Mani Mahesh Lake.
Aditya was extremely interested in mythology. As per folklore, Lord Shiva performed penance on the lake and it was considered an abode of the Lord. Even if one didn’t believe in mythology, just as a trek, it had many attractions and was a popular destination.
Unlike Aditya, Vikram was an agnostic. He didn’t particularly care for the question of God. The trek was more of an endurance or fitness event for him.
Aditya had booked the trip, bang in the middle of the monsoon season. Hearing that, two members dropped out.
Two others were planning to join directly from Delhi by car. The friend providing the car fell ill and the car option went out. The last friend was taking a circuitous route to McLeodganj and would reach the next day.
“The best laid schemes o’mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley“, Aditya philosophized, but it really wasn’t even a scheme, let alone one falling under the category of ‘best laid’
The decision to base themselves at McLeodganj was more out of financial consideration, rather than anything else.
It was a novel experience. The duo were greeted by swirling, cool, moist winds. It was almost as if walking through the clouds. The lanes were narrow, cramped and steep.
Houses and lodges seemed to be blending into each other. Numerous shops displayed Tibetan charms, chants, and motley knick-knacks. A car suddenly sped up the road, forcing them to scurry to the side.
Dawn had just started to break. As they scanned the houses / lodges looking for their “hotel”, the lights went out. They continued searching in the dark. Just then, the sound of someone walking came from behind them. A short, stocky youth was walking in a funny way, probably imitating the style of the hip hop artists. Or maybe he had some sort of defect and then it would be cruel to judge.
Aditya asked hesitantly, “Do you know where this hotel is?”
The youth blinked and looked at the booking printout for a long time. Vikram stepped in and asked the same thing in Hindi.
The youth replied quickly, “I know English! There are two hotels which sound like the one you said. Which road is it?”
Aditya and Vikram blinked. There only seemed to be one road really. Houses and streets which couldn’t be accommodated onto it seemed to have spilt on to smaller streets. Like tributaries from a mighty river, ‘street-lets’ snaked from the main “road”.
There was no mention of any road in their booking. Aditya called the hotel and the lady at the reception gave directions to the young lad. Aditya and Vikram were just expecting directions but the boy said, “I stay nearby, come, come I will take you”
Impressed by the hospitality, the duo followed the lad to the hotel. He wore large sunglasses whose utility was not clear in the cool climes of McLeodganj. Another couple carrying large bags, walked behind the trio. They were probably here for a trek too.
Vikram introduced himself and his friend and asked the youngster for his name.
“Nirmal”, the lad grunted.
Aditya and Vikram spoke to each other in a low voice. Aditya said, “He seems like a shady character. Hope he doesn’t kidnap us.”
Vikram said, “Kidnap? The guy is barely able to manage himself”
Aditya smiled, “Yeah, the only way is if he mistakenly leads us to a gang of kidnappers”
The lad suddenly turned around and said, “Hey, where are you guys from?”
Vikram said, “We are from Bangalore”
Nirmal suddenly brightened and nodded knowingly, “Oh South se. Chinnai Express. Kya awesome movie! South ke log itna cute hain!”
The duo groaned, but it was a lost cause. Yet again, an entire culture reduced to a caricature due to movies.
They reached the hotel. As Aditya and Vikram were about to step in, Nirmal said seriously, “What about my charge??”
Aditya and Vikram looked at each other incredulously. People charged for showing directions?
Then suddenly he smiled and said, “Kidding! Enjoy McLeodganj!”
Vikram laughed and said, “Thanks for your help friend!”
Aditya woke up after a quick nap and stepped onto the balcony. The room was small but neat. The view was something else however. The majestic Dauladhar (meaning the White Range) stretched magnificently in front of them. Proud, snow-capped peaks were crowned by doting clouds. The Almighty sun graced the mountain with its life giving rays, sun rays that created a halo on a grateful mountain. The view was literally a royal treat.
As Aditya looked down, he saw old houses badly in need of a coat of paint and some maintenance. Of course, in a location with heavy or persistent monsoons the houses tended to get a mossy and old look. He recalled visiting Goa during the monsoons and how some of the houses seemed to have a musty smell. A falling white stick figure was painted on to a red wall cautioning the unassuming to look out for slippery floors.
Saurabh, their friend from Delhi had joined early in the morning. He had had quite an adventure getting there and was describing it in detail to Vikram. He decided to skip sleep altogether that morning.
Just as they were leaving for breakfast, Saurabh found a piece of paper under the table. In a handwriting which looked like a child’s, it was written in Hindi, “Parcel Dharamkot pahunch gaya hai. Abhi zyada vakth nahin hai – T” (Parcel has reached Dharamkot. There is not much time now – T)
Saurabh told Vikram, “What parcel could it be?”
Vikram joked, “Maybe the pizza delivery happened at the wrong address? Then the pizza delivery guy told his friend who dropped this message”
“Lame”, Aditya said. “What about thieves who are coordinating?”
Both Vikram and Saurabh just rolled their eyes and said, “Yes, it’s thieves coordinating. Very talented ones, don’t even know which lodge their co-conspirators are staying!”
Saurabh made a ball of the paper and threw it. “Parcel tho pahunch gaya hai na, what will we do with this”
They went down for breakfast. The place was run by two ever smiling Tibetans with the help of part time Bihari cook. As they were eating breakfast, Saurabh saw a rack filled with books. He went over and picked a book “Death Must Die”, an account of the spiritual journey of an Austrian lady. Saurabh got engrossed in the book while Aditya and Vikram got engrossed on that ultimate squanderer of precious time, WhatsApp.
The hosts came and cleared the table. Suddenly, all three awoke with a start. They had come down for breakfast at 9.10 and it was 11.30 now!
The trio quickly scrambled up, got ready and headed to the Dalai Lama Temple. On the way, they saw a small Tibetan temple. Tourists and young monks in saffron robes were turning prayer wheels. The trio read a write up on the wall that explained the function of the prayer wheels.
As per the notice, each prayer wheel had mantras and chants wrapped around or inscribed on plates. On rotating the wheels clockwise, the person who rotated the wheel got the benefit of chanting of the mantras!
The three of them completed one full rotation turning the wheels. Whether bad karmas had been cut or not, they had definitely given a good workout to their biceps!
The road to the Dalai Temple inclined steeply downwards. As they were walking down, Vikram declared, “This prayer wheel things, makes no sense at all! Probably to inculcate a pious nature, priests created these myths”
Saurabh countered, “Not necessarily. In tantric practices, and Buddhist schools of thought also draw inspiration from Tantric practices, the focus is on management of energies.”
Aditya added, “Energy and matter are related. That is accepted since Einstein said it. Prayers can also be thought of as means to create certain frequencies”
Very soothing chants of “Om Mani Padmeham” could be heard in the background.
Saurabh added, “Yagnas are also one way to achieve generate desirable frequencies and energies”
Vikram mocked the two of them. “Have you seen those late night shows where gemologists talk of tapping cosmic energy by wearing stones and gems. Good backup profession!”
Aditya made the impression of talking hand and said, “Yada yada, no point convincing you”
The narrow thoroughfare seemed to be an incredible global melting point. European and American tourists, Tibetan monks, Tibetan ‘non-monks’, Indians milled together. Some of the tourists were in search of something profound, while others just looking for a good time.
Aditya looked at a pair of pretty Tibetan girls, on the other side of the road, walking up.
The fair, slim girls were specially looking very pretty in their traditional dress. It was a kimono like dress. Both of them were wearing a dark blue kimono decorated with bright yellow floral patterns.
Perhaps conscious they were being watched, they suddenly turned to the direction of the three boys. Out of politeness, they smiled.
Amongst the three, Aditya smiled back, giving a broad grin.
Saurabh and Vikram, never ones to let go of these things, seized on the moment.
“Who are you smiling at?” Vikram asked, seemingly very innocently.
Aditya stuttered, “No one, just like that. Beautiful place, crime to smile or what?”
Saurabh set up the bait, “I thought the two girls were smiling at you. Even now see they are turning back to look at you”
Aditya turned around and said, “Really”
The other two howled in laughter.
“Just a smile is enough to bowl over our man”
“Loafer, how do you know they smiled at you?”
Aditya said, “I was just being, like polite. Imagine that they were not smiling in my direction. Even then, there is no harm in me smiling. There is no harm is spreading joy.
But imagine that they were indeed smiling at me. How rude it would have been, if I didn’t acknowledge it. You guys may not know what constitutes gentlemanly behavior, but I do!”
Vikram said, “Oh, so it’s gentlemanly behavior? See that white guy going down, they were probably smiling at him. Why did you come in between, like a kabab mein haddi. That’s very gentlemanly or what?”
Aditya countered, “Why do you always assume that if white guy is there, girls must be smiling at him only. What’s wrong with me?”
Saurabh laughed and said, “No, who said anything is wrong, that too with that masterpiece of a tummy”
Vikram ribbed, “Yeah, why go for chiseled six packs when we can settle for dad bods”
Aditya made a sarcastic face and said, “Have you guys heard of the term Reubenesque? Painters have made paintings of Reubenesque people.”
Saurabh said, “Trust me, it’s not a compliment”
Aditya sensing that he was losing the battle, said, “Anyway, I have a theory on the prayer wheel. Maybe, the rotating of the wrapper prayers creates a certain frequency…”
Vikram said, “Nice try. Clearly shows what kind of a loser you are. Your true lovers have left you behind and you are talking of frequencies. Run behind them”
Saurabh added, “Yes, remember to keep running. Even if they are boarding a train, run behind them like Shah Rukh in DDLJ”
Aditya had an expressive face which could never conceal emotions. As a result, he usually became the butt of jokes.
Vikram said, “Let’s give the Tibetan Princess a name. Aditya and…”
Saurabh laughed, “Let me google Tibetan girl names.”
Jampa hmm… Kunchen… Rinchen too fancy for this face, we will go with Jampa itself
Aditya and Jampa, how it is?”
Aditya protested, “Guys, guys grow up. Control control…”
Laughing and joking, the trio reached the Dalai Lama temple. After praying at the Temple, as they were stepping out, a voice called from to their right. “Hey Bros, how you doin’?”
The trio swung around to see a tall lad with a large dropping moustache.
“I am Tommy, Tommy Tuntuniya”, he said confidently “Welcome to McLeodganj”
The trio said slowly, “T-t-thank you for your welcome. What can we do?”
He continued with the same confident tone, which was a surprising contrast to his nervous body language, “I am one of the best guides here and this is one of the best rides”
Tommy stepped out and slapped the hood of the car. “Meet the Bhai”, he beamed proudly.
“The Bhai” was a white Maruti Alto, which looked so lacking in maintenance it should have been more aptly called “The Bye Bye”. There were many scratches but instead of being fixed, Tibetan inscriptions were painted on to the car.
“I will take you around for a small fee. We will start from Dharamshala stadium, there are temples, waterfalls, whatever you say, we have it”
The trio spoke to each other.
“Should we trust this weird guy? Let’s ask the price”
For all his talk, Tommy wasn’t too commercially savvy and he agreed to a really bad price.
Vikram said, “Screw it. Let’s go. At this price, even if he collapses while driving, I will finish the rest of the tour”
As Tommy started the car, he announced, “We will start the tour with Dharamshala Cricket Stadium. It’s the second highest cricket stadium in the world, did you know. Chota hai par khota hai!”