Caution: This is gonna be a long one. Hope you’ve got all the essentials at hand 🙂
The roots to this tale lie in my absolute laziness to cook for myself. I’ve found eating at dhabas, a more convenient option.
For the last 2 years I’ve been frequent to a dhaba on the Mcleodganj square. The place serves fresh, north Indian food for reasonable prices. It’s run by two friends – Ram bhaiya & Abhinav bhaiya, from Salli – a village roughly 30kms away from Dharamshala. My regular visits here paved way for talks other than food. During one such conversation a few weeks back, Ram bhaiya invited me to his home to spend a day with his family.
His face speaks of a maturity imbibed from an early marriage and household responsibilities, yet the innocence of someone far younger – like a common ground, a beautiful understanding, between restlessness and patience. And light brown eyes that smile frequently, outwitting the lines on his forehead. He folds his hands and places them below his belly every time he speaks to another. On most days he wears a mismatching shirt & trouser and some rugged sports shoes to go with it – a simple man.
After working for many years at a local dhaba he saved money and mustered enough courage to start his own.
On the decided date, we left Mcleodganj close to 8.30 am and took a bus to Gaggal. The direct road to his house is under repairs right now. Rumor has it that the road may be operational in another 2 months.
We changed buses from Gaggal to Shahpur. Before taking the next bus to Salli, we made two quick stops in Shahpur – first to buy some milk and second to pick up a cell phone given for repairing. Both these stops were linked by a hilarious back story. As it turns out, Ram bhaiya’s cow had recently given birth and so she wouldn’t be milked for a while. Hence buying the milk. And in the birthing frenzy, the cow had stepped on Ram bhaiya’s cell phone and split the screen into two. Hence the stopping at the repair shop. He narrated the story scratching his head and I burst out laughing.
The conductor on the bus from Shahpur to Salli turned out to be an acquaintance of Ram bhaiya. A lil nod, a firm hand shake and that’s it, our ride was free 🙂 The conductor seemed rather enthusiastic about his job. Every stop was announced loudly, sometimes to the annoyance of regular passengers who made the journey twice daily. Ram bhaiya leaned in and whispered “It’s just been a month since he started this, hence the enthusiasm” and giggled. After this, with every new announcement, we would start laughing.
Twice maybe, the conductor whistled to stop the bus at incorrect locations, to which the driver raised his eyebrows, hoping the rookie would catch it through the rear view mirror. He dodged the look with a great amount of skill.
A little while into the journey, the bus stopped and some more passengers got on. I was asked to shrink my seating space to accommodate a goat. I did so willingly & smiled. As a recognition for this act of chivalry, I was given the honour of knowing the goat’s name. “Kikknoo..!!”, the owner happily revealed. I went on to ask him what it meant and he looked perplexed, wondering why it should mean anything. I kept aside my city bred need for logic and then it made perfect sense. It’s a name given out of love, a sound maybe, pretty much like the mushy names people give to each other when they are in love.
Kikknoo seemed nervous about her bus ride. The gentle neck massage from the owner helped a bit, but what really calmed her down was the window seat she managed to score eventually.
I went on to ask him what ‘Kiknoo’ meant and he looked perplexed!!
The road coiled along the mountain side. The sky was clear today and the sun strong. We reached Salli in the afternoon. We got off on the road and started walking downhill to Ram bhaiya’s home. A ten minute walk and we reached his father’s home.
A typical Himachali home in these areas is something like this. The home & the rooms are coated with layers of mud & cow dung inside & out. The roof is made of a wooden framework and systematically lined slate tiles. Slate is the base stone present in the mountains here. It is chiseled and shaped into thin rectangular tiles, then carefully laid overlapping one another. And here’s the interesting part. The tiles are not held together by any bonding material. Just the placement is such that it goes through all season. If you were in the kitchen cooking something and things got smoky, all you had to do was take a stick and poke a tile in the roof to shift it. And that’s your vent – simple, functional and beautiful. There’s homes are literally Earth & mountains. Living in them, one is subtly reminded of an intimate connection to everything around. One comes to see and appreciate how beautifully nature works to provide for us. These homes are as alive as their dwellers.
Most homes open up to step farms ahead. The front porch is replaced with patches of cultivation. The farms negotiate the mountain slope gradually and then suddenly disappear into the vastness of the valley. They are not very big. The space is enough for a family to grow food and enjoy its bounty throughout the year.
I was obviously the outsider and quickly grabbed everyone’s attention. The family started off with a signature hushed talking and then suddenly the welcome erupted. I was rushed into an inner room and the fan and television were switched on. The younger daughter-in-law came with a hot glass of fresh cow milk which was delicious. One of the walls was lined with photos of Gods; too many actually to miss. Literally every calendar and wedding card that ever came in was preserved & displayed.
I pulled out my camera to take a few shot, which was met with excited but supressed screams from the kids. Soon after that I had lost its possession for the next few hours. I maintained the cool tourist look on the outside, while on the inside I sent out prayers to every God on the wall that I may receive back my camera intact.
All Gods – old and new
Soon after our arrival lunch was ready. I was asked to climb the wooden staircase in a corner of the room. I followed and discovered a space that was an attic, a kitchen and a small bedroom rolled into one. I was smitten by the simplicity and functionality of the home. It was meditation with eyes wide open.
The space that was a kitchen, an attic and a bedroom
The food was simple with most ingredients home grown. What really had me going were the barley rotis. They were made from fermented barley, were soft, puffed up and they tasted a lot like beer. This was rather interesting. Daadi and I spoke intermittently as I savoured the flavours. She nodded her head and looked at me with sympathy when I told her how far Bombay was and how crowded it was.
the lovely barley rotis, tasted like eating beer
It was a wholesome meal. Waves of gratitude in me translated into a toothless smile on Daadi’s face. After lunch we retired for a short nap. I requested and had my mattress placed outside on the porch. The sight of golden wheat fields swaying in the breeze, disappearing into the mountain valley was all I could ask for.
By later in the evening, the kids had become more comfortable around me and now there was no stopping their chatter. They spoke of some foreigners who had visited their home the previous year, while enacting their hand gestures and accent. They sounded a lot like the antagonists from some late 80s Bollywood movie, when the white man still pulled some ire in our minds. The tales from the school went on till later in the evening. Ram bhaiya had to come about and remind us it was time for dhaam at Abhinav bhaiya’s place.
Dhaam is a serving of traditional Himachali food on plates made by stitching leaves together. It is customary to have such feasts on any occasion that call for a celebration. Abhinav Bhaiya had recently been blessed with twin daughters and this seemed like the perfect way to offer thanks. The entire village had turned up for the celebration. We were seated on the ground in rows of two and then it began. First a serving of plain rice and then mutter paneer, chole, sambhar and khatta. The portions were unlimited and we did take undue advantage of it. Sitting in the open mountain air and eating with hands really sensitizes the taste buds. The last addition to the plate was saffron coloured sweet rice, laced with dry fruits, absolutely sumptuous.
After the food was a quick round of catching up on village news. The most prevalent topic of discussion was the wheat harvest and how was the produce this season. It was quite late by local standards, almost 11.00 p.m. We bid a quick good night to some hundred odd faces and made our way up to the dark road.
One thing about staying in the mountains is that you never truly run out of things to marvel at. I was unaware that this walk would be wondrously extraordinary. Here I stood in the middle of pitch black nothingness, where to keep eyes open or closed meant the same, when suddenly the mountain lines started to glow unusually. My feet slowed down. A few moments passed and then it appeared from behind the mountain – the Moon – crimson, full and alien like. I stood transfixed. To describe what happened next in beyond my vocabulary. On very rare occasions have I found myself so empty of thoughts. Walking took effort now. It seemed unnecessary. Such serenity, a beauty of such immensity, that in that moment I was not. In that moment I caught of glimpse of what eternity can feel like. It felt unbound, stilling and deeper than deep.
It took me a while to master my senses again. We all walked back silently, no words were spoken. I realised that moment of divinity was witnessed by all.
On reaching home the kids headed straight for the television. After surfing for a while they finally found something of interest and got hypnotised. It had been a long day and I lacked the enthusiasm to sit with them, so I chose to lie down and close my eyes trying to block out the voices from the TV.
A few minutes under the blanket and I was gone, unusually quick for a light sleeper. After a while I opened my eyes, it was morning already. Don’t we all have those nights when the time gap between night and day is but an instant? I woke up and walked out. Swaying fields of golden wheat bathed in soft sunshine welcomed me. I sat on the porch taking it all in. The kitchen was already alive with breakfast preparation. The kids were still in bed. From the conversation I eavesdropped upon, they were hopeful the parents would let them skip school today, since they had surpassed their usual sleeping time last night by several hours. The school was yet to get books for the new session, so time was spent playing badminton or kabbadi. Ram bhaiya agreed to let them skip school on the condition that they would help with the household work. The kids shrieked with joy and did a lil dance which had me in splits.
I decided to make good use of the breakfast preparation time, so went up to the terrace and sat down to meditate. But this was something new for the kids. And you know what this means:
Kids + something new = Ooohhhhh..!! (with widening eyes)
They gathered around and wanted to know what I was upto. I tried explaining and gave them a few tips on sitting up straight and observing the breath. They tried for a while, with eyes closed they made weird faces, their eyebrows arched up and down and then they burst out laughing and falling on their sides.
This shortly followed stories from their school. In particular of one Mr. Sukhdev, their Sanskrit teacher, who contrary to his name, had been the cause of unhappiness lately.
The kids with their favorite home made toy. An old sock stuffed with cotton. It was the make shift ball during cricket and also used to practice catches.
Ram bhaiya called the kids to come down and have breakfast. It was every bit the wholesome food that gives villagers that envious nutrition. It was lauki cooked in curd and seasoned with turmeric and cumin seeds. Very simple, light and wholesome.
While having breakfast, Ram bhaiya’s phone rang & suddenly I heard him speaking in English- an interesting amalgamation of Himachali, Indian English and Hebrew accent. The call was an enquiry from some French tourists who wished to learn North Indian cuisine. This upset the kids, since we had promised to walk to the next village after breakfast.
I gathered my stuff while Ram bhaiya spent the next ten minutes trying to cheer up the kids, the eldest son was inconsolable, which I later understood had something to do with a set of badminton rackets, he was to buy from the next village. Now that we weren’t visiting the next village it also meant no badminton rackets.
A quick goodbye to his wife, no hugs, no kisses, just a few simple words promising a quick return and a head that bow lower than usual. Ram bhaiya picked up his bag and started walking ahead. I went and thanked his wife and the kids. Also told the eldest son that I would nudge Ram bhaiya to buy the badminton rackets in Dharamshala, they have better ones there. He was quick to smile. And then the kid joined in a goodbye that was way too honest by any city standards.
Such simple people, I wondered. Their eyes sparkle, they laugh often, share without holding back, often giving more than keeping, celebrating the mountains and all her seasons. It is true, if we look carefully and with intent to find it, we would, in absolute certainty, stumble upon beauty in everyone – sometimes not so obvious, but very much there.
Ram Bhaiya still runs the Punjabi Dhaba at Mcleodganj square. If you ever visit here, do drop by 🙂