The moment I saw the man I knew the dreaded episode is in the offing.
There I was, minding my very own business, sitting quietly on the open yard of Nagbeli Resort and reading, and like a bad magic trick comes this man sauntering in.
I have nothing against people sauntering in. As far as I am concerned people can saunter in and around to their heart’s content. But most people have this habit of going beyond soberly sauntering.
Let me give you a little background. I forget which year it was, but this was my second visit to Uttarey after the Versey adventure. On the first visit we had gone to Upper Sangkhu and failed to locate the lady who had helped us – I should say saved us. We were cheated by another villager, though I did not mind.
(The man who cheated us)
All we had were two bags full of children’s stuff. This man pretended to be the husband of that lady and took all that. My brother Ramesh tried to warn me. But I told him to let it go. Some kid will end up using those things. It was not a waste.
This time, we thought we will have another go. This time we were better prepared. I had kept a day for such an excursion before we started our Rinjey trek. But this time too Upper Sangkhu failed to bring us to her.
Nagbeli in Uttarey is our home away from home.
The first time we had visited Uttarey was, as I have just mentioned, after the Versey (mis)adventure. Versey had left me badly injured. For the entire period I could barely walk. I was planning to spend the whole time sitting in the magnificent calm yard, looking at the clouds and the birds.
But Arjun Singh the cook refused to let me sit idly. This mountain man supported me and took me on a two hour tour of the place. Never letting me hurt myself.
He and his brother Deepak took such good care of us that we were truly moved. Deepak Singh even made me a soup of local herbs which was supposed to heal and alleviate pain. The pain had its own plan, but the gesture was enough to make us feel completely at home.
The brilliant thing about that visit was there was no other boarder at that time. Nagbeli is situated a little far above the ‘market’ of Uttarey. Since most people prefer the bazaar (which was like five shops and two jeeps) not many come up to Nagbeli. For us that is ideal. And this was midweek, not the holiday season. So we had the entire place to ourselves. Even on our next visit there were only a bunch of young kids. They had bonfires, songs, a bit of noise – but they kept to themselves. None of these kids were ethnic Bengalis.
The third trip was going smoothly too. This time our team consisted of Jaya, my friend and colleague Anamitra-di, her daughter Tiyai (her blog The Ecstatic Storyteller is absolutely fascinating) and yours truly. Such a party often becomes a matter for scrutiny for people whose noses are a little too industrious. But since we were mostly away nothing disturbing had happened till then.
The Rinjey hike (Rinjey cannot be found by Google, but the unfortunately named Hageypani seems close) was the most luxurious that I have ever experienced. For the four of us there was one porter, one guide and one cook. Chandra Bahadur Sherpa was our guide. We knew him from our earlier trip. Deepak Singh came with us as our cook and another kid was the porter.
(Chandra Bahadur Sherpa in the middle, Deepak Singh on the right)
It was to be a one-night camping trip. The luggage that went with us was enough for an Everest expedition. As it turned out, there was actual cutlery, four course meals with dessert, elaborate toilet arrangements. The toilet tent was quite a curiosity.
Before we set out, we were sitting in the yard with our luggage kept in baskets.
(The pre-hike ritual with Mr. Subba)
There was one family of guests other than us. The lady of the family looked at the luggage, looked at us, and asked her husband why were we all packed. Her husband told her we are off to a trek. She was genuinely concerned and asked where our car was. The husband patiently explained the concept. She now got even more genuinely worried, looked at us and asked a simple unanswerable question: “Why?”
Rinjey was not successful. It was a five hour (four hour walk + one hour rest with elaborate food) easy to easy-moderate climb through lovely forests.
(Walking in the clouds)
We camped at a foggy clearing.
That was the night of Dol Purnima. Our aim was to see Kanchenjungha in the moonlight. But it rained throughout the evening and night. We had seen Kanchenjungha earlier in the trip – in fact there has not been one trip to these parts in which Kanchenjungha did not bless me with at least one sighting – but this night was a washout. Of course, sitting in the tent in that rain was quite enjoyable. And falling asleep with heavy rain falling on the roof of your tent is an experience that cannot be parallelled. But the target was not achieved. Such is life.
In the morning I woke up, ran my hand casually through my hair and found something sticking to my scalp. It felt like a seed or something. I asked Jaya to remove it. She could not. Then we called the boys. They came running. They got hold of that little thing, did something to it and got it out. Their alacrity proved the gravity of the situation. Apparently it was an insect they call Keerna (something like the Tick). It sticks to your skin, injecting you with some kind of anaesthetic. Then slowly burrows inside. It nests under the skin and raises a bonny family. And you are not even aware of the fact that you are playing host to such a pest. And pest it is, for after a while it starts to increase its demands and the host body finds it a bit difficult to handle. (Now I know where politicians learn their trade.) Death is not always the end result, but you can imagine how much inconvenience this might cause. After all, you do need your blood. These insects literally get under your skin.
The horror stories do not end here. There is a breed of caterpillars in those mountains which are rather problematic.
They have this toxin on their bristles which paralyses anything that comes in contact. I would like to insert a philosophical observation here: there are a number of human beings who also have the same effect on others. It is not for nothing that I dislike touching people and rarely get touched.
To add to the merriment of the morning a leech joined in – my body apparently had become a beacon to all insect and arachnid life.
Feeling that there are about a thousand such pests crawling all over my body, under my skin, in my hair, we started our descent. Coming down was more or less uneventful. And no new menace was discovered.
So while I was sitting out in the yard that afternoon, with the others resting in their rooms, in comes this pesterer.
I did my best to avoid him. Even in the falling light I kept on pretending to read. I prayed to all the mountains to send someone else who can satisfy this man’s original sin. The mountains do listen to your prayers. Mr. Sher Hang Subba, the owner of the hotel, and someone we consider our friend, appeared. There was a conversation. Then Mr. Subba went back to his work.
But the man did not leave. He was hell-bent on speaking to me.
And then came the dreaded question.
I looked at him. Nodded reluctantly. Hoping he would get the message. No. this man was Mr. Facebook. He had to share everything about himself with a complete stranger and had to know everything about a complete stranger.
Then the next dreaded question came.
“Where from Kolkata?”
“Where in North?”
I told him. And wouldn’t you know it. He was also from the North. His house was about four kilometres away from my place. And he happily declared, “Oh! We are neighbours!”
I am not a Christian. I do not have to love my neighbours.
But he seemed very much so. His bonhomie was overflowing.
The next part of the conversation is a bit challenging. He was speaking. Mine were thoughts. He did not give me a chance to speak for the first few minutes. For which I am eternally grateful, because I had time to let the grey cells work.
“We have many children in our group!”
“We are staying in Hotel Green Beli in the market.”
[(Cheerfully) Good for you.]
“But they don’t have TV! This hotel does.”
[Mental note: Log huts, noise carries through walls and children are often hard of hearing.]
“So we are shifting here.”
[Why god why!]
“But what do you do in Uttarey. It seems such a boring place?”
I suppressed all my irritation for I had found the opening I was looking for.
I said, “There is the Kagyu monastery. Then there is Sinshore Bridge (which he had already seen as it is on the way to Uttarey). And of course, there is Mainebass Falls.”
He looked a little worried.
“Mainebass Falls. Isn’t that a little difficult?”
It was during our second visit to Uttarey that we had gone to Mainebass Falls. Chandra Bahadur Sherpa was our guide then. It is one of the loveliest and perhaps the most idyllic one I have seen.
The waterfall is in a nook in the mountain and cannot be seen if you are not in that nook. You have to know how to get there. With medicinal herbs all around it is supposed to be a holy and therapeutic place. It is a mild four kilometre walk through woods and across rustic bridges.
I had little difficulty reaching it. Jaya had none.
I would strongly suggest you go there, definitely with a guide. It might be a little taxing for the uninitiated, but it is quite worth the effort.
And now I was inspired. And I gave him the googly.
“It is a little difficult. But you look athletic. It won’t be any trouble for you.”
Works every time.
He didn’t know what to do. And hesitantly said,
“That’s all right. But my wife is a little bulky.”
[Thereafter his wife was called Bulky Bodhu by all of us. ‘Bulky Bride’ is a rough translation.]
I gave him the second googly.
“You have come all this way to Uttarey, and you will leave without seeing Mainebass?”
It worked. He took the bait (and the details).
They came up in a couple of hours. It was a party of three families – three men, three women and near about thirty children. I stayed inside my room. They raised hell throughout the evening and the night. In the space of one evening there were cricket matches, football tournaments, ant-akshari (if you don’t know the game you can always find out, let me just say this one had but crow’s melody in it), whisky (which got rid of much-needed inhibition), chicken fries and a general sense of euphoria that took care of the guilt that I was feeling for being conniving. The log hut walls couldn’t stop televised sounds; in fact they couldn’t even stop someone’s snoring from invading our sleep.
I smiled throughout the night. Blake would have had his answer (sorry, this one is for Eng Lit people only).
They left for Mainebass early-ish in the morning. We had completed the whole thing in about three hours. They came back around three in the afternoon.
The day was lovely. We enjoyed every moment of it. That night was our last in Uttarey. It also proved to be quiet and heavenly. During dinner Bulky Bride’s hubby didn’t even look at me. The rest of the party did not make an appearance. They dined quite late. The snoring was gone.
We left early next morning.
I hope Mainebass did not disappoint them.