Pravin Gandhi’s people and places: Ram Singh of Narkanda
We were in Shimla on Xmas day, and there was neither snowfall nor snow. The regional head for a cooking-gas cylinder distribution company who we met socially, advised us to go deeper into the Himalayan state, and arranged for us to stay at the Circuit House at Narkanda.
Now, a Circuit House is a bungalow used by bureaucrats for their (official) visits to the region. They have made it the exclusive privilege of bureaucracy and kept it off limits to civilians by making it difficult to book/hire. We excitedly grabbed the opportunity to stay at the Circuit House at Narkanda, about 75 kms from Shimla.
The Circuit House at Narkanda is a solitary bungalow located 1 km outside Narkanda and has a grand view of the Himalayan range from its lawns. Rooms are large, with large pipe running upwards in each room to radiate heat. An attendant waited on you and a cook asked you what you would like to have for breakfast/lunch/dinner and prepared customised meals. VIP treatment!
There was no snow at Narkanda either. The cook recommended a 8-10 km trek up a mountain to Hatu Peak, promising that there would be enough snow to delight us. We asked him to get me a guide, who would also carry little Mansi, on his shoulders. He introduced a local man, Ram Singh, who would take us there.
That afternoon, we set off for Hatu Peak, led by Ram Singh. The trail was enchanting, and half-way up there was snow on the ground and the trees, and the last 3 kilometres we walked in deep snow. Family was delighted. At the peak there is a temple to Goddess Hatu, and a bandstand, and the children in their enthusiasm have left our names on it for permanent posterity. The legend is that the Pandavas camped here during their 12 years of nomadic exile. The view of the Himalayan range is even grander than that from the Circuit House lawns.
Next day, Ram Singh recommended a small trip to a spot about 20km down for a nice view. We boarded a bus going to Rampur. Ram Singh was accompanied by his very young daughter-in-law, a coy bride decked in traditional finery. On the way, Ram Singh pointed out a hut which was his home, with some walnut trees, and dropped off the young bride. The road winded down the mountains and we got off at a Pass from where we could suddenly see the other side 1000 metres below. We sat on the low stone wall that protects vehicles from going off on a tangent on a curve and savoured the scene below.
Far below us flowed the Satluj river 1000 metres below our feet; the same road that we had taken to come here, ran along the river. Shortly we could see the same bus from which we had got off, moving alongside the river. Ram Singh told us that a little more to the right, was the town of Rampur, and then the road went on to Sarahan, famous for Himachal Apples and a beautiful temple; and then into the daunting Spiti region right up to the China border. The scene on this journey would change from green (fertile) to brown (barren – cold desert) as it goes deeper into the Himalayas and gains in altitude. Ram Singh made it look so exciting that I promptly decided that we would come back one day and go right up to wherever this road ends, a promise that I would fulfil 15 years later. In that journey, we would halt for a while at the Circuit House and this Viewing Point to reminisce, and proceed to Sarahan, Sangla valley, Recong Peo, Nako, Tabo, and Kaza.
We saw a bus down below at the river, and Ram Singh said we’ve got to take that bus when it came up. When it did, we waved it down and boarded it. Ram Singh invited us to his house but we politely declined, citing the late hour. Ram Singh escorted us right up to the Circuit house even though we asked him to get off the bus at his home place. We paid him for his services and bid goodbye.
Next day, just as we were preparing to leave Narkanda for Shimla and home, Ram Singh came to us with a sack and gave it to us. “What is this?” we asked. He opened it, it was full of walnuts. “No, no, this is too much, we can’t accept this”
“Please take it, it is for little Mansi”, said Ram Singh and his eyes were moist. Saying this, he turned and went away, forever from our life.
Pravin Gandhi is the author of “One at a time – short stories to muse by”