Friday, September 10, 2010

The Tavern

He looked at his watch, it was just past midnight. He was on his last scotch and the eighth cigarette hanged dangerously from his lips desiring to be exhumed and to be sent out into billows through the crowd in the old tavern on the bend of the hill road. The tavern had weathered a century of storms and had stood tall like a strong solider though had often changed hands. No one knew why it didn’t had a steady owner like its steady patrons.

Before he could raise his hand to wave for the waiter to get his bill, the old man made himself comfortable on the adjoining bar stool and dumped his frayed old coat of the table in the process making lot of noise and attraction the attention of others in the tavern.

The old man turned to Raj and gave him a friendly smile and a nod. He appeared to have been dragged in by a cat; he smelled of cheap booze and reeked of sweat and not to mention the heavy breathing and the annoying mutter. Raj would have ignored him on any other day but today he was making an exception; it was his birthday and moreover he was alone. Raj made a futile attempt again to get the attention of the waiting staff but the old man did a better job of getting Raj's attention with, "you seems to be in a hurry, dear friend. Don't be in rush they might be waiting for you outside."

It certainly caught his attention and irked him too; he wanted to knock him down for being intrusive. Raj was in no hurry and felt the old man too needed a company. The old man had a wrinkled face making him historic and was slightly bent with age; he wore grubby and tattered clothes and constantly rambled. He looked at Raj now and then and gave him a toothless smile. Raj taking it as a cue for doles pushed his scotch glass to him and the old man grabbed the glass with both hands and was delighted at the gesture. Between sips of expensive scotch he spoke and mumbled about the old times. Then he put the glass down and looked at Raj, "the time has changed but they still are around". The old man rambled on to tell Raj about the time he was young and the town was less crowded and the booze, dime a dozen.

This was not the time to swap stories but the old man kept going on while Raj checked his watch. "Do you believe in afterlife and the soul"? His question stuck Raj and he blurted, "you mean ghosts". “Yes, that’s what the living calls them." He turned to his right and looked straight into Raj's eyes, "they say we have too many of them around".

“I am an old-timer and have seen good and bad times but I can’t forget the night when this small hill town saw the bloody accident. It was late in the night and Mr and Mrs Brownstone were returning from the dinner hosted by their artist friend at Summer Hill. The night was beautiful and the star covered the sky like a night spread. Mr and Mrs Brownstone were the gentle folks visiting the town. Mr Brownstone was invited over by the Governor to design the official residence of the Viceroy. The couple was childless and had given hope as they both eased into their fifties; They had been in the town for barely a week and loved every bit of it – the morning sunshine, the smell of pine, the cool evening breeze and the sparkling night sky. The place was acting like a balm and they were glad that they got an opportunity to visit this exotic locale and explore a new part of the world in the process drowning their sorrows and finding each other again.

The dinner went well where they were introduced to the who is who of the town. Mrs Brownstone couldn’t be happier; the years of longing for a kid and depression had made her lose interest in the matters of the words. Mr Brownstone was delighted to see her smile again.

They both walked out of the party delighted and made their way to the small porch; the chauffeur was waiting for his master. He opened the door to Mrs Brownstone and they ease out of the property into the dark night.

Mrs Brownstone broke into a melodious love song incited by the beautiful starry lit night and the peace which they were experiencing in the town. After they had gone a few miles the driver lost control of the car just around the hill road and it plunged deep into the gorge. The next day the papers reported the news of this sad accident and the pall of gloom shrouded the entire town. The couple was found in peace in each others arms but the chauffeur’s body was never recovered.”

The old man stopped talking picked up his coat and got up to leave. He looked at Raj and smiled, “they say the dead chauffeur still walks around here telling his story". The old walked on and disappeared through the door while the colour leached from Raj's face.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Sad True Story

It’s the story of a girl with the most beautiful smile in the whole wide universe. When she used to smile the blooms would blossom, the birds would chirp, the wind would sing and the woods would whistle and the animals would dance and even the might sun would shine brightly. The moon sulked as it never got too much of sunshine to see that beautiful smile; but was happy for the other who did.

The sun was in love with her. He would spend sleepless night and impatiently wait for the earth to spin around to see her and flush the earth with warm colourful rays. It became an obsession with the sun and the other planets got worried; if she happens to break his heart, the sun might not be able to contain the pain and explode – they all feared.

They had started observing some eccentricity with the sun's behaviour. They felt he focused more on earth and delayed things on other planets. Once he treaded too close to one of the small planet just to get a better view of her, it led to destruction. Sun brushed if off as a slight miscalculation and positioning error but everybody knew what the truth was; they dared not to reason with him.

This continued for many years until she found a handsome writer, it broke sun's heart. She was unaware of sun's affection for her. She could see the tan which made her look more beautiful but was clueless where it was coming from in that cold country.

The handsome writer loved her too much and expressed his love through his poems which she would wait for. The desponded sun consulted the moon who asked him to focus on what he has been created for and continue to shower his love and soft rays on the couple.

The legend has it that the sun shone the brightest when the pair vowed to be together forever. Many years have passed since she left earth but the sun still misses her. He has to be calmed by the moon from time to time by shielding the earth for his anger and pain.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Smart One Saves And Makes Hundreds

The time was good; the house of Sahukar Jagan Lal had everything - the food go-downs were full, the family was happy and they had sufficient money to last for this generation. Sahukarji lived a content and happy life with his four sons and their wives, he adored the youngest son, Madhu the most. Madhu was a bit slow but was quite hard working, he was married to a beautiful girl, Radha.

The aged Sahukar felt it was time for him to handover the reigns of the house to someone who would be able to run the house well and maintain harmony among everybody.

He called up the eldest of his bahu and explained to her that it was time for her to take over and run the show. She asked Sahukarji what she need to do, Sahukarji politely explained to her that she need to hold the house together. She nodded that she understood what he meant and would execute the duties well. The next day the elder bahu was nowhere to be found. At dinner time she walked in tired and exhausted. When asked where she had been she explained in a tired voice that she had been holding to the corner of the house all day as told by the sahukarji. Sahukarji went to bed very disappointed.

After the elder bahu had failed Sahukarji he tried to test the second eldest. He called up her and explained her that after the eldest has disappointed him it was her turn to take charge. This time he tried to be a little more specific not hurting the sensibility of the bahu. He tried to put it to her simply that she has to ensure that the relations are maintained with the folks of the hill and she should take care of people who visit them and the passerby. To his horror that afternoon he saw that the bahu had invited each and every passerby home for a feast. When questions the bahu replied - 'that's what you told me to do, take care of everybody who passes by our house'. He shrugged and left.

It was time for his to test his third bahu. He explained her that he had lots of hope on her and he wanted to fix things, he subtly put across that he would expect her to manage balance between the inside things and the outside things. To his utter shock when he returned he found the house in chaos. All the inside things were out and the outside things were in. It broke his heart.

The old Sahukar was distraught and felt that the family had no future in the absence of a good and smart housemaster. As long as he would be alive he would mange things and after he moves on only god knows what would happen. He stopped going to work and with every passing day he grew ill and the worry dragged him down.

Finally he remembered his youngest bahu, Radha. Sahukarji was very fond of her and had avoided asking her to manage things as he felt she was too young to take on the burden. She was his last hope. When she came with dinner to him room he explained how disappointed he was with her bhabhi's - who didn't possess an iota of common and had had no clue what was expected to them. He didn't expect too much from her but if she could be a bit better that the three he would be able to die peacefully. She agreed to take charge on a condition that the folks of the house would need to pay heed to her advise.

Sahukarji called a meeting the next day and announced that the Radha would manage the house and every member of the family was to listed to her. She announced that she has great respect for each and everybody and would expect each of them to help her run the house. She assured them that they need to continue doing things the way they are doing all she need them to do is not to come ome empty handed- they must bring home something of use and utility.

Within next couple of months the house was filled with items and articles which added to the prosperity. There was no dearth of cooking wood, cattle feed, stones etc. Seeing things settled Sahukarji moved on to the next world peacefully.

One evening, Madhu turned up with dead snake dangling from his stick. Seeing this Radha was shocked. Madhu explained that he couldn't find anything on his way back from work and he just picked up the dead snake which was lying around the corner. Radha asked him to toss the dead snake on to the roof of the house and rush in to have his dinner.

Couple of days later while Radha was cleaning the roof of the house she found a beautiful pearl necklace. She understood what might have happened - some bird must have dropped it and picked up the dead snake. She told Madhu about it and asked him to keep his mouth shut.

The next day the word was out that the princess has lost her pearl necklace while she was taking a bath and now it could not be found. The entire palace had been searched thoroughly without any sign of the pearl necklace. Announcement were made that anybody who happened to find it and return to Rajaji or help find it would be rewarded. It was princess's favorite one and she announced that she was not eating anything till it was not recovered, this got Rajaji in worry. Madhu told Radha about the announcements made in the kingdom about the lost pearl necklace and the reward associated with finding the necklace. Radha explained that walking with the necklace to the Rajaji would be fraught with danger as nobody would believe their story and might end them in the royal prison.

The hunt for the pearl necklace went on for couple of weeks. Finally Rajaji decided to invite all the learned people, the sadhus, the pandits and rishis to a sabha to help find the necklace. Hearing this Radha went out early morning and slid the pearl necklace under one of big stones in the Rajaji's open meeting place.

The kingdom was buzz with activities and it had visitors from far and near. It was the biggest congregation of the intelligent and learned people. The sabha started with Rajaji's appeal to the gathering to help his find the pearly necklace and the announcement of a big reward to the finder. The pandits and the rishis started their pujas and havans, some had spread their thick books in front of them and were searching them frantically, some were in trance like state finding the missing pearl necklace. The sun was about to set but no one had been able to figure out where the necklace was. The heads were hanging in shame and the Rajaji was very disappointed, Rajaiji was about to call off the sabha but before he could say anything a voice rose from the crowd. 'Rajiji I can help you find the pearl necklace', all eyes turned to Madhu who was dressed in new clothes and a smart pagdi; the crowd burst into a laughter. Someone from the gathering said, 'there is no one more learned and intelligent than us present here today. if we have failed what would you do'. Rajaji felt this person deserves a chance though he was not too hopeful.

Madhu asked them to clear the space in the middle. He started by spreading out his book, which apparently belong to the deceased Sahukarji and had a neat list of expenses he encouraged in the last five years. Madhu was scared but Radha had prepared him well. After this, he took our dices from him pocket, rolled them in his hands, mumbles a prayer to almighty to spare him if things go wrong, looked west in the direction of the setting sun them south and blew into the dices and rolled them on his book. The by-looker were impressed. Pensively looking at the dices and letting the sweat drip on the book Madhu closed his eyes and asked the big rock near the entrance to be removed. Rajaji gave permission and five of the soldiers with great effort removed it. The pearl necklace was not there, Madhu's heart sank and his heart started to beat faster. He remembered Radha telling him that she has slid it under the big rock but couldn't remember which rock. He practices his act again and pointed to another rock, nothing was found under it, then another and another. Rajaji almost lost his patience on Madhu wasting their time. Sensing trouble Madhu told Rajiji that the colour red was interrupting him for establishing contact with the stars. Immediately everybody wearing red was thrown out of the sabha. Madhu asked for a last chance, rolled his dices and pointed in the direction of a rock hoping it had the pearl necklace. The rock was removed and to everybody's surprise the necklace was there. Madhu wiped off the seat from his forehead and took a deep breath.

Rajaji was too happy to see the necklace. He announce that Madhu would be inducted into mantri mandal and would have a special status among all. Horse load of gold and silver utensils were sent to his house. Radha and Madhu lived happily ever after.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chapter 12 - The Last Piece

A lot of questions were asked and we were thoroughly searched. The group seemed to be unsympathetic to us. They made us sit on the ground and one of them frantically ran towards the big hut at the far end. From the hut emerged an imposing tall man impeccably dressed in a hunting suit. He felt sorry for the treatment meted to us and invited us inside his hut. He hinted at one of the men who bowed understanding what was ask for and disappeared.

We were led into a spacious room. It was tastefully done and had almost all the basic modern amenities and the walls had horns and hoofs to show off the kills. The man introduced himself as Rai Pratap Thakur in perfect English and had a clipped accent. He was in his mid forties and was dressed in best of the hunting fashion of European aristocracy.

'I hope you are not looking for me', he mischievously smiled at us and offered us the single malt. 'I was about to visit you. I am glad you walked all the way here and saved me some time’.

His manners were polite and the voice had the princely charm and authority. "I heard you were making inquiries about 'baba', and I hope you all had a peaceful night at my huts near the river bank." We all nodded in affirmation.

Neena calmly explained to him that we were The Big Race participants and the only motive of risking our life in the forest was to look for 'baba' and move on to the next challenge. She handed him The Big Race challenge papers. Rai Pratap Thakur carefully read them and went into a pensive mood. He asked us to make ourselves at home and left the room, I poured the scotch in my glass and filled it to the brim. Neena's fears seem to have realized - we were in trouble.

He returned in about 15 mins with his men who were armed. "I am the 'baba' and it appears that someone is trying to get to me through you guys. We need to move fast from here into the interiors and I am sorry but I would have to take you three with me", he announced. The men tied our hands behind the back with a coarse rope and hauled us out of the room like cattle; Neena followed us.

They dragged us into the hearts of the dark jungles. After walking for some time Rai Pratap Thakur opened up a bit to us and removed the shroud over the mystery of baba. He told us that the Panna Reserver is know for the Tigers, the diamonds and the 'baba'. He never wanted to join the family business and its trapping so he decided to purse his passion for hunting which he picked us while he was at Eton. He decided to hoodwink everybody by settling near Panna and practicing austerity for couple of years - that’s when he started to be called 'baba'. Once he was familiar with the place and his image as a 'baba' was acknowledged he was considered harmless and had full access the Panna Reserve. Gradually he started building nexus with the hide and the fur traders and the diamond smugglers. He is unknown to the outside world except for few who works for him like Vijay and the boat owner who helped us to get here.

We rested at quite a few places before we reached the lake. Our lkegs were soar and the roap had cut into the flesh. Beside the lake was a cave, Rai Pratap Thakur called out and soon a man emerged from the hut. He was in white and had flowing beards. 'They had been looking for you. I think they need some special treatment. And be a little gentle on the girl', he turned to Neena and said, 'Neena, that’s what your name is..., right'.

Joe was last seen entering the cave. Neena could be found in the Agra Asylum and I lived to tell the tale, sorry to write the tail - the bastards slit my tongue.

Rai Pratap Thakur has no record or mention anywhere and The Big Race continues to be run by thousands of jaded and burned out professionals around the world looking for some adventure.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chapter 11 - The Hunt for the 'Baba'

It was almost evening and sun was about to hide behind the hills. We all had lost our watches to the man who offloaded his rickety motorboat to us and so the ability to tell the exact time. I steered the motorboat to the shallow bank where it could be easily dragged to the shore and save it from being washed away in the current. Neena was animated at the sight and wanted to explore the place; she was the first one to jump of the boat followed by Joe. I picked up my bag which had the stuff I picked up in Delhi - they were to come handy now.

The sight was growing more beautiful as the sun went behind the hills. The gentle gurgling sound of the river current and odd chirps of birds added to the eerie quality of the place.

'Let's check those huts there and see if we could find a safe place to stay the night', I was concerned about the safety of the group. The huts seem to be well maintained but had not been used for quite some time. We choose the biggest of the three huts, it could fit all three and it even had a fireplace of its own and some odd utensils and cooking items and 'masalas'. I was relieved to secure a place to stay the night with food but apprehensive at the same time.

We all had questions but decided not to express them until we had our dinner. I cooked some rice and plucked some tubers and herbs from behind the hut to make a medley of vegetables in the dim light of the candle. We ravished the simple meal and felt satisfied. If someone would have asked us then which was the best and the most satisfying meal of our lives we all would mentioned this one.

Panna Reserve had tigers and other animals in abundance. We made sure the hut was fenced well and the door was secured from inside. The cooking fire had made the hut warm and the shouldering amber would see us through the chilly night. It was pitch dark and the quietness of the night was interrupted by the howling of the hyenas and foxes. Each time we hear their shrill cry chill ran up our spine. I kept my knife next to my resting place just in case.

Our purpose to be in the middle of the hostile conditions was to look for the 'baba'. Whatever information we had gathered was trivial in the hunt of the elusive and the mystic 'baba'. Who was this 'baba'? and why was he on our challenge list? Is there any connection between the 'baba' and The Big Race? Who do these huts belong to? etc. We tried to put our heads together and were able to come up with some pointers which would help us scour for the 'baba' the next day. Once this was done Neena and Joe slept off while I decided to do the vigil for a while.

The next morning we started early as decided. We headed for the highest peak to do a survey of the place. The view was panoramic and awe inspiring, I had never experience a morning so beautiful. In a distance far away beyond the meadow we could see another group of huts, our eyes lit up. We walked through the rough and wet ground crossed the beautiful meadow to find some men enjoying their morning tea. We were happy to see them but they didn’t seem to be too glad too and surprised to find us there. They all came to alert and pointed their weapons at us. I calmed them down by assuring them that we were regular travelers and were their looking for the 'baba' and we had no other business there.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chapter 10 - Panna Tiger Reserve

The taxi drivers pounced on us in Satna. They quoted exorbitant prices to take us to Panna Tiger Reserve. I could sense that they had a nexus and the show of trying to beat each other by quoting lower prices was a sham. We settled for a decent looking Maruti Omni. It was driven by a mild mannered middle aged Vijay. He told us that he has been driving a taxi for about 10 years now and ferrying tourists between Satna and Panna Reserve. We agreed to pay him Rs/- 900.

I tried to extract information from him casually about the topography of Panna Reserve, the wildlife, the surrounding area and a bit about the 'baba'. He answered all with interest but the 'baba' question - he seemed startled. On my goading he whispered that the locals do not talk about the 'baba'. My further attempts to lure him into let loose some information about the ‘baba’ turned futile - he remained tight lipped.

While driving through the forest towards Panna Reserve he abruptly took a sharp turn and drove through the thicket. Joe was alarmed and almost reached for his neck. If I had not come to Vijay's rescue Joe would have twisted his neck. He braked and gasped from breath - 'I am trying to help you and you want to kill me. I got you through this secret road so that you guys can make a covert entry into Panna Reserve through the river Ken'. He appeared annoyed and refused to drive any further and kept muttering that he is going to drop us at the reserve gate where we would had to wait until morning to get entry for mere 6 hours of sight seeing.

Neena worked her charm on him and half pleased he took us to Dongo. The place had couple of boats moored and was used by the locals to connect with other village on the river. Ken entered into Panna Reserve after about 35 km in the shape of a thin river with almost unnavigable water. We three had a small meeting and felt that the best way to get entry into Panna and complete challenge three was through this route. But it was fraught with danger and uncertainty, we were politely informed that not many had tried venturing into Panna Reserve and who ever did didn't have good things to talk about on return.

We got one of the locals to loan his motorboat. The motorboat owner was reluctant but the guarantee of the money and some odd and ends assured him of recovery in case the boat would never return.

"I can see some huts about a mile from here," I yelled to Joe and Neena. I was standing on top deck of the rickety motor boat which we had bought off by pawning whatever we had with us.

I had been steering it down the river in heavy downpour for nearly 2 hrs. It was a mesmerizing sight the rain had almost stopped and the hot air was rising up and turning into mist. I stopped breathing for a while, the stillness of the place seeped into my pores. I killed the engine and the boat slowly drifted down the river like a lifeless log. Joe and Neena joined me on the top deck and they gaped at the sight. It was a shallow marshy ground with long green bladed abruptly interrupted by a range of small hills with flowers all over. White birds chirped and welcomed us by hovering over our boat. "Are we in heaven or do I see trouble," Neena shrugged.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Chapter 9 - Challenge Three

We had worked our back side off in these 5 days. When we reached our room at the 'dharamshala' we found the Big Race packet as we opened the door; someone would have slipped it while we were away. Joe picked it up, opened it and read it to Neena. I couldn't hear them,I was too tired and immediately fell asleep from a satisfied work at the 'Hotel Sunshine' - we were richer by Rs/-19,000.

At 6 AM on Nov 11th, Neena tried to wake me up. I was not done with my sleep, I struggled and resisted and finally Joe came to her rescue and pulled the blanket off me. We have to leave Dehradun by 7 AM. They had packed up my stuff already. Joe hauled me out of the room and into the taxi. I dozed off on the way to the railway station and then in the train. I was clueless where we were going.

I woke up at about 9 AM. I had snuggled up with Neena who had calmly accepted me between her bosoms much to the chagrin of Joe. I apologised and sat up straight.

I was told we were headed to the heart of India and were to locate a 'baba' that had disappeared into the thick forests near Panna National Park about a couple of years back. He had been sighted couple of times by the locals who described him as a tall thin man clad in while with flowing white beards. It is said that the 'baba' was a scion of business family but he chose to give up everything and renounce the world and its pleasures. He wondered around preaching for couple of years and finally made the forest his abode. Some say he is dead and some even believe that he has possessed miracle powers over time using which he can transpose himself and we had to find this mystic.

There was a great thud and we all were thrown off our seats. There was a chaos and fellow passengers scampered for their luggage and shoved to make their way out. Nobody knew what was going. Their was commotion, the train has come to a halt and the place was enveloped in dust. Men shouted, women cried and the kids were howling. I grabbed someone who in a breath told me that the train has derailed, the engine along with the first 3 compartments had come off the rail, a few were hurt and more some were injured while saving themselves in the compartment which were still holding tight to the rails.

The experience left us all tattered and we could not thing straight for a while. Neena lost her bag in the mêlée which has some of our savings along with his power make up kit. I had all the money I got from Mr Raj, so we were still afloat. We checked with the locals and on their advice walked to the nearby town and got on a taxi to Satna. Satna is about 90 km from Panna.

Panna Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and the river Ken passes through the park and adds to the scenic beauty. Panna Wildlife Sanctuary was created in year 1981 and was declared a Project Tiger Reserve by Government of India in year 1994. The region, which is famous for its diamonds, is also home to some of the best wildlife species in India and is one of the better Tiger Reserves in the country. The park is known worldwide for its wild cats, including tigers as well as deer and antelope.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Chapter 8 - Hotel Sunshine

I asked the 'autorikshaw' driver to drop me just outside the 'Hotel Sunshine' gate; the tall smart guards would not have let it slip in as a policy. I walked through the porch towards the entrance, the doorman gave me a strange look - I was dressed in a worn-out shirt and a distressed jeans. I politely said hi to him as I walked past him and he returned my greetings with a smile - slightly embarrassed. I went straight to Neena; she was busy behind the counter. She flashed her best smile and directed me to Mr Raj - the GM.

Mr Raj was a middle aged balding fellow whose love for fancy cars was evident from the fleet of imported cars daintily parked in the parking lot of the hotel. Mr Raj appeared arrogant and spoke haughtily but softly. He was ambitious and beautifully laid out his dream of taking 'Hotel Sunshine' to great heights. He asked me a few customary questions and quizzed me on my understanding of the Italian cuisine. He appeared a hard task master to me. He already had a menu and a plan to launch the event. I made some suggestion in the menu which were shot down by Mr Raj citing the reason that we need to give them what they want rather then what we want.

The head chef of the hotel was comparatively gracious and polite in his manners. He showed me around, I was impressed by the layout of the kitchen and his staff members appeared to respond well to him. He discussed the details on procuring material and indented for the stuff required. Most of the items on the menu were plucked from the menu of the coffee house and the staff was skilled in preparing them at a bark. I make suggestions to improve the overall appearances, taste and texture of some of the dishes after carefully studying the recipes and the chef readily agreed to it.

All this while I hid my identity and passed myself as a touring chef who is working on a book on the different tastes of India and Dehradun apparently fell on my itinerary. Mr Raj agreed to pay me Rs/-10,000 or 10% of the total sales (whichever would be higher) for the job - weekend lunch and dinner Italian buffet. On my way out I whispered 'ten thousand' into Neena's ear and in return she puckered her lips and blew a kiss in my direction.

The first session (lunch) of the Italian food festival was a tough one. 21 dishes were redone, 7 orders were late and 2 customers complained about the food. Dinner was quieter with poor footfall. The cashier counted Rs/-22856 in the till at day end. The team did a fantastic job but the event seemed to lack the buzz. I rang Mr Raj and told him about the situation and asked him to give me a free hand in running the show. He finally gave in when I assured that if my attempts fail to take the sales over 1 lac I would not ask for compensation.

I called a meeting before we left for home to debrief the team. I had a completely new menu for them which was designed to appeal to all the age groups. Earlier, I had asked Neena to print fliers, I handed out 20 each to everyone present and asked them to hand them out to anybody who they feel could be a potential guest to the food festival. I asked chef to pull some strings and plant a story on the food festival in the morning paper through his freeloader journalist friends.

The next day antipasti, minestrone, risotto, ravioli, lasagna, tiramisu flowed from the kitchen into the lunch/dining area. We made a gross sale of 1.57 lac - the highest ever in the history of 'Hotel Sunshine'. Neena and Joe were also among the guests.

The two days experience at 'Hotel Sunshine' took me back to 'The Nights Tail', I felt a bit nostalgic; I overcame my emotions and was looking forward to the Challenge 3 of 'The Big Race'.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chapter 7 - Challenge Two

We all let out a collective gasp and made gesture of frustration after reading the Challenge Two card. It attracted the attention of the people around; they all looked at us in unison. It made me nervous and I felt a bit stupid. When the news of Challenge Two had sunk a bit we all fished out the change from our pockets and handed it to Neena. She counted the money diligently like a bank cashier and announced we had Rs/-4785 left with us.

Two more challenges and God know how many more days to live off Rs/-4785. First thing we did was to look for a cheap accommodation. We were directed here and there and finally found a 'dharamshala' near the Clock Tower. It was to charge us Rs/-200 for each night/room.

We settled for a spacious but crumby room with an extra bed and blankets for which we were to be charged Rs/-50 for each night. Neena made a decision to reserve the room for five night and made an advance payment for the amount just in case we happen to run out of it; it would save us from spending the night huddled somewhere in the street.

Neena did the maths and shared her finding. We are left with Rs/-3500, that means Rs/-700 for every day and if we cut back our expenses by Rs/-200 we could save Rs/-1000 for Challenge Three.

We all slept well that night without any fear of the spirits of the dead British soldiers and officers from the graveyard in Kotgarh.

Next day we all went job hunting. Neena didn't had difficulty finding a job. All she had to do was smile and loosen the top button. She found a temporary work as a receptionist at a small hotel for Rs/-500 as daily wages. Joe with his technical skills and background joined a beat up computer coaching centre as a guest lecturer for Rs/-400 and I had no takers. I roamed around and tried hard to convince people that I can cook but none was interested in trying me out. My mates consoled me and asked me to try again tomorrow.

I stayed in and slept the whole day. When Neena and Joe came back from work, I could sense that they had patched up - I was relieved. Seeing me in bed huddled in a blanket they lost it. I calmed them by pretending that I was not feeling well. In fact I was not feeling good after the rejection.

"I have good news for you. I talked about you to the hotel GM and he is interested in promoting the 'Italian Food Festival' using your name". Hearing this I jumped out of the bed and hugged Neena and kissed her on the cheeks. Joe pretending to look the other side and coughed signaling he was not comfortable and wanted me to get off Neena immediately. I winked at Joe and left them alone. On my way out I borrowed some money from Neena - I hadn’t drunk in years.

I jumped on to the 'autoriksha' and asked the driver to show me the town and finally drop me at the best bar in the town. He took me first to I.M.A (Indian Military Academy) and F.R.I Forest Research Institute), the grandest of the institution in India. Coincidentally, these two grand institutes share the boundary wall.

Forest Research Institute (FRI) Dehradun was established as Imperial Forest Research Institute in 1906. The Institute's history is virtually synonymous with the evolution and development of scientific forestry, not only in India, but over the entire Indian sub-continent. And The Indian Military Academy (IMA) is the premier officer training school of the Indian Army. They didn't let me in but I swelled with pride looking at the smart cadets cross the road.

Then he motored the 'autorikshaw' through the Mall Road, Circuit House past the Raj Bhavan (the residence of the Governor of state) and stopped at Rajpur Road. It was the hippest of the places and the 'Hotel Sunshine' was also located somewhere on this road where I was to showcase my skills.

I decided against going into the hip bar and waste money; I picked up two chilled beer bottles from a local liquor vendor. I loitered around for a while and hailed an 'autorikshaw' back to the room at 'dharamshala' hoping my team mates would have got their rocks off by then.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Chapter 6 - Leaving Kotgarh... Hello Dehradun

Leaving Kotgarh was difficult. The tough time we had was made up by the quite and the tranquil environ of Kotarh and the breaks filled in by Jawala Ram's tales. His hospitality won our hearts.

We started early, we couldn’t afford to linger longer. I left a piece of my heart there and in turn carried the sweet memories of the spooky house, pine forest and the apple orchard. I promised to come back and see if my efforts helped Jawala to improve the apple production. I had to explore its natural beauty; three days were too less to understand the gravity of the natures abundance in Kotgarh and its enchanting culture.

The bus meandered on the serpentine narrow road till Narkanda and thereafter it was a much better ride till Shimla. On the bus ride till Shimla, I watched culture get on and get off the bus. After every turn of the mountain the people had a different dialect and looked different but their basic nature didn't change - they all smiled at silly me and my team mates (inviting us to come back). From Shimla the best and the quickest way to reach Dehradun we were told was to go to Chandigarh and then hop on to the bus to Dehradun.

On my way to Chandigarh, I reflected on my last 7 days. I felt purged of the ennui, I felt I was alive, I felt there was more to see and experience. I felt hungry for more adventure.

We learned from co-travellers that Dehradun attracted a large number of tourists as it was en route to Mussoorie and the weather is slightly warm in summers but at this time of year we would have a good time in pleasant weather. I asked Neena to lookup and read where we have to be, I looked at my watch it was 15:30; we had time at hand. I took a large bite at the veg patty which Joe had picked in Chandigarh and guzzled coke to wash it down. It was quite an economy trip and we only spent Rs/- 2000 on this journey. Neena was sleepy and a bit sour with Joe, she shoved the 'the big race'packate into my hands.

'Be in Dehradun by 18:00. At the city bus stand you would be handed the details of Challenge Two'. City Bus Stand was outside the city, we had a good laugh. We were there by 17:30, we used the time to snack and freshen up and in these 30 mins I gathered some details on the places of importance.
-Rajpura Road
-Clock Tower
-Robber's Cave (Guchhupani)
-Tibetan Temple
-Bhagirathi Resort

At sharp 18:00, someone handed 'the big race' packet to Neena. She couldn't describe him as she was not paying attention came a pat reply - I wanted Joe and Neena to patch up soon so that we can get on with the challenge.

'In the next 5 days earn as much as you can by doing whatever you are good at. This money would help you in Challenge Three,' read the Big Race Challenge - Two.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chapter 5 - Challenge One

I was the last one to be out of bed the next morning. I checked my watch, it was 09:00. I looked around and saw neatly folded beddings of my two team mates. The sun was making the room warm and the rays sneaked into the room through the half closed door and the half covered broken window. The room had a wooden ceiling and wooden floor, the floor creaked under my feet as I made my way out of the room. I wondered how these old houses hold themselves straight for years without buckling under the snow and the shifting rocks underneath.

Jawala Ram was regaling Neena and Joe with his stories and they seem to have forgotten that I was also with them. I was a bit miffed with them but more with the uncomfortable night in the dilapidated house in Kotgarh. Jawala was the first to wish me morning when I joined them. He appeared strangely happy and pleased; for a moment I though it was him and his devilish friends who tested me last night. I didn't discuss my experience but they all senses something was not okay with me.

Ignoring them, I quickly grabbed the tea kettle and poured tea in a big steel glass. Jawala offered 'bhaturu' (leavened traditional Kotgarh bread) which I devoured in no time and asked for more. The 'bhaturu' tasted much better then the best of the fare I have had in my life. I had three and was stuffed for the rest of the day.

Later Jawala Ram handed us the 'big race' envelop. It read: The Big Race - Challenge One. 'Jawala Ram would host you for the next three days. You all would help him weed and till his apple orchard. In case you do not finish in three day, you could either return where you came from or carry on the race after you had paid Jawala Ram Rs/- 3000 to arrange for a help to complete the task. If you abandon the task then you can't carry on with the race. On successful completion of the task Jawala Ran would hand you the details for Challenge Two'. The though of spending three more nights petrified me.

The apple orchard surrounded the houses. It was a beautiful small orchard fenced on two sides, it was well maintained but required the compulsory tilling and weeding. Jawala helped us understand what we had to do and handed us the tools. The first day we weeded a portion of the orchard which Jawala declared was 1/10 of the work we had to do. By evening we were tired uprooting the stubborn weeds, clearing the ominous bushes and the dried creepers. My whole body was sore and I admitted I might not survive three days. We had a rushed dinner and went to our corners, Neena and Joe dozed off. I remembered my last nights experience and was already sweating. I prayed till I fell asleep. The night went quietly for me.

When I woke up, I saw Joe huddled up on his bed and staring at the broken window. It appeared as if he had seen a ghost. I tried talking to him but he kept staring at the window. Neena was trying to comfort Joe but he appeared too shocked to notice her. I waved to Neena to step out, I told her what might have happened.

We discussed about these strange experiences with Jawala Ram who dismissed them as nightmares and assured us nobody in Kotgarh had ever experiences anything unusual and they were protected by the 'DEO', the village diety. His abode was the adjoining Mailan village. 'DEO Mailan' was the most powerful of all the Gods and he assured protection to who ever prayed to him. I sent out a silent prayer to 'DEO' to keep me safe.

Joe didn't step out until afternoon, Neena had to cajole him to have him lunch. He didn't join us on the orchard that day. Neena and I weeded and cleaned up the orchard of unwanted bushes and dry twigs and were left with one more day to till. We knew with Joe in shock we would not be able to complete the challenge. She did the maths and announced that after parting with Rs/- 3000 and we would be left with Rs/- 7000 for the remaining race. We agreed to take it easy and not waste ourselves tilling the orchard.

We asked Jawala to move us to some place else but he couldn't as it was the only room he had which was tidy enough to house us. With the option of moving out completely out of question we decided to stay up all night. We stayed up for a while but the days toil was too much for me - I dozed off. Last I remember was Neena comforting Joe who had his head against her shoulder.

Next morning, I was the first one to wake up and was happy that I was spared again. I sneaked out, the sun was still hiding behind the hill and the morning dew glistened on the dry grass and the trees, adding to the beauty of the cold morning. I went around Gorton Mission School, which had stood the time - the school was est. in 1943 when the British Missionaries tried to provide quality education in Kotgarh and also hoped to spread the Christian faith. In the schools compound is nestled the St Mary's Church. I felt proud to look at these two institutions. By that time the village had started walking up and I could see some of them on their way to the orchards and some soaking the morning sun with a hot cuppa. Kotgarh offered a beautiful view of the Sutlej valley and I could see the snow clad Himalayas glistening in the morning sun.

Joe joined us at work the third day. We tilled about one-forth of the orchard by sunset and were satisfied with our efforts. Back at the house, I talked about my morning visit. I had seem something which explained the nightly activities. On the other side of the fence behind the church was the graveyard - the jaws dropped when my team mates learned this. Neena feared that she might be targeted tonight. The pink on her cheeks disappeared and now it was Joe's turn to comfort her. I left them alone and went off to sleep.

Jawala Ram appeared pleased with the help we have extended. We graciously thanked him and as per the race rule handed him the money. He in turn handed us the 'big race' packet. The challenge two was to reach Dehradun by 18:00 on Nov 4th - we had 10 hrs to be there.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chapter 4 - Kotgarh

The next day was a busy one. I toured the city like a curious tourist and was awed by the grandness of the city's heritage, culture and food. Qutab Minar was much taller than my expectation and the Red Fort was indeed red, the museums had the past saved for us and the satellite town looked real rich buzzing with glamour and imposing modern architecture - India had come of age.

I picked up warm clothes, medicines, a torch, candles, replaceable battering, rope, a Swiss knife and some more things which I though would come handy. I felt excited like a school kid who was to take on his first scouting lesson.

Neena and Joe preferred to stay in and do some homework on the challenge ONE. They gather information about the place: how to reach there, the weather, people and what could surprise us. They handed me a sheet with the details of their findings, I neatly folded it and placed it in my wallet. Neena wanted me to stay for the drinks but I was tired and wanted some time alone. I left them to discuss their life experiences.

The hotels concierge was gracious enough to keep our belonging till we return. We pooled our money, 5,000 each as asked and Neena was to keep the checks and the balances. As per the plan we checked out at 07:00 and by 08:00 we were on the bus to this quaint and quite place, Kotgarh. I pulled the paper from my wallet which Neena had given me. It read:

Distance: 82km from Shimla via Narkanda on bank of river Sutlej.
Transport: Bus service between Shimla and Thanadar.
Location: District Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. Situated 6 km from Thanedar and 18 km from Narkanda.
Occupation: Apple cultivation.
Climate: Pleasant Summers (June-Aug) with cold snowy winters (Dec-Feb)
Landmarks: Old church built by the British in 1843, Gorton Mission School, Harmony Hall, Pahari style temples, Tani-Jubbar Lake and Hattu Peak.

We were in Shimla by 17:00. When we disembarked the cold wind pierced my coat and hit me like a sharp arrow. I could smell the fresh air and people appeared much happy and content and in no hurry to go anywhere. I smiled at everybody who looked my way and they reciprocated, they didn't make me feel stupid. I declared to my team mates that I already like this place and might never go back to the Oberoi's to collect my stuff. We decided to hire a taxi to Kotgarh as there was no other mode of transport available until next morning, when the HRTC buses would roar.

The clue card said that we had to meet Jawala Ram in Kotgarh and he was to give us more information and lead on the next phase of 'the big race'.

I was glued to the scenic beauty of the Himalayas all the way to Kotgarh and couldn't blink, I had never imagined that there was place so pristine and beautiful. From Narkand we took a small byroad which wandered through the thick deodars and then through the mesmerising apple orchards. The apple tress had shed their leaves in preparation for the harsh winter and the sweet smell of the pine wafted in the air. We all gazed at each other and were dumbfound by the natural beauty of the place. We were in heaven.

Jawala Ram was in his mid thirties and lived on the forest side of Kotgarh. It took us 10 minutes to look for him - it appeared that everybody knew everybody there. He seemed be waiting for us eagerly. His sweet manners further charmed me. His house was a three storied house surrounded by apple orchard. He had animals on the ground floor, lived on the first floor and the kitchen was on the top story - a typical pahari old style house. He had 2 small kids and a lovely wife to complete his world.

He showed us to the adjoining house facing the forest where we were to spend the night. It gave look of desertion and neglect but our room was well made. We all were to stay in the same room. It was roomy enough and was heated by a charcoal fire. They got us dinner which we three devoured and slept at about 22:00.

I felt somebody walk over me, I was jolted out of my sleep. I didn't see anybody there. Neena and Joe slept quietly in their corners. I dismissed it as a nightmare and tried sleeping again. A little later I heard wailing noise coming from the forest, I was in sweat. I pressed by hands against my ears and I didn't know when I feel asleep.