"Aiyee chhele, ei je, edike aar ek piece machh."
To say I was amazed would be the understatement of the year.
The commanding voice that ordered the Bhutia boy to serve him another piece of fish at a roadside eatery on way to Chail belonged to a Bengali gentleman. A Bangal at that. At an altitude of over 2200 metres above sea level.
Normally I am not a racist person. And I am especially sympathetic to my fellow Bengalis.
But as I turned around to take a look at the owner of the voice, I did a slow double take.
My gaze slowly lifted up his thin legs clad in shiny black pumps with snuff socks, red and black chequered flannel tights and a heavy, fluffy cream cardigan buttoned up to his ears.
The hand-knit wool muffler draped stylishly across his shoulders did nothing to blunt the edge of my shock as I took in the rakish tilt of the brown imitation cowboy hat on his head tied primly under the double chin with a string.
Obviously misinterpreting my gaze on his precious hat, the man gave me a winning smile and informed "50 rupees, bought at bus stand market."
"This is land of dacoits, no?" he politely asked in the same amiable tone.
I did not want to commit myself, especially while being served food by Himachalis in their own land, surrounded by pink cheeked sturdy men on horses.
Shrewdly guessing my origin, he said "diner bela tupi saves the brahmatalu. iye... ki bole, night very cold. Kothay uthechhen? Khabar kemon? Amar abar pet ta kodin theke kharap."
(The cap saves the head during the day time. Where are you putting up? How is the food there? My stomach is upset for the last few days)
Only a Bengali (and then only a Bangal) will tell a complete stranger about his stomach troubles, wearing a fake cowboy hat at a hill station, at 2250 metres.
This is the very reason I escaped to Himachal on a 10-day break with parents.
But as I looked around in horror, I saw only sarees, cardigans, jingling shankha-pola combinations, young honey-mooners in tight jeans and Codak clix cameras and ..... monkey caps.
A sea of monkey cap clad humanity.... all cursing Himachal tourism for their exorbitant rates for everything ("Shob beta dakat"). ("All these buggers are dacoits")
Rohtang...that's where I need to go.
I thought the mountain pass at over 4000 feet hidden under snow for nine months of the year will give me the peace and quiet I need.
Blinded by a blizzard on the Manali-Lahaul route, the driver's risky maneuvers on the edge of a gaping precipice did nothing great for my nerves but at least I can almost hear the silence.
Still I was thankful when he dropped us on the snow covered peak. The figures of tourists on the narrow track ahead of us blurred into specks as the snow gradually collected on our coats and caps. The blizzard got worse and our driver said he would skid off the road into the ravine in this weather. I could not have been happier. I wanted the wild an inhabitable. I got all that and then some.
Till I heard the shrill cry... "Eki Gutli! tupi keno khulechho? Thanda lege jaabey toh! Ekhuni poro." (Gutli! why have you taken off your cap? you will catch your death of cold. wear it immediately.)
(To be continued...)