It has been raining for over three days now at my parents’ place. I love the monsoons, and my loveliest early memories are about rain-lashed mornings, glossy leaves nodding under the pitter-patter of rain, and blowing steam on window panes to make temporary graffiti.
This morning, though, I’m suddenly reminded of a young boy I had met in the hills in the rainy season of 2019.
I was on a solo trip, and and my plan was to spend a night at the remote Chandrataal lake before moving on to the northern district of Spiti. I had met Bijay in one of the tents at Chandrataal where I had put up for the night. He would have been fourteen or fifteen, and managed the camp with another boy, slightly older than him.
There were many camps across the ridge, about 2 kilometers from the lake. They were similar, a line of Swiss tents flanked by a larger tent where people had dinner. When I made my choice, it was based not on the merit of the camp itself but on my peculiarities. Bijay’s camp had no customers when I arrived. And the tents were all white, with pretty window dressings. Both perfect conditions, I arranged a place for my driver, chose a tent, and plopped myself on a chair.
In two minutes Bijay was at my door. He scratched the tarpaulin and asked if I’d like some tea or coffee. I asked him to bring me some hot water and sugar. When he brought this, I asked him to come in and place the tray on the table. This he did and asked, “Madam, you’ll only have hot water?” I laughed and said, “No, I have my coffee black, which I will make myself. But I will keep troubling you for hot water.” He smiled, nodded, and went off.
I changed my clothes, brought my chair out and sat down with my rapidly cooling coffee outside the tent to watch the colours of the sky at sunset. Presently a group of noisy hikers came in, and hollered for various refreshments. I tried to ignore their curious side eyes and pretended to read a book in the failing light. Bijay came up to me and asked if I’d like some soup. I declined and said I would only have dinner, but I wouldn’t mind another cup of hot water.
When he came back next, I had retreated inside my tent, the sudden darkness and cold having chilled my bones and sent me into shivers. Bijay scratched the tarpaulin again and entered, tray in hand. He placed the tray before me and said “Have the soup, madam ji, you will feel better.” And there was hot water as well. I did as told, and smiled to myself. He was right.
After a while, my shivering stopped and I went out to find Bijay. He was sitting with his partner, the other boy, who was wearing a light sweatshirt, happily drunk and oblivious of the cold. “Can’t we have a bonfire?”, I asked, “It’s so cold, I can’t sit outside like this.” The older guy explained it was too windy to make a fire, because there was a risk of sparks flying and catching on to the tents. Bijay came up with the solution. “Why don’t you come inside our tent?” “What?”, I asked, genuinely surprised by the suggestion. “Our tent is where the cooking happens, so it’s always warm. You can come in anytime and perhaps we can play some games.”
I took the offer in a heartbeat. Neither white, nor laced with pretty window dressings, their tent was far more inviting for the warmth radiating from the fire and fragrance of the still cooking curry from the pot. The floor was padded with several blankets. Both Bijay and the other fellow came in with me and sat down on the floor. There was another man who made space and I settled down. There were a couple of shawls lying around, one of each I took to cover my chilly feet. From under it came out a thin book about Himalayan birds.
We started talking about birds first, and then about ourselves. Bijay was a wanderer. Every year they set up camp in the summer, and spent their days in the hilly solitude of the Chandrataal. There is no telephone network or internet in these parts. They stay there, forgotten for 4 or 5 months, coming down only to buy supplies. When autumn sets in, the snow starts piling up and the lake starts to freeze. They wrap up and come down to the smaller towns of Himachal to do odd jobs during the winter. “Do you like it?”, I asked him. “Yes, madam, this is much better than working in a city. There isn’t much to do, and I have time to walk about these beautiful mountains.”
The evening passed on merrily. The two other men sipped on their alcohol, unable to make easy conversation. I realized their predicament and debated with myself if I should ask for a peg for myself. However, I decided against this and chose to carry on the banter with Bijay. As the evening wore on, there was a drizzle, plunging the temperatures further down, and painting the skies pitch black.
As I was leaving the next morning, Bijay insisted on breakfast and introduced me to his dogs. One was a local hybrid, with a flowing golden yellow mane. The other one, a less-than-a-foot long puppy, a Gaddi dog, that will grow up to be 50 kilos in a year’s time. When we bid farewell, Bijay asked me for my phone number, which I shared. “I will call you when I come down, Madam”, he promised.
Several months passed and by the winter the pandemic was wreaking havoc across the world. By early March of 2020 India was to go into a massive and harsh lockdown, sending small time workers into a frenzy to escape the cities and go back to their homes.
One day Bijay called. I was busy doing household chores, keeping an eye on the clock, counting every minute before I logged in for work. A phone call at this time was most inconvenient. Sadly, it took me a few seconds to recall who the other person on the line was. It must have hurt Bijay to realize I had almost forgotten him. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked him to be careful about the virus. He said he was perfectly fine, as always. I somehow did not manage to ask if he needed help. I have often regretted it.
I have also often wondered if I should enquire about him. I still have his phone number but I have never had the mind to call. I do not particularly enjoy the superior stature I am given by being addressed as “Madam”. And I have no wish to be his friend, because a friendship like this is tricky and impractical. In between, there is a space where I can remember him with fondness. Whenever I think of Chandrataal, I’m reminded of Bijay, and it brings a smile to my face.