A holiday in the hills of Himachal brings an opportunity to count the blessings of freedom
Photos: Nighat Gandhi
A matter of taste: One of the innumerable dhabas in Himachal Pradesh.
Are you going for dawai (medicine)?
The woman explains: she takes her husband, a cancer patient, to Vaid Ram Kishan’s free clinic on Sundays. They travel in crowded buses and wait hours for their turn at the clinic. We hold onto the handrails above our heads and sway like drunks as the bus groans up the narrow mountain road. Suddenly a passenger slumps to the floor. Then she rises and lurches towards the nearest window to vomit her breakfast into the hillside. I feel grateful for the nausea pill I took. At Vaid Ram Kishan’s stop the whole bus pours out and we find seats. By the roadside are fresh, sweet apricots on sale. The bus driver waits for us to complete our apricot buying through the bus window. Himachalis understand the value of tolerance and interdependence.
Hot pursuit: Parathas in the making at Sher-e-Punjab, Chail
Chail greets us with its refreshingly slower pace sans the hustling, bustling, shopaholic crowds of Shimla. It suffuses us with sweetness. We contemplate the blue skies, the clean mountain air, birdsong and breeze as we walk languorously down the main street looking for breakfast. There’s Sher-e-Punjab, but we waver because the name evokes greasy Punjabi food of Shimla’s Mall Road eateries, yet we find Chail’s Sher-e-Punjab appealing. Three industrious men are rolling out parathas stuffed with fresh veggies. After we eat our fill of radish, cauliflower, and potato parathas, piping-hot off the tawa and served with a minty chutney and yoghurt, we round off this sumptuous and easy-on-the-pocket meal with tea.
The next stop is Chail Palace, now a luxury heritage hotel run by Himachal Tourism. We arrive at it after walking through a forest of deodars: they are gigantic, unruffled, aloof beings and it would be disrespectful to think of them as mere trees. The palace is an impressive late-19th century stone edifice, a royal rejoinder to the British Raj built by an offended Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, who was expelled from Shimla for eloping with the Viceroy’s daughter. Golden pine needles lie in dappled light on the forest floor and, as we crunch them underfoot, I have a humbling revelation about human reality, my puniness and transience set against the surrounding grandeur. We rest on benches in the palace grounds and then walk inside to find the bar. I ask for vodka. It’s 11 am and a couple of men at the bar turn and stare as we raise a toast to ghumakkari (wanderlust). We sip our drinks while the bartender’s radio plays the song ‘Didi tera devar deewana’.
The bartender mentions a good restaurant in the next village, Janedghat, three km away. We decide to walk but it begins to drizzle, so we look for a bus. Alighting from the bus, as we head towards the restaurant, we are riveted by the inviting squares of besan barfi in the tiny display case of a nondescript tea shop. Kamal Sharma’s sonorous and soothing voice introduces Mann Chahey Geet on Vividh Bharati and the very first song, ‘Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi’, seals our fate. We order tea and barfi and occupy the only wooden bench inside Mast Ram’s mud-walled sweet shop, established in 1980.
Songs float out from a tiny, black radio perched high on the wall. Waiting for the tea, we sing with Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, and Rafi. Tea arrives in glasses, and flavoured with cardamom and ginger.
Tea and besan barfi in the smoky, dimly-lit interior of a village shop served up with nostalgic ’70s songs on a Sunday afternoon in the Himalayan foothills. Mast Ram immortalises the ordinary and the quaint, the unexpected gifts of roads less travelled.
Did Kamal Sharma know we would be listening? Did he design that show just for us? Serendipity? The next song is ‘Chand aahein bharega hum bhi dil thaam lenge’. A sign on the wall warns: ‘don’t smoke bidi or chew paan, or chatter idly’, but we sit around chattering, laughing and singing till it’s time for the bus back to Shimla.
On the bus, Lata Mangeshkar regales us with ‘Dekha ek khwaab toh yeh silsiley huey’. I ask my friend: “How are we different from our mothers?” Her answer: “Our mothers never dared to travel alone. If they travelled at all, it was never without husbands and children.” Clouds are moving slowly in the sky like rebellious, ponderous ladies. We bid goodbye to the deodars standing in stately silence. It’s time to offer gratitude for the freedoms modernity, education, professions, and disposable incomes have bestowed upon womanhood. What our foremothers had dreamt of, we turn into reality with our day out in Chail — three women without men.
From Shimla, Chail is 45 km via Kufri and 61 km via Kandaghat. Buses depart regularly from Shimla and Kandaghat. Or rent a car for ₹2,000/day for roundtrip.
Chail Palace is set in a deodar forest with a bar and a restaurant; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monkeys are everywhere in Himachal. Don’t carry food with you when you’re walking. That’s what they’re after.
Nighat Gandhi is the author of Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories