Safe, calm and idyllic Manali deceptive, hides strong undercurrents
Manali is idyllic with teeming tourists and friendly people. But beneath the surface there is seething anger and frustration among local residents at the pervasive corruption and misgovernance
Two of us travelling through Himachal Pradesh without having to worry if were being stared at or if we were being followed by suspicious looking men seems unbelievable in hindsight. For two women unaccompanied by men and family, this had seemed like a misadventure. But it turned out to be among the most bracing, relaxing vacations, an out-of-the-world trip, as if we were living a dream. It also explains why we like returning to the Hills.
Back in 2019, I had taken a trip to Mussoorie with a college friend and we wanted to trek to the top of the George Everest peak. Only when we reached the starting point of the trek, did we realise that the path was still under construction. Our taxi driver very graciously offered to take us through another route, which passed through a forest range.
Enthusiastically, my friend and I hopped back into the car, and our driver took us through the other route. He even offered to lead the way on the trek, since this one was not the regular route and we could have easily gotten lost on the way. It was not till we had trekked for a good 5-10 minutes that I stopped, turned to my friend, and asked, “What are we doing?”
We were two young girls following a stranger in the middle of the forest (on our own accord) in a no-network zone, when no one even knew where we were. It was as if we were willingly writing a true crime story. But nothing happened. Mahipal bhaiya (our driver) made sure we were safe throughout, and even three years later, whenever someone visits Mussoorie, I share his number, telling them to explore the hill station in his taxi.
Hill stations are the only places where I’ve not used Google Maps obsessively on my phone, tracking every single turn the cab takes. In the Hills, I readily give up on Google Maps not only because I don’t want to miss the stunning views outside the window, but also because I have now started believing that pahadi people are genuinely good.
On my recent trip to Manali, this belief was further strengthened. Here I was lucky enough to meet Rashpal bhaiya on my very first day when I was on my way to Mall Road. He assumed my friend and I were both school students, and we went along with it, because that meant we could get discounts by telling everyone that we were on a “student budget”.
He showed us around Rohtang Pass, Solang Valley and even waited patiently for over four hours while we trekked to the Bijli Mahadev Temple. Rashpal bhaiya told us about local folklores, the Tibetan/Buddhist influence in Himachal villages, took us to the villages near Manali and showed us how the actual residents have to shift further and further away from the hill station every year because of commercialisation of the place. It’s only tourists now who can afford to live at Manali, while those who are from Manali now live in Naggar, Prini, and nearby areas, he had said with a hearty laugh.
As much as he talked about his love for the mountains he called home, the driver did seem disillusioned with people in power there. It began with him talking about a Baba who had an ashram there, who collected so much money from his devotees that his daughter apparently celebrated her birthday in Italy every year. Or so Rashpal bhaiya claimed.
And it went on with him criticising the local MP for owning most of the private buses and local government officials for receiving pension, when local residents were being asked to give up their gas subsidies so that money could be used for development of the district.
There was also simmering anger about the condition of colleges, with no placements and no good faculty. He himself had studied in Chandigarh as had most people he knew. And now to work as a taxi driver, with the ever-rising fuel prices, he was mad at everyone in the government for not living up to their promises of “Vikas” and for all the lies they had told the people. So, maybe not all pahadi people are nice, certainly the politicians and the bureaucrats Rashpal bhaiya spoke about sounded to be nasty pieces of work. But the ones I met were by far the nicest people I have ever had the good fortune to meet.
There was a woman our taxi driver offered a lift while we were returning to our homestay in Prini. She invited us, total strangers,for a cup of tea at her home. There was another old lady who we met on the bus from Prini to Manali, who self-appointed herself to be our guardian and made sure she walked with us till we reached our destination. Who does that?
The founder of the homestay we had booked, confided on the very last day of our stay, that she was not a local and had been only living in the mountains for a year; but she didn’t think she could ever go back to the city. It had been months, she confessed with a smile, without wondering if the man who elbowed her on the Metro did it intentionally or whether it was an accident. And honestly, isn’t that bliss? We had to agree that it indeed was.
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)