Gila Ram – Portrait of a proud Kinnauri
It had been our last long day of hard work and Mini, Mari and I were in celebrate-mode. Except we were in Puh in Kinnaur, a couple of hours away from the Indo-Tibetan border, surrounded by craggy, poker-faced mountains with few signs of habitation. It was a tad eerie, this all-consuming blanket of dark coupled with pregnant silence. To make matters worse there appeared to be a power failure and we had yet to locate the guest house we were booked into. After a couple of wrong leads we decided to follow the twin headlights of an invisible vehicle winding its way up to somewhere. Luckily for us, it was a sound navigational decision and we were soon parked outside the large side gates of a forest guest house, the silhouette of which we could barely make out.
The misleading silence metamorphosed into a wailing cold wind the instant we alighted. It could have been a scene out of an old Bollywood horror film; made realistic by the arrival of a ghostly figure of a bent old man at our urgent honking. Hooked nose, jutting chin, crooked legs and a pronounced hunch; the only thing missing was a lantern in his hand to complete the picture. It could have been plenty funny, too, if all of us, driver included, had not been struck by good old fashioned fear at the apparition. Muttering to himself about inconsiderate late arrivals he led four silent figures to our musty quarters for the next two days. Following which, we were imperiously informed that dinner will be in the dining room across from the sitting room where we stood nodding our whatever-you-say agreement. Celebrations and hot showers long forgotten, we quickly gobbled down a surprisingly delicious meal, giving candle-light dinner a whole new perspective, and hit the sack. Not forgetting to double lock our doors before that.
Morning changed everything. Birds, bright sunshine and insistent knocking welcomed us to wakefulness. The door opened to reveal a pink-sweater-ed, woolen-capped, dirty pajama-ed, single-toothed vision of indeterminate age holding out our bed-tea. Meet Gila Ram, our most endearing experience from that trip. Cleaner, housekeeper, gardener, watchman, cook all rolled into one constantly chuckling avuncular being. Initially quite alarmed at his threats of imposition of fines for reasons sans reason, we soon learnt how hollow they were. He continued regardless. If we didn’t eat that fifth parantha, or gobbled up mounds of almonds he placed before us, or requested him for our nth cuppa tea. If the lights were not switched off, if they were not switched on; for ignoring the jam bottle, and even for not staying longer. You name it; he had a fine for everything.
He threatened to fine us when we decided to wash out our clothes that morning. Then he threatened to fine us for draining all the water in the tank, the only time we concurred he had a sound reason. He followed that up with one for burdening his clothesline. He threatened to fine us for not being back for his lunch. He threatened us on our return that evening for having had to remove, fold and put away our clothes (while leaving our delicates untouched to our amusement and growing wonder at this adorable creature fussing over us). On learning that he came from a small village called Nesang, known largely for an ancient Buddhist Gompa and a potent brandy, I requested for a sampling of the latter. He flew into mock rage threatening me with a heftier fine for having the temerity to want a drink. (Evidently, he hadn’t heard of Patiala women). Much cajoling and an imaginary husband later, he returned with a matchbox and a bottle of what appeared to be distilled water. Dipping a finger into the liquid he proceeded to set it on fire! Potency of the spirit proved, he left us alone with a warning to go slow on the intake.
We didn’t quite know what to make of him but we were definitely heartbroken for having to part with his delightful company. He refused to charge us for a large chunk of his hospitality. Instead, despite protestations, he foisted us with more almonds, prunes and a larger bottle of brandy as we made to leave. He even changed into his Sunday best and Kinnauri cap at our request to pose for us, belying his usual sartorial choice.
Our efforts to leave a generous tip, laughingly referred to as the fines we owed him, were met with proud offence. Nobody pays me for visiting my home, he muttered, walking away. With a final threat thrown over his shoulder to fine us if we didn’t return soon.
They definitely broke the mould after that one. Long live Gila Ram.
NOTE: This post later appeared as a middle in The Tribune.