‘You’re sitting firmly and you’re not nervous,’ said Rahim. ‘And Rani Mukerji likes you’
“Naldehra,” said the driver as the minivan came to a grumbling halt. Nine of us who could not be accommodated in the tourism department bus were put into this vehicle. None of us imagined the ride would be so rough. Also, what we saw was not the exotic Himalayan hamlet we had in mind. All that was around us was slush, undernourished horses and a strong smell of horse dung. The village fair atmosphere did nothing to lift our mood. “250, 300,” chanted the owners of the horses. Everyone sat looking glum.
“You must go up the hill,” said the driver. In the Himalayas, 6,000 odd feet above sea level was considered a hill. “You can walk up or take a pony,” he said encouragingly. The four young children in the group sat hot faced and exhausted. All they wanted was some cold water. Maybe an ice cream. “What is up the hill?” I asked.
“A golf course, a picnic spot, where movies are shot. A location,” he added authoritatively. I remembered reading about the nine-hole golf course. It was the oldest golf course in India. This perked me up and I declared, “I will take the pony.” I was perhaps the oldest in the group and seeing me in an adventurous mood got the group smiling. Soon everyone wanted to go.
One foot up
The driver waved out to a slightly built, bearded man and pointed towards me. “This is Rahim and he will take you up,” he assured me. Having made the brave decision, the question now was: how was I going to negotiate climbing the horse? She was actually a mare. “Climb the parapet running around the tree and from there it is easy,” instructed Rahim. Now my friends were cheering. Covering my nose and avoiding the slush and dung I climbed the parapet tentatively. “One foot on the stirrup, lift the other leg and slide on top,” said Rahim kindly. I managed it and we set off.
“What are the two rates your friends were shouting?” I asked as we started moving. The 250 was to go to the picnic spot, walk around and come back. The 300 was to go to the top. “But what about the golf course?” I asked. That was for the Army and civilians were not allowed.
A healthy young woman astride an undernourished pony suddenly squealed and kicked her legs. The startled animal jerked and stopped, kicking some gravel that cascaded down. Rahim frowned as the pony got whipped. This is when I got my first compliment. “You are sitting firmly and you are not nervous,” said Rahim. “And Rani Mukerji likes you.”
“Who?” I stammered. “Rani Mukerji,” he said patting the mare affectionately. That was her name. I remembered the film location site and asked him if he was a fan of the actor. “No, no, I do not watch films,” he replied.
The young lady in front of us screamed again and her husband, who was ahead of her, turned around and guffawed. More gravel and stones rattled down.
It was a narrow, uphill path and we were moving single file. Rahim grumbled about people who made a horse nervous.
It was time to decide between the picnic spot and top of the hill. The noisy picnickers made up my mind. We decided to go to the top. It was an either-or option as the tourist vehicles stopped at the foothill only for an hour. “What is on the top?” I asked a bit nervously as we turned off. No one else had opted for this route. “Oh it is beautiful,” said a happy Rahim, and Rani seemed to agree.
There were two temples — Nagdevta and Bhimadevi. The absolute silence as we climbed up was indeed beautiful. Any slight rustling, any chirp, or twitter was magnified. The wind actually whistled.
Place of belonging
“Do you belong here?” I asked Rahim. “Yes,” he replied. “I will always belong here. I was born here and I hope to finish my life here. I love the place,” he said. “Inshallah.” I asked about his family. “I am not married. It is just me and Rani.” She rubbed her nose on his shoulder.
“Why do you call her Rani Mukerji?” I asked, truly curious. He smiled. A movie starring the actor was being shot. He did very good business, thanks to the shoot. He did not own a horse. He was working for an owner. “This horse was a gone case,” he said. Nobody expected her to survive; she was very ill and the owner wanted to sell her at a throwaway price. He took her and looked after her like a baby and she lived. Her name used to be Chameli. He renamed her Rani, a queen. The Mukerji was a tribute and thanksgiving to the shoot that had made it all possible. It was a kind of rebirth for both of them.
We had come to Nagdevta temple. It was closed. There was not a soul around. Rahim tapped the whip on the ground; we were in snake territory. Adjacent to the temple was the blazing green of the golf course. The solitude, the greenery and the creaking of the tall trees swaying gently was just for us.
The temple was a nondescript building. Peeping in from a window, one could discern a havan kund. There were some fading paintings on the wall. “People come here only on Nagapanchami day to offer milk to Nagdev,” said Rahim.
From here, Bhimadevi was a short uphill climb. I offered to walk. The temple was actually a small shrine. There was no idol.
Rahim pointed to a peak at a distance and said that beyond that was China. “Hold on tight,” cautioned Rahim, “We are going down a steeper route.” I was not afraid but tried not to look down.
I was focussing on the peak beyond which lay China. When I finally took my eyes off the peak I could see the highway. Cars, jeeps and trunks were winding their way up. Someone from a jeep waved and we waved back. We were back at the minivan before anyone else in the group. “Rahim, you scoundrel, you brought the lady back by the perilous route,” said the bus driver. “No, no,” I said, “It was lovely.”