Unplugged Memories – The Himalayan cook by the holy lake
It is late February in the Himalayas. At the altitude of 2800 meters the mountains are nestling the holy lake, the old pagoda style temple, and the surrounding barren land. Rudra Sing says that thick snow is covering everything and showing no signs of melting yet. We are a month away from our hiking and meditation retreat, we have 25 participants, and it is time to start finalizing accommodation and transport. “The ice in the pipelines hasn’t melted, we will thaw the snow for drinking water, a makeshift toilet outside the guest house can also be used!” Rudra Sing (name changed) the caretaker and cook as well as receptionist of the Forest Department rest house told me. Sing thought I was a government employee calling to inspect how things were in the guest house. I didn’t reveal to him that I wasn’t. I was enjoying the attention and details that Rudra Sing was giving me.
I remember the Forest Department rest house. It sits on the top of a mountain, in an isolated tract of high grassland, resembling the most elegant centre piece at the pinnacle of a multi-layered cake. The wide base covered by thick green cedar forest which ascends up to a vast meadow decorated by a few flat roofed mountain homes thatched with green grass. Up here one can always watch the cattle forever merrily grazing. Further up the meadow, sitting by themselves, are two identical bungalows with hexagonal green roofs. They are the Forest Department rest house. Their lofty position, looking into a deep valley below and the vast sky above, brings the feeling of waiting at the edge of life.
“When the snow melts, we will start the bookings”, the tourism officer told me over the phone the following week. I informed the lady officer that we were bringing a big group and we would book the whole house. The officer understood my difficulty and, despite the late snow, activated the online booking link just for me and let me block the dates for the group. The kindness of heart these mountain people hold is striking; there is a certain natural understanding that allows them to ease someone in trouble. Mountain life inspires the universal love which is so accessible and visible in people’s eyes here. It fills my heart.
Shortly after this, the white crystals started to disintegrate, matter stepped from one stage to another changing form, allowing everything to spring back to life. Rudra Sing, still thinking I was the tourism officer, called me at once to give the news that we could send tourists. I explained I was just booking for a group, but he ignored it. We discussed the menu. After a dull, lonely winter for Rudra Singh, finally work had started and I could sense a new zeal of enthusiasm in his voice as he explained how it was not possible to make last minute changes or an elaborate entrée, because shopping was a two-hour drive down to the nearest town.
Because the mountain was cut off from the continuous flow of cyberspace, it was impossible to reach Rudra Sing for spontaneous conversations. Calling him always took me back to the world of trunk calls, letters, and waiting in steady anticipation for an answer. If nothing else, these conditions made me more patient. I was always delighted when Rudra Sing called and since we started to talk, he called almost twice a week, sometimes more. We would always begin by discussing the weather and how he was dealing with guests and food. We never seemed to have agreed on a specific menu but one day we finally did, and I thought my work at this end was done.
However, the next day Rudra Sing called me back asking me how many guests were coming the following day. He still thought I was booking for the forest department. I explained it to him again, but I realized he just liked to talk to me, so I never asked him not to call back.
Just three days before our hike when I was with the group in Chandigarh, we spoke many times about food and rooms; accommodating 25 people was a big deal for Rudra Sing. Knowing the relaxed attitude of people in the mountains and being aware that there were no one really to help him, I could understand his urgency.
One day before the hike I dreamt of sitting by the holy lake again. The dream took me to the September evening I spent there two years back when we were hiking with a small group. We were all hypnotized by the view. I could hardly take the eyes from the vast canvas displaying jagged mountain range upon jagged mountain range stretching all the way to the distant horizon. Below the orange western sky, the farthest range was covered by white snow, while the nearest outline was grass green. The light of the setting sun seemed to be caressing the landscape with a palette of infinite colours. This dream made me even more eager for another rendezvous with the view and of course this time, Rudra Sing, whom I still knew only as a voice over the phone.
Vijay had already explored the many paths which lead up to this holy lake and it had become one of his favourite hikes.
This time the group started at the end of the road at a remote village with a famous Brahma temple. We spent the morning walking through dense jungle, now and then opening to undulating meadows and ancient gnarled rhododendron forest.
At midday we were walking along an exposed mountain ridge when Vijay pointed out the distant lake and the tiny green dot of the guest house. I could see the surprised look on everyone’s face as they imagine the long and winding path rising and falling with the ridges laying between us and our destination. It looked impossible to cover the distance in the same day, but the spirit of the group was strong and later, arriving at the road, we ended up walking in the dancing light of the full moon for the last hour, before finally reaching the guesthouse.
And there welcoming us was at last Rudra Singh. He was lean, with deep dark eyes and thick small curls. Many fine wrinkles made him look older than he was. The lack of company and the long, lonely winter explained his stained teeth and his lips darkened at the side, where a cigarette dangled as he showed us around the guesthouse. But with a large and mixed group, finding out who should sleep where was challenging. Luckily, Rudra Sing’s unflustered attitude made everything easy and in no time a warm simple meal was waiting for us.
After dinner I walked down to the kitchen to see Rudra Sing, amidst all the chaos we hadn’t had a chance for a proper introduction. He told me that although we had not met, he recognized my voice but was surprised that a government employ would walk all this way and that’s when he realized that I was not working at the forest department. Rudra Sing told me about his hard life in the mountains, his side business as a camp organizer, and then we discussed the menu for breakfast and dinner for the next day. We exchanged warm smiles and before I left the kitchen, we shared a brief friendly gaze which meant “finally I could see you!”.
The following days ran smoothly. We had many rounds of masala tea and ginger lemon honey prepared by Rudra Sing. I sometimes helped him in the kitchen. He never took part in our meditations, our long conversations or photography sessions but we all felt the warmth of his presence around us. On the final day, we were reading through his scribbled notes, discussing accounts; our work together had concluded. I thanked him and as we all left, he waved us off with his friendly radiant smile, which travelled from his eyes to his lips and made his wrinkles more prominent; I was going to miss him.
A few days after I get a call, a distant voice asks me, “How many tourists are going to visit tomorrow and what food should I cook!” I laugh and he laughs back, I reply teasing him, that I have a complicated menu in mind for a rather big group and that it will be impossible for him. “I will manage!” he replies with the familiar eagerness of voice. He is always delighted when guests come.
The next few months I received more calls, then slowly the frequency decreased and finally ceased.
I often wonder where our Himalayan cook is now, and I recollect our conversations with the hope that our paths would cross again someday…
I want to thank Vijay for all his help in enhancing, editing and guiding me for this blog.