Star Cast (From left to right in the above picture): Sarfaraz, Mannu bhai, Ojha, Ranjan, Hansraj (Hansie), and yours truly.
Cameos: Nagesh (The Cabbie), Ranjan’s Dad.
Written & conceptualized by: Yours truly.
Directed & produced by: The entire star cast.
“Iss kahani mein action hai, comedy hai, gaane hai, masala hai, bas romance nahi hai babu moshai”.
Walking past the nostalgia lane, I guess we all sneak into the carefree days of college. Three years seemed to be the shortest duration for creating memories for a lifetime. I wish we could have got one more year, but after a period of say 15 years, to live that life again. Wouldn’t that be interesting? A compulsory all-paid year off, to study again in college, complete the studies and experience another youth! This post is not about any such anticipation, but a memoir, of the last year in college when realization dawned upon my group that it’s the last year, and we ought to create special memories. And hence, another trip was planned. New Year 2003 @ Manali. It was the era when holiday pictures used to be in the multiple of thirty six, mobiles were expensive and few, and social life was strictly offline. 2002 made us cherish every passing day, since we knew there were only a few left before we’d be heading out in the corporate world; and the wild laughter will become innocuous chuckles, lewd comments would transform onto constructive feedbacks and the first day first shows will never have us as the audience.
Act I – The Spark.
“Dada, popcorn cholbe na, ektho fish leke aao.”
While trips usually start with extensive planning, ours started with too much excitement. To the extent that we planned just few days before. Hence the follies were bound to spring up. Unlike our Shimla Trip, we had booked a cab this time, as we were in the mood to splurge within our limited resources. Here’s a look at the financials – 5 days, 6 guys, Rs.2,500 each, so that’s Rs.15,000. Pretty good sum (in the year 2002), if you don’t consider Rs.8000 for the cab itself! The poor planning made us poor even before we started!
Moving on with our idiocies, the Tata Sumo we had booked from the neighbourhood taxi service the night before the trip had a young driver allotted to us, Nagesh. It looked like a blessing in disguise, as it’s easy to gel along with a young guy which wouldn’t refrain us from all the hooliganism. But blessings come with terms & conditions too. The moment we got to know that he’s going to drive for the first time in the hills, a frisson of spook shot through us. It wasn’t an ordinary journey, but 9 hours of uphill drive after a breezy 5 hours on plains. But that wasn’t the only blow for that night.
We had all converged outside college at late evening and planned to spend the night at my place drinking. That would make it easier to leave next morning from one place than picking each other and wasting time and precious petrol. After buying booze from a liquor store, we headed to Ranjan’s Bengali household to pick him up as he hadn’t shown up yet. We didn’t know a cold welcome in the cold winter night awaited us than a warm one. His dad seemed to be in a bad mood that night. So bad that even his Chivas Regal couldn’t console him. Which was evident from his rich baritone getting several decibels higher when he said to the wafer-thin Ranjan, “Shame on you. Even my Chivas is more mature, and it’s just 2 years younger than you.”
Ranjan was seen coaxing him to give permission (read: money) to join us. We pitched in too, begging, pleading, and the words ‘please uncle’ reverberated across the house in unison. Uncle loosened up, and started taking our case one by one, interviewing each one of us, asking funny questions with a serious face and generally killing our precious ‘drinking hours’. We convinced him half-heartedly that you don’t need to dole out cash, we’d take care of Ranjan. To which he answered, “How will you take care of my son? He has self-respect. Would it look nice when you all will eat and he’ll gawk at your faces and salivate?” Meanwhile Ojha kept staring at Uncle’s glass, Sarfaraz had his sights on the bottle itself while Mannu Bhai drooled whenever Uncle poured his drink onto the glass. Hansie was happy just to smell the fish curry in anticipation that he might get some. Uncle even asked us to join him in his trip to Goa, with beers, a company car, his colleagues and their daughters etc. Thank goodness we didn’t fall for it! Finally after 3 hours, we got the permission, Ranjan got the money, and the words ‘Thank You Uncle’ reverberated again in unison.
After the permission, we headed back to my place on a single bike. Which meant a 100cc bike carrying 5 riders with their travel bags occasionally touching the road. Don’t even bother imaging the sight, it was straight out from ‘India’s Got Talent’. Reaching home, we drank rum, played rummy, sang songs and howled dirty jokes till the crack of the dawn. The radio channel played retro mushy songs after 5am (which though was the time we were supposed to get up and leave), and those who were half awake chorused along until the voices started oscillating with snores. As not planned, we started horribly late for the trip.
Exuberantly chirpy and riotously loud, we were having a gala time on the road. 7 hours into the trip, the pit stop came at the foothills, and I decided that we shall eat like kings, to our heart’s content, and that shall be the first and last meal of the day! After all, we were already on a tight budget, and the dhaba where we stopped at had a yummy offer wherein you buy a Dal Makhni at Rs.25 and have as much rotis as you can for free. I knew this was it, our moment had arrived, life beckoned. I took Hansie in my confidence and said those memorable words, “Bhai, hamari izzat tere haath mein hai, vasool liyo paise.” Hansie couldn’t go any wrong, and he hogged 10 rotis before I could even say ‘Zara Pyaaz Dena’! His Geoffrey Boycott slanted smile affirmed that Rs.25 for a dream meal was a good idea. In the drive uphill, I regretted my decision, as the amount of Dal Makhni Hansie threw up was the maximum on my bag! The only respite was that he was sitting alone at the rear end of the MUV.
We kept driving through the long night. The moonlit river that was streaming along glistened to its full glory, much to our awe. Looking at the river snaking by was the only sight to sigh over, as the mountains looked dreadful – rocky, dark, hovering, conspiring, ghostly and so much in-your-face. The silhouettes under the full moon were a perfect setting for a horror flick. Emerging lights from the fringes of the road re-confirmed our faith in civilization. The small waterfalls from the hills on the opposite side glistened like ivory, as if peering at us, while we imagined them to be white snakes, hanging temples, hair of babas practicing voodoo, and much more.
The night was long, and our tempers short. We had been patiently sitting quiet because of a) too much food hogged, b) boredom of the long journey, c) sleepy and d) the cold weather. Every hotel that we passed looked nice & comfy & tempting. What broke our reverie was driver Nagesh’s question to Ojha who was sitting next to him in the front – “Bhaisaab aapko sab saaf saaf nazar aa raha hai na?” Ojha replied in affirmative. Then he puked the golden words – “To phir mujhe guide karte rehna, mujhe andhere me kam nazar aata hai.”
Please note: Due to strict adherence to Web Moral Code of Conduct, I’m not describing our reactions that followed. This is a sanitised version. Kindly bear for the abridged draft.
Act II – The Chemistry.
“Oh yaara, apne hotel vich breakfast complimentary to hai, par unlimited nahi!”
Somewhere between our quest to find the pukka road after Kullu, and making sure that the driver sees the road as well, we completely forgot that it’s been over 16hrs since we took the damn highway. In the dead of the night, we reached a spooky, dilapidated road near Hadimba Temple where wind was the only sound audible, and we rejoiced aloud on sighting our hotel, breaking the reverie of the street dogs. We had 2 rooms for the six of us. But our love and camaraderie couldn’t bear the distance between the two attached rooms, so we all snuggled closed to each other on a double bed. Another reason was that the hotel was short of quilts! It was so cold that no one dared to even change clothes.
Waking up to see the sky-kissed mountains through the French windows was a sight to behold. The crests were brimming with snow, rousing the wild within us to scale each peak in a single leap. Getting out of the room was none less than shocking, as the droplets dripping down the railing the night before had transformed into a sheet of ice waiting to be poked and cut fingers with its sharp edges. In fact Sarfaraz even slipped through the melting ice on the floor while trying to show his moonwalk. Sitting there on the small balcony with hot cups of tea, we got a fair idea of what to expect. But the beauty of the place is such that we were proved wrong, because what Manali beholds is beyond imagination. The beauty of the land is surreal.
We started our explorations with the close-by Hadimba Temple. Got pictures clicked on Yak. Made funny noises. Serenaded the calm place. Irked the tourists and families. Laughed our lungs out. Wasted our energies. Time for lunch.
In order to keep a tab on our indulgences, I was handed over all the money we had (which though was a paltry sum to start with). They called me ‘Manager’, and the money was called “Company Ka Paisa”. Miscellaneous expenses like cigarettes, liquor, chocolates, etc. were not part of the Company Ka Paisa. But every company has loopholes. Ours was no different. The money I tipped the waiters was usually fished out by Hansie when I left the restaurant. Imagine. We all leave the restaurant. Hansie runs back and takes back the tip money from the bill folder.
So here we were, learning to outdo each other in tawdriness, and actually displaying amazing skills! It was the notoriety that brought us closer, made us bond so amazingly. No ego hassles. No formalities. No respect! So this camaraderie defines the act II – The Chemistry. It sizzled in the cold, wintry Manali.
Act III – The Love
“Ama miya, itni baraf to humne kabhi freezer mein bhi nahi dekhi, lahaul vila kuvat.”
The ride uphill to Solang Valley was tricky, as the rainy weather that looked beautiful made the already difficult terrain more difficult for the driver. Add to the distractions caused by us. Asking him to stop for pee breaks, boots & jacket rentals, maggi, group photographs, general hooting, etc.
We realised how intimidating we look when we stopped our car at a curve and asked a local woman for the way to Solang Valley. As Ojha rolled down the window and mouthed, “Excuse me, yeh Solang Valley ka rasta….”, the woman started running back to the narrow bridge! Pretty embarrassing for us, a rude awakening. And this didn’t stop here, as we encountered a similar situation, albeit more embarrassing. That bit at the tail-end of the post.
The cassettes I had stocked for the trip were old hindi songs. So we all sang our guts out as if listening to heavy metal. Even the driver exclaimed, “Main Delhi se nikla tha 2002 mein, yaha aate aate 1972 ho gaya!” His revelation was funny which made us laugh, which led him to add one more punch to continue on his dialogue, “Main nikla tha Hrithik banke, aate aate Rajesh Khanna ban gaya”. Again we laughed, but this time the laughter had the tonality of deep insult, the one that is followed by pointing fingers towards the ‘accused’, high-fives, repeated laughs again after some time until the stomach churns and eyes get teary. Nagesh got the gist and pumped up the volume while revving up the accelerator. Our heartbeats kept pace with the vehicle’s speed.
Somehow, we reached Solang Valley expecting to see snow all around like how they show in Bollywood movies where the lead actresses dance in bare minimum clothes. But all we could see was a field with tea stalls at the fringes and hordes of people buzzing around them. No snow, no women, no show. They said snow would be on the top of the mountain. Being young and vulnerable, we planned to climb the mountain. That was a decision proved wrong midway as everyone huffed and puffed, and cursed their smoking habit for the loss of stamina.
Once at the top with tired legs, stooping bodies and panting breaths, the sight that lay in front of us was indescribably beautiful. It was the fruit of our hard work! We had risked our lives climbing the steep mountain, slipping on the hard snow repeatedly like Duracell bunny, and arguing like loons whether to continue hiking or pull back. But all is well that continues well.
Suddenly, whiteness filled our squinting eyes. We did a quick recci of the panorama before we set our foot on the avalanche of snow. The only trace of colour visible hung on our clothes. Everything else was white.
This is what we had come for, to see and experience the snow. And now being actually there made us berserk. We went ballistic running around, throwing snow on each other, jumping and falling over, walk funny, high five-ing and yes, Sarfaraz again tried to do moonwalk and he didn’t trip this time, though he could not do the moonwalk either. But all feels good for some time until snow starts melting on your skin sliding through the neck, sending down a shiver so sharp that one can only feel miserable, shivering and cursing. After the tiring running around, we went for a leak on the snow!
Though the act was disgusting, but we were all convinced that it pleased the weather god. For why would we get rewarded with light snowing? Yes, it snowed. The flakes felt like cotton balls falling from heavens. The feeling was ethereal. Too real to be true. The closest we had come to snow was occasional hailstorms in Delhi. This place was transformed into the garden of Eden. Too romantic to be surrounded with guys.
And then the cold started seeping into our bones. It was about time to leave Eden. So started the descent. But what awaited us at the parking was another pleasant surprise. Among the tea-stalls, maggi-and-boiled-egg carts, tourist cabs, drunken Punjabis and rental shops stood a bus…full of girls!
Here came the twist to the story. Finding hordes of college girls here was the last thing we expected. And since we didn’t expect it, we didn’t know how to react! It being 31st of December, we had to celebrate. And what better place to celebrate? Ojha whistled to Nagesh to park the car right next to the bus. Then on his local-est of the local music system, we played our old hindi songs. And on that, we started to dance. Gala celebrations, please join in, just about anyone.
Dance steps had to be innovated with each pausing slow beat, and we had to resort to deaf-and-dumb movements to justify the lyrics, sometimes which went without music. The power of words, now enacted on the coldest stage. People who cared to watch us, though I doubt anybody did, but out of curiosity if someone did, they knew they better not watch. R rated stuff, this. But the girls did have a good look at us, I’m darn sure. Why else would they leave in just 10 odd minutes since we’ve broken into hysteria called tribal dance?
“Peechha karo, follow them, Nagesh” yelled everyone as the bus left. No sooner, the place was deserted, as all the cars there left in a jiffy, as if anticipating a landslide. A total contrast to what it was some time back – Surds having whisky in 150ml thermocol cups (The cup could barely hold their whisky, forget about the soda). Bengali families hidden inside big and thick and many layers of jackets and woolens and thermals having maggi and chips and nuts and tea and munchies and eggs and whatever available there. A group of boys sipping their Vodka with Limca and passing comments politely, looking at each girl and then giggling between themselves and high five-ing. And us, of course, dancing to break the monotony of spirits hanging low in the air.
It was still snowing, and that made the downhill drive even more treacherous. The ice melting on road made it slippery. But we were possessed. Experiencing snowfall for the first time, we sat on the windows of the car, half body outside, on the brink of falling down the valley with every bend the road took. But the spirits were high. And by the grace of god, we reached Manali safely. Though we did hear stories of cars falling off the cliffs that day.
About the bus? No, we couldn’t track it.
Act IV – The Tiff
“Maar do humka. Kyuki bach gaye to tumka maar denge.”
It was 31st. The hotel management had organised a small party at their lawn. We decided that we’d first have dinner at a Chinese Restaurant, then head to the hotel. But Ranjan, Ojha and Mannu Bhai were in a mood to drink heavy, and headed straight to the hotel without worrying about the dinner. Sarfaraz, Hansie and I decided we’d hog many items off the menu since three pax were absent from the dinner budget. After having food to our heart’s content, we realised it’s still 9pm. So we ordered warm chocolate custard and repeated the order to kill time. Meanwhile we inquired each other about our secret flings and sex lives, just to check whether the rumours we had ourselves circulated were true or not. That was bonding at intimate level. We were not in a drunken stupor, yet we became unapologetically honest that day.
It was so cold outside that leaving the warmed restaurant seemed suicidal. But when the bearers started looking at us with disgust, we left. Shivering and cupping our nose with our gloved hands, we reached the hotel lawns where the festivities had taken a musical turn. People were seen dancing, families sitting beside the bonfires, waiters also hogging on the chicken lollypops and taking swigs in between, while a poor guy who was handed over the cassettes to play music kept yelling, “Aapka wala song hi next hai madam.”
Our 3 friends were missing from this party, and we ran to the room to drag them at the lawn and dance. But inside the room a different room welcomed. Tables turned upside down. Bed upturned. Carpet on the corner. And Mannu bhai sitting atop Ojha, punching him on his guts, and then Ojha taking the charge and punching Mannu Bhai on his face. Meanwhile Ranjan stood there, frozen by the situation not the cold. Sarfaraz started hooting and enjoying the episode. Ranjan yelled at us like a granny, “Sab so jao, bandh karo yeh sab natak aur so jao.” All I could think of was to shift the TV to the adjacent room before they break it. But instead we all pacified them to stop the fight. The brawl was nothing but a stupid argument between the two on state politics, and after a while, we went down to celebrate the new year’s eve party.
At the lawn, everybody was happy and dancing and hooting and eating and celebrating and drinking and cheering and singing. Until we reached there. Just 2 minutes left for the clock to strike 12, and I changed the cassette and played our favourite old hindi song, “Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai”. Hansie yelled to everyone, “Guys, we have to dance on this, come on.” And that’s how that party came to an end!
Act V – The Happily Ever After
“Re baawle, new year pe resolutions na, pegs banawe hai. Cheers!”
We were lazy on the very first day of the year 2003. “I think we should take a bath at least today?” exclaimed Sarfaraz, who had turned a shade darker by now. But to battle the cold water was not easy. “Paani tap se to barabar garam nikalta hai, par mug tak aate aate thanda ho jaata hai” came an excuse from Ojha. “Dilli jaake nahayenge yaar, vaise bhi nahakar kaunsa koi ameer bana hai” said an irritated Ranjan scratching his arms. “One should die a life of warrior, not due to bathing in freaking cold water” stated Mannu bhai. “I’ll take a shower only if you give me your SW Watch for a whole day” Hansie threw an offer as if I cared, and further, he thought he was funny when he had named my Swatch – SW Watch. Nagesh who was privy to our fear of cold water laughed at us, but when hefty Ojha charged towards him, Nagesh quickly made a poker face and suggested that we visit Vashisht Bath, a hot water spring which gets collected in a pool. It was about 40kms. from Manali.
The steam from water intimidated us, yet we took off our clothes and dipped our foot inside the pool to check the temperature. It was too hot for a dip. Now this was another dilemma. First we refused to bathe in tap water because it would be moderately hot. Now the water is too hot to bathe. An old man, probably a local, saw us shying away and said those golden words, “Yeh shehri ladke hai, inse zyada gooda to hamari aurato mein hai”. An insult of that magnitude suddenly made us forget the heat of the water and we jumped right in, shrieking yet happy.
After coming out neat & clean, we felt we should go to nice cafes (now that we looked human enough). On our way back, we stopped by the riverside. The gush of the river was so extreme that it could carry us to Delhi if we slipped. But God was by our side, because Ranjan did slip while posing precariously on a rock in the midst of the river. Thankfully we were able to save him. Instead of thanking us, he kept crying fowl about his wet clothes and the shivers. Plan changed, we headed to hotel. When we reached the room, the mood changed and we planned to have rum that we had bought the night earlier to celebrate the first day of the year. Hansie was excited to try the rum with Thumbs Up, while Ojha and Mannu looked disoriented. When we got to know that these guys had emptied all the bottles last night, there ensued another fight, this time Ojha & Mannu against all of us.
Buying more rum wouldn’t have been a problem even though it was super expensive at Manali, but when we all checked our respective wallets to find them with just about few hundreds, we realised we were broke. All those expensive dinners, room service, paragliding, adventure trips to nearby places, repeated rounds of hot jamuns, camera rolls and other indulgences had brought us to the end of the journey! We had just about enough money to have 2-3 meals on our way back. We cross-checked each other’s wallets just to make sure if anyone is carrying any trace of money hidden inside secret pockets which they called ‘unti ka paisa’. Even our ATM cards bore the sign of middle finger on their design. Just like our earlier Shimla trip, we had to cut down on one day because of bankruptcy. Kullu off the itinerary now. Only dhaba food. No cigarettes as well. And that brought the group to stoop to Beedi’s level. Long gone Marlboro, came along Pehalwan Chhap Beedi. Hence the very first day of the new year was spent in the room watching ‘Dude, Where’s My Car’ on TV amidst snores and smelly socks. The room reeked of poverty and boredom.
The journey next day was pleasant except for one stupidity. There came a very narrow bridge at Kullu after a kuccha road. We didn’t know where we were headed, but that was the only road that looked legit. The bridge was so narrow that once a car enters, there would be no scope for any person to pass by. And in the middle of the bridge stood few locals howling at us to go back, as they had covered a good distance walking by on the bridge. But we convinced our driver Nagesh to move further and the locals would turn back. And we were correct. But what we didn’t realize was that he’d have to invariably face them at the end of the bridge. As we passed the bridge, the local women took off their footwear and started beating up Nagesh! We couldn’t drive off as they had blocked the car. We all rolled up the window, while Nagesh was dragged out and lashed. He kept mum sitting inside.
No, that’s not the end of the stupidity. When Nagesh came back all bruised, we stared at him, looked at each other, and started laughing our guts out (Yes, with the same insulting tone). It was too funny actually to be sober. Even the locals joined us and started laughing at the situation. Except one person, Nagesh. And we never saw him talk to us again in that trip. He did pay us a visit in college after a month, expecting us to get pally with him and give him a grand welcome and introduce him to our female friends. All we did was exchange pleasantries and continue with our basketball game.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. The energies had depleted (as well as the money). We played rummy in the car, fought over the single quilt we had that was given by Ranjan’s dad, fought over choosing the lane in the dense fog, fought over choosing the dhaba, fought over who would be dropped first, and fought over proposing to girls in college we never had even spoken to but laying our claim on. But these fights were our way of bonding, trying to outsmart each other yet caring, making fun of each other yet having fun in any situation we got into, however ugly.
To date, we all thank our stars we planned that trip. Because we don’t carry memories of every day of college days. But we remember vividly our trips. The trips have given us a lot to talk about and rejoice even today whenever we meet. And enough dope for me to write this journal.
We may have done many trips with other friends and co-workers. But the trip with college friends will always remain most special. Because it wasn’t about exploring the beauty of the landscape but exploring our inner self and our carefree attitude and cementing our bond. We were not seeking a destination but enjoying the journey. In fact the destination could have been any other place and it wouldn’t have mattered. What mattered was what memories we created. How much did we lose ourselves into the oblivion of frivolity. How much energy we had to bawl, yap, talk, sing and make merry. True, college friends remain friends for life. We all are still together, even though we might not meet even in a year, but we are connected. Our whatsapp group bears the same spirit of outsmarting each other, chatting up random senseless shit, and bringing a smile whenever someone writes: Uncle Please, Thank You Uncle.
And yes, our display picture is one that was shot in That Wintry Manali Road Trip of 2002.