It was a nice feeling to wake up to the sonorous sound of the river! In Old Manali I checked into a guest house not far from the confluence of Beas and Manalsu River. I didn’t know which river I was hearing. Maybe both.
Warm morning light sieved in from the curtains and fell on my bed. Outside, my balcony overlooked an apple orchard and beyond, a majestic mountain, where the sun peaked over as if it was looking over the whole valley. The mountain was covered with tall deodars in patches while in some areas the rocky cliffs bare it all. On the higher reaches there were no trees but rocks and sheet of snow merging together.
No, she said.
So I took the main road and followed the rising roar of the river.
I was not the only brilliant guy who thought of going to the river that morning. A foreign couple had already arrived at the banks of the Beas River. I thought they had taken the best place there was.
A little downstream I found a shepherd with his two goats and a cow. He looked up to me. His face conveyed no feelings than his eyes returned to the water. I presumed he was in his 60’s. I couldn’t really tell. His hair was mangy and his clothes were shabby. And yet his face was calm.
I sat there beside him not saying a word. Maybe we were a mismatch; we were not supposed to be at a same place. A full ten minutes passed than fifteen, than he looked back to me. He reached for his front pocket and fished out a pouch and a pipe, worked his hands through the tobacco like a true veteran smoker. His tobacco reeked and I knew he had carried that stench on his clothes and even on his body.
He stooped down and picked up a plant and said, “Eat this.”
I watched him and I thought he was trying to poison me. Whoever had heard of fake Sadhus has a reason to doubt.
“These are medicinal plant,” he said. While I was still processing what to do, he put it in his mouth and said, “Look I’m also eating.”
It tasted bitter. He smiled at my reaction.
We started conversing as if we had known each other all our life. His face lit up when he started talking about travels.
“Bachpan se travel karne ka bahut shok tha,” he said musingly. Pointing his fingers at the mountains hovering above us he said he had climbed all those while he was still a teenager. Among his many achievements he was pretty proud of travelling to Ladakh on foot. He had done it four times. “At such altitude and weather a sip of cold water can kill you,” said the wise river man.
Now he’s not the man he used to be. He looked frail and weak. “I’ve been a Sadhu for more than twenty years now,” he said.
“Don’t you have a family and a home?” I asked.
“I have everything but I live plainly. I only eat once in a day.”
He used to live in Old Manali. It was peaceful then. Soon tourists started pouring in and it has never been the same since.
He left his paternal home and relocated to a more serene place overlooking the confluence of Beas and Manalsu River.
“It’s more peaceful here. I like it here,” he said.
We sat on a big flat rock while waiting for the cattle to feed to the fullest. We let time past by without bothering. After the goats were well fed they became too obnoxious; barging on me as if I were a goat.
We talked about the weather, the river, fishing and more traveling. We had all the time to do that. We had a day to ourselves. By evening we have become acquaintances. He invited me for a tea at his modest house. I hesitated but he was generous.
We walked the cattle home. I was impressed by the location of the house. I didn’t know how much of that river-noise I can take it but the place was just beautiful. His wife was a small lady dressed heavily in traditional attire. She served tea made of fresh milk in a steel cup. There’s something so grand about living on basics.
I promised another visit while I was still in Manali.
The guest house I was staying was just five minutes walk from his house.
On the last second day of my stay, I ran into him at Old Manali. He was hardly recognizable. He wore a clean jacket, a woolen hat and a black canvas. He was coming back from Hadimba temple.
“I’m leaving tomorrow. I shall visit you if I come back to Manali,” I said.
“Do so, but bring those photographs to remember by,” he said.
He fished out his voter’s ID from his pocket.
“This is my name,” he said pointing his fingers on the ID.
I shall remember that name.