“A break…in the middle of all this hectic work? You gotta be mad to think GKB will let go of us?” I objected but soon yielded to Sid’s superior persuasive skills.
We planned to jettison our worries and to drown our sorrows in the beautiful lake of the scenic hill station as our boat took lazy circles and we imbibed the finest whiskey procured through our Army Cantonment connection.
The only hitch was how to synchronise our leaves, and Sid’s insistence that we take along a certain piece of luggage in the form of Salil Verma only compounded matters.
“Arrey, you don’t know. He’s a damn good singer…he’s good company on long trips…he’ll keep us entertained.”
“I’d rather carry my portable music system,” said I.
“You try him once. If you feel bugged at any point of time we’ll pack him off right then and there.”
“Well, (sigh) then lug him along.”
While Sid availed of his casual leaves to visit a sick fictional relative in Dehradun Hospital, I successfully sought an assignment to visit the Nainital Observatory which had just spotted a new star, and Salil Verma was beyond permissions (did he ever need anyone’s permission!). If he wanted leave he just proceeded on it, not the least bothered if he would be sacked, guillotined or lynched. That’s the way he was. A habit that used to bug us no end while on duty, turned out to our advantage as we set off for Kathgodam (Nainital’s base station) aboard the Nainital Express.
As the narrow-gauge train pulled away from Lucknow and as the clattering sound settled to a hum, I could hear a beautiful Kishore Kumar number Samaa hai suhana suhana..nashey mein jahan hai playing at a distance. That was Salil singing in a rich sonorous voice while stumbling his way to his berth from the stinking loo. Sid was right, after all. I egged him on to sing some of my favourite old Bollywood numbers. He readily obliged, stopping only to take discreet sips of rum straight from the flask.
Early next morning, the Kathgodam taxiwallah dropped us at the main city square which also doubled as the hill station’s bus and taxi stand. As we paid off the cabbie, I heard Sid’s frantic scream: Run! Though still bleary eyed and with paralysed reflexes, I spotted a menacing bull charging towards us from one corner of the square. All hell broke loose with everyone running helter-skelter. I have never run so fast in my life. I stopped to look around after I thought my lungs would burst. In the midst of all this, what I saw made my heart miss a beat. There was Salil Verma running at full steam…towards the charging bull!!
Marega saala, I thought. Obviously, Salil wasn’t even aware why everyone was running. He just ran on a cue. But now only God could come between a head-on collision and a gory death.
As the distance narrowed down to a metre or so, I saw a nearby fruit vendor hurl his kilo weight at the beast. It hit the bull on the head with a loud thud and the animal swerved. As a result, Salil escaped being horned but couldn’t escape the collision. A strange sound of ‘Ouuuuwweeeee’ escaped his lips as he was thrown off due to the impact and landed in the emerald lake with a splash. The idiot was immediately dragged out of the lake with the help of innumerable good Samaritans who suddenly mushroomed and the great survivor spent a good part of the day waving to various people on the Mall who had witnessed his brave matador act.
For the next three days we were lost to the world. Using Nainital as our base camp, we travelled all over Kumaon visiting places like Almora, Ranikhet, Sattal, Bhimtal, Naukuchiatal, etc in a hired Jonga. Towards the end we just couldn’t figure out whether we were feeling exhausted or rejuvenated. As always, a consensus proved elusive.
On the last day of our stay, we decided to spend some happy hours on the Mall Road. We walked, danced, pranced, waltzed, whistled and sang our way from one end of the Mall to the other. We took one last boat ride back to the taxi stand. As the boatman rowed at a gentle pace, we feasted on some fresh strawberries which I’d bought from a local store. And almost instantly, Salil Verma pulled out a bottle of Kaju Feni from one of his coat pockets, to wash it down with. Believe me, the guy is a walking-talking bar and has the uncanny ability to conjure up drinks at a time and place you least expect. And this wasn’t the first time that he had surprised Sid and me during the trip.
Handing over the remaining bitter Goan drink to the boatman, I asked Salil to get down and click a snap of Sid and me sitting on the boat. He got down and started trying different angles for the most picturesque frame with the camera as both of us struck a pose.
The only problem with striking a pose is that if the cameraman is a perfectionist and continues to fidget with the camera, the instant show of camaraderie begins to look jaded and the unsustainable smile gives way to a hard-to-hide scowl. And tragically, as you glare at the person holding the camera, he clicks, freezing the shot for posterity.
But Salil didn’t do that either. On the contrary, he just seemed to freeze as he held the camera close to his face. Then like a soldier who surrenders in a war, he lowered the camera.
Irritated, Sid shouted, Abey jaldi kar Andaman ke Nico-bar.
Smelling a rat, I turned around… and froze.
(About the Guest Travel Journalist):
Rajnish Sharma is the Editor of Orbit. His articles, essays and columns have been published in newspapers, magazines and portals all over the world. Rajneesh has worked in all the top newspapers of India – The Times of India, Hindustan Times and Business Standard. The travel piece has been taken from his debut novel Flickering Flames.