If one had to choose a place to get stuck in, this would be it. I told myself this every morning when my eyes opened to take in the sweep of the Panchachuli – five jagged snow peaks jutting out into that breathtaking blue mountain sky. I would lie in bed – a modest cot in the cozy wooden attic of the Pangti residence – and stare, till the soft thump-thump of a little boy’s footsteps on wood broke my spell. There would be a gentle tap on the door before Bhupi entered, balancing a glass of steaming tea in his tiny palms, grinning from ear to ear.
“Good morning, Greg. Here is your tea,” he would say in perfect diction. It seemed to me, increasingly, that the high point of my mornings in Munsiyari was little Bhupi’s bed-tea service, more than even the grand view of the Himalaya. Bhupi was seven, the grandson of old Dhiraj Pangti – Pangtiji to everyone in the village – whose house I had been put up in. It was a private home, but the attic doubled up as a boarding house for trekkers and climbers, usually foreigners.
It was an odd household, comprising the old man and his grandson; Bhupi’s mother had died at childbirth and his father, Pangtiji’s son, had perished in a snowstorm on a climbing expedition to the third peak of the Panchachuli range. Bhupi was only two when this happened. So, it fell to the widowed Pangtiji to bring up the little child, which he did most capably, relishing every moment of their time together.
“What is the virus doing today?” Bhupi’s way of asking for the latest news on Covid-19.
“Well, why don’t you tell me? Here you go,” I said, handing him my phone. Bhupi smiled shyly and shook his head. He needed me to open one of the sites up for him. Bhupi could read but wasn’t fully confident about navigating the phone yet. When I first met him, I was struck by the fluency with which the boy spoke English, later realising it was partly to do with how well his grandfather had taught him, but also because of the regular practice he got from interacting with lodgers such as me.
It was getting on to a month since I arrived in Munsiyari, having taken in many prominent state hill stations along the way over the preceding fortnight. I had been to Nepal before, but it was my first trip to India, and I intended to make the most of it. The original plan was a summer of short climbs that included the Panchachuli base camp, culminating in a trek to Kailash Mansarovar on the newly opened border road to Lipulekh Pass via Dharchula.
But, by the time I made it to Pithoragarh, the country was in lockdown, and it was with some difficulty that I managed to get a jeep into Munsiyari. The hotels were shut, but a friendly man at a tea shop, on hearing I was a climber, directed me to Pangtiji’s house. I arrived at his doorstep, fully expecting to be turned away – having travelled from foreign shores at a time like this – but received instead a warm welcome from the wizened old man.
“How long have you been in our hills?” was all he wanted to know of me and, on being told it was a couple of weeks at least, was satisfied that I presented no threat to his well-being.
“There’s no virus here,” he said. “If you didn’t bring it on a plane, then you don’t have it. You are welcome to stay here, but if you come with hopes of climbing, that won’t be possible now. Not even I can organise it.”
“Which mountain did you come to climb?” asked a little boy, whose face peered out from behind Pangtiji’s legs; my first encounter with Bhupi.
Hearing my reply, he shook his head and said solemnly, “Oho, that is in China, sorry, Tibet. Not possible. You don’t know about the virus?”
Pangtiji laughed loudly. I could see many of his teeth were missing.
“Meet my grandson, who knows all there is to know about these hills. Don’t you, Bhupi?”
“No, you know more than me, Dada,” said Bhupi, with a grin, and suddenly I had a feeling it would be no ordeal to shack up with the two of them and enjoy a quiet vacation in this quaint little border town. Even the communication wouldn’t be an issue, seeing how well both of them conversed in my tongue. I spoke a smattering of Hindi – picked up from a handbook in London and polished on my way up – but it was no match for the near perfect English that Pangtiji spoke.
That first evening, I was invited to dine with them in the kitchen downstairs. I sat on a woollen rug next to the big round bukhari at the centre of the room. Pangtiji handed me a glass of clear liqueur. It was smoother than a malt, with strong fruity notes, maybe of plum or apricot.
“Chakti,” said Pangtiji. “It’s no ordinary liqueur. A family usually has only a bottle or two, stored away for a special occasion like a marriage. Or a special guest.”
“Well, I am honoured then. And yes, the drink is special indeed.”
Bhupi sat next to the fire, the heat flushing his already rosy cheeks. He gazed at my face, not saying much. Perhaps he felt shy – it was only our first meeting. I had gathered Pangtiji was a climber from the man at the tea shop, but now that I saw his ice axe and other implements hanging on hooks on the wall, I realised he was no amateur trekker.
I asked for permission and stood up to see the framed pictures on the wall. The images were of a young Pangtiji atop snow peaks. In some of them, he was standing with groups of Caucasian climbers. Had I not met him, I would have taken him for a Tibetan Sherpa.
“Were you a Sherpa, Pangtiji?” I even proceeded to ask, before realising that it may be an insulting thing to say.
He noticed my embarrassment and said with a smile, “Of a kind, in my younger days. Then, I attended the institute in Uttarkashi and even led a few expeditions for the border forces.”
“I am so sorry, I didn’t mean it as a slight at all.”
He brushed it off. “No shame in being a Sherpa, I would be proud calling myself that.”
There were two pictures of another Tibetan-looking man with his hand around Pangtiji’s shoulders. His face lit up when I asked who it was.
“Oh, that is Dorjee Tashi. My hero, you can say, or mentor. One of the most respected names in the world of mountaineering, though he didn’t get the kind of fame Tenzing or Gombu received. Everest climber, many times over. He is from Darjeeling, but was over at the Institute of Mountaineering here in Uttarakhand during my time and we became friends. We summited the Banderpoonch together – it remains my favourite climb, to this day.”
“Quite a looker too.”
“Oh yes, the girls would all swoon over him. Hasn’t lost a bit of that, even in his old age. I visited him in Darj a few years ago, and he came to fetch me on a Bullet bike, wearing a black leather jacket, looking like a Hollywood star. He is an amazing guy.”
Bhupi spoke for the first time. “He gave me a pair of his climbing gloves. There,” he pointed at a scuffed maroon pair on the wall.
“Wow, that’s a prize worth keeping. So, do you want to become a mountaineer too?”
I asked this question innocently, as I didn’t know then about Bhupi’s father’s accident. I noticed a shadow pass over the old man’s face.
“No, I would not want that for him. It’s too hard a life, fraught with risk. I did it because I had to, there weren’t too many options for us, and I didn’t want to join the army. But not him. I want Bhupi to attend a good college, have a proper career. Okay?” he asked, giving Bhupi an affectionate smile.
Bhupi nodded and said, “But we will climb the Panchachuli together once. You promised.”
“If these old bones hold up, we will try.”
“So, you kept up with Dorjee all these years?” I asked.
“Yes, you see, there was another reason. He was extremely fond of reading. A most erudite man, unusually so for a Sherpa. And completely self-taught. A voracious reader. One evening, we were sitting around a fire outside our tents when he said, ‘You know, Dhiru, what gives me the greatest pleasure on my climbs? When I sit alone in the evening after a hard day’s trek, thinking of something I have read recently and suddenly everything seems to hold a different meaning altogether. It’s like a revelation. You should start reading, Dhiru. You know the language and you have a wonderful opportunity most folks don’t. It is something to be cherished.’ That started me off on my own journey,” Pangtiji said, pointing to two walls lined with books.
“May I?” I asked, and he waved his hand in permission.
The titles astounded me. I had expected to see books on mountaineering and nature, but all the books were novels or plays – Dickens, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Brecht, Hardy all the way down to Bellow, Hemingway, Roth and Greene. There was even Le Carre and Wodehouse.
“This is an amazing little library you have here,” I gushed.
Pangtiji said, “There’s much more in those trunks. I have asked the owner of the book shop in Almora to get me Enid Blyton and Lewis Carroll for Bhupi. A boy should not want for books, right?”
Dinner was a soup of kidney beans, chicken stew with carrots and roughly cut home-made bread. We served ourselves from steaming pots on the stove.
“I hope this is alright. Tomorrow, we can talk about your preferences and what time you would want your evening meals. Since we don’t employ any help, guests usually fetch their meals from here and return the washed plates in the morning. Would that suit you?”
I said it was absolutely fine and offered to go to the shops to run errands.
“I think you better not do that now. It may scare the locals off.”
He put it half-jokingly but I sensed there was probably a grain of truth in what he said.
“How long had you planned on being here?”
Not wishing to alarm him, I said, “Well, the plan was to spend a few weeks here and then set off for the Tibet leg, but now it’s out of my hands, isn’t it? Guess I am stuck till the travel restrictions are lifted, but I won’t impose on you beyond what is convenient.”
“Oh, there’s no one coming here now. Stay as long as you like. We aren’t used to turning away guests in a difficult situation.”
I was beginning to get used to Pangtiji’s way with words, the hazy line between something said in jest, or earnest.
“Why, do your guests often overstay their welcome?”
“Not often, and they are never not welcome. I have had climbers come in with broken limbs, who have stayed for a month or longer. To be honest, I like it and so does Bhupi. It’s our little window to the world outside; there’s more to be gleaned from a fireside chat with a stranger than hearing the news on television. Or else we risk remaining frogs in the well.”
While we spoke, Bhupi had curled himself into a little ball and gone off to sleep, his feet tucked under Pangtiji’s folded legs. It brought a smile to my lips and also a little pang of envy.
Excerpted with permission from Essential Items: And Other Tales From A Land In Lockdown, Udayan Mukherjee, Bloomsbury.