We strolled hand in hand, on the nearly deserted mountain road, in the evening. We had come to Kasauli, a small town nestled in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, for our vacation, after I completed my training from the medical college. Kasauli is a perfect mountainous getaway. It has a population of barely a few thousand people, and is clean, green and devoid of the usual swarm of tourists. Hiring a taxi from Chandigarh railway station, we arrived at Kasauli Resorts after a few hours of picturesque drive through the hills.
Our accommodation, though not luxurious, was comfortable and the food in the restaurant was wholesome. The room’s balcony had a beautiful view of the valley, and the adjoining hills. The October temperature was very agreeable and we loved the greenery and the blossoms that we could see from our room. It was a welcome change from the humdrum of a city life.
Since, there was not much one could do in this small town, we decided to spend most of our time discovering the place on foot.
That evening as we exited the hotel to begin our evening stroll, it was nearly dusk. The sun was a crimson ball of fire over the western horizon, lighting the mountaintops with its golden glow and plunging the valleys in relative darkness. From a distance we could see the evening fog begin to tumble over the hills, enveloping the conifer trees in their fold, swallowing them, then moving on downwards. The wind was chilly and the roads empty. Breathing deeply, to let the clean mountain air in, we walked slowly, hand in hand, and wondered how far we could go before it got really dark.
As the evening mist and the darkness descended, I pulled Vaishali close to me, for safety and for warmth. The crickets had started to sing, and we could see the lights of a few mountain dwellings come on, one after the other, in the distance. Far below the road, we could see our resort, awash with light, an island of warmth and safety in the gathering darkness. We were, however, not afraid. All the hotel staff and tourist guides had assured us that Kasauli was an extremely safe place, and its inhabitants very friendly.
So we walked on fearlessly, holding each other’s hand, enjoying our company and the aimless talk; breathing in the smell of the conifers, listening to the sounds of the woods. An occasional owl screeched, a bird fluttered its wings and flew away as we scared it from its lodging in the underbrush. Small animals scurried in the nearby woods adding to the eerie feeling of walking on a set of a Bollywood movie.
After walking for about half an hour we saw a small shanty, lighted with a kerosene lamp, by the side of the road. ‘Let us turn back now after we reach this shop. We have had enough strolling for one day’, Vaishali said to me, betraying a little tiredness and anxiety in her voice.
She was in the family way and could not walk for prolonged periods. On our way uphill we had to stop and rest frequently, to let her catch her breath.
As we neared the small shack we saw it was a roadside tea vendor, with the words ‘Golu Tea Stall’ painted prominently on its side.
‘Lets have tea here before we turn back’, I said to Vaishali. She consented and we walked to the small wooden shop, where we met a cheerful, young boy, bubbling with energy.
‘What will you have Sir’, he asked me.
I looked at Vaishali and she replied, ‘Can we have a cup of tea?’
‘Sure madam, please sit down’, he said, pulling out a wooden bench from behind the shop.
So we sat there, in front of his shop, while he went about lighting the stove and making tea for us, humming a tune all the time. Often he would look up from his work, and smile at us. We were happy to be in his company and happier still for the hot and delicious tea he served us.
Sipping the tea, we chatted with him for some time, asking him about his home and other mundane things. After we finished the tea, we thanked him for his hospitality, paid for the tea and prepared to head back to the hotel. ‘Please come back again, Sir’, Golu said cheerfully. ‘We will’, I promised him, as we started our downhill stroll towards the hotel. Rested, and refreshed by the tea, we made good time and were back at the hotel before dinnertime.
The next evening, we were expectantly looking forward to meet Golu again, and have some of his wonderful tea. Walking through the descending mists and the cool mountain winds, we reached the appointed place only to find the stall closed and the area deserted. Even the wooden bench that he had materialized from the back of his stall was missing. The area was quiet, dark and strangely eerie. Vaishali and I looked at each other with wonder and a little anxiety, but soon shrugged it off and walked back to the hotel, disappointed at not having got our evening tea!
This went on for a couple of days; we would stroll to the tea stall only to find it closed, devoid of any signs of life, sitting out there in the darkness, alone, the ghostly remains of a tea shop that bustled with life once.
We often wondered what had become of ‘Golu’, the cheerful little boy who had lighted up our evening that first day with his energy and cheerful humor. We could still taste the wonderful tea he had brewed for us, and how friendly and forthcoming he had been, looking after our comfort, ensuring that Vaishali felt at ease. It was a little sad, as we wanted to be able to say goodbye to him, and thank him for his help that day when we were tired and a little anxious. His friendliness and genuine concern had immediately put us at ease and both of us had chatted merrily with him as if we had known him for a long time. Now we wondered where he was.
The last night of our stay in Kasauli we were still hoping to see him when we walked up the hill to our usual spot. As we neared the spot, where we usually stopped and turned back, we noticed that even the small wooden shack was not there today. Small pieces of paper littered the area where the shop had stood, the only evidence that the place had been habited once.
We walked back to the hotel more concerned that ever, and went to the reception to enquire about the shop, to find out if anyone knew about him; after all it was a small town and people did know each other.
‘There was a small teashop uphill, where we had tea a couple of days ago. Tonight it seems to have disappeared. Does anyone of you know what happened to the shop, or the owner?’ I asked at the reception.
The concierge was incredulous,’ Teashop Sir?’ he exclaimed, as if I had asked him about quantum physics.
‘Yes. The teashop, a little way uphill from here! It was named Golu tea stall’, I said.
The concierge’s mouth dropped open, he looked sideways at his assistant standing at the desk, and I could see that glances were exchanged. There was something wrong.
‘There is no such shop here Sir, I assure you. The road leads nowhere; it ends about a kilometer out into the woods. Is there anything else I can help you with?’
‘No thank you’, I said, perplexed, but unwilling to show my surprise.
Vaishali and I walked back to our room feeling weird. No matter what the hotel staff said, we knew we had seen the stall there and had met Golu, hadn’t we?
No sooner had we entered the room than the doorbell rang. Still wondering at the turn of events, I opened the door to find a liveried young man standing outside the door.
‘Yes?’, I said.
‘Sir, I wanted to talk to you and Madam for a minute….’, he stammered, ‘ about Golu’.
I looked at Vaishali, our curiosity pricked, and let him inside the room. ‘My name is Bhupi, Sir’, the young man said shakily, sitting down tentatively on the solitary chair in the room, ‘ He was my brother’. Was?
Vaishali and I looked at each other again. ‘Go on please’, Vaishali said, unnerved now, but eager to hear the end of the story.
‘I worked here at the hotel while Golu worked at a tea stall not far from here. He also doubled as a tourist guide, in his free time, and used to show people around the hills. He was quite popular, if I may say so, due to his helpful and cheerful nature’, Bhupi said, looking down at the floor as if forcing the words to come out.
‘His tea stall was a favorite haunt of several regular customers, who used to sit there for hours and chat with him about the hills’, he paused, ‘till last year’. Bhupi looked up, trying to suppress tears in his eyes, and continued, ‘ He was killed in a massive landslide, last year, which buried him and his shop and permanently closed the road which leads uphill from here’.
We were stunned! For several seconds we sat around quietly, not knowing what to say. ‘I …..I don’t know what to say Bhupi’, I stuttered, ‘ I am sorry for your loss’.
‘It’s alright, Sir’, Bhupi said, wiping tears from his eyes, ‘ I just thought I should let you know that you were not wrong’.
With that he gave a quick smile, exited the room and disappeared in the corridors as quickly as he had come, leaving me and Vaishali looking at each other, more perplexed than ever.
We spent the night huddled together, thinking about our experiences, wondering about the things as they had come to pass.
In the morning as we cleared our bills at the cash counter near the reception, we saw Bhupi, again. He smiled at us and said,’ Please come again Sir, and Madam’. ‘Yes we will’, we said, nearly in unison and bid him goodbye.
The taxi ride downhill was uneventful and we arrived at Chandigarh in time to catch our train to Lucknow. Once back home, finally, we buried our heads in work, pushing the events in Kasauli to the back of our minds. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months and the topic of ‘Golu’ never came up.
Yet, sometimes, on cold winter evenings when we sit over a cup of tea, the image of ‘Golu Tea Stall’ resurrects itself in our memories and takes us back to that deserted piece of road, up in the mountains, lit by a lamp, and manned by the chirpy young lad, making tea over his stove.