By Shivani Shrivastav
“Whatsoever is needed on the Path is always supplied.”
I read the lines again. And yet again. They spoke to me. I felt like I knew the person who had written them, even though I had not met her. Reaching out, I gently touched the lilac handmade paper on which the poetry was written in purple ink. The lines touched my heart: it was an original poem, but unfinished.
I had never felt such spontaneous poetry coming from myself, but reading these lines, I felt some lines forming spontaneously in my head. I pulled out a pen and started writing some words in the space left on the paper. The stranger’s lines and mine now matched beautifully.
I had come to Manali on a whim. I was between jobs — just having had my fill of my first one and not yet wanting to start the next one. Idly looking at my Instagram feed, I had seen so much of the beautiful mountains, attractive waterfalls and serene cloudscapes that I just had to get on a bus and come to Manali. I could not believe that I, Kabir Kulshrestha, in all of my twenty-eight years on earth, had not thought of visiting this slice of heaven before. Up until now, I had been passively aggressive in my daily life, cribbing about the boring routine, the never-ending work pressures and imagining that everyone besides me had near perfect lives, as evidenced by their Instagram feeds and the stories and reels they shared. For the first time ever, I felt that belief dilute a little, as I finally felt more alive with a new awareness and appreciation of my surroundings growing automatically, as I watched the greens, blues and whites of nature all around me.
I had taken the overnight bus from Delhi to Manali. When the bus passed Kullu, I did not know, but when we reached Manali and I opened my eyes as we were entering it, I was in heaven. Or as close to heaven on earth as I could get.
All around were green mountains, tall 50-60 feet high trees, ancient paths leading to god-knows-where and the endless, cloudy blue sky. I inhaled deeply and felt some of the lethargy and humdrum sameness of the past months slide away.
Deliberately, I had not booked any hotel online, preferring to choose one upon reaching the place. The bus had dropped me in the middle of new Manali. I felt a little disappointed, surveying the hotels there. It all appeared like any other tourist town at the first glance – the same greasy restaurants, the shops selling cheap touristy memorabilia and tawdry conveniences. Fortunately, I had packed light — just a backpack of essentials and my camera bag. I decided to go off in search of a better place to stay – somewhere more authentic and closer to the real Manali experience.
After walking through a road going up and passing beside an untouched meadow with tall pines, I decided to cross over the river Beas to the other side and look for interesting homestays that I had seen pictures of on Instagram. Walking up the mountain, down the steps leading to the bridge across the raging Beas was a pleasure as I felt a bit stiff after the overnight bus ride. The tall, silent trees, some more than two arm-spans wide (yes, I had tried to hug one!) the birdcalls, the early morning pristine silence pervading the mountains and the tumultous Beas below, all framed a beautiful picture in my mind. Along the shores of the Beas were orange blossoms; I was surprised by their tenacity. Also, along the old Manali side were what looked like very interesting cafes, with names such as Nirvana, Café 1947, Bella Pasta, Dylan’s etc. Their menu boards were brightly handwritten notices or sometimes, simply blackboards on which the day’s menus were handwritten in white chalk. Their signboards were vivid splashes of hand-painted pictures, and Bob Marley and his ‘Ganja Gun’ anthem could be heard from many a café. Add to these, the colourful flowers growing beside the Beas and in the planters of the cafés by the window seats. It is not just an unforgettable scene but a nuanced one.
I promised to myself that I would visit them all one by one. Crossing over the bridge, I stopped to admire the scene — a slice of heaven on earth — the blue sky, the raging river foaming white at the edges and the tall, green, graceful sentients as far as I could see. Yes, I would definitely be back later, with my camera, but for the moment, I just wanted to enjoy being there, present with beauty inundating my senses.
With a deep breath of contentment — even the air smelled different here — I crossed over and started walking up the steep path. On both sides, cafés, restaurants and interesting shops continued up the road. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew that I would know when I found it.
More than halfway up the path, I paused and stood under a tree, to rest a moment. As I looked around, I saw a vibrantly painted, two-storied wooden house. It had red doors and blue windows! It was a little distance away from the main lane, with a tiny winding path of its own. I could see feathered dreamcatchers waving in the wind, on its second-floor wraparound balcony. Automatically, my feet turned to that path. Reaching the house, I had raised my hand to knock on the door when a voice called out to me, “Hi! What are you looking for?”
Looking up, I saw a young woman, a little older than me, walking towards me. ‘Colourful’ seemed to be the theme of the place, as even she was dressed like a rainbow, albeit an aesthetic one! Her multiple bracelets and necklaces of brass and colourful threads swayed as she came nearer. She was followed by three Pahadi Bhotia dogs, in varying shades of brown. I smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Kabir. I’m looking for a place to stay for a few days and don’t want to stay at a hotel. Could you recommend a homestay or something similar? For some reason, I was drawn to your place the moment I saw it from the path. Cute dogs there, by the way!”
The lady smiled and replied, “Thanks! I’m Ragini. This is my home and my homestay. You can stay here if you want. Are you coming from Delhi?”
“How did you guess?”
She gave a hearty laugh and said, “That is where we get most tourists from.”
“I’m from Delhi, yeah, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call me a tourist. I prefer traveller!”
“Woohoo! Then we are kindred spirits! I think you will like it here. Come, I’ll show you the two rooms that are available. The rest are filled by a group of travellers from Spain.”
“Great! Lead the way!”
I found a home away from home there. Ragini turned out to be a wonderful host, having created a warm, welcoming space that immediately made everyone feel right at home. Having chosen the room at the back, which faced towards the mountains, I settled in. The homestay also had a small but varied library and a music corner, which hosted many impromptu musical duets in the evenings, where many a language and accent were heard.
The meals at her homestay were from all over the world. Ragini and her helper Jigme had a real talent in that department. Every breakfast was a medley of tastes from Lebanese to Italian to South Indian, and of course, the staple offered in all mountain towns — aloo parathawith tomato chutney!
I had expected the typical Maggie or paratha option for breakfast, but these were veritable feasts! Lunches I preferred to have outside, wherever I happened to be at the moment, like the other day when I followed the main path in old Manali leading up all the way to the top, past the wooden Manu temple. At the top I found a Japanese man with a modest restaurant, making sushi, which turned out to be out of this world! The second day, I went the opposite way, towards the riverbank, and had the best tiramisu of my life, after a meal of falafel and gyros.
My trip was turning out to be a discovery of tastes. Between mealtimes, I explored outside and within myself, for it was also turning out to be a time of self-discovery; I had never felt closer to myself. I met people from different walks of life, exchanging life stories and travel experiences. I walked to various places. I hiked up various slopes, sometimes to just sit at the top, admiring the landscape and letting it soothe my soul, writing, taking pictures, meditating or simply sitting.
I found that the more I sat with myself, the more I was able to appreciate the without, and the better became the quality of my creations. I went where my feet led me, sometimes by myself, sometimes with other people I met at the cafés, restaurants and stores. I was developing quite an eclectic mix of friends — there was Pedro from Mexico, hitchhiking his way through Peru, Bangladesh and now India. He had met and befriended Francine, a French professor on a sabbatical of self-study, come to India to explore yoga in Rishikesh, Tiruvannamalai and later Goa, somehow ending up in Manali! She too, had interesting stories of her own travels to share. Then there was Loki, whose Japanese name was difficult to pronounce and hence shortened to Loki, who had made Manali his home for the past two months. He was slightly temperamental – some days jolly enough to sing with us in the evenings, the others sitting with his old ukulele and playing some nameless tune over and over again.
I admired the way these people lived, following the flow and just taking in all life had to offer. The evenings were spent either with these people or with the Spanish group back at Ragini’s, with music or a night of storytelling after a delicious dinner. And such stories they were! Enough to cause itchy feet in the most stalwart of homebodies!
I was enthralled to hear about the diverse backgrounds all the guests came from. At first glance, they appeared like hippies, with their ragged jeans, loose kurtas, thread anklets and jute bags, but one was a particle physicist, another a music teacher, and still another a biologist! I promised myself to never, ever again to judge a book by its deceptive cover. It could be hiding the most riveting personality behind its carefree façade.
The experience dispelled my long-standing bias to an extent too, that people are as good as they appear. This belief was further shattered by a teacher from England, who had been travelling to India every year for the past 15 years, to teach English to Ladakhi children, that too without any financial interest. This year, before heading back to his home country, he had decided to go to Delhi via Manali.
I was learning that people made choices, often difficult ones, leaving comfort and the complacency of lucrative jobs to do what their hearts guide them to do. I was learning, melting down prejudices and emerging with a more open mind and heart.
It was in this frame of mind that I went out each day to shoot pictures, capturing the natural beauty of the place and the simplicity of the people living there. I also found that there was in actuality, very little that one needs to live a full life — a good set of friends, good food, an open space to sit and contemplate and live with nature to embark on a journey of introspection and reflection.
One day, I sat in a riverside café after a successful morning of breathtaking photography session. I had just finished a gruelling session of yoga with Francine and then hiked to a special place that someone had told me about, to take pictures of a waterfall. Later, I had photographed the trees – pines and oaks. I believed some of the images taken that day managed to capture the silence emanating from the trees. Totally satisfied with a morning well spent, I ordered a sumptuous lunch of tofu sandwiches with an avocado salad, to be followed by a slice of apple pie. I had never eaten so much in one meal back home! I noticed also that so much of walking around was helping my body become much healthier, even though I was eating amazing meals at least three times a day, without worrying about calories.
While waiting for my food, my eyes fell on a notice board on one of the bright yellow walls of the café. It had a big notice board on it. As I walked over to it, I heard strains of ‘Bella Ciao‘ being played on a mandolin, from a corner of the café. A local group was singing there for the evening. There were various papers stuck to the board — advertisements, people wanting a homestay, people wanting to sell stuff, like watches, a guitar and even a Canon Mach III! I found the fantastic mix of things here a sharp relief from the overly organised things back home.
As the strains of the song got more energetic, I returned to the present. I noticed that on the lilac-coloured sheet, a few lines of poetry were written in Hindi. It appeared out of place amongst the notes in English, Spanish, French and Russian. The lines were –
“It is just a bubble of water,
Which loses itself in but a moment”
As I read, I felt some words forming in my mind. I took out my green felt tip and in my bold scrawl, which I liked to believe was very artistic, jotted down some lines on the sheet –
“So live fully in the moment, don’t be sad,
These are the moments of life, don’t lose them”
Satisfied and feeling some kind of connection to the original writer, I came back to my table to find that my order had arrived. For a while, the tofu sandwich and the food I had ordered managed to hold my full attention. But after a while, I found myself thinking about the lines on the paper as I ate.
I tried to create a mental picture of the person who had written the lines and found that I could only conjure a shadowy image. That image accompanied me as I paid at the counter, picked up my backpack and my camera and went down the path towards the river. I could not get enough shots of the foaming, dancing, raging river. In my mind, it seemed to be a young girl, full of life and poetry, dancing as she flowed through life.
The next day, for some reason, I felt pulled towards the same café. I tried to convince myself that it was because I wanted to try their Lebanese platter, but the lilac-coloured paper floats in front of my eyes. I was curious, “Would she have replied? Will I find more lines added to the poem?”
As I entered, I tried hard not to let the board be the first thing I saw, but even as I tried this, my eyes lifted that way of their own volition. And a jolt of electricity went through me — there were some more lines there! Even before ordering my food, I headed over to read them.
I smiled as I read, for even as I read, I was formulating the next few lines. And this went on, till we had completed three poems, and I had tasted all the dishes in the café. I felt as if I really knew her, but I did not write my number or pen a request to meet. I did not want to scare her away with my ardour.
The next day, I had this weird feeling, a type of intuition, as if something was changing, something was about to end and a new phase about to begin. Although I could not understand the feeling, I went about my day as I usually would. There was a crowd in the corner of the café that held the board.
I waited for the people to move away so I could see the board. As the people shifted, I caught a glimpse of the board. There was a single fresh lilac sheet there. Only one line appeared to be written on it. I rushed near and read it. It said – “Whatsoever is needed on the Path is always supplied.” It was a quote by Osho.
Suddenly, I felt a prickling sensation at the back of my neck, like someone was looking at me. I immediately turned back. As I did so, I saw a girl turn towards the door and step out. She held a lilac paper in her hand — the last completed poem. It took a little while for me to get through the throng of people crowding the place. That day was a live show, so there was a big crowd there.
As I opened the door and stepped out into the dusky evening, a sudden brisk shower started. I saw her get into an auto and move across the bridge. I tried going after her, but the sudden downpour had increased the traffic on the bridge and she blended into the crowd. I rushed back inside the café, to the single sheet on the board, took it off and scanned it hurriedly, as if to find some hint of who she was, her name, number, something, anything! As I turned it over, I found two words written in the same purple ink. ‘Leh Market’. I smiled. I had my next destination. I knew I would be meeting her again. When, how, I did not know. But somehow, I also liked the not knowing. And the search began again. With a new poem, in a new city!
 Wheat flatbread stuffed with spicy potatoes
Shivani Shrivastav is a a UK CGI Chartered Secretary and a Governance Professional/CS. She loves meditation, photography, writing, French and creating.
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