An excerpt from the book, Where Do You Go in the Dark, My Love by Isha Singh.
A Posting in Manali
The mountain air is heavy with secrets. It carries them from the depths of the earth, coated with masses of fresh snow, and from the snow-crusted needles of the blue pines. It carries them into the city, where the conifers and the birch have been cut down to make way for red and grey sandstone tiles, going in concentric circles, now known as the Mall Road. It blows, smelling sweetly of crushed grass from the grasslands at the tops of the Dhauladhars, the formidable sentries that separate earth from heaven and hell. Their slates are different from the white-and-grey limestones of the neighbouring ranges of Pir Panjal and even more so from the porous soil of the northern plains. They stand as massive rocks of granite, but local legend says they’re made up of the souls of ghosts – compressed and writhing inside.
The secrets that the mountains let out are few, which escape as hushed whispers carried from one pine to another. These nebulous ghosts that roam the hills and valleys reveal themselves to few and solidify into the myths of the mountains. Year by year, the stories accumulate, the sightings increase and the ghosts muse to themselves – because all they really like is to be left alone. The loneliest ghost of the Dhauladhars is an old colonel, who shot himself in 1927 at the foot of a seven-hundred-year-old Chinar in Pahalgam. From Pahalgam, the colonel’s apparition travelled by foot to the Dhauladhars, scaring several trekkers on the way. He liked these lower Himalayas so much more than the alpine forests of the Pir Panjal that he continued to stay in Manali. You may still find him at the old theatre on the Mall Road, if you happen to go there at night. A floating softie in the air, which may disgorge itself on the posters of a bejewelled Madhuri Dixit from an 80’s movie, signals his arrival. The colonel finds Bollywood distasteful and bemoans the lack of noir French cinema in Manali.
The secrets that the mountains let out are few, which escape as hushed whispers carried from one pine to another. These nebulous ghosts that roam the hills and valleys reveal themselves to few and solidify into the myths of the mountains.
There are other ghosts you might encounter on the roads from Manali to Leh, who might hitchhike with you in your car. They enter as gusts of cold wind and occupy the passenger seat, for even ghosts get tired of traveling by foot every now and then. Some ghosts are animal spirits; you can recognize them by their low growl and their heavy stomping. When you find them coming towards you, stay hidden, for they can sense movement. Sometimes, you can hear wheezing sounds as the sun sets in Manali, near the bridge joining the Mall Road to the rest of the town. These are not the sounds of winter or the wind scuttling through rooftops; they are ghosts too. They are lonely spirits condemned to walk the earth for eternity – shapeless entities that settle as mists in low-lying valleys.
But none of these ghosts and spirits is as remotely evil as the soul-seekers. They disguise themselves inside objects of daily use, and when you touch them, they steal your soul and replace it with a blackness as inky as the night sky. They float in from inside the darkest forests of the mountains, where humans have not yet infiltrated. Rarely have they been spotted in Manali.
Already, Manali and Shimla were commercialised enough, but there were areas of virgin forests in Khalgaphulga, Baddi, Solan where they could get good quality timber – trees as old as two hundred years. Sahil knew he had to make the most of his two-month sojourn to the hills and seek out the most active merchants to grease his palm.
If there was one thing that anyone from IIT-Delhi or LBSNAA knew about Sahil, it was that he was hot-headed. In IIT-Delhi, he was known for a few brawls, which had ultimately resulted in his suspension. At LBSNAA, his IAS colleagues knew that Sahil wouldn’t get scared even if they left him alone in a cemetery at night. He was tall, brash and generally irate. The first thing he did upon entering his office in Manali was throw a dusty le at the clerk.
‘What is this?’ Sahil shouted at the man, who was bowed down to his knees in a gesture of compliance. He was vexed by the lack of Wi-Fi in the area.
‘Sir, details of the new SDM who will be joining tomorrow.’ The clerk barely managed to get the words out, his voice a squeal.
‘ Throw it out and get me some water. Or leave it here, I’ll look at it later.’
Manali was better than most hill stations, Sahil thought, but even then, it was a dump of a place. There were hardly any modern amenities in the hills. Even the geysers worked intermittently, spurting out hot water at either breakneck speed or in an excruciatingly slow drip. And what did people even see in a bunch of scraggly trees growing from the sides of any building and forming a fortress? It was already cold, and he was dreading the first snowfall, for he had been transferred here at the beginning of winter, when the wind blows like an old, skinny man’s rasping breath.
Image Credit: ; HarperCollins/ Isha Singh
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Excerpted with permission from Where Do You Go in the Dark, My Love by Isha Singh, HarperCollins India.