Trying to amuse a child can be dangerous sometimes. I learnt this while trekking in the Himalayas. This is a true incident and it happened to me in Darcha, a tiny village in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India.
On my way back from a trek, the last bus to Keylang had already left when I reached Darcha, so I decided to sleep again in the tea shop/dhaba, where I had spent a night some days ago. But the tea shop was shut, and I was told that the owner had gone away for some days. By this time a little crowd had collected around me and one of them, a young guy named Lalchand, offered to put me up at his house. For a small sum, he said, he would provide me with a bed as well as food.
His house was in the old Darcha village which consists of farm houses and fields and is connected by a rope bridge to the new settlement, lower down near the highway and the bus stop. Like all such houses, Lalchand’s house too had a stable downstairs and a strong smell of cattle pervaded throughout. The main living room above it had a clay stove in the centre with a chimney going through the roof. An old pedal sewing machine in a corner was the only sign of modernity. A little girl sat near it and stared at me without expression. I put my backpack down and sat near the window. By this time Lalchand had disappeared but his little sister continued to stare at me. It got a bit unnerving after some time – this direct unblinking stare, so I asked her name. This got me no response and I thought language was the barrier. Maybe she didn’t understand Hindi and spoke only the local Pahadi dialect.
I love kids, so if language was a barrier, maybe I could amuse her by showing her a few magic tricks. I tried a few simple ones that I know but she didn’t react and I soon gave up. It was late afternoon and I was tired and must have dozed off for a few hours, because when I awoke, it was dark outside and a woman was preparing food and making rotis on the clay stove.
Lalchand had still not returned. In the next half hour, quite a few people trickled into the room and when the food was ready, I was not invited to join in. My questions about Lalchand were ignored by them and it was as if I was not visible; but their voices kept getting louder and angrier. This kind of discourtesy was new to m, especially in the mountains. I was also beginning to suspect that I was the subject of their discussion. Loud voices and angry looks were sometimes directed at me, but I was never addressed directly.
I sat there in growing panic, hoping for Lalchand to come and sort things out and trying to ignore these people. I was now less concerned about the meal and more worried about my physical safety. These people were drinking the local chang and getting louder by the minute. By now I was sure that all this loud talk was all about me, because these loud outbursts were punctuated with angry gestures towards me.
I began seriously considering leaping out of the window and making a run for it. But the thought of falling eight or ten feet to the ground in pitch dark and seriously injuring myself kept me rooted.
Suddenly the whole drama came to an abrupt end. One of the men huddled around the fire stood up and asked if I did “Jadu-Tona” or was a ‘sorcerer’. The penny dropped, and I burst out laughing. Most hill people believe in spirits, ghosts, goblins etc. The little girl had probably been frightened by my simple magic tricks and had told her parents. They in turn had brought their neighbors and friends as reinforcements to tackle the ‘evil wizard’. Things improved dramatically after I gave yet another demonstration of my feeble magic tricks.
The next morning Lalchand kept me company as I waited for the bus to Keylong. He had discovered true magic the day before – my walkman – and he couldn’t get enough of it. He kept asking me if I would consider selling it to him. When I found out that he had never ever seen a movie in a theatre in his entire life I was moved. We calculated the cost, and I was happy to help him see his first movie.