“Are you afraid of scorpions?”
“Yes, very much so. Why?”
“Our area in Mussoorie used to have a lot of scorpions. When I was a child, my friends and I used to play a game. We caught these creatures by the tail and let them go just before they stung. The loser was the one who got stung first. You should be careful in Mussoorie because even today, there are a lot of scorpions and this is scorpion season.”
The lanky fellow sitting next to me on the bus to Mussoorie who was entertaining me with tales from his childhood was the owner of a restaurant at the hill station. He appeared to be suspicious about my motives for going to Mussoorie after receiving non-committal responses regarding my relationship status.
“Most young men who come alone to Mussoorie end up committing suicide because they can’t handle the loneliness,” he said, staring into the distance but looking at me every once in a while with the corner of his eye to signify that his words were meant for me. “They don’t realize that girls come and go but you live only once.”
The only way to get him to stop making these snap judgment calls and annoy me was to lie, I thought. So I assured him that I wasn’t going to Mussoorie alone and that my girlfriend was already there waiting for me.
“But why is she in Mussoorie all alone?”, he asked with suspicion oozing out of his every pore.
“She was there with her friends and we didn’t want them to know that we were seeing each together,” I said, trying to embellish a terrible lie. “So she told them that she wanted to spend two days on her own because of the two extra holidays she had. Her friends left this morning and I’m on my way to see her. But, yes, I’m worried about the fact that she is all alone right now.”
“Ah, don’t worry. Mussoorie is the safest place in the world. So you’re seeing each other secretly?”, he said, with a mischievous wink.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s difficult. But we plan to tell our parents very soon. They’re very progressive and I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“All the best, my friend,” he said, patting my back. I hoped his suspicions about me being an irresponsible vagrant had been laid to rest. “Love marriages are the best, especially when you have open-minded parents.”
We got off at the Picture Palace bus stand where I made promises I didn’t intend to keep, like coming to eat at his restaurant with my girlfriend or taking her to Kempty Falls which he said was a “compulsory honeymoon place”. He wanted to know where we were staying, so I opened up my Lonely Planet and pointed at a respectable-looking hotel in its Mussoorie pages which was apparently a very good one in his opinion. It was the most elaborate lie I had ever told and being a terrible liar, all that lying had exhausted me mentally.
Before Mussoorie, the highest altitude I had ever reached was 920 meters at Bangalore. So lugging my backpack up the steep lanes crisscrossing the hilly town looking for a place to stay was a Himalayan ordeal. I looked up all the cheap places on the Lonely Planet in an area which spanned the entire length of the Mall Road and sections of the Camel Back Road. That was roughly around 4 kms of walking with a heavy backpack on the sort of uneven terrain I had never walked before. My suffering was made worse by the fact that none of the hotels were willing to take me in. Some of them were full for the night and the ones that had rooms wouldn’t take in single male Indian travellers. The hotels I saw that weren’t on the LP looked either too dreary or too expensive for me to consider.
So, utterly disheartened and exhausted, I sat down in a restaurant near the Picture Palace end of the Mall Road to plan my next move and opened up the Mussoorie page on the Uttarakhand edition of the IMS map-book that I was carrying. While I was poring over the page trying to get a sense of the geography of the town, the lanky man I met on the bus appeared out of nowhere and said, “What are you doing here? And why do you look so depressed? Where’s your girlfriend?”
“What girlf… Oh, the girlfriend”, I said.
“Yes, you had come to see her in Mussoorie, na?”
I had to think of something quickly lest my elaborate web of lies get unravelled.
“Yes, I did”, I said sombrely. “But she left with her friends in the morning.”
“She doesn’t want to be with me anymore.”
“You told me that you were going to marry her. How could she change her mind so suddenly?”
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s her choice. You know how girls are. I have a feeling she might be seeing someone else. But I’m not worried. I’m still young and can easily find other girls.”
“That’s the spirit”, he said. “These women, I tell you, they can be very fickle. Be more careful when you meet the next one.” He then pointed at my rucksack and said, “So where are you going now? Back home?”
“I still have my holidays. I thought I would spend a few days in Mussoorie.”
“Hmmm,” he said, dubiously. “Mussoorie is not a place to be alone. You’ll get bored without any friends around you. Also, if you’ve just broken up with a girl, you might…”
He didn’t finish his sentence but had said enough to hint at where he was going.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that”, I said pompously. “These things don’t affect me. I have broken up with many girls before and I’m pretty sure I’ll find one soon. I didn’t love her that much anyway. In fact, I was more interested in seeing Mussoorie than being with my girlfriend. What I need right now is a hotel. Do you know any affordable ones in this town?”
He studied my face for a few seconds and then asked me to get up and come with him. After walking up a ridiculously steep lane, we came to a hotel which I had dismissed as too expensive for my budget. But the man got me a decent room with a toilet for 200 Rs. and told me that I was welcome to visit his restaurant and talk to him any time I felt like I needed company.
Over the next couple of days, I got the feeling that he was keeping a close eye on me to check if I hadn’t tumbled over a cliff out of depression or boredom. He would show up in the hotel and ask me out for a cup of chai. Sometimes, he would invite me to his restaurant and entertain me with Mussoorie gossip over a free meal. We would go for long walks along the Camel Back Road where he would stop at the tea stall on the way and show me all the peaks visible from that point through the telescopes installed there. In the evenings, he would accompany me to the corner chaat stall and introduce me to some of his Mussoorie friends. He couldn’t allow me to be sad and alone in his town, he said, and since I knew nobody there, it was his duty to show me a good time.
All this generosity and benevolence made me feel terribly guilty about deceiving the man and I wished I could walk back my lies and tell him the truth. When we had first met on the bus, I had lied thinking we would never meet again. But once you’ve lied and backed up the lie with more lies, there’s nothing to do but to keep lying. So, every time the topic about my ex-girlfriends came up, I made up scandalous tales to keep him entertained. He was among the friendliest people I’d met and the least I could possibly do to redeem myself was return the favour with some wild stories.