"These monkeys came from the plains," M says as we climb up the path to Naulikant, from where we will get our gadi, the one that's coming to take us to the tehsil office in Kherna where I plan to get registered as a formal tenant of M's. Last week, a Frenchman in a nearby village was caught growing and smuggling some not-so-legal drugs and when the police busted his state-of-the-art greenhouse, the Frenchman fled, leaving the criminality and responsibility with the home owner. This news item was covered in the paper and the local news, terrifying M satisfactorily about the dangers of city-bred tenants.
All bad things came from the plains, she says. Explain, I ask.
(She doesn't include Frenchmen in the list, though I am sure they are part of this category.)
"These are all bad influences on the village, and they weren't here before, so they must have come from somewhere."
I am unconvinced.
She looks at an elderly man sitting in the front
"Chacha, tell them. Where have the rowdier monkeys come from?"
"The plains," Chacha says.
"See? The monkeys in the plains are more used to taking things from people. They get caught—that sort of thing happens in the plains, they get caught—and the catchers have nowhere to take them so they release them in the jungles here. And that's why the monkeys that used to be friendly are now aggressive."
"Where are you from." It is not a question, but a declaration that demands a response.
It is 9.30 in the morning and the journey has just begun. The jeep rolls down the road, snaking between awesome forests of oak and pine, ribboning down to the Kosi River, trailing alongside the gushing water on a less slithering path. After an hour, we arrive at a lone house on the top of a hill. It is the only house at the end of the road, almost as if the road—suspiciously enough—was built for this house.
A man in a white-and-red plaid button-up shirt, grey slacks and blue chappals walks downstairs, drags a plastic chair to sit on, and positions himself behind a wooden table.
"Yes, tell me. What can I do for you?"
Chacha walks up to the man whose wide shoulders lie in line with Chacha's hanging shirt.
"These two are living with the Pradhan of the village, M. They want to legalize their stay."
"Where are you from."
It is not a question, but a declaration that demands a response.
"Where in New Delhi."
"Where did you do your studies."
"Where outside India."
"Texas. You've heard of it?"
"Yes, I've heard of it. What did you study there."
"And what about you."
"Yes, you. Where did you study."
"What did you study."
I am prepared to give him my blood group and favourite books, but the Patwari pauses the interrogation. For now.
He looks at Chacha.
"Are they friends."
"No, they are married."
"Oh. Nowadays, people also live together as friends, no? That's why I asked."
"Well can you do it?"
"It's not in my control. You have to go to the tehsil office. They will take care of it. You have to fill out a form."
"We already filled out a form."
"Well you have to show it at the tehsil office. There's nothing I can do."
We leave the Patwari, disgruntled by his unneeded curiosity.
"He doesn't get along with most people," M explains.
"Most people? Does he get along with anyone?"
"He works from his house. Can life get any better?"
"These government officials, they all work the same way," M explains. "You have to serve the people, not torture them."
The tehsil office is in Kherna, a town that was once a village. Right outside the town is a road, ₹60 crore allotted, a turmeric yellow sign proudly declares, for 10 kilometres of its expansion.
The tehsil office is buzzing—not quite bustling—with activity; people walk about like ants on a mission, but who don't know where to go. We enter a room with one empty chair that is promptly offered to me. A man in a white shirt sits on a plastic chair across a wooden table, surrounded by ballpoint pens, envelopes and white paper. A sign on his table reads "Public Notary, Advocate."
Chacha gives him the lowdown, making our stay official, etc etc.
"I can write a letter," he says. "Who should I write it from?"
"The tenants," Chacha says.
"But the homeowner should write out the formal request, no?"
"Okay, but the homeowner is not here."
"But his wife is here, no?"
"That's true, and she's the Pradhan."
"So that's as good as the homeowner."
He takes our names and our fathers' names. He takes my partner's name along with mine, but his name, my partner's, stands alone, not requiring patriarchal validation.
A man comes in asking for the notary's phone number. Without looking up, the notary points to the back window. On a piece of slate is painted his name and number which the man promptly notes down.
The tehsil office is buzzing—not quite bustling—with activity; people walk about like ants on a mission, but who don't know where to go.
The white-shirted man writes the letter and Chacha takes it to another man who informs him it can't be done. We need to go to the thana; it's at the local police station,Chachais informed, that our work will get done.
We take the letter. Chacha hands the notary 30 rupees.
"No work gets done now without a little fodder," M explains apologetically.
"It's the same everywhere, this desh is not going to get any better."
A short drive away lies the thana. It too is on a hill that has its own road. We show the lone policeman our photocopies and our letter.
"You do one thing," he says. "You go back down to the bookstore and get a form. Fill it out and fix it with your passport photo and that's all I need."
Before I can head down, Chacha is already halfway there, accompanied by the jeep's driver. I wait and stare at the river. Beside it, on the road, inside a shop called Shringaar Center, I see a cluster of glass bangles. Desiring their sweet jingle, I take the stairs down to look at them. When Chacha returns with the forms I take the stairs back up again.
More forms with more addresses and more questions follow. As we sit on the stone ledge, filling out the forms, I notice the whole police station consists of three rooms.
"They even keep bhens here," Chacha says.
Bhens are cattle. Cattle in a police station, that can't be right.
I read the signs above the wooden blue doors.
"Chacha," I say, "it says 'mess', not 'bhens.'"
"Oh, right." Chacha says. "Mess. For food."
The forms are filled and I give them to the policeman. His banyan, trousers, and two sets of underwear hang on the clothesline to dry. A female voice crackles on the walkie-talkie. She speaks in English, which is strange for a region where all the forms are filled and letters are written by notaries in Hindi. The policeman gets a copy, the folder with the duplicates gets a copy, and M gets a copy. We are officially registered as residents of this tehsil.
He takes my partner's name along with mine, but his name, my partner's, stands alone, not requiring patriarchal validation.
On the way out of Kherna, the road repair has halted traffic. Lines of vehicles wait on either side of the dusty bulldozers, clawing dirt and root and tree out of cliffs.
"People are waiting patiently," I mention, "it's not like the cities where cars try to get ahead, even if it means blocking the lane."
"Yes, people are much nicer here," M says. "It's the plains wale that don't have patience."
A car whizzes by the stopped cars and trucks.
"That person must be going to the plains," I joke.
"Yes, he's getting late for his meeting," M chuckles.
We stop at a chai shop.
"Come," he says, "I'll show you fishes."
We walk to the other end of the small establishment, into a balcony with a long wooden bench facing the river.
Chacha throws a bun down into the river. It falls long and gently bobs down the current. Soon, the bun jolts and turns in the opposite direction.
"The fishes are here," I confirm.
He throws another bun. It begins to drizzle, which builds to a downpour that has a voice of its own.
Whoosh, the rain sings.
We get in the jeep and drive back. It is 3.30 in the afternoon. The rain slows again and the sun comes out. When we pass the valley, I see a rainbow. M shows me a second one, emerging out of Almora. The streets, on the drive up the rounding roads, are already soaked.