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Ten years ago this week, my brother and I found ourselves in the sleepy Himalayan village of Hatkoti.
We decided to go off the beaten track, and the guidebooks raved about places to the north, south and west, but there was "nothing of interest" to the East – so we took the first bus eastwards from Shimla, and 6 hours later as darkness fell, decided to get off in Hatkoti. We We asked someone where we could stay and they pointed to a temple, down in a valley below. We hadn’t realised just how dark the mountains are, and ended up walking down a mountain, with backpacks on, in the dark with a tiny keyring torch to check that we weren’t going to fall into an abyss.
So it was with great relief when we reached the temple, and a very startled temple keeper told us we could sleep there for free (but blanket rental was 1 rupee a night!) but we must leave our leather belts and shoes outside the complex. And, totally by accident, we realised that we had stumbled upon a beautiful ancient temple, built 1200 years ago. The temple keeper and local policeman came to help us unpack – and talk (they’d never met english people before) and they showed great interest in my packet of Marlboro, so I offered them one. The temple keeper then produced an index-finger sized lump of marijuana resin and gave it to us – so we quickly gave him a whole pack of smokes – and the rest of the night disappeared into a haze.
The next morning, my bro and I were washing in the river, and realised why the temple keeper had been so generous with his ganja. The whole of the beautiful valley was green – with mature marijuana plants! Even the cows were munching it. As we washed, a troupe of neatly-groomed schoolboys wandered past. Hatkoti, in the valley, was a central residential college for all the surrounding area. The boys invited us to visit their school, so we tagged along with them and met an adult who insisted we smoke a joint with him, then showed us through a door which led us directly onto a stage, around which the whole school – maybe 300 boys and 200 girls – were expectantly sitting.
"Sing us a song", commanded someone. "Not a slow one; a fast one". Now, I’d just spent a whole summer as a singer in a restaurant in Turkey, but acapella singing ain’t my forte. In a ganja-induced flash of genius, I had everyone clapping rhythmically as bro and I began with the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine:
"In the town [clap clap] where I was born [clap clap]…".
Then it was question time; we gave advice on how one addresses the Queen, an explanation of the UK post code system, tips on how to date American girls (like I’d know!) and then, the ubiquitous question of travellers in India: "Why are you visiting India?". In a flash of ganja-induced stupidity, I replied "I’m looking for an Indian girl to marry". Stupid, stupid me. As we left the auditorium, there was a line of beautiful Indian schoolgirls (a perennial fantasy of mine, I freely confess). The lad who orginally met us introduced them one by one to me.
"This is Sangita Gupta"Me:
"Namaste, Mr Bruce"Helpful lad: (confidentially):
"Do you love her?"Me (shamefacedly):
"It’s .. er .. a bit too early to tell."Helpful lad:
"OK. So, this is Nabeela Mohammed"etc etc
Now, Hatkoti seems well-established on the tourist map, and has a flourishing trade in dowry-free marriages which are a wonderful idea. But to me, it’s the place where I almost got an accidental Indian bride.