MCLEODGANJ ONLY has two parallel streets. We make fun of it and call it the Trouser,” says Sonam Dorjee, manager of the Pema Thang Guesthouse, one of the larger guesthouses in Mcleodganj. It is certainly a strange object, too small to be a town, too international to be a village. Dorjee moved here from Darjeeling and really enjoys the endless arrival and departures of writers, filmmakers, those in search of peace and those in search of a story. Not quite like any other place in the country, Mcleodganj radiates outward from the monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Tenzin is 27 and runs a small shop on the main street, selling lurid coloured shawls and sweaters. He is amused at the idea of a Mcleodganj economy. “There are not many opportunities here.” But as Tenzin’s compatriots will tell you, Tibetans set up small enterprises quite comfortably and work the endless hours required to keep them in the red. Tenkyi, a couple of years younger, who works with the Tibetan government in exile, talks of how much young Tibetans love Mcleodganj. Brain drain is not something they worry about here. Young Tibetans grow up loyal to the family, the Dalai Lama and the idea of their lost home in the snows.
On the weekends Mcleodganj is an increasingly popular getaway. And except in the depths of winter, it retains a steady stream of visitors. Most enterprises are thus trained towards the needs of tourists: the garden variety, those on the Buddha trail and those who intend to free Tibet. A significant population of Mcleodganj are the First World volunteers working with the dozens of Tibetan NGOs here. Some of the hard-bargaining backpackers will tell you that there is an annual itinerary they follow: Gokarna and Goa in the winter, Manali and Mcleodganj in the summer. The hippie trail creates identical souvenirs, clothing and bizarre menus across the country. The Nestle milkmaid crépe is ubiquitous from Varkala to Mcleodganj.
People like R Sharma are not complaining. Sharma came looking for work from Rajasthan and learnt to cook while working for a visiting German. Today, he runs the amazingly christened Sharmaji’s Family Pizzeria, a steep climb away from the main streets of Mcleodganj. His hordes of visitors (from monks to software engineers) do no blink at the sight of a platoon of women in deep ghunghats rolling out pizza dough and baking German tortes.
Other oddities will point you to the floating population of the little town. Ordinary looking shops double as movie theatres, where films left behind by passing travellers are screened. Hand over a tiny sum and the shopkeeper will slide aside a basket of potatoes. A trapdoor in the floor leads to a miniature movie hall that may screen anything from the worst of Hollywood to a documentary on breathing and the consciousness.
AT THE bargain-basement prices for accommodation and food, many visits slide into months. Surjit is from Shimla and many of his cousins have worked in the guesthouses in Mcleodganj. He likes the easy vibe and is inclined to be mildly snobbish about Bhagsu, a few kilometers away, slipping and sliding into Mcleodganj. “That’s where the crowd from Ludhiana and Jalandhar stay. They are noisy.” Surjit likes that guests at the downmarket Kaelwood Guesthouse, where he is the manager, are a far more eclectic and ‘cool’ crowd. Joon, a 27-year-old Korean has been staying in Kaelwood for six months now and has no intention of going back soon. The man in the room next door has not been seen outside for two weeks, he says. “Perhaps he is finding peace,” he laughs.
At Sharmaji’s Family Pizzeria, women in deep ghunghats roll out pizza dough and bake German tortes
Shopkeepers know that it is the Free Tibet movement which has put Mcleodganj on the map but they have mixed feelings about what the movement means on a day to day basis. Like businesspeople everywhere they worry that politics is bad for the till. “Last year business was down because of all the demonstrations. This year it is better,” says Dorjee. He adds wryly that it helps that Kashmir is in turmoil.
Every year China laughs at the Tibetans who think they can claim their nation. Every year the young people resolve that they will see Tibet free in their lifetimes. But in the meanwhile, this temporary home grows more and more permanent.