Dharamshala: Falling into the Map

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Dharamshala is no longer about the mandala and the monks. Aditya Iyer watches cricket at the world’s most scenic stadium

DON’T STRAIN YOUR senses. You can feel their arrival in the rattle of your bones.

Rising like a steady fever above McLeodganj’s ambient sounds—Buddhist hymns and dangling chimes—is the sound of clashing car horns. Don’t look; knots of traffic have appeared on the Himalayan horizon. Now they are the size of tumours, clogging the mountain’s arteries. Plug your ears, here emits the overwhelming beat of their music players—all thundering bass and high-pitched voices.

It’s Saturday morning and the main square of this two-street market town no longer resembles ‘Little Lhasa’. Now it’s, as Ram Swaroop, local politician, part-time philosopher and full-time lodge owner, puts it, ‘Poora Punjab’. “Sometimes I wish my set-up was up there, you know,” Swaroop says, his finger pointing in the general direction of Dharamkot, a suburb in the heart of the mountain, 2 km above the market. “I would avoid all this madness.”

Swaroop’s ‘set-up’, an elegant eight-room house called Kareri Lodge, is built on the high shoulder of McLeodganj, a fair climb from the chaos of the main square. But ‘sometimes’, indicating long weekends and match weekends, his courtyard receives its fair share of shelter-hunters from the neighbouring state.

This is a match weekend. A day from now, on 16 October, India will take on New Zealand in Dharamshala, the first ODI in a five- match series. The game will draw more tourists to this valley on the foothills of the Himalayas—a valley almost wholly dependent on weekend tourism—than any other weekend in the entire year.

Some businesses will make the most of this immense opportunity and some won’t. But the weight of the arriving footfall will have a telling effect on them all, cutting through this layer cake ecosystem that is Dharamshala, McLeodganj and Dharamkot.

Saturday afternoon. The naked blue mannequin is ready to be dressed. Beneath its feet on the marble slab, balancing over an open gutter, lies a white Real Madrid jersey. Yesterday’s clothes. Today, the middle-aged Tibetan lady, owner of the merchandise shop in McLeodganj, has decided to outfit her Na’vi-faced dummy in a sleeveless yellow Golden State Warriors singlet.

This nameless shop on Temple Road is stocked with bootleg uniforms across sports, sizes and colours. Behind the shop’s counter, the rack is dedicated to football clubs. Jerseys of most globally popular clubs are stacked in all three shades (home, away, neutral). As are Israel’s local giants—Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The Tibetan lady receives her first set of Indian customers: three teenagers flaunting manicured beards and high-maintenance hairdos. They look around briefly, before one of them speaks.

Aapke paas India jersey hai?” “Sorry?”
“Do you have India jersey? Cricket jersey?”
“Oh. We not keep.”
“How come?”

The Tibetan lady casually shrugs and says, “We keep two-three last year. They not sell.”

It’s less than 24 hours before the game, and the Tibetan lady has lost her first set of customers. By the end of the day, she estimates having had to raise her shoulders with twisted palms to at least 80 such requests. In the same frame of time, though, the nameless dumpling house her shop shares a wall with has made a killing.

The previous evening, on 14 October, well after sun down and usual closing time, Dorjee, owner-cum-cook, had prepared three buckets of dough behind a half-pulled shutter.

“Readying for Saturday-Sunday,” he had said then. “Many people going to come, foof! Many many.”

They did. They really did.

“The madness that is international cricket brings business, crazy business,” says Swaroop, seated behind a wooden board that resembles a Scrabble bench. It reads: ‘No rooms available.’ “Three years back, for an IPL match in which Sachin Tendulkar was going to play, one man from Amritsar offered to pay Rs 9,000 for a room.”

And what was the tariff for the said room? “Rs 900. But that room had been booked by an Israeli couple. Months in advance. I couldn’t simply cancel their booking. The point is, during cricket matches, everyone in this town makes good money. More money than we have seen. And the reason for this is one man.

“Thank him or blame him. But he is the only reason for this.”

No, the ‘man’ in question is not the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who arrived here in 1960 after escaping along with a handful of monks and 5,000 refugees from Chinese-occupied Lhasa. His presence made Dharamshala a spiritual hotbed and attracted shaven monks and long-haired tourists from the West. Mainly backpacking hippies. Chiefly Israelis, in search of redemption after completing mandatory military service back in their war-torn home. (“This land has healing powers. It has nourished my burnt soul,” one man from Tel Aviv told me between puffs on his peace pipe.)

The man Swaroop believes is responsible for drawing herds of entire Indian families to this Himalayan perch is Anurag Thakur, a three-time BJP Member of Parliament. Thakur is a son of the soil. And more significantly, son of the state’s former Chief Minister. In these purlieus, he too has a following that is borderline worship. AMS, or acute mountain sickness, as they say, begins to take grip at an altitude of 2,500 metres.

Dharamshala’s Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) Stadium is perhaps the most scenic cricket venue in the world. Newlands, in Cape Town, South Africa, is built in the shadow of the Table Mountain. Davies Park, in Queenstown, New Zealand, is nestled at the bottom of the Remarkables mountain range. But the HPCA stadium, a green blossom in the cusp of the Himalayan valley, has the majestic Dhauladhar for an awning. A sheet of white during the Indian winter; else a crooked wall of daunting grey.

Well below the mountain range, the stadium is surrounded by a second ring of power. Giant hoardings of Thakur form an intriguing concentric circle around the field. In one poster, his right palm blesses an image of the stadium. In another, hung by the grand entrance to the ground, a blow-up of Thakur’s bearded face smiles besides the following three lines:

‘When you Succeed
We all feel Succeeded
Congratulations, HPCA Family’

But the poster that best captures Thakur’s authority over this land is captured inside the stadium. In this frame, he lords over silhouettes of a Buddhist monastery, an army rifle and cricket stumps. The poster says: ‘Devbhumi, Virbhumi, Khelbhumi.’ Or, Land of God, Land of the brave, Land of sports. Some, like Sai Badal Singh, an attendant at a wine shop and a cricket nut, believes Thakur is all three rolled into one. “Only a brave and special man can do what he has done,” Sai Badal says. And what may that be? “He put Dharamshala on the Indian map. So many Indians never came here before, which is a good thing. These goras prefer to smoke the local herbs. But us Indians, we like to drink.”

To do that—help Sai Badal with alcohol sales and put Dharamshala on the Indian cricket map—Thakur became president of the state’s cricket association in 2000, at the age of 25. His first move as HPCA president, incredibly, was to select himself in the playing eleven of a Ranji Trophy match. Thakur was dismissed for a seven-ball duck. He never played (himself) again.

Thakur was a better administrator than he was a cricketer. He clawed his way up BCCI’s slippery ladder as a Jagmohan Dalmiya loyalist and when the time was ripe, last year, he made his move against the reigning chief, N Srinivasan, and won. Since then, Thakur has channelled a furious amount of international cricket towards his first love, Dharamshala.

Since November 2015, the HPCA has hosted eight T20 internationals— seven of them World Cup ties. Sunday will witness only the third ODI on this ground, Thakur’s first from the comfort of his BCCI throne. All his friends in high places are invited.

FOR MOST FIRST-TIME Israeli backpackers, Bala Murugan is the face of solace. And his restaurant, Morgan’s Place, their haunt. Sick of the growing tourism in McLeodganj, the ‘goras’ make the short but steep journey to the upper reaches of Dharamkot, where they are welcomed and cocooned by Murugan. Like the Israelis, Murugan too found the Himalayas during a bid to escape his past, which can best be described as chequered.

Born in Kanyakumari, a 20-something, illiterate Murugan fled what he believed was a life of destitution. The hardships, though, had just begun. Over the next 20 years or so, he would spend time in Goa as a dishwasher, in Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail for reasons that cannot be printed, in Dubai for drug rehabilitation and in Andaman during the Tsunami, where he survived but his first restaurant didn’t. But it was when his Israeli girlfriend left him for a compatriot that Murugan made up his mind to not “allow fate to play its dirty hand”. “I promised myself two things that day. I will learn Hebrew. And I will become an important person,” he says. It could be said that the first promise eventually facilitated the second. Murugan picked up Hebrew that one of his customers, Noam, describes as “flawless” and “spoken without an accent”. That tongue then, especially in Dharamkot, is worth its weight in gold.

Murugan is proud of his success. As our food arrives (chicken falafel and hummus, made by his predominantly Tamil kitchen), he begins dropping celebrity names casually, only to back it up with a scrolling thumb on his Facebook page. “That’s me hosting a private party for the Kings XI Punjab on this terrace. That’s me with Bob Marley’s son. He loves the food here. That’s me with my arm around Anurag Thakur in the stadium. He has provided me with an all-access gold pass.”

Thakur, though, has also provided Murugan with a problem. “When he brings cricket here, everyone wants to go. But only a foolish businessman will attend,” he says. “Why? Because making money is more fun than a good match, yaar. On cricket day, our dhanda gets trebled. Simple as that.” Murugan also singles out cricket’s impact on this land just as simply. “When tomorrow’s match is broadcast around the world, it will also show the Himalaya in the background. That is publicity for Dharamshala that you cannot buy. What better advertisement is there than that?”

Sunday morning. Match day. The weekday inhabitants watch in awe as the weekend invaders drain out into the valley. By 11.30 am, two hours before the match, McLeodganj’s main square resembles a ghost town. Just 10 km below, Dharamshala is now alive and screaming.

Mazaa aa gaya,” says Hemant Kumar, owner of a dhaba on the only route to the stadium. “Humne duniya nahin dekhi. Lekin aaj lagta hai dekh li (I haven’t seen the world. But today I feel like I have).” Hemant is a pahadi, a mountain man. He slaps his thigh in delight as a river of blue shirts flood his shop and slopes. This river too leaves behind sediments. Dharamshala is now a vast delta of plastic.

“It happens every match weekend,” says Swaroop, who in his capacity as hotel union head, has tied up with the autorickshaw and taxi unions and organised a full-scale clean-up drive a day after the match. “Ironic, considering these are the same people who leave their dirty cities for a feeling of cleanliness.”

There’s a heavier dose of irony in store at the stadium. The match, like all international matches that have been held in Dharamshala, is a day-night fixture (the T20s, in fact, are purely night affairs). At night, the great advertisement for Dharamshala, the Dhauladhar, is not visible. And during this specific day, the range is largely veiled by clouds—only fleetingly revealing its majesty during dusk.

In those 15 minutes, the range mirrors the setting sun and reflects a bright orange. Orange turns red, then magenta, then purple, before the inky night whisks away the Dhauladhar from sight, blanketing over the delightful metamorphosis. Below the night and under the floodlights, Thakur indulges in an impromptu lap of honour, during the match no less, just past the boundary ropes. He receives a standing ovation and about an hour later, so does Virat Kohli for his match-winning innings.

Match over, the river of blue—temporarily sluiced in the valley—drains out into the plains. And with it exits the stifling smell of cologne and perfume. Now you can fill your lungs with the smell of Raat ki Rani, the night-blooming jasmine. Now you can, once again, hear the hymns and chimes. Now you can, once again, feel your senses awaken.