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There's another, darker side to Manali, and it's all here. Read at your own risk!


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Photos of There's another, darker side to Manali, and it's all here. Read at your own risk! 1/18 by Shalini Rai
Fatal Attraction?

For more than two years, I lived in Manali. I arrived on Feb 1, 2012, an extremely cold day, but with the promise of quiet and the romance of living in the hills burning bright. Over the next several months, the romance died after it contracted scepticism but I kept getting to know aspects of life in this mountain town that were shocking and unsavoury, to say the least and so, must be talked about.


Photos of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India 1/1 by Shalini Rai

DISCLAIMER: The ills that befall Manali are "human" and "human-inspired". The hills, the valleys, the streams, the rivers, the trees, the forests, the birds, the dogs, the plants and the flowers of Manali are exceptionally beautiful and completely welcoming, exactly as Nature had intended. All locals and foreigners (goras) too, are not alike. There are some things and some people who are genuinely good here. But most of what's not finds mention below.

MANALI: CRUELLA De VIL LAND

If you know of Cruella De Vil (a character in the movie 101 Dalmatians, she makes fur coats out of Dalmatian puppies), if you are observant and live in Manali long enough to observe, you will agree that Manali, especially Old Manali village, is Cruella De Vil Land.

Cruelty to animals is part of the "culture" here. It would not be an exaggeration to say that children are "conditioned" to be cruel towards all animals, especially towards dogs.

Here's why. When news of a litter having been delivered spreads in this village, pre-teenaged boys go around asking people, "Kutti ne bacche daale hain..! Kidar hain?! Dekhaa?" (A bitch has delivered a fresh litter! Do you know where?) These "innocent", "cherubic" kids then go on to "select" healthy male pups and leave the female pups behind.

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Of these, many are then "stoned", yes, "stoned" to death, sometimes using a slingshot, hand catapult or "gulail" and at others by simply throwing large pieces of stone at the tiny puppies.

The strange thing is that all grown men and women and young boys in Manali nurture a pathological aversion towards dogs and complain non-stop about dogs spoiling their standing crop (wheat, corn, vegetables), dogs crapping/urinating in their "gardens", dogs "biting" their kids, dogs causing nuisance for tourists (who are mostly drug addicts, adulterers, you get the drift...) by barking all day and so on.

Most locals, like their offspring, leave no stone unturned, literally, in keeping stray dogs away. They freely, fiercely pelt these dogs with stones. Some locals even use sickles to cause severe injuries to these hapless creatures. Several strays in Old Manali village have hideous, painful wounds. Some have a missing leg, others have a painful limp, some have bleeding rectums and others have whole chunks of flesh missing from the neck or near the ears.

Yet these same locals think nothing of "picking and choosing" these very same nuisance dogs (MALE dogs) and taking them home to stand watch over their much-treasured fields, gardens, houses etc. No one blinks twice before snatching the puppies from their mothers, who are left wondering if there's ever a good place to be born a dog!

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Most Manali mongrels are naturally robust, friendly and affectionate. You only have to show them a little love and they are overjoyed. Some tourists, though, are incredibly insensitive. In early 2014, a Russian woman left behind a couple of female dogs, after taking care of them for nearly two months. They would sleep inside her room in a guesthouse in Old Manali village, eat three meals a day and generally be her pets. Once she left, both of them would wait outside her room, hoping that she'll return someday. The owners of the guesthouse spared no chance to pelt them with stones and shoo them away. The two dogs had never been so perplexed and sad, at the extent and range of human cruelty.

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THE COWS WON'T COME HOME

Manali hills are home to several hundred cows; 4 kms from Manali lies a village called Goshal, a truncated form of the word Goshala or cowshed, with a long tradition of caring for cows. Most local families own a pair of milch cows and milk them to the limit. Yet, these bovines are fed a poisonous, carcinogenic fern called ‘bracken fern’. Much like Malana Cream, this variety of fern grows free and wild in the hills around Manali. When fed to cows, it causes internal bleeding and slow, painful death.

On a visit to the local veterinarian, I saw a poster warning against feeding cows bracken fern. But because it’s free and buying cow feed is a hassle (especially for the penny-wise), Manali cows are force-fed a poisonous weed. Nobody complains, except the cows, of course. But who will heed their pain?

THE HILLS HAVE 'GREEN' EYES

On my first summer staying in Manali, I went to a maidan, as it’s called, just above Old Manali village. By now many would have guessed that I did, unfortunately, stay on in this village for the longest time..! While heading toward this clearing in the middle of thick pine forests, about 2kms of a vertical climb away, I was quite kicked at having the first real encounter with nature in a long time. Well, it turned out to be an encounter alright, just too close to certain catastrophe for comfort.

That June day, I had planned to reach the maidan by 2 pm, pitch a brand-new tent in my landlord’s orchard nearby, feast on some Maggi noodles and a flask-full of instant coffee made over wood fire and then be lulled to sleep in Nature’s lap. Ah the romance of it..! As it turned out, on reaching the maidan well after 3 pm, the 13-year-old son of my landlord, who had earlier led me to believe that I’ll camp in their orchard near the clearing, later backed out and said I’d now have to pitch the tent in the middle of the clearing.

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Well, I did that and I cooked and ate the Maggi noodles and I drank the smoky coffee, all the while getting this sick feeling of someone watching from somewhere. Pushing that disquieting thought away, I climbed onto the maidan above the maidan in which my band new green tent stood looking quite fetching.

One more shade of green among so many.

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After spending nearly 40 minutes in the upper maidan, I headed back towards my tent and stopped in my tracks when I saw the flap at its entrance appear slightly misshapen. Not the way I remembered having left it. Weird.

Pushing that thought away, again, I said goodbye to the hyperactive son of the landlord, who advised me to “Stay safe..!” quite cryptically in retrospect. With the sun setting behind tall trees and the tourist town of Manali glowing in the far distance to the south, I set about getting a tiny bonfire going, just outside the tent. Again, though, that creepy, hair-raising, indefinite, impossible, sick feeling of someone watching from somewhere, much closer now. Ten minutes into the bonfire and I got increasingly uncomfortable. It was as if the “catastrophe” was closer now than ever before. And then came that sound -- a woman’s piercing, frantic, desperate shriek, with words that sounded like, “Maar dungiiiiii..!” (I’ll kill you), it resonated above the maidan.

I entered the tent, looking for some solace and to gather my wits, may be, and found a 10-inch-long piece of ribbon, in green, lying near my daypack..! And it DID NOT belong to me. This perplexed me, to say the least and then I remembered the wonky flap of the tent, the feeling that someone was watching and it sort of made sense. Then, without a second thought, I dunked into my daypack the essentials – my camera, my mobile, some water, the house keys, a torch (and left behind the sleeping bag, the utensils, the brand new green tent) and hurried on back the way I had come into the clearing.

There was just one problem!

While the climb up had been almost-vertical and so, tiring, the climb down was precipitous and one missed step would have meant a fall down the abyss that was the path. Just then, a full moon rose over the hills above Vashisht and helped light up part of the hazardous way down to Old Manali village.

It was the weirdest, most frightening, near-fatal incident I’ve ever had. The wonky tent flap, the landlord’s son saying “Stay safe”, the woman’s scream, the green ribbon, the full moon, the hills with eyes – I’ve not ventured that way again. Who can blame me?

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THE INDEPENDENT MARIJUANA REPUBLIC OF MANALI

Under the Indian Constitution, some states in the country were to enjoy “special status”. These states would get a higher share in the Union government’s allocation of resources and tax breaks, and more number of grants than loans. All this because of factors such as harsh terrain, backwardness, having shared international boundaries and “social problems”; all this was anticipated under the Gadgil-Mukherjee Formula and Himachal Pradesh (HP) was in this category.

But Manali isn’t.

Manali is just a sub-division, part of Kullu District, which itself is just one of 12 districts in HP. But ask anyone in the Independent Marijuana Republic of Manali and they’ll huff and puff about “Mahra Muluk” (Our Land) and lead you into believing you’ve somehow landed in India’s non-existent 30th state! And you didn’t even fall down the rabbit hole. Didn’t so much as peep into it. No, Sir..!

BLOW HORN...! YOU ARE IN MANALI

In Mahra Muluk Manali, you -- any citizen of India -- cannot purchase, in your name, either a piece of land or a motor vehicle. You can’t get a voter ID card, or a ration card, or a government telephone connection. You can purchase land and vehicles only if they are “in the name” of a resident of Himachal Pradesh or a Himachali, as they like to say. Now, the Constitution of India does provide for “reasonable/protective discrimination” but mainly as actions of an affirmative nature. Himachal Pradesh, Manali sub-division in particular, has twisted the logic on its head. Even residents of Himachal Pradesh born outside the Independent Marijuana Republic of Manali cannot or are not allowed to buy or even operate tourist taxis in its vicinity. Given the fiercely independent outlook of this picturesque sub-division in a land-locked alpine state and the anarchist tendencies of the dogged denizens of Mahra Muluk Manali, I wonder how long before our friends! to the east come across to say “Ni Hao..!” and colour Manali red. Comrade Kurum Dutt and Comrade Rakesh Thakur (two very common local names) sound so pleasant to the ears, now don't they, Maharaj?

ZANK YOU VERY MUSCH FOR LIVING ON DOLE

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One reason why Manali locals feel so secure about their bank balance (despite their perplexing self-destructive behaviour with tourists) is the large population of foreign nationals living here long-term. By 2010-11, Manali had a floating tourist population of about 1,33,707 foreigners. Of these, many stay from March to October and then move south (to Goa, Pondicherry, Thiruvannamalai) for the winter.

These foreigners would pay from Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 as monthly home rent, in 2014. They also engage in wink wink "transcendental meditation through the oral and nasal cavity" wink wink, consume a "natural, herbal" fad called MMS -- Miracle Mineral Solution -- and basically live it up in "poor" India among fawning dark-skinned natives (that's a gora perspective).

They also do not have any known sources of income. So, how do they do it? Put crudely, they live on dole. Claiming unemployment benefits, child care benefits, housing allowance, medical allowance, among other benefits from their governments, these expats live very comfortably at very little expense, here in India.

There's a reason why there is a hierarchy of nations in the world. First you bleed dry some nations, exploit their natural wealth and basically work hard to keep them poor. That's Third World countries for you. Then you keep some other countries in a not-so-bad, not-so-good state, neither here nor there, in suspended motion, hanging in balance and call them the Second World. Of course, the rest of the world, the money-lenders, the oil giants, the energy majors, the greedy industrialists, the ruthless capitalists, the hand-on-heart charity-espousing celebrities, the very people who divided things, nations, people into Third and Second Worlds inhabit the First World.

There's a reason why there is a hierarchy of nations in the world. It's to enable our 'friends' from Europe to get the best unreal (but they do) value for their money in the Third World among (to them) 3rd class residents. A 2014 report claimed that Swiss nationals were demanding more than 2500 Euros per month as unemployment "benefits" from the state. To tour the world at their exchequer's expense?! Wowee!

HOUSE PROUD? NOT YET. HOME IN THE HILLS VAERY TOUGH TO GET MY FRAENDDD...

So, armed with atleast Rs 85,000 and nearly Rs 1,50,000 to "blow" each month (not counting "underhand", "shady", "under-the-table, beneath-the-chair"! deals), expats in Manali live sweet. They also enter into incredibly stupid land deals with the locals. For instance, when I was there, a gora would agree to lease a 1200 sq ft plot at anything from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh a year for 20 years or till he/she drops dead, whichever is earlier. The foreign tourist will then construct a well-equipped house on this plot, furnish the house with all modern amenities and re-furbish it every 5 years. At the end of the duration of the lease, the house passes on to the land owner, who also got between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh each year for 20 years. There are several such houses around Manali, a cluster of them in "Shanti Valley" above Old Manali Village, off the path toward the Manalsu river. Spoiled by the goras so much and for so long, no wonder the locals don't enter into deals with "Indians" and if they do, it's at astoundingly exorbitant lease amounts, impossible for most (including the ranter, me) to cough up.

Also, many foreign tourists stay on in Manali after "marrying" local men and women. While this might seem like a personal matter, it is not. These marriages are convenient quid pro quo deals, with land-owning locals enabling Euro and Dollar rich goras invest in real estate and conduct a profit-making tourist operation, in both India and from abroad. When I was living in Manali, a Swiss-German couple was overheard talking about a German friend of theirs "looking for a local girl to marry" (much like "looking for fresh local charas"), so that he could "finally settle" in India. There are several examples of this informal international conjugal alliance.

Ok, no naming names but guess it right if you can.

The eye of the largest cat species: The stocky owner of this very popular guest house in Old Manali has "married" a Dutch lady. They've actually gone Dutch here, ha!

A Sports Club in a village: This Austrian man "wedded" a local girl years ago and now wines and dines with the expat crowd and minor royals

Sprawling resort meets moolah: This French guy married a local girl and now owns a resort nestled in a sprawling compound en route Naggar from Manali

Gaon ki gori from Russia: A local guy, famous for leching equally at Indians and foreigners (women, yeah, women) married a Russian girl some years ago and has now turned her completely local, in both attire and spirit

INCREDIBLE TOURISM: FATAL ATTRACTION?

On June 4, 2013, a foreign tourist was gang-raped in Manali. The incident was covered widely in the press, with the Indian media quickly apportioning blame on “Nepalis”. Nepalis is a generic term used for bad characters, repeat offenders, hardened criminals, who may or MAY NOT be Nepalese. More often than not they are LOCALS.

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This was just one of many crimes committed against women tourists each year in Manali, and against tourists – Indian and foreign – in general. It’s just that no “hard news” ever makes it out of the verdant vistas of Manali. The local residents are tight-lipped about anything that might compromise the image of their (in their heads) flawless Dev Bhumi (abode of the Gods). The Omerta extends to every aspect of life – conversing, socialising, fraternising with “outsiders” and/or “nichla aadmi” (a southerner, which includes Indians from Rajasthan to Pondicherry, basically ANYone not originally from the Independent Marijuana Republic of Manali).

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Sometimes, it could endanger tourists' safety but then life is really cheap here in the hills. Rape, murder, molestation, loot, “casual crime”, “drug-induced crime”, the list of criminal offences committed each tourist season is staggering. Yet, have you really heard how unsafe it is to venture this way? Not unless you somehow Google it on a hunch, like I did after the first few months’ weird experiences.

The funny thing is – and this is true of tourist destinations across the world – the proud local residents of Manali harbour a deep-rooted resentment against tourists, calling them everything from “nichla aadmi” to “chorr” (thief)!

These same tourists (weirdly-dressed, well, most of them) have over the years helped countless marginal apple farmers become nouveau riche hoteliers; these "uncouth", "Indian" tourists still believe that hill folk are poor and simple!; these starry-eyed tourists stop at every wood and stone house and pose for snaps with toothless old women and heartless old men.

Alas, for these tourists and many others like them, the romance of the hills is eternal and as many learn only too late, illusory.

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