Legends of Lahaul

The most intriguing part of this book of short stories is the manner of their compilation.

Who would imagine that a young IAS officer, namely, the author Manohar Singh Gill, would have himself deputed at the age of 26 as the Deputy Commissioner of the new border district of Lahaul-Spiti (a part of the Punjab till 1996) and document the tales of that region? Most people remember him better in his roles as Chief Election Commissioner and later as Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports.

In his in-depth and beautifully written foreword, Gill gives a background to his bewitchment by the mountains and how as the first DC of the Lahaul region, he walks and treks across large parts of the “5,000 square miles of glaciers and high mountains.” With limited supervision from his bosses in Chandigarh and a poorly functioning wireless set (which, to Gill’s delight, is mostly out of order) he begins to consider himself as lord and master of all that he surveys.

Besides giving a historical background to the formation of Lahaul district, Gill details its topography, including the mention of Bhaga and Chandra valleys, as well as River Spiti that flows eastwards into Sutlej. As one delves into the stories, all these names become familiar leitmotifs and the beauty of the mountainous regions and lakes come alive. It also becomes clear to the reader that though the stories may be fantastical, the geographical regions exist and are depicted realistically, including the Rohtang Pass.

The author writes that being locked in by the Rohtang Pass during the long winters resulted in him keeping notes about the people and culture of this isolated part of the country.

Through conversations with lamas and lay people, including his assistant, Tshering Dorje, Gill also succeeded in collecting folk tales from Lahaul and Spiti. It is to Gill’s credit that he put all these tales together in the form of this collection, which could be of great value as a document of a lesser-known region. The stories could qualify to be fiction for young adults, and Gill makes it clear in his foreword that he has used his imagination to embellish some of the fragmented tales.

The stories abound with magical characters and several of them involve Sirens and Circe-like women called Rakshasinis and Joginis who beguile men, driving them to distraction and destruction. One can’t help but wonder at the demonising of women in many of the tales! What also comes out is the terrible fear of the supernatural and the need for appeasement of anything that seems out of the ordinary. Some stories also poke fun at the foolishness of irrational fears.

The tales pertaining to animals seem to bear shades from Aesop’s Fables, as they come attached with a moral. Several of the stories speak of human sacrifice and the author has surmised that perhaps this practice was prevalent a long time ago. The advent of the progressive practice of Buddhism, which came from the plains of the Punjab, may have contributed to the abolition of this abhorrent practice from the minds of the Lahaulis. Gill mentions that the only sacrifice that has continued is that of offering sheep during the spring or harvest season.

There is a story devoted to the different interpretations on how the Rohtang Pass (which plays an important role in the lives of the Lahaulis) was formed. Interestingly, the author puts in a story about his real-life encounter with two quacks, Makhan Singh and Sallakhan Singh, who actually belong to the plains and despite the lack of formal qualifications, do a mighty good job of treating the people of the region.

What a reader might miss is an effort to understand the compulsions behind some of these stories. Perhaps M S Gill has saved that for another compilation. Gill deserves kudos for the meticulous documentation that has resulted in a high-serving (now retired) bureaucrat turning into a wonderful storyteller. Tanaya Vyas’s illustrations accompanying each story add to the charm.

Tales from the Hills
Manohar Singh Gill
Harper Collins
2014, pp 206
299

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