My head reeled and my stomach cramped as I sunk into a huge sense of frustration and helplessness. I could not believe this had happened! OMG… We were on our Holi-Easter break, driving uphill with some friends to our home in the hills, and had just come to a midway halt on the journey. As the car engine switched off, my husband casually remarked, “You have got the keys to the cottage, of course?”…And the realization hit me that I had Not ! I had not even thought of the keys during the preparations for the journey, leave alone bringing them with me .
So what were we to do? Apart from feeling like an utter fool who had goofed up big time, I just couldn’t think what was to be done. Did I rush back to Gurgaon (220 kms away) right then to get the keys, or did I call someone from there to rush out to us with the keys? Or did we take our chances and carry on and hope to find a way to get the lock opened or broken? In those early days, I did not have a regular caretaker on site and no one local at the cottage’s location – totally off the tourist map, remote and rural- had the keys to the cottage. Like I said, my head reeled …
Luckily for me, the others didn’t seem to think that any major problem had occurred. They were more amused than worried, and kept telling me to chill, and that this was all no big deal and we would find a way. Back in the city I would have acted and felt exactly like them. But not when we were heading to a tiny village, off the main road networks, in the interiors of a reserved forest range in deep Himalaya. And that too during a festival when it is considered just fine to be drunk stiff and off from work for a few days at a stretch.
I worried that the tiny remote Himalayan village where the cottage is located would have no key makers/ locksmiths to help us. The markets would be shut and locksmiths would be off work. I worried that we would have to break the lock open with brute force, damaging the brand new construction. I worried about the travel time we would take next day to get to Birdsong and that there would be no place for us to find shelter if we didn’t get the house open before nightfall. But with everyone around me making light of the situation, after a bit even I started feeling that a simple way would be found out of the situation. I even started smiling shakily when others joked about the adventure we would have camping out under the stars at night if nothing worked to open the door before nightfall.
Next morning we started on our ride to the cottage from the camp, some 160 kms away, in high spirits, intending to look out for a locksmith on the way in the little towns we would be crossing, and to ask him to come along with us to our destination. At about 100 kms along the NH 58 we were at the junction town of Rudraprayag, a nondescript place made infamous nearly a century ago by its man eating leopard and his nemesis, Jim Corbett. All we found noteworthy here was the turbulent confluence of the Mandakini and the Alaknanda as they rush down from their source glaciers to meet more sister rivers, to ultimately form the Ganga.
This was our last main town on the route, after which we would drive 50 or so kms through thick forests and high mountains and mind-blowing views of endless ranges, snow peaks and deepest, widest valleys but not even the smallest of towns. So this had to be our best chance for a key maker, and we hoped to find one and take him home with us.
So we started asking at the market place, and the first few shopkeepers said there was no one like that in town. The little mountain town was was still somnolent after Holi. When we saw some police constables we thought ourselves lucky- they would surely know of a locksmith! So we asked them, and yes, they did know of one!! “Yes, there is a Sardarji (Sikh) chabiwala (key maker) and he roams the market on his bicycle. But I haven’t seen him around today. He generally also sits under that huge Pipal tree “.
We went up and down on that market lane, turning our car with great difficulty on that narrow one-way road, with permission of the policeman, and while many other shopkeepers confirmed the existence of said Sardarji, there seemed to be no sign of him that day. Then one shopkeeper mentioned that he actually was an itinerant, and had a room booked for him at a local lodge, where he stayed when he was in town. So off we went to look for the lodge, and traced this elusive man’s phone number from the lodge guest register. We rang up the number, and the man picked up our call, confirming that yes, he was the key maker, Gurmeet Singh and while he could certainly help us had he been around, he was right now home away in Dehradun a 100 kms away, and not coming back for another couple of days. When he did return to his work in Rudraprayag, he would call us to check if we still needed his services. And meanwhile, he helpfully suggested, if it was just a simple door, could we not try just forcing the locks with the help of a few basic tools? The villagers did it all the time, didn’t we know that?
I was now even more than ever worried. What would we do? My heart could not accept breaking the lock of the newly made dream home. And what would we do after breaking the lock? Spend the night in a remote forest area without a decent bolt to keep the door in place? When we have all sorts of wild animals prowling around and their night calls audible to our ears? I would mange it, having spent nights in a tent in the same area, but what of my very urban, city slicker guests?
In desperation, I called a neighbor in the village, and explained my predicament to him. He sounded nonchalant and said he would take care of things. We reached the cottage and all seemed quiet. No caretaker, no neighbor. No sign that anyone had tried doing anything to get the door opened. Our guests ooh-ed and aah-ed about how pretty everything was. And then they wanted to use the wash room. And there was no way to get in. I held the handle of the door helplessly and moved the lever down, expecting resistance. Instead, the handle moved down and the door swung in and opened. We all gasped in surprise, and with perfect timing, while we were still confused, our caretaker and neighbor walked in. It seems on hearing of the problem, my neighbor had called the caretaker and between them, they had fabricated a makeshift key. Somehow they had managed to open the lock without damaging the door. And then had gone off to have a cup of tea. And that is how we found an open and undamaged home. The door even shut properly and could be bolted for the night.
They know too well the importance of a safe door that shuts properly at night in these parts. For reasons quite different from those we lock ourselves into our homes, back in the city, even in broad daylight.
My guests of course only felt more sure that I was a worrier. That I had made a fuss when there was no issue at all. They held fast to their stand even when that same night they actually heard the leopard. I wonder if they would have felt differently when the main door was swinging open in the night wind and the leopard was heard growling in the forest cluster on the hillside across the cottage? But I am so glad we didn’t have to find out.