House of the Fourth Friend

Manali, 1999: A huge chunk of land on which this house is built was eaten by the river last time it was in spate. But there's still enough space to walk around it without staring down a sudden crag. The road from here runs along the river for what seems like eternity. The house has a force-field that is difficult to ignore. It makes heads turn, vehicles slow down and dogs feel obliged not to piss on its wall.

It's not a big house, but looks comfortable, aloof and lost in deep contemplation. Its gabled front door doesn't face the iron-grill gate that opens on the road. Instead it looks out on a patch of hobby trees--some apple, some pomegranate. The house has the isolation of a palace, caught as it is between the river and the mountains.

We have stopped at the mechanic's just outside the house to get our bike fixed. It's taking long, so I decide to walk, stretch and exercise my back and shoulders, while my friend waits upon his ailing silver-jubilee Enfield.

The iron-grill gates are open, not fully but just enough, so I enter, wanting to capture the house in my camera. A black dog stares at me blankly, too lazy to bark, too tired to chase. But my steps are tentative. I don't know whether there are other more ferocious dogs lurking there somewhere.

"Don't worry... he's tied." The voice is coming from the verandah next to the gabled front door.
"I am sorry for intruding… but the house… err.. your house… just wouldn't let me pass."
She smiles. The man with her smiles and nods.

"Can I take a picture of your house?"
"Yes, please go ahead. But first we shall make ourselves scarce."
They stand up to go inside.
"No, no please don't… You make the house look good."
"Oh come on, two old fogeys can't do that. You will have to go ahead without us."
She smiles and both she and the man go inside, using their folded cloth-backed chairs as walking sticks.

The house smiles at the camera and gives it some great pictures. When I ring at their door to say thankyou and goodbye, she surprises me.

"Why don't you stay on and have a drink with us."
"I'd be delighted, but I have a friend waiting outside."
"Get him as well."
"Okay, I'll try."

Pleasantly surprised I go out and call my friend who says the repair would take longer. He tells me to go ahead and have fun and that he'd join me later.
"Is she young?" He asks smiling mischievously.
"Yup, extremely."

A menacing-looking antler is staring from above the their cozy drawing room fire place. They look comfortable enough to welcome a stranger in their house.

"My morning drink's whisky, what's yours?"
I am beginning to like them very much.

"Umm… the same."
Gold-filled glasses with ice cubes and soda are raised in a toast to the road and to travellers and an old familiar conversation begins.

I feel the need to light up and ask if it's okay with them but she answers me with another question. "Do you think I can bum a cigarette off you. It's been ages since I had one."
"Sure? What about you?" I ask the man. He refuses.

The sticks are fuming and the glasses are on to their second refills. We're like old friends from another lifetime, catching up from where our road forked out in different directions.

"We used to be three. G died last year."

Three friends. Two men and one her, who married neither but loved both. So they decided to build a "base camp" in Manali for the half year they spent travelling in the hills. Away from Bombay where their professions kept them trapped and occupied. The men were businessmen and she was a school principal. All Gujaratis, one of the most oppressively traditional people in the world.

"Must be tough?" I ask.
"We never cared," she says, her young, horn-rimmed eyes gurgling like whisky topped with soda and ice.

"We used to go for these long, long drives… suddenly without a plan. Just a toothbursh and a swim suit. The road was our fourth friend. We found this place during one of our travels and decided to let our anchors down."

I am too moved to react. They seem to have lived the life, held back neither by fear of scandal nor anticipated regret.

Two hours pass, the bottle of whisky has now entered our three souls like so many bottles of whisky must have penetrated so many souls, meeting for the first time.

"Does the house have a name?" I ask feeling warm and awesomely touched.
"People here know it as the 'Bombay Kothi' but we call it SNUG House."
"You know what SNUG House stands for?"
"Nope. Tell me."
"It stands for him: S, me: N and G: who left us last year."
"And U?"
"That's you!" And she laughs the most free and lilting 75-year-old laughter I've ever heard or seen.


  1. Do you think they still live there? And if they do, can I come along with you for a visit? I'd so like to.
    And I'm suffering from a Dhiraj overload... two stories in a day is a tad much for my bruised, jaded little heart.

  2. Magic, awesome story Maharaj. Thank you.

  3. Till 2001 they were. Haven't been that side since. I'd be glad to take you there Scout!

    Methinks, just go down the main road towards the river... you can't miss it.

    Thank you Pareshaan.

  4. fascinating story to hear each time. Feels better even reading it. Brings out the warmth possibly just how u felt it.

  5. Terrific story I stumbled on to here! There's so much more I'd like to know about those people and the house.

    It's always a thrill to find someone who can write.

    I will be linking this blog and coming back for more!

  6. Thanks Lemony. U are a great reader!

    Finnegan we'll come back to SNUG house as the story of our lives unfold. And thanks... u'r an amazing story-teller too

  7. Ah, lovely stuff, Dhiraj. I could almost taste that whisky.

    (I know I owe you the post to your terrible tag. Very soon, very soon...)

  8. Am lucky to have readers like you KM!

    I know how you feel about that terrible tag... I did too... but I guess the etiquette of the medium demands that you do the tag neways...

  9. that's a fascinating house and a beautiful story.
    i just hope i can remember the directions! :)

  10. Don't worry the house will find u

  11. I know where I am going this summer!

  12. a post like such coupled with a haunting photo, makes you pine for a visit, maybe even a stay, a long amnesiac one. sigh...reminds me of jules et jim too, a quaint cottage on the hill, a woman and two lovers, did they ride bicycles?

  13. They didn't when I met them but they must have when younger... though they mostly travelled by jeep which they had sold when I met them. I remember asking her whether they still travelled and she said they didn't because of the "creaking bones".

    And yeah u'r right, they did live the Jules et Jim life... a few shades better maybe.

  14. A hearty welcome to my Manali pals!

  15. Wow, that acutally happened to you? You really make that story sound so magical the way you write :)

  16. Yes, you are very gifted my friend.

  17. I love this story, that and the road being their fourth friend


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