Avay Shukla writes with unmatched flair. A true nature lover, the ten stories in his book Spectre of Choor Dhar weave a magic tapestry with words that transmutes ordinary scenery into wonderful scenes.

The raconteur is Onkak Yadav, the retired Chief Secretary, better known as the Collector, who lives in his cottage in the village of Namhol. The setting is the Officers’ Club in the Bilaspur district headquarters near Shimla.

To a motley crowd – consisting of the District Collector, the Subdivisional Magistrate, an IAS probationer, the Executive Engineer, the Chief Medical Officer, sometimes the Superintendent of Police and a businessman or two – the Collector recounts his tales of yore, enlightening them about places, myths, proclivities and a few home truths.

The narrator’s choice of words marvellously echoes the scenery he describes. “Bilaspur's USP, however, is the picturesque Gobindsagar lake,” he says, “curling around the town in a loving embrace as if loath to part with its companion of centuries past.”

And Shukla’s knowledge of the locale is astonishing. Every trek worth knowing in the state of Himachal Pradesh is listed. Every mountain and valley and stream is mapped out. In the story of ‘The Devta of Jiwa-Nal’, the local legend of the Pandavas’ wanderings in the upper reaches of the state is peppered with accurate, finely observed descriptions of the region.

Each story has an element of palpable suspense. In ‘The Judgement’, not till the last few paragraphs do we come to know how the wily judge will negotiate between the twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, between the death sentence and life imprisonment, while fulfilling his bounden duty with the utmost regard to rectitude and fair play.

The ending of ‘Ambush at Chanshil Pass’ is chilling while that of ‘The Lost Treasure of Dibbi Bokri’ and ‘The Spectre of Choor-Dhar’ are both truly Hitchcockian. Equally unexpected is the way the lanky, expressionless, penitent representative from a Naxalite region is dealt with in the ‘The Midnight Visitor’.

Cynicism is the leitmotif in ‘The Cave Man of Sainj Valley’, the background being a day dedicated to Teachers Awards. The Collector laments that “it’s sycophancy and networking that brings awards” and that whatever the occasion, the rule is, the more senior the more awards.

Similar misanthropy and political give-and-take form the core of the story ‘The National Park’, so reminiscent of the hilarious but cynical BBC serials Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister.

As Shukla writes in the introduction, his stories reveal everything about him. His love for the outdoors and for long, lonely, arduous treks, his intense passion for nature, his utter and unwavering belief in destiny, are all there, splashed across his ten stories.

The last tale, ‘The House That Died of Grief’, is an intensely personal slice of the author’s life. Yet there is no rancour or bitterness at the way things are. Rather, there is a certain mirth, the joy of a grin and an indulgent smile at the varied and multilayered dimensions of life in this world of ours.

At times the reader may feel bogged down by the language the Collector uses while narrating his anecdotes. Then again, how else will a retired bureaucrat speak but in measured tones, using words which the assembled crowd of district officials encounter in their daily grind of officialdom. They don’t bat an eyelid… and neither should you.

An excerpt from ‘Ambush at Chanshil Pass’:

A tunnel below the Chanshil pass would have been cheaper in the long run and would have made more sense, but then for the PWD a mountain road is a gold mine: its maintenance is a cash cow for there is no way of monitoring the actual expenditure on it every year. The road to Dodra Kwar may not really benefit its residents much, but it would certainly have gold-plated the future of many contractors, politicians and engineers!

But I digress! It is believed that this remote valley originally belonged to what is now Uttarakhand but was gifted to the Raja of Bushair (now part of Kinnaur district) as part of some dowry in the 19th century: ever since then, or so the local joke goes, the Bushairs have been trying to return it, without any success!

If nothing else, this is an apt commentary on how difficult the place and its peoples are. I had a brief posting there in 1965, if my failing memory has not deserted me outright: it was in the nature of an attachment with the Tehsildar as part of my revenue training. The valley itself is beautiful, blessed by nature with magnificent forests, streams and teeming with wildlife, but the high mountains which encircle it and have preserved its uniqueness for centuries have also made its peoples very insular, antagonistic and inimical, almost hostile, to all outsiders.

Anyone coming from outside, even a government official, is instantly distrusted and made to feel wholly unwelcome: outsiders are also considered fair game for plundering, thievery and even worse, as I shall shortly relate.

One particular practice, a tradition almost, ascribed to them (which I cannot comment on either way) I discovered on my first day itself. I had trekked up from Larot, over the Chanshil Pass in the company of the Tehsildar (he belonged to Mandi district, incidentally, and was not a local) who had come down to Larot to receive his trainee, just one more aspect of the warm nature of Himachalis, something all of you must have yourselves experienced many times.

It was dusk by the time we crossed the thick forests at the base of the pass known as Kala Van and came to the hamlet of Kwar on the banks of the Rupen river. The village consisted of about thirty houses but we did not enter it; we stopped instead at a small forest rest house located a few hundred metres to one side of the habitation.

That evening, sitting outside and enjoying the silence of the mountain night, I noticed a strange thing: the cook (a local employee) was preparing our simple dinner in the kitchen and keeping a watch on him was the Patwari (also from Mandi district)! He did not move out for even a minute.

“Tehsildar sahib,” I queried of my companion, “is the Patwari there because he and the cook are good friends or because he wants to have the first go at the food?”

Looking slightly embarrassed, the Tehsildar related the strangest thing I’d heard during my short career till that date. “Actually, sir,” he explained in a low voice, “it’s necessary for our safety. The villagers here are known to poison the food of strangers and travellers and rob them of their possessions. We cannot prove anything but many people have just disappeared, never heard of again.

“There have been too many cases for them to be accidents. I’ve been told that this is an ancient practice in this valley and is one reason why no one wants to come here. In any case, one can’t be too careful, especially not with an IAS probationer who will one day become Chief Secretary!”

Tales from the Mountains: Spectre of Choor Dhar is published by Vishwakarma Publications, 2019. Excerpt published with the author’s permission.