James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Rare Story in Which an Impromptu Beatles Serenade Doesn’t Fill One with Rage

The Rare Story in Which an Impromptu Beatles Serenade Doesn’t Fill One with Rage

Beer in Kalimpong

He strums the guitar, eyes closed, and I watch this silver-haired old man bring the past alive. It’s an old Beatles number, and he hums just the way George would. The glass of beer is cold in my hands, and in a day or two I will be leaving the West Bengal mountain town of Kalimpong and riding my bike into Bhutan, where I will run out of money and make new friends.

But right now, Binod Onkle (the local pronunciation of “uncle”) has me mesmerized. His eyes are still closed, and the first few words of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” linger in the air. It’s not hard to picture a younger Binod, crooning on a stage, getting thrown out of boarding school, raising havoc in bars, falling in love, and falling out of love.

It was fitting that our meeting was so unplanned. With a bike that needed repairs, I had planned to spend a few days in Kalimpong. In the end, I spent close to two weeks there, most nights at Cloud Nine, Binod Uncle’s hotel.

During dinner at Cloud Nine, he would join me at the table, sharing wildly inappropriate stories with a poker face and twinkling eyes. Bottle of beer in hand, he would take a deep swig now and then, slipping into his memories. Nothing was out of bounds in our conversations, and the candor was wonderful.

He had an animated way of speaking, his hands moving around as the words rushed out. Every so often he would deliver a punchline without changing his expression, and there would be a few seconds of silence as I processed what I had just heard. Then, laughter, more laughter, and beer.

One night, he bought me a beer, impishly telling me that one of his guests had paid up, and he “had made a little money today.” That night, he picked up the guitar and began strumming away.

The morning I finally left Kalimpong, he waved goodbye from the hotel door. When I turned one final time, he gave a sharp, little salute.

Months later, I would remember his twinkling eyes and that salute. When I heard of the civil unrest in the hills, it was Binod Uncle I thought of first. A crooning rock star, with a guitar in his hands, and a bottle of beer never too far away.

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