Deja vu

Just got back from a relaxing weekend in the hills. There’s something in the air there that gets to me. I have always felt totally at home in these environs; it’s like home, a sense of belonging, of comfort, of freedom. I don’t know. It’s always felt this way doesn’t matter which place it’s been. Whether it’s a commercial tourist destination or a tiny little indescribable hamlet tucked in the hills.  Maybe it’s the air…like I said before. The clean air, the open spaces, the sparkling sunshine, the smiles on the rugged features of the people or the star spangled skies. Whatever it is, I just love the place up there among the hills and want to be there…forever!

My love for the hills began when as children we would go on vacations to the various hill stations in UP. My father, being a ardent traveler himself, would take us to the hills and we would drive up there in his old fiat. Sometimes we did do part of the travel by train but the road trips were the best. We would stop by the roadside to have some fresh fruits and vegetables picked from the farms en route. For lunch breaks, we would stop at the roadside dhabas and devour the hot rotis and dal tadka. Everything would taste so amazing. I guess the most important ingredient in those dishes was the love and affection of the people cooking it. We would get an extra helping of the dal or an extra glass of that fresh frothy lassi. Most of the times there would be no sanitizers to clean our hands or bottles of bisleri to drink. Once we would reach the destination, we would set out to discover every little corner of the place. The old little temples tucked in some corner, behind some hill or near some lake or waterfall were our favorite because there would always be some story there. The churches were full of tales from the World Wars or the colonial times. Some even had some ghost stories as part of their history. It all added to my fledgling romance with the hills. And of course, once back home in the plains we had Ruskin Bond to help keep the fires going with his books set in the hills! 

During one of our trips to Nainital, dad got us to walk all the way up to see the Nainidevi temple. The next day we walked around the Nainital lake. During another trip, we had gone to Ranikhet, renowned for its tigers and other wild cats. My brother and me were playing outside the Circuit House, where we were staying, when we heard the deep growl of the tiger on the prowl. The chowkidar shouted at us to get inside immediately. We ran for our lives towards the guest house. As soon as the door was closed shut, we saw a tiger walk into the garden where we had been playing just a few minutes ago. Till date whenever I think about it,  I get goose pimples. 

My most life altering experience had been when I had gone for a trek with some friends to Manimahesh. At 13800 feet, life achieves a new meaning. The higher we went, the terrain became more rugged, the air more rare and the people more friendly. Whenever we would stop to give our weary legs some rest or to take in the view, cups of hot tea would appear, without fail, made by one of the villagers. Sometimes we paid, sometimes not. The kids there would then become our eager guides on the mountain trails. In spite of the effort it took to keep moving, with the heavy loads on our backs, I don’t think I were felt anything like regret for being there. On the contrary, the higher we went, the changes in the terrain and the landscape, kept me motivated to keep going. As we kept going higher, the villages we crossed become more and more smaller. It would be a few dozen houses spread around the place. At Bharmor, our bus stop was actually the last house in the village. It was cold, I mean killing cold, at the place were we had pitched camp for the two days before we started back. There was no water, only ice. So we had to collect ice and melt it to use it. It was fun. All of us tried to fit in around the tiny camp stove to keep ourselves warm. In the night, we packed ourselves into our sleeping bags and then lay down as a box of tightly packed sardines to avoid getting frost bites. And of course there was no electricity. And that’s when I heard the most enchanting sounds. The sound of the majestic mountains. In the night, the silence was as beautiful as it was surreal and frightening. I mean the sound would get magnified and appear to echo in the hills. We could see the silhouette of some animals standing against the moonlight but couldn’t see the animals clearly. Now I know why there are reams and reams written about the beauty of the moon. I couldn’t write anything, I just felt it. The words could never do justice to the beauty I saw that day. It’s safely tucked in the deep recesses of my mind and only I can enjoy it from time to time. If the night had mesmerized me with its silvery web of magic, then the rising sun and the glories of the morning made me believe in the power of nature, a power above. The palettes had colors I had never seen before. The sky changed from an inky blue to various shades of red and pink and finally a golden hue washed over them. As the sun rose, watching the scenery change was the best form of meditation for me. I have never felt the same way about the hills since then. My love for them borders on reverence. 

But I have had an experience of another kind also in the hills. It’s not the hills per se but rather the setting. We had gone for a trek through the Kangra valley. After visiting McLeodg
The lonely remainder of the days of past
anj and Dharmasala, we decided to walk back to the town. The walk was dreamlike with the tall conifers lining the road on either side, the wild flowers adding color to the wilderness, the occasional racket created by the monkeys. It was all too perfect to be true. As we all walked along, intoxicated by the general feeling of being content and happy, when we noticed a quaint little church peeping through the trees. It was a lonely church along the road, hidden behind the thick wall of trees and creepers. As we approached the church, I kept feeling like I had been there. It was a beautiful church. A true remnant of colonial architecture. We all went inside and offered our prayers in whichever way we thought it best since none of us were Christians to know what to do. As expected we decided to look around. There was a graveyard behind the church. Most of the graves belonged to the the latter part of 19th century. There were families buried, some related, some not. That’s when we noticed a rather ornate cross over the grave of a lady and went over to have a look. As soon as I went 
there I told my friends that her child was also buried there. They looked around and found it next to hers! All of us were stunned. That was it. My friends, not wanting to abandon me yet not sure if they wanted to be around, asked me to get out of there. It was scary for me too. I didn’t know how to react. I mean, I had never gone there yet I seem to know that place. It was creepy to say the least. 

 

Anyways it was quite an experience. All these memories came rushing back to me when we went to Araku. As we approached our guesthouse, I saw a white chapel standing a little apart on a small hillock adjacent to our lodge. The similar serpentine roads with its own tall green sentinels guarding nature’s bounty on either side. The clear blue skies, with an occasional tuff of cotton white cloud crossing over. The women singing songs as they crossed the fields on their way back from work. The delicate plumes of smoke rising from the wooden stoves burning in some distance reminding us that dinner was being prepared as another day was drawing to an end. As the sun set over the hills, the shadows got longer. The tiny hamlets nestled in the lees were getting ready for the long night ahead. A few lights would be seen glittering down below, pointing out to the human settlements while the uncountable stars glimmered above showing the address of the residents above. After a long time I was able to point out the various constellations. Venus was sparkling like never before. Experiences like these can’t be described. There are no words for it. And the words we have are 
not enough. 

No, never mind the experiences, I still love the hills and want to go back to them. Maybe I’ll settle down in a small wooden cottage with a view of the towering mountains. Some dream this is. 

 

*****

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