I dislike arriving at new places by air – feels more like teleportation than travel – but landing at Dehradun airport charms you with a magnificent first view of the hills. As we fly north, dusty brown plains bloom into verdant fields, which end abruptly…and your eyes shoot ahead to glide over forested foothills rent by dry riverbeds like yellow stripes across a dark green canvas, culminating in a high plateau confetti-ed with the tiny white homes of Doon. With a little imagination, you can see how – millions of years ago – the Indian Plate crashed into the Eurasian Plate to form the world’s tallest, youngest mountains. So far, we have soared through a cloudless sky, but now, the horizon is cushioned by massive white cotton bales, and we know what lies beyond – the Himalayas.
At Haridwar Railway Station, a black-bearded yogi swaddled in saffron robes and crowned with a saffron turban, stumbles and falls while stepping off the escalator. He takes the stairs back down to the platform, and rides the escalator back up again, down and up, down and up, down and up…with absolutely no expression on his face.
On the filthy floor of Haridwar bus depot’s waiting area, an elderly man who I’m not sure isn’t a beggar, performs a bed-making ritual: he lays down a thin blue plastic sheet, then unfolds a washed-out brown bedsheet over it. He fluffs up his overstuffed cloth bag just so – to serve as a pillow – then drapes a Turkish tower over it. Finally, he produces a neatly folded blanket, and extends his fingers to caress and iron out every crease in his elaborate bed. Then, he repeats the process for his wife
Looking for bus schedules online, I wonder why the state bus transport authority has designed a website specifically for tourists from the United Kingdom. It is only when my contorted body is at the zenith of a heavenward launch propelled by my overnight bus riding roughshod over yet another speed-breaker, does my sleepless mind realise that .uk stands for Uttarakhand.
Like the Indian Railways, the Uttarakhand Transport Corporation bottles its own water, and sells it at five rupees lesser than the market rate. A loudspeaker booms paeans about how this is being done for the benefit of commuters. A tad grandiloquent, until I realise that in a hilly state with just a few short tendrils of tracks from India’s vast rail network, traveling by bus is practically the only form of public transport.
Holding on for dear life as our bus judders from Rishikesh to Haridwar, a smug lad in a tracksuit sways in the aisle as he performs a thirty-minute Modi monologue. If he is to be believed, Modiji is responsible for sugar and spice and everything nice: from CNG in auto-rickshaws, and four textbooks instead of three in government primary schools, to an airport that is yet to be built and – somehow – more water at the Ganga ghat for everyone to bathe in. He is on his way back from a hospital, he says, where even ICU patients and amputees are dancing around, cheering for Modi. He then proceeds to mystify us all by claiming that the launch of a rocket that can destroy satellites is somehow Modi’s retaliation against the Pulwama attacks; apparently, now that we can target satellites, young men who were scared to join the army will no longer be afraid. Go figure.
A jeep festooned with BJP lotuses and topped with a boom-box drives along the lakeside promenade, blaring a version of AR Rahman’s Maa Tujhe Salaam in which his already thin voice is minced into ten different keys that are perfectly out of tune with one another. It passes by a Congress truck playing an astoundingly unmelodious composition to the effect of ‘Congress bin hai desh adhoora, Rahul Gandhi karega poora’. Purely on musical grounds, I would vote for a regional party.
The security guard at an ATM: “Aapke paash Esh-Bee-Aayi ka card hai? Nai? Toh jahaan lake shuru hota hai na, vahaan teen-teen ATM shaath-shaath hain.”
On the way up from Bhimtal to Bhowali, the driver of my already overloaded shared-jeep stops to take in a mother and her two children. There are now four people in the front seat, apart from the driver, who is squashed with his back to the window, anatomically incapable of manoeuvring the vehicle. Yet somehow, we are still moving. From my narrow window of vision in the middle seat, I notice that the hands on the steering wheel are enclosed in a full-sleeved white blouse, and that the blouse contains a twelve- or thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. With the driver incapacitated, it is she who is negotiating the sudden twists and turns of the hilly road. But while her grey trouser-clad legs can reach the accelerator and hopefully also the brake pedal, they are simply not long enough to reach the clutch. So we drive up the mountain in a single gear; even if anyone else has noticed this or our change of driver, no-one protests. For ten kilometres, 13 people immobilised in a Bolero – including five minors (not including the driver) – entrust their lives to a teenaged schoolgirl. She turns out to be an expert motorist.
Time is immaterial. The only way to tell it is by tracking the slow creep of shadows across the valley.
Sleep leaves my eyes of its own volition before dawn, and I lie in bed for half an hour, eyelids neither closed nor open, not wanting to go back to sleep, or leap out of bed. I know the sun has woken up as well, when I hear the first burst of birdcall. The second sound of each day is the chorus of children – somewhere in the valley – chanting ‘doodh-halwa-puri, doodh-halwa-puri’. My stomach growls in harmony; I want some too.
At half past six every morning, I have my first chai of the day, sitting on a wooden bench outside the tea-shop. The village is wide awake. With my three-fourth’s full glass tumbler pincered between trembling fingers, I watch an imperious hound devour a raw fish the length of his bushy tail. A methodical fellow, he begins with a bite of its head, and crunches his way on. A smaller, slighter mutt approaches with a can-I-share sort of woof. The hound lets forth an almighty howl that somehow causes tea to be sprayed on dog, man and dog.
The samosa-maker dips his fingers in a little bowl of water, then pat-pat-pats a disc of dough into a cone, into which he spoons a spiced potato filling. He pinches it shut with another dab of water, and plops it into a sizzling wok of oil, where it bronzes before my eyes. You don’t always need to pay through your kerosene-stove-sniffing nose to watch your meal being cooked before your eyes.
While one hand pumps the crank of the tube-well, the other forms a cup under the tap, from which I lap the deliciously cool water I’ve just summoned from the bowels of the earth.
At the crags and cliffs of Chauli ki Jaali, I leap from boulder to boulder – hopefully with the grace of a mountain goat – looking for the perfect vantage point. Too far to the left, and I can’t peer up the valley of terraced fruit farms; too much to the right and the snow-clad mountains in the distance disappear from view. Finally, I lay me down on a sloping rock, the glorious sun toasting my body, my rolled-up jacket under my head, dreaming of meadows and sheep that don’t want to be counted and a brass-band of college students bursts into my consciousness, all jabbering in Marathi. I travelled 1,800 kilometres for this.
I step off the road, in the middle of nowhere, into a valley of conifers. Sliding down a path bedded with dry leaves, I escape the occasional vroom of vehicles behind me. A Sound of Silence parody crafts itself:
‘And in the dappled light I saw
Ten thousand poplars maybe more
Deodhars talking without speaking
Pine-trees hearing without listening
And I’m writing songs that I won’t every share
‘Cause I won’t dare
Disturb the sound of silence.’
And – without missing a beat – I find myself humming lines from a favourite song, which make me smile when I recognise their relevance to the moment:
‘Hawaaon se jo maanga hissa mera
Toh badle mein hawaa ne saans di
Akelepan se chhedi jab guftugu
Mere dil ne aawaaz di.’
My breath, and the faint crackle of leaves dropping onto the forest floor. Apart from the leaves and me, nothing moves. Looking up, I can see the sky blue in hues that a city never sees. Somewhere, unseen, a cloud drifts across the sun, and tree-trunks darken and leaves become opaque; it passes, and the trees are redder and yellower than ever before. My heart for a hearth in this forest.
While trying to retrace a shortcut, I find myself on a narrowing track that ends in thick underbrush. Barrelling through branches, I execute a flying leap across the gully beyond and rrrrrrrrip – the crotch of my pants breaks down with the stress. I clamber up the side of the gully on all fours, and find myself eye to eye with a bemused boy, sun-drying lemons the size of mangoes in his backyard. I am escorted through private property and directed towards a lane, called back (‘this lane, not that lane’), and sent on my way again. I walk in on a young woman sitting outside her cottage, combing out her cascading hair. Backing away hastily, I manage to lose myself yet again, among wheat and potato fields. A strapping and smiling chap appears, asks me where I want to go, and points out that I am heading in precisely the wrong direction. As we walk together, he tells me about a restaurant he has started. In a large room set in the middle of vegetable fields, I relish a plate of pakodas, and wash it down with a glass of juice made from the flowers of the crimson Bahrus tree, which grows in the wild and gladdens the eye.
The onions and cauliflower in my pakodas are grown without chemical fertilisers, yet the restaurant doesn’t make a song and dance about using organic ingredients, and charges only a fraction of city-prices. The owner tells me about a visiting family that wanted to see chapatis made from scratch; he took them to the field outside, harvested wheat before their eyes, guided them to a stream-water-driven mill where the wheat was ground, and then invited them back to the kitchen to admire chapatis being cooked on a wood fire. Bhalu Gaad Waterfall-Side Restaurant and Cafe, may your tribe increase!
Finally, I am set onto a reliable shortcut that is breathtakingly steep, and that winds through terraced fruit fields. As I pant for breath every two minutes, I wonder if the milestones I see are kids who’ve been allowed to experiment with rouge too early, or rosy-cheeked children gawking at the painful progress of a lumbering beast up a mountain.
I cannot stare at nothing on a beach, but I can stare for hours at nothing on a mountain.
Mountains make everything better.