One of the best windows I have seen so far is in Ranikhet, at the office of an adventure school. The building is on a steep slope overlooking a valley, which in turn is bordered on the opposite side by a wave of hills. The scene beyond those hills is spectacular. On a clear day, you see the peaks of Trishul and Nanda Devi, dominating as they do the high altitude landscape visible from Ranikhet. Sadly the experience ends there, for this big window showcases spectacle as an appendage to the impressive room. It offers little else; no dialogue. May be it is the youthfulness of the whole building; in as much as it inspires on a clear day, the window could decline to ordinary if there is a fog outside. A modern wall-to-wall window, it lacks a hook or a mystery to entice you into searching for the fabled high mountains that reign beyond.
Not so the three windows set in the dining room of a modestly old building in Sitlakhet. Coincidentally, this structure too belongs to an outfit that draws inputs for experiential education from the wilderness. These windows are well, windows, for they are apart and built as openings to the outside world from the interior of a room made to keep the elements out. They lend themselves to the imagination. Each is set at a different angle, each offers a slightly different view and they are all sufficiently weathered to have no particular presence themselves. Painted gray and with glass betraying age, they are almost wholly what they reveal. Quite like some people who have been around for long — they are past the beauty of their faces and command respect for what they know.
My favourite, as I sip tea in the dining room, is the window on the left. It is totally lost to admiring Trishul. Unlike Nanda Devi, this peak is less formidable to look at, imparts calmness and on select days gifts the world with a spectacular show of light and shade on its snow clad slopes. It has also the reputation of being a gentle, though big, mountain to climb. The window’s relation with the mountain would seem one of devotion; years of unrequited love from afar. Imagine life as a window and you would know what I mean. It is not for the restless or faint-hearted. The middle window, which graces the beginning of a curve in the room’s wall, faces a large, green bush and a leafy tree nearby. The vegetation blocks the view of the Himalaya, but the plants are in themselves fine conveyors of the mood of the hills. The third window brings one’s sweeping glance down from the glorious heights of Trishul to the world of people; it looks out to a small pavilion where on camp-days, students would sit in a circle and discuss their day with the teacher.
Overall, the dining room reminds you of a dated art work; a pastoral scene or still-life. Stagnant time lurks in the corners and the palpable feeling of existence spreads hope in your heart. It is a meaningful weakness of the human being – this tendency to seek out islands of stability, even as aligning one’s personal clock to that of the changing world becomes increasingly a choice between the person and an impersonal rate race. The pity however is that most people come to these centres of experiential education merely aiming to re-arm themselves for the rat race. School students, with the blessings of their ambitious parents and teachers, come here seeking to acquire confidence for battle. Companies send their teams to gel better and become more efficient at selling soap, software or whatever else is the stuff of today’s achievement. As are parents, so are their children! Very rarely do people see themselves as windows, awareness perched on the edge between person and the world.
Sometimes, I think that left window turns to Trishul for an anchor as slowly the rat race of the plains invades the quiet dining room. A window, it is part one world, part another. In this case, the dining room half is perhaps beginning to corrode with human corruption. Only Trishul in the distance remains permanent; seemingly unreachable and pure in its white cape. Mountaineers though talk of Trishul differently. They dismiss it as a mountain regularly climbed and often skied down. No fascination for its beauty, grandeur or the sense of anchoring it provides the fragile window in Sitlakhet. How long Trishul; how long Himalaya? I wonder. For at heart I am no different from that window.
Shyam G Menon is a writer based in Mumbai.