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Friday, Aug 23, 2019

A Himalayan interlude

Tracing childhood stories in the mountains is a bittersweet pursuit

brunch Updated: Jun 30, 2018 21:24 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times

The Goan cook is vacationing in Goa. The landlady is busy overseeing repairs to the kitchen and bathroom, extending platforms and retiling floors. A higher rent looms ominously in the distance. So off I escape to the north, on a guilt-free working vacation, imposing on the kindness of the families of friends. When I return, there is a house to resettle, returns to file, visits to be made. But for a few days, it’s all blue skies, chirping birds and a surprisingly quick Internet connection.

Mango people

I’ve grown up listening to stories of my grandmother’s summer retreats, far from the heat and dust of her hometown Aligarh to the mountains of Nainital. It was the ‘30s and ‘40s, when the world was gripped by war, and India was marching towards freedom led by a diminutive man with big ideals. A pack of kids of varying ages and personalities would fill up a train compartment, travelling from Aligarh to Delhi and then from Delhi to Kathgodam. To my Bambaiyya ears, Kathgodam sounded like Narnia – a place of magical possibilities. It’s how she told the story.

She would talk about travelling with her siblings, and formidable mother, on the overnight train. Her father would join in when his work at the university would permit. But even before they could board the train to Nainital – the hill estation of her cherished memories – a consignment of mangoes would have been dispatched, awaiting their arrival in golden glory. Being away from the plains did not mean they had to miss out on those chunky langdas and sugary dassehris.

Sycophants and bores

Catching the 6am Shatabdi from Delhi to Kathgodam, now in Uttarakhand, my grandmother’s stories from before Independence were fresh in my mind. The actual journey was slightly different. At the time of boarding, the public address system was blasting the Oonchi Hai Building track from the great Judwaa revival, particularly ill-suited to nostalgia-fuelled journeys that begin before dawn. My travel companion told me about an earlier journey on the same train where a railway official made an announcement warning passengers to steer clear of “smackiyan” (presumably smack addicts) haunting the doorways, looking to pull bags and phones off unsuspecting travellers and leaving them to their fate on the tracks. Charming.

I was offered three kinds of breakfast (I picked two) and offered WiFi entertainment customised for the journey. The loo was impressive, complete with toilet-seat covers and automatic flush. But the joy of all these creature comforts were balanced out by the mind-numbing experience of an earnest Bengali gentleman, singlehandedly redeeming my faith in the honesty of the automobile industry. He began promisingly, lamenting the conversion of the quizmaster Derek O’Brien from savant to sycophant. I shut my eyes, smug in the illusion that my social media bubble was meeting me in life.

But alas, that notion came to a screeching halt, like Germany’s ambitions at the World Cup. The fellow went on to list all his plans for the sales team at Rudrapur, observations about battery-sellers in Faridabad, hopes for the auto conference in Germany, all to an unresponsive colleague. Hours of unadulterated automobile talk eating into prime sleep hours made me revel in bloody thoughts involving wrenches, ratchets and screwdrivers. So much for time travel.

America meets Russia

I’m now in the hills not far from the beloved mountains of my grandmother’s childhood and youth. The air here is clearly not on speaking terms with that of Delhi. The stars are crazy diamonds. Giant langurs annoy shaggy dogs while oaks and pines conspire in a breeze.

But I don’t have the heart to make the trip up to Nainital. On an earlier visit, any happy associations of lakes and peaks were wiped out by hordes of summer revellers (like myself) storming Tandoori Chicken meets Gobhi Manchurian eateries. I explore the Bhimtal market, tempted by a Rs 50 haircut but stopped by the memory of a recent catastrophe brought about by a similar impulse. Further up a chic American-run café sells, well, Americanos, pizzas and Russian teacakes. On the way back home, the local water department guy’s daughter’s wedding is in progress. An elaborately made-up double bed, copper utensils and other dowry items are on proud display. The sun melts into the Himalayas like a blob of honey. For a magical spell, the past and present, light and dark, with all their incompatible ingredients, make for a sad and sweet concoction.

From HT Brunch, July 1, 2018

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First Published: Jun 30, 2018 21:18 IST

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