"...some people have the mountains in them while some have the sea. The ocean exerts an inexorable pull over sea-people wherever they are – in a bright-lit, inland city or the dead centre of a desert – and when they feel the tug there is no choice but somehow to reach it and stand at its immense, earth-dissolving edge, straightaway calmed. Hill-people, even if they are born in flatlands, cannot be parted for long from the mountains. Anywhere else is exile. Anywhere else, the ground is too flat, the air too dense, the trees too broad-leaved for beauty. The colour of the light is all wrong, the sounds nothing but noise." The Folded Earth
For three days it had rained as if the sky had turned into a giant shower. It was my third trip to Ranikhet and yet again I was leaving without a glimpse of the high peaks. It didn’t matter. The sound of rain on a tin roof, the dry spells when the hills were honey-coloured in the newly-washed air: who needs more?
Then someone said, “Look”.
I looked higher, to where the sun or moon should have been. And there — inexplicably — they were, replacing flat old sky. They were blue and white on a cotton-puff of clouds, as in postcards. But no postcard peaks look like that. These floated. Five times bigger than the hills at their feet, yet ethereal. A rooster crowed just then. It should have been the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth.
Leeches clung to us as we ran down a muddy slope through the trees blocking our view. We noticed the blood on our jeans only later. We needed a vantage point and there was such a hurry. The clouds might wipe everything away again.
At the tip of the slope stood a derelict cottage. We found a place to stand against its crumbling walls and stared at the shapes before us, the jagged, massive ice pyramids whose names we still didn’t know. They blazed in the light of the new sun.
We had to stand tip-toe because the place was a soggy mess of plastic bags, warped shoes, dented tins and bottles. The cottage had broken windows blinded with sheets of newspaper browned with age. Inside, the floor was a mound of dank mud. Rotted sacking hung from a ruined false ceiling. Beams of wood sagged from it.
And in one corner, stood a dog. Its eyes shone in its sooty face. Its peaked ears were the colour of copper. Its fringed tail waved slowly side to side, like a banner.
Only a few things in life can be pinned to particular moments. This was one: we knew immediately, my husband and I, that we would live there, in that cottage, on that hill.
The year we began resurrecting the cottage, we were also struggling to establish our own tiny publishing house. Alongside masons and the water board, there were authors and books to be dealt with. Ranikhet had no internet service then, nor cellphones. WiFi was the stuff of fantasy, mainly ours. Through the next year, we would take our laptop to the phone-booth to hook on to our dial-up connection in Delhi. A crowd would stare over our shoulders as we typed, murmuring to each other about the miracle of letters squeezing themselves through a phone line onto a TV screen.
Days passed, weeks. The carpenter absconded because his fruit trees were being ravaged by monkeys. We waited. Then he turned up, smiling all over his face, holding out a bag of wine-red plums exploding with juice. The power failed because a tree had fallen on a wire. “What use is bijli in the daytime when there’s sunlight?” the electricity people asked. We waited. The plumber vanished to his village to tend to his ailing buffalo. When back, he sat and smoked because the taps he was to fit still hadn’t come from Haldwani. How could they? The road was blocked by landslides.
We waited, and I planted lily bulbs and rose cuttings into our patch of landfill. In my mind’s eye it was already a flowery meadow straight from The Sound of Music. An old woman observing me battling the rubbish-clogged earth said, “Everything happens in its own time. Flowers bloom in their own time.” She laughed fit to burst as her goats munched bushes nearby.
There’s a certain bend on the road to Ranikhet where the air changes to champagne. We draw such deep breaths here that if we were balloons, we would inflate to the tips of our toes and fingers. Soon a line of small shops appears, roses tumbling over their roofs. There’s laughter and chatting on the street. Life in the mountains is not easy but good humour is a widely-transmitted virus. People smile a lot and idle as if they have nothing but time.
Busyness does seem an affectation here. Things happen, after all, in their own time. In this season, everyone is excited about the first gourd-sized hill cucumbers at the vegetable shop. In another season the sensation will be the radishes.
There’s nothing more exotic you can buy in the bigger bazaar either, which is about a mile long. Anything you need is available within this mile — or you have to do without it. It makes life straightforward and also convivial. Shops buzz with amiable conversation about the general lack of things, from water in our taps to electricity to supplies of batteries and coffee.
Ranikhet is the base for several trekking companies, American, Norwegian and Indian, that take people to the Pindari glacier area. Other travellers go looking for different kinds of summits: they go on pilgrimages to the many sacred places in the mountains, including Badrinath and Jageswar. Our own travelling here is lazier. We travel for the rhododendron in springtime or the changing colours of autumn. Or we drive to towns like Kausani and Binsar, to look at the snows from a different angle.
It’s been twelve years. Yesterday I was woken at 3 AM by a light on my face. The full moon, neon-bright. I lay awake, irritable, thinking yet again that we needed thicker curtains. Then I drifted back to the time when, driving home, we had to stop to let a leopard cross the road. Its pale fur and pale eyes gleamed in the headlights. It paused and gave us a long look, telling us whose land this really was. Then it loped off into the darkness.
Putting aside thoughts of curtains I shivered at a window, looking at the moon-sharpened shadows outside. Out there in the deep forest were foxes, leopards, deer, living their secret lives. The hoot of an owl echoed in the absolute silence. Huddled in bed, my dog gave a low growl.
Travelling from city to the hills, this silence appears profound. Some friends of mine run from it, restless and bored after a day or two. Others find that the slowness, silence, and vast wilderness changes something inside them for good. No other place, however beautiful or exciting, will ever mean to them what the Himalaya does. These are the people who keep coming back. Some begin to live here, as we have.I can’t remember when I went back to sleep, but at dawn the thrush was pouring out its melodies as if it had a concert coming up. The tips of the peaks had turned rosy in the new sunlight. The trees were red and pink with springtime flowers.
And three of my lilies had bloomed, having taken their own time.
(In National Geographic Traveller, July 2012; copyright Anuradha Roy)