Tales from the Hinterland

It is the month of April. I’m travelling through narrow passes over valleys encrusted with thick layers of ice. An occasional stream rolls by its cusps; its course resounding with whispers of a gale through leaves and intermittent rain. Pines loom over the horizon as the fog cuts through the edges of slopes – the fog is dense, it sheathes the depths of the valleys; the fog is sparse, it drifts through thick branches and perishes against boughs dipping under rain; the fog is smoke, it slithers formless leaving its trail in the wind; the fog is an array of clouds, enshrouding and preserving the mysteries of these hills from our intent gazes – until it dissipates, exposing its sovereign magnificence with a warm breath and a drizzle chilling to the bone.

The market on the meadow. Grey clouds above are illuminated at their contours by streaks of light that sliver through branches of trees at the horizon. It is believed that a meteor once struck the region millions of years ago forming a crater upon which I now stand. It is covered in thick grass; there is a lake at the centre and a forest looms on all sides. A couple of decades ago, a Swiss diplomat found the territory having resemblance to his homeland and christened it ‘Mini Switzerland’. The locals do not mind as it harbours tourism and currency. As the sky begins to clear after recurring phases of clouds flowing in from both sides into the plateau, cloaking the sun, the trees and the peaks until they fall down as rain, a swarm of people begin to appear from the many hotels that have flourished in the last decade. Rabbits are brought forth in baskets with flowers and pretty cushions, a professional camera slung on the carrier’s neck. Folk costumes – ornate and heavy – of the type worn by locals at least five decades ago are rented out by hawkers on foot for the sake of photographs. An incessant sound of clicking of shutters ensues as people pose individually and in groups. Their gazes are fixed on the lenses in front of them, their thoughts on their own face, skin and body. Once snapped, they move a few steps for a different background, a different pose, a different self.  ‘’We have arrived in Switzerland.” “Who says this is mini Switzerland. This is Switzerland only!” As I walk past them briskly to find myself a quiet space empty of tourists, I am reminded of Thoreau and his retreat to the woods: ‘Trade curses everything it handles.’1. It is still pouring sporadically. An old man with an umbrella approaches a young couple standing a few steps ahead of me. He offers them a horse ride to a distant peak beyond the apple orchards. The woman seems keen but there appears a thin line of doubt on the young man’s face. The horseman goes on to describe the place with adjectival superlatives but the man doesn’t seem impressed. Eventually, he asks, ‘Can we not take our cars over there?’ The old man is silent; he doesn’t seem to understand what this young man is saying. Neither do I. His look astonishes me and I’m filled with dismay. Filthy images of the city stream through my mind – cars stuck in long queues at the traffic light, their engines radiating murk and grime, glossy sheets of advertisements staring out from every inch of the sky, rivers choked with garbage dumps and the corrosive dents our ways of life have marked upon itself. But I cannot let that feeling overtake me; I want to shake him by the shoulders, ask him what the fuck is wrong him or tell him politely that the best places are where your cars can’t go, that you’re not an engine stuck on wheels, that you have legs and blood running in your veins and on and on, but the futility of any possible means of communication with like folks becomes apparent when he pulls out his cell phone and begins to take pictures of his wife and himself, with the old man standing delirious behind them. They seem to be content, nestled in their comfort bubbles even while traversing the wilderness which is no more than a mere background to them – a scenic beauty. At this point, I realise, I have to leave. I have to leave right away. It comes to me as a revelation – I’ve found standing in front of me someone I have been looking for all this while without knowing it. I put my arm around the old man and tug on his shoulder attempting to shake him off his desolation; let’s go, I say.

The horseman and the hermit. As we move away from the hub and further into the forest, I notice his face becoming placid, voice assured and gait erect. He speaks only when there is something he wants me to see. While it has stopped showering, we are moving under a canopy of trees with fat drops of water falling from one leaf down to many then down upon us. Sunlight comes in shafts with floating speckles of air through thick verdure. I ride on Shaan, he is a six year old stallion, white with patches of brown. While on our way, I suddenly recall my first school which I bunked every Wednesday with Amir when I didn’t even know what bunking meant. It hadn’t occurred to me in years or perhaps, a decade but now on a horseback, I could recall every detail of our Wednesday rides; Wednesdays as everyone was too dazed by the middle of the week to notice our absence and also because it was on this day that the crowd was less and so, we could heckle the horsemen to give us a cheap ride. He was smart at this; he knew the bus numbers and timings, which horse to choose and the rates. We would slide past the school gates while the guard had gone for his breakfast and take a creaking red bus that’d pass by the famed Botanical Gardens, cross the eminent Hooghly Bridge (officially known as Vidyasagar Setu: a wide, clean cable-stayed bridge, occasionally congested and windy even in the most humid temperatures; it stands over the sacred yet neglected and abused Hooghly river) and swerve along the arc of Race Course before stopping at Victoria Memorial whereupon after counting our scrambled notes and coins we would heckle with several horsemen there up for business. Cricket and football was a rage among boys of our age (including us) and they’d pour to these grounds from different schools, quarters and mohallas from across the city and shamble along the boundary lines seeking the attention of older ones until they included them in their teams. However, our time there was reserved for horses when our feet couldn’t even reach the metal straps lying along their bellies. Eventually, one of the horsemen – a friendly, mustachioed man – took a liking to us and allowed us to ride until he found another customer. It lasted until my class teacher called my guardians up and told them I was loitering around the city with a Muslim kid. Heck, more than a decade has passed and I don’t know yet what exactly she meant. It was the end of the academic year and I never saw much of Amir again for soon, I was put on the train to Delhi to my parents who had moved to the capital a couple of years ago. It was the end of my stay in the city which incidentally marked the beginning of a partly nostalgic yearning that is certain never to be relinquished.

‘This is the tree shaped into a deer. Here is the Hanuman Temple. These are the acacias in full bloom. Over there is a mosque. Down that path is the village where the locals who work at the market stay.’ I grin at his use of the word ‘market’.  The central location has indeed become one, encroaching further with time into the meadow. He nods at me and says, ‘You folks don’t know anything. You come so far, glimpse everything from outside and return. The complacency and the self assurance appall me. Anyway, here is a tree shaped into a bear. Go ahead, take your pictures.’

I’m amused by his sly bitterness and tell him so. He says, ‘In old age, a man could either pity himself or curse the world, and I’m no man who’d pity myself!’ I laugh while he tries to reassure me, ‘Don’t worry, son, I’ll be friendlier up at the peak’. I encourage him, tell him that this world is no world not to be cursed and keen to know ever since he mentioned, ask him who has shaped these trees into animals.

Enormous clouds begin to envelop the valley beyond the pine trees standing tall by our narrow path. The breeze is cold but tender on the skin as it whistles past through the leaves. The only other sounds are that of rain drops dripping into puddles of water, the splash of our horses’ hoofs on it and the intricate music of free birds as the downhill slope is slowly being dissolved from sight.370

‘A Slovakian.’ he says, ‘who cuts a path wherever he travels. He is an artist who knows how to leave subtle traces behind.’

The sense of familiarity with which the horseman recalls the man insinuates a strange bond between them. He says, ‘I have seen him twice or thrice, at best, I no longer recall. We don’t understand each other’s languages but if there’s someone who has understood me the most after my old dead horse, it has to be this foreigner from a distant land.’ He is smiling to himself, almost like a child, taking great pride in talking about him. ‘Does he think so too?’ I prod him. At this, he chuckles and continues after a long pause: ‘I’d like to think so. But does it really matter? What I do know is that he has a brilliant mind; I know how it works and I know these hills. What it means is that I can tell you – without knowing it yet – with near certainty, where he may be found tonight.’

We have tied up our horses to opposite sides of a clump. As I follow my guide through paths further narrowing, the pines have given place to oaks with gnarled branches and the oaks finally to short apple trees. Their stems are thin yet sturdy. The light blue of the sky can be seen slowly diminishing into a denser grey-white below.

‘Soon, the branches will be laden with ripe apples. The sky will be clear and allow us to gaze into the heart of the valley. The clouds are gathering again, we should hurry,’ he informs me.

A few huts pass by at a distance. I reckon this is the last village we are going to come across on this cliff.  A couple of dogs are padding around without care and a woman is picking coriander leaves from her garden while her two boys try to lift a log from outside their house, its roof having been completely damaged. It must have been the storm last night. The old man shouts out that he’ll be right back but I’m already on my way. As we help pull the log aside, instructing each other, I feel the same old joy of doing and belonging in togetherness that did previously while pulling the fishermen’s net one dawn in Pondicherry, pitching the tent for a brave single mother from Israel and her 10 year old daughter in Kheerganga or pressing down rocks on a street to fix the potholes on a calm purple hillock in Bir. Once we have cleared the ground, we sit at the porch to sip warm tea that the woman has brought out for us in earthen cups and share our experiences of the wrath of nature. She seems completely unperturbed by the wreck and simply grateful for having us around for a chat on a rainy morning.

‘Is that how you’ve met him more than once?’ I ask him once we have taken our leave of the woman, the boys and the dogs.

‘The Slovakian. By conjecturing where he might be?’

It was more than a year ago, but he recalls it distinctly. His sons had gone down to the town to establish a trade; they found the life hard on the hills, the passage of time excruciatingly slow. It had been a month since he had met the wandering hermit so he tried to figure out where he could find him in the vast forests by guessing how many days he would have spent at a place and how many trees he would have shaped into wild animals. The hermit would never return to a place, the old man knew. Nor would he stay in a place for more than three nights. So he gathered a few necessary things and went in 439search for him. ‘Finding the hermit was an excuse,’ he tells me now. ‘Of course, I wanted to meet him but I didn’t even know what I’d say to him or how I’d be greeted! Such folks could be quite dangerous when disturbed.’ For the first two days, he trekked endlessly and slept at nights in huts with villagers he knew from the treks in his youth. They welcomed him in their houses, provided him food and shelter. With his old horse and wife long dead and now his children gone, he had to move on and cut out the numbness that grew on his feet with age. Without saying a word, the Slovakian had taught him the old lesson all over again. Ever since his youth, he had believed there was no purpose to life and any possibility of existence lied in movement, in exploration, in endless learning, in stretching out a hand to others and letting them do the same for you without malice, pity or greed.

We have now reached our destination, perched by the edge of the precipice, our feet and palms lying loose on the grass.  In front of us lies a misty white vacuum of space that is growing denser by the moment. The wind has gathered a current; it is blowing the fallen leaves higher in the air, craning the necks of many a tree, cutting through the clouds, and allowing us every now and then a glimpse of the verdant green valley surrounded on all sides by majestic mountains older than all forms of life.

‘It was a sort of pilgrimage; one that lasted a year until I bought Shaan; now, it has become my vocation.’

A wide smile curves across his face as he looks away from me; his eyes screwed, he then shouts against the wind, ‘I don’t keep still anymore,’ as we stare ahead in silence, humbled by the effervescent yet eternal presence of our surroundings and our own vulnerability in the face of it.

Flower children. Right off the bus, I start walking briskly avoiding the bustle of the small town. Down the slope, I notice a young man looking expectantly at me. I nod at him and ask him without stopping:  ‘Is there snow at Khajjiar?’ He stops me, says he doesn’t know and asks with much caution where he can score some weed. His hesitation and alarm seem funny. I say I have been carrying some from the city (just in case) but it’d be better if we get a taste of the mountain soil.

He is a painter. Back in Russia, he tells me, he used to create abstract art: ‘Lines, curves and other silly illusions’. He seems shy at first – too cautious, too formal – while the girl, who looks quite older than both of us, is frank and confident. These days he finds pleasure in painting Hindu idols on the domes of local temples and their courtyards. The priests, I’m told, are more than happy having them around. Endless hotels and shops line the slopes of Dalhousie filled to the brim with all sorts of garbage. We are looking for a quiet place, an unobliterated view of what we’re here for. After strolling about for half an hour or so, we find some steps off the road leading to the back of the houses in front of the ice-clad Dhauladhar range. The houses seem empty so we descend the steps, perch upon the last one and make do with what I have. A few drags on, Seva becomes ecstatic; he has been longing to see the hills ever since he has come and spent a couple of months in the South Indian coast of Gokarna. He is from the hills of Russia while Natalya is from St. Petersberg.

The sky is turquoise with sparring grey clouds. I am already drenched in the rain and the wind feels cold. He speaks of a distinct feeling that the hills reserve for its inhabitants.

‘The hills are the same everywhere, aren’t they?’ I say.

His eyes lost in the distance, he adds, ‘Except here, they are gigantic,’

833‘The flowers and the mountains – together they suggest the opposite ends on the scale nature works. At one extreme operate the vast, apocalyptic forces that created the mountains: at the other, the intricate subtleties that produced a perfect flower: the first beyond man’s capacity to control: the second beyond his present capacity to comprehend. But both equally deserving of his awe.’

– Nigel Nicholson, The Himalayas

 

The sun hasn’t shined in the last couple of months in this region while the rest of the country seethes under its heat. Leaving the hotels and shops behind, we pass by several abandoned cottages; moss grows on their earthen floor, their furniture is left unadorned. Flower pots hang from the porch of a sprawling house with blue doors. In its green courtyard, stand three marble statues: a child holding a basket on his head looking down at a dog sitting close by his legs, Hesiod Atlas holding the weight of the world on his shoulders and the third I can’t quite recall. I lag behind thinking about its inhabitants; upon getting no response after knocking on the door, I circle around the house, peering shamelessly through the windows, hoping for some relic to catch my eye. All I notice is a sepia toned photograph framed by a wide bookshelf: they are standing on a narrow path with maize fields on both sides; a full bearded man in a stiff kurta looking sideways at the dainty woman alongside him– her hair flowing in the wind; she is dressed in a sweater and a dapper frock, gazing upwards – apparently startled by a paraglider – captured at the top right corner as a tiny speck in the vast, clear sky – closing in to land.

When I finally move ahead, I find Natalya smiling at me with a tulip planted in her hair and a chrysanthemum in a locket along her neck. She laughs at the sound of their English names. On a tinted mirror of a backstreet cottage, I see the flower on her head and our haggard faces with the mountains in the background.We are at peace with ourselves here, having found our righteous place somewhere in between a flower and a mountain range.

She is mostly silent, walking ahead while Seva and I are indulged in now sombre now humorous discussions. In rare159 moments, she suddenly looks deep in my eyes (conveying meaning that differences in our languages curtail), draws me close by the elbow and pours her thoughts out in broken English, bobbing her head passionately to the rhythm of the wind. She finds it enigmatic how while travelling, in a train or a bus or now walking along these unknown slopes, we inhabit a microcosm of the world, ending up sharing our whole lives in a matter of few hours. He frequently uses the words ‘truth’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ and the like. Over the years, I’ve nourished a habit of stopping myself before uttering such words, discarding them from my vocabulary for the language we use define who we are (especially the words ‘God’ and ‘humanity’; they may never go well together in a single sentence); words conveying ideas I can no longer believe in or am certain about; ideas that encourage submission of the intellect into mere abstraction, or dogma. In order to survive and find meaning, we all have to find our own myths and beliefs, and somehow make do with our conflicts and their absurdity. Maybe this – a resigned silence or indifference, call it what you will – is not the best way to deal with it but I’m yet to come across any other.

1027

Sitting at my desk, I now wonder how we forget everyday things that mean the world to us as time slithers by. Yet I see her uncontrollably laughing in the woods, her head on my shoulders, our arms entangled; I see him joyously leaping over rocks up a waterfall; his sadness for the world back home upon seeing a ceremonial tank; her joy while playing with a stray dog and the manifold subtle nuances that characterise their every gesture deep in the heart of the mountains. I see them walking down a slope and I shall leave them there.  

The warmth of darkness. Walking one sunset in Dalhousie, beyond the last house at the end of a path, I sit down on the grass with Nietzsche for company under a pale sky streaked with layers of amber. As it starts getting darker, I shut my paperback and gaze idly at the distance until a shadow of a man approaches me. He is the father of the children who had peeked out a couple of times from the door of the house and upon being noticed, quickly rushed back in. A spiral fence around the wall of rocks on one side cuts into the patch of green around me. Perching down, he introduces himself as a legal serviceman with the government. I don’t really like to talk about my job when I’m out so I lie, partly in order to convince myself, I say I work with books. A while later, he introduces his children – the girl at eight is cheeky and curious, she tires me with her questions about my beard, the book I am holding, what I am doing there and whatnot; the boy at 10, extremely shy, holds out a quivering hand and waits for an opportunity to slink out from our view. Having refused his offer of tea, dinner or water, I realise we do not have much to talk about so we start walking toward the market from where he’ll get some groceries while I’ll walk ahead and get to some other place.

Night has fallen. As he begins to puff on a beedi, I offer him a half-burnt rolled cigarette. A few drags on, he seems to enjoy its smoothness. As a matter of fact, he appreciates this small gesture so much that he feels the need to return the favour and tells me that he has something special in store for me. I feel like going back to my room and lying down, perhaps get back to Nietzsche for I am exhausted and can no longer recall when I last slept but what follows is a few hours of carousing at an unlicensed bar – just a burning stove, a few tables and benches on a rooftop –followed with conversations on just about everything and laughter and dogs. He tells me he is shifting house a couple of hours away from this place just the next day. I tell him that I believe he is very fortunate to have such a beautiful and quiet house; and ask why he is moving out. Perhaps, he doesn’t understand me. ‘You must have noticed monkeys on the path we came from,’ he says, looking a little perturbed. ‘The kids don’t like it here; they say the monkeys harass them while they return from school. Well, something has to be done.’

Our mightiest hills and the valleys are so far consumed by the night that what appears to me like a distant planet in the sky turns out (as an old guard in a corner informs, without looking at us) to be the glow of a lamp high up a slope; one that was beside me throughout the day as I trekked uphill; one I stopped every once in a while to rest my gaze upon, one that stands as a resolute certainty every morning and completely disappears at the brink of the night.

As we resume our walks through streets of night, he says, ‘I am a foreigner, Aman. Do you know who a foreigner is?’

The only sound is that of horseflies swirling around and beating against the hood of a lamp post crowned with branches of a sal tree.

He then tells me he is from a village 200 miles away but has lived all his life in the hills. Once when he was posted to Bangalore city, his most horrid experience was not watching the cars or the traffic or the lack of trees, it was the ground. Every evening, for the past 40 years or so, he would go out for a walk; on the first day there, he couldn’t stop laughing to himself standing by a market square.

‘You couldn’t believe my incredulity, Aman bhai. The ground was all flat. Sapaat!’

On the third day, he sent in a letter pleading to be shifted back.

‘Aren’t we all foreigners most of our lives?’ I say but he doesn’t listen or seem to bother much about it.

I ask him how he’s going to prepare a meal in such a sloshed condition. He tells me his son will cook; I say he is too young at 10; he says he is grown now – old, old enough.

In my travels across the countryside – our countryside – I’ve acquainted and made friends with folks more liberal than I regularly meet in the city. The same folks who pride on being above all forms of discrimination are the first ones who stereotype and shelf people on just about any possible points of difference – class, colour, gender, pictures, shoes, clothes, hair, shit if they can see them. This is to speak of the city clock and the expected need to live by the law of power unrecognizant of any borders of conscient or moral thought, simply for the sake of its access and exploitation, but perhaps, I am using words too generic to preserve any meaning.

Over the years I have realised that only by travelling alone one truly gets to know a place and its people. It allows one to leisure of exploring it at one’s own beat unaffected by the perception or stance of a partner on just about anything; also, it might possibly re-instill one’s faith in the fundamental friendliness of an individual.

The sun has finally shined this morning after months of incessant rain. I see him sipping tea by the market square. The night is forgotten as it is supposed to be as the city seeps into the town in its own distinct ways. He stretches out a hand and I stretch out mine awkwardly, before we part.

Leaving it all behind, I wonder how our conversations at night – our whispers and bellows and laughter and howls – shrivel to irate small talk in the morning; our coherence ravaged to hackneyed expressions.

*

11 in the morning, I’m at Khajjiar and the mist is too thick to afford any visibility. I pad around the field, my eyes stuck at my feet which soon disappear into the clouds or the fog or the smoke, I cannot tell anymore. There is no sound, sight or smell. My senses have been revoked, my mind and skin benumbed as I walk into the unknown, diminished or should I say reclaimed, rendered invisible (as we truly are in this face of the magnanimous) as I walk into this coveted sphere, overwhelmed by the sense of the sublime.

————————————-

Notes:

  1. Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau.
  1. The Himalayas by Nigel Nicholson and the editors of Time-Life books.

Also published in Footloose Magazine

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