Author Archives: jhaltola

Bird seye view offbeat Jhaltola

Genesis: Misty

Dandelions

Soft wings of a yesteryear’s breeze 

Brought seeds from a far off hill

Just as a cloud passing by

Threw life on a sun kissed field

Many Suns have set since then

As a secret lurked beneath 

Of Dandelions that gently spread

Sunshine,

On a grass dew green. 

 

When does a story begin and how? The seeds of a story are sown long before it finds its own words. Often times, it is a tangent on another story, of another character, from another time. The story of a book I like is a tangent of the story of the character in the book,which in turn is one of the many tangents of the story of the author of that book, who chose one tangent or a bunch of tangents from the many he saw, heard, experienced or made up. On and on we go.

There is no definite beginning to a story. It just depends on how far back or around I am willing to look. And I just discovered this simple but astounding fact while trying to write the story of the genesis of The Misty Mountains. It has no singular beginning. It cannot have a singular beginning. But a beginning must be chosen. So for today, for now, for this story, I would go with the thought that I am nothing but an extension of another story. So lets begin around the time I joined it – 7th March’ 1978, as the second of three sons to my parents. It was snowing. It was also Maha Shiv Ratri. So I am told. (A fact that will define a lot of other facts later in this story).

A couple of years later, Dad – a grocery store owner at the time, bought a small piece of land to build a house for his growing family. The foundation was laid, an architect was duly hired, and work began in due earnest. A few weeks or perhaps months into it, Dad realized that he wanted to be a hotelier. And with tourism on the upswing, it was just the right time to get into it. So the house plan metamorphosed into a hotel layout. And in 1982, a year before my younger brother Anuj was born, the hotel opened up with some ten rooms for guests. Our home was the ground floor of this building. Consequently, as a family, we spent the better part of the following years in the interesting environments of a Hotel. (This could qualify as another beginning to this story).

During the early years, I remember that guests would stay there for weeks at a time. Some spent the entire summers there to escape the heat in the plains. Some were sent there by the doctors to recuperate from a taxing illness. Others were staying there because they had just moved into town for a job or a posting and had not yet found a place to call home. Those were times when time was slower. I liked those times. I loved those times. Many stories coalesced in those times. Friends were made and friends lost. Hope was born everyday and everyday brought new fights and new miracles. Yes, I loved those times. I was too young to know the difference but old enough to like it anyway.

Then came the Nineties and with its arrival came Maruti cars, better highways, a booming middle class and more tourists. A lot more tourists. Gone was the easy pace of the eighties. People suddenly starting thriving on being busy and busier. Money became easy and time became a rare commodity. Week long stays shrunk to long weekend vacations or escapes from reality. Over the years, Nainital became busier, our hotel became bigger, and the nature of tourists staying changed dramatically with each passing season. These were times when time became faster. I did not like these times. I would be exasperated that people coming to enjoy time out from their busy lives ended up being even busier on vacation. I would have needed a vacation to get over such a vacation!. Even in our family, dad was running three businesses simultaneously. He was in love with his work and would never tire of it, athough the hotel took up most of his time and attention.

We rarely found time together as a family during the busy tourist seasons. The only times, we were together would be in the monsoons or winters when the tourist inflow would be down to a trickle. And sometimes, just sometimes, we would go out of town to nearby places to explore the remoter parts of our Kumaon mountains and make our own stories a little more interesting. And yes, these rare visits invariably made for interesting stories!

One such winter eve in 1998, we found ourselves enroute to Binsar. I do not remember how, but we were very late to reach there. We (Dad, my elder brother Sneh, our driver, and I) were cautiously climbing the steep, narrow, black ice filled road to the tourist rest house at the top of the sanctuary, in our Gypsy. It was already late evening, and the stars were out. Even as the others had their eyes glued to the road ahead, I was happily looking out the rear windshield at the star-studded sky. I could see the dark sky with little silver jewels far out into the distant valleys even when I looked down a little. Its an image that has stayed with me. Even today, if I close my eyes, I can see out of that rear windshield. Perhaps, I half remember what I saw, and have painted the other half with what I felt at the time – an unfathomably deep, serene, absolute joy.

Later that night, when we reached the rest house and were shown to our rooms after a hurried dinner, we were given candles to light our room while we settled down. Binsar had no electricity. It was perhaps seven in the evening and we were already in bed. All we could do was lie there quietly, and all we could hear was silence. It was not the usual silence either. It was the silence one hears for just a second after the electricity goes off in a busy city neighbourhood. Everything and everyone stops for that one second. Nobody even breathes for that one second. That silence. That one second silence was the silence that I heard that night. It was the silence I heard that night for the whole night. And that silence became the musk smell that my soul sought for thousands of nights thereafter. Perhaps, that silence was the rightful beginning of this story. Dad, unknowingly, had given me the biggest gift he would ever give – a love for cool dark woods and star bright skies.

But of course, there was another tangent in the offing. For reasons unimportant for now, I spent the next six – seven years away from the mountains treading paths to somewhere; paths that led me further and further away from me. Until one lonely winter night, after almost a month of no sleep in a one room apartment in Delhi, I decided to head back home and find myself all over again. The years that followed that night, as the many before, were filled with mistakes, wrong turns and life lessons.

Life lessons

How goes”? A friend asked over chat one day.

It meanders”. Said I.

“ As it rightly should”. Said he, in his trademark nonchalant wisdom.

For almost three years thereafter, my meandering paths stretched to hundreds of thousands of kilometers in every direction. I know now that I was searching for the silence from that one night spent in Binsar, while I did not even know that I was searching for it. All I knew then was that there was somewhere else I had to be.

This stayed so for many nights and many journeys thereafter. So many times, I came delightfully close to finding and securing that silence. But each of those times, it was just out of reach. Each of those times, but one.

A casual chat over dinner at home one eve reminded me of a casual chat on a bus ride to Delhi on a chance encounter with a childhood teacher, Mrs. Rawat. She spoke with passion of some ancestral land far off in the mountains. The tangent did not matter on that bus ride to Delhi and I do not even remember why I recalled that chat some 7-8 years after it happened. But recall I did.

Over the next few days, a frantic search of common friends led us to get back in touch after so many years. That is the first time I heard of a place called Jhaltola. A few weeks later, I found my way up here with Harsh – Mrs.Rawat’s son.

It was another steep narrow road. By the time we reached, it was already late evening, and the stars were out. This time there was no Gypsy. We hiked up the last couple of kilometers after parking our car in a nearby village. On arrival, when I was told that Jhaltola is Shiv Bhoomi and that there is a 200 year old Shiv temple on the top of the privately owned estate, I remember remembering after a long time that I was born on a Maha Shivratri. That I had stopped going to temples long ago was another matter.

In typical bachelor style, we had not planned dinner but had bought a few packets of Maggi on our way up. We collected some pine cones from the nearby forest and water was promptly fetched from a spring. After eating some maggi cooked over a pine cone fire we went off to bed. All we could do was lie there quietly, and all we could hear was silence. It was not the usual silence either. It was the silence one hears for just a second after the electricity goes off in a busy city neighbourhood.

The same silence from ages ago engulfed us that night. I could hear it through the night. Once again, after thousands of nights, I felt – “an unfathomably deep, serene, absolute joy”.

We had reached late in the evening and I had hardly seen the place, but in my heart I knew – I had come home.

Outside,

a little farther away from where we slept,

a seed had just flown in,

aloft a soft breeze

and landed on a dew drenched field. 

Autumn in the mountains and a rendezvous with Nanda Devi…

Autumn is my favourite season here in the mountains. It has been so all my life, though I did always love the romance of the monsoons. (come to think of it, my favourite season seems to change with every season…anyway… for today this would do… :))

Monsoons brought a gentle pause to the conflicting pace of our small tourist town lives. After the hyper buzz of the summer, everything stopped; almost stopped. The tourist flow thinned down to a trickle. Spending time outdoors became limited to completing chores and drying bedding on the odd sunny day. We would get to spend more time together as a family and sometimes went on small holidays further into the mountains. It also bought respite from the invariable summer-paucity of water, and the springs and Naulas got replenished, ready to foster life for another year. The parched land looked alive again. The divine smell of wet earth seeped through everything.

But there is definitely something as too-much-of-a-good-thing when it comes to the rains. Towards the end of the monsoons, the clouds that would have inspired beautiful verses across time and cultures, would become drab and depressing. Everything went damp, and so went our spirits. We became fidgety about being able to move freely again. The music of raindrops on the tin roof lost its charm. The gentle pause that the monsoon brought would by now seem like the overstay of a guest who was invited for lunch and was welcome for tea but had already stayed well past dinner! And most importantly, we missed the sun. Every now and then, it would peek through the clouds for a few minutes as the shape shifting clouds played with the breeze, just to disappear again.

As days passed by the peek-a-boo through the clouds would become more frequent though. And soon, though not soon enough, it was autumn!

It was autumn, and it was only autumn, when the life-green cover of the neighbouring forests could be enjoyed with hikes and picnics, and the just-out-of-cloud-veil Himalayas could be stared at, eliciting deep sighs from famished mountain loving hearts. I remember the first time I saw Nanda Devi from Chaukori in late September on another one of our Himalayan escapades.

We were on a road trip of sorts through Kumaon in our Mahindra DI jeep. Not the most comfortable of vehicles, but dependable on all kinds of roads. We had driven to Jageshwar from Nainital and decided to carry on to Patal Bhuvaneshwar the next morning after a stopover at KMVN, Danya. The stopover was another interesting little side story. It was a sad state of affairs there, with damp rooms, and creaky beds. We would not have stayed there but for the fact that it was late evening and there were no other options. We settled down for the night anyway, but not before hunting through the village market at seven in the evening looking for a board game to pass the night. We scored a chessboard! That cheered us up, and distracted us enough for the next couple of hours to eventually fall asleep and wake up to a beautiful early autumn morning. When we requested for hot water the next morning, the care taker brought a contraption of a plastic bucket and an element from an electric heater or some such. Scary though it was, it worked! After a hurried bath and an excuse of a breakfast we planned a route to Patal Bhuvaneshwar through Ghat Panar, Rameshwar, and Gangolihat. It seemed there were two trips going on. Mum was happy that we were visiting all the temples and the rest of us were just enjoying being out there. I am not much of a temple going person but the advantage of temples in the hills is that they are invariably in the most scenic of spots, and these were no exceptions. And it was at Gangolihat that I was told for the first time that my favourite tree, the Deodar, is named so, as it is a guard-to-the Gods (Dev-Dar). (If you have seen a Deodar forest, you cant but help fall in love with it. There are only a few left as a lot of Deodar forests in Kumaon were exploited to lay the railway tracks in Northern India. There is a small forest near Jageshwar and another one around Gangolihat. The best of these are near Lohaghat and Champawat though. And if you ever travel that side, the place to stay is the Abbot Mount Cottage at Abbot Mount just outside of Lohaghat).

Back then, the road from Ghat to Gangolihat was being made and we were glad for the bring-it-on attitude of our army retired driver and the jeep. After a long rattling drive and stopovers at Rameshwar on the banks of Ramganga river as well as Gangolihat Kalika temple, we reached Patal Bhuvaneshwar in the afternoon. This is a fascinating place – the guides there will tell you that a visit there is equivalent to doing the Chaar Dhaam, as the cave tunnels are connected to all of them. In the various formations of the limestone caves, you will be shown snippets of our Hindu mythology and the whole Pantheon of Gods. The place also finds mention in Skand Puarana and was used by some of our spiritual gurus like Swami Vivekananda for meditation. To me it is a fascinating place independent of the myths and legends. To others it is a major Hindu shrine. It is a matter of faith, and best left at that.

We did not stay at Patal Bhuvaneshwar as we wanted to move on to Chaukori, about which we had heard such a lot. In another hour or so, we reached KMVN, Chaukori. The upkeep of the place was a pleasant surprise and we happily checked in. (Back then, it was the only place to stay and boasted of amazing views as well as comfortable rooms. Today, there are multiple options to stay there but it has lost its charm of a tiny village as it is surrounded by concrete structures everywhere you see.) We spent a pleasant evening in the gardens of the rest house and slept early after a much needed good, albeit simple, meal.

We woke up at dawn to the enthusiastic chattering of some guests in the gardens. Though the clouds covered the fabled view of the Himalayas from Chaukori, it did not dampen our spirits too much as the morning was crisp with just a hint of a soothing breeze that early autumn brings. A little later we had our morning tea in the garden. The breakfast was a tactfully chosen menu of bread toast and scrambled eggs with sweet tea. (Any place in the mountains will serve you this menu with decent taste and fresh ingredients; it is difficult to not get scrambled eggs right!). We had an unplanned day ahead and did not know where we would stop so we wanted to start early. We were mildly disappointed with missing out on the view and prayed hard for a miracle to happen. And what do you know – it did happen!

It must have been the high altitude and proximity to the Gods, or the lack of any interference in our message that the clouds relented, even though for just a few minutes. The sun came out and the cloud veil parted over Nanda Devi. It was a sight to behold! Seeing the two peaks for the first time that day, was the beginning of a life long love affair. I remember holding my breath for that first rendezvous. Even today, as I type this, I can smell the crisp mountain air, feel the gentle touch of the mild autumn morning sun, hear the silence that only the mountains can bring, see the humbling sight of the highest peak of the Indian Himalayas, and feel the elation in my heart with a tingling sensation all over. It was another beginning of my story of life in the mountains.

Years later, I would be drawn to this area, and find my little piece of heaven nearby, at Jhaltola. There, I would make a home where every window looks out at the mighty Nanda Devi. There, I would make a life that I would be able to share with my family, friends and guests who became friends and family over time.

It was meant to be. The universe works in simple ways – prodding us on to the path our soul seeks. This first rendezvous with Nanda Devi on a crisp early autumn morning was a gentle prod towards my soul path, and for that, I am ever grateful.

The Genesis…

The Genesis.

Dandelions

Soft wings of a yesteryear’s breeze

Brought seeds from a far off hill

Just as a cloud passing by

Threw life on a sun kissed field

Many Suns have set since then

As a secret lurked beneath

Of Dandelions that gently spread

Sunshine, on a grass dew green.

                                                                                                     

When does a story begin and how? The seeds of a story are sown long before it finds its own words. Often times, it is a tangent on another story, of another character, from another time. The story of a book I like is a tangent of the story of the character in the book,which in turn is one of the many tangents of the story of the author of that book, who chose one tangent or a bunch of tangents from the many he saw, heard, experienced or made up. On and on we go.

There is no definite beginning to a story. It just depends on how far back or around I am willing to look. And I just discovered this simple but astounding fact while trying to write the story of the genesis of The Misty Mountains. It has no singular beginning. It cannot have a singular beginning. But a beginning must be chosen. So for today, for now, for this story, I would go with the thought that I am nothing but an extension of another story. So lets begin around the time I joined it – 7th March’ 1978, as the second of three sons to my parents. It was snowing. It was also Maha Shiv Ratri. So I am told. (A fact that will define a lot of other facts later in this story).

A couple of years later, Dad – a grocery store owner at the time, bought a small piece of land to build a house for his growing family. The foundation was laid, an architect was duly hired, and work began in due earnest. A few weeks or perhaps months into it, Dad realized that he wanted to be a hotelier. And with tourism on the upswing, it was just the right time to get into it. So the house plan metamorphosed into a hotel layout. And in 1982, a year before my younger brother Anuj was born, the hotel opened up with some ten rooms for guests. Our home was the ground floor of this building. Consequently, as a family, we spent the better part of the following years in the interesting environments of a Hotel. (This could qualify as another beginning to this story).

During the early years, I remember that guests would stay there for weeks at a time. Some spent the entire summers there to escape the heat in the plains. Some were sent there by the doctors to recuperate from a taxing illness. Others were staying there because they had just moved into town for a job or a posting and had not yet found a place to call home. Those were times when time was slower. I liked those times. I loved those times. Many stories coalesced in those times. Friends were made and friends lost. Hope was born everyday and everyday brought new fights and new miracles. Yes, I loved those times. I was too young to know the difference but old enough to like it anyway.

Then came the Nineties and with its arrival came Maruti cars, better highways, a booming middle class and more tourists. A lot more tourists. Gone was the easy pace of the eighties. People suddenly starting thriving on being busy and busier. Money became easy and time became a rare commodity. Week long stays shrunk to long weekend vacations or escapes from reality. Over the years, Nainital became busier, our hotel became bigger, and the nature of tourists staying changed dramatically with each passing season. These were times when time became faster. I did not like these times. I would be exasperated that people coming to enjoy time out from their busy lives ended up being even busier on vacation. I would have needed a vacation to get over such a vacation!. Even in our family, dad was running three businesses simultaneously. He was in love with his work and would never tire of it, athough the hotel took up most of his time and attention.

We rarely found time together as a family during the busy tourist seasons. The only times, we were together would be in the monsoons or winters when the tourist inflow would be down to a trickle. And sometimes, just sometimes, we would go out of town to nearby places to explore the remoter parts of our Kumaon mountains and make our own stories a little more interesting. And yes, these rare visits invariably made for interesting stories!

One such winter eve in 1998, we found ourselves enroute to Binsar. I do not remember how, but we were very late to reach there. We (Dad, my elder brother Sneh, our driver, and I) were cautiously climbing the steep, narrow, black ice filled road to the tourist rest house at the top of the sanctuary, in our Gypsy. It was already late evening, and the stars were out. Even as the others had their eyes glued to the road ahead, I was happily looking out the rear windshield at the star-studded sky. I could see the dark sky with little silver jewels far out into the distant valleys even when I looked down a little. Its an image that has stayed with me. Even today, if I close my eyes, I can see out of that rear windshield. Perhaps, I half remember what I saw, and have painted the other half with what I felt at the time – an unfathomably deep, serene, absolute joy.

Later that night, when we reached the rest house and were shown to our rooms after a hurried dinner, we were given candles to light our room while we settled down. Binsar had no electricity. It was perhaps seven in the evening and we were already in bed. All we could do was lie there quietly, and all we could hear was silence. It was not the usual silence either. It was the silence one hears for just a second after the electricity goes off in a busy city neighbourhood. Everything and everyone stops for that one second. Nobody even breathes for that one second. That silence. That one second silence was the silence that I heard that night. It was the silence I heard that night for the whole night. And that silence became the musk smell that my soul sought for thousands of nights thereafter. Perhaps, that silence was the rightful beginning of this story. Dad, unknowingly, had given me the biggest gift he would ever give – a love for cool dark woods and star bright skies.

But of course, there was another tangent in the offing. For reasons unimportant for now, I spent the next six – seven years away from the mountains treading paths to somewhere; paths that led me further and further away from me. Until one lonely winter night, after almost a month of no sleep in a one room apartment in Delhi, I decided to head back home and find myself all over again. The years that followed that night, as the many before, were filled with mistakes, wrong turns and life lessons.

Life lessons

“How goes”? A friend asked over chat one day.

“It meanders”. Said I.

“ As it rightly should”. Said he, in his trademark nonchalant wisdom.

                                                                                                    

For almost three years thereafter, my meandering paths stretched to hundreds of thousands of kilometers in every direction. I know now that I was searching for the silence from that one night spent in Binsar, while I did not even know that I was searching for it. All I knew then was that there was somewhere else I had to be.

This stayed so for many nights and many journeys thereafter. So many times, I came delightfully close to finding and securing that silence. But each of those times, it was just out of reach. Each of those times, but one.

A casual chat over dinner at home one eve reminded me of a casual chat on a bus ride to Delhi on a chance encounter with a childhood teacher, Mrs. Rawat. She spoke with passion of some ancestral land far off in the mountains. The tangent did not matter on that bus ride to Delhi and I do not even remember why I recalled that chat some 7-8 years after it happened. But recall I did.

Over the next few days, a frantic search of common friends led us to get back in touch after so many years. That is the first time I heard of a place called Jhaltola. A few weeks later, I found my way up here with Harsh – Mrs.Rawat’s son.

It was another steep narrow road. By the time we reached, it was already late evening, and the stars were out. This time there was no Gypsy. We hiked up the last couple of kilometers after parking our car in a nearby village. On arrival, when I was told that Jhaltola is Shiv Bhoomi and that there is a 200 year old Shiv temple on the top of the privately owned estate, I remember remembering after a long time that I was born on a Maha Shivratri. That I had stopped going to temples long ago was another matter.

In typical bachelor style, we had not planned dinner but had bought a few packets of Maggi on our way up. We collected some pine cones from the nearby forest and water was promptly fetched from a spring. After eating some maggi cooked over a pine cone fire we went off to bed. All we could do was lie there quietly, and all we could hear was silence. It was not the usual silence either. It was the silence one hears for just a second after the electricity goes off in a busy city neighbourhood.

The same silence from ages ago engulfed us that night. I could hear it through the night. Once again, after thousands of nights, I felt – “an unfathomably deep, serene, absolute joy”.

We had reached late in the evening and I had hardly seen the place, but in my heart I knew – I had come home.

Outside,

a little farther away from where we slept,

a seed had just flown in,

aloft a soft breeze

and landed on a dew drenched field.

                                                                                                    

Singing in the rain…

As a tin roof hummed gently

To foot taps of the monsoon cloud

Outside I saw a littler me

Dancing and frolicking about.

                                                                                                    

I cant sing to save my life, yet my all time favourite movie is – Singing in the rain, starring Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly.

The title song of that movie is an instant and guaranteed mood lifter. It has rescued me from many a bad days. Its not just the simple time-transcending lyrics, the soulful music or the beautifully shot video of the song, but the childlike innocence of the choreography that pulls at my heart strings. The sound that a water off a roof-drain makes on an umbrella, the uninhibited joy of being soul drenched wearing a I-could not-care-less attitude, and the jumping about in water puddles are all happy memories from an unforgettable age of innocence.

I am a lover of the rains and the monsoons, and so I have been, all my life.

I love the all engulfing mist and clouds that prelude a monsoon season. As a child I would walk to nearby woods, sit at the edge of a cliff diving down into the valleys, greedily looking at the mist forming and climbing up. I would stay there till the mist and clouds all but surrounded me completely. I also remember thinking that however much I might want to capture these moments, a photograph or even a video could not do justice to what I was feeling at the time. And now, when I live, where I live, the mist climbs up from the deep valleys and caresses everything creating a fairy world every now and then. It is a blissful existence; and we have aptly named our abode /retreat in the forest – The Misty Mountains retreat.

I love the undefinable smell of the earth that the first few showers bring. The smell is akin to drinking tea in clay-cups on a train journey. Its smell and romance, far exceeds the titillation it brings to the taste-buds. Not once in my life have I smelt that smell and failed to smile. In some mysterious ways, irrespective of where I am, it transports me back home and reconnects me with my love for nature, mountains and small towns.

And finally, I want to shout out my love for the soul cleansing showers of the monsoon. Today, after more than a decade, I gave in to the temptation of going out into a downpour and frolicked about with uninhibited abandon. It was liberating. As we grow up, we are conditioned to think about the worst case scenarios before doing anything. This approach robs us of so many opportunities that we just let pass us by, be it career choices, love interests or a simple dance in the rain.

Life passes me by

In four shades of an endless sky

And I, a face undecided

Amidst a smile and a sigh.

The ability to dance about in the rain is much more than just not being afraid of catching a cold – it is about just not being afraid, about being ok with being vulnerable, about embracing the moment, and about living life rather than merely, meekly existing.

So today, after an age had passed, I went out to dance in the rain; today, after an age had passed, I went out and embraced life..!