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
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.
“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.
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.