A Mountain of Memories

Keep Traveling, Keep creating memories

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“You never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory. Memory rebuilds the mountain, changes the weather, retells the jokes, remakes all the moves.” -Lito Tejada-Flores

“Uttarakhand?! Again??” I was asked with incredulity by friends and family. The answer to how many days left them more stupefied. “Uttarakhand?! Again?? And that too for just 3 days?!??” That’s how our planned weekend break to Uttarakhand was greeted with. And of course, our friend Murphy didn’t seem too pleased either about the trip. Our flight from Mumbai to Delhi had to be delayed which led to us missing our connecting train to Kathgodam. If well begun is half done…

That chain of events saw us getting up really early in the wee hours of the morning when even the blessed milkman was sound asleep. We stumbled into our taxi, where surprisingly, but thankfully, we were greeted by our rather cheerful driver. Even then, our mood wasn’t helped by the deserted and sleepy, fog-filled Delhi roads and the approximate journey of 7.30 hours appeared daunting..

We swept past Delhi and Ghaziabad and hit the national highway just before daybreak. The silhouette of under construction buildings and giant oversized hoardings gave way to an open expanse of land on both sides. The first light of dawn revealed a carpet of lush green as far as the eyes could see. Monsoon and mathematics had worked together to create magic! Rectangular fields of different sizes and hues of green were laid out, like a giant quilt; tall narrow trees lined up on the edge of the fields, equally spaced out, a neat arithmetic progression; little square ponds and watering holes popped up every few kilometers. The pretty patterns were broken only by the randomness of the shops and houses jostling for space in the towns which whizzed past – Hapur, Gajraula, Moradabad, Rampur, Swar, Bazpur. Our driver, Mr. Sonu was from the mountain ranges in Himachal and started talking about his village in the Kangra valley. A few hours on the road and our moods had considerably brightened..

As we passed Bazpur, the highway had narrowed down to a 2 lane road. Suddenly, the farms started giving way to wild shrubs and grasslands. The road seemed as if it was cut through a jungle, with dense foliage on both sides. The signpost on the side read – Kaladhungi – 1 km ahead. We were close to Corbett territory – the sprawling notice announcing that Jim Corbett national park is just 44 kms, tempted us to take a detour but we kept going. Just as we began our ascent up the hills, the clouds and fog had descended down to greet us. The road had now started snaking it’s way around hairpin bends amidst almost zero visibility. We dutifully followed the road signs as we divorced speed and were really gentle on the curves. I rolled down the windows. The gush of cold crisp air felt comforting and familiar. The smell, the sights and the sounds, all felt familiar. And yet, that feeling of deja vu was absent, in spite of being on these winding roads many many times before. It felt as if each time these mountains have that unique capacity to surprise and delight with every fork in the road, with every new vista that they lay out in front of us..

Indeed, you never climb the same mountain twice. While the same mountain range appears forbidding and imposing on a trek to Gaumukh, it also appears benign and beguiling at its foothills in Hrishikesh. Sometimes it appears as a picture perfect postcard as the Mandakini flows gracefully from its bountiful glaciers, caressed by grassy banks on both sides at Harsil. Sometimes, it is in the mood to show-off all its glory, resplendent in white, basking in different hues of yellow and red and orange in Kausani; while sometimes it appears moody and brooding, refusing to reveal it’s might at the edge of the world in Munsiyari. Today the same mountain range appears covered in mist and fog in one instant and in the very next appears draped from head to toe in the same lush green carpet from the plains, with the oaks and deodhars and pines adorning it amidst broken clouds and scattered sunrays…

We had reached Nainital for a quick pitstop after a journey that unexpectedly ended up being quite memorable. And then, equally unexpectedly, Murphys good brother helped us stumble upon a poem from the inimitable Ruskin Bond, printed on the back of a restaurant menu. It summed up my mood perfectly…

“Once you lived with the mountains

Under the whispering pines

And deodars, near stars

And a brighter moon,

With wood smoke and mist

Sweet smell of grass, dew lines

On spider-spun, sun-kissed

Buttercup and vine;

Once you have lived with these,

Blessed, God’s favourite then,

You will return,

You will come back

To touch the trees and grass

And climb once more the windswept mountain pass.”

Yes. Every time you climb a mountain, it feels different. The only constant however, one you are amongst them is the promise you make to yourself to keep returning and keep creating more memories…

A story in a tea cup

Everyone has a favourite story, a favourite memory which revolves around tea. Which one is yous?

Aaaahhh” You could almost hear the entire landscape of Munnar say it in unison, as if it had just partaken of a sip of hot, refreshing cup of tea, whose leaves were plucked just hours ago. On that Sunday morning, the scenery around the tea estate evoked that same feeling of refreshing energy. Those endless rolling, sloping, tea gardens had draped themselves in the freshest coat of green as the dew drops glistened and bathed themselves in the sparkling winter sun. In the midst of the tea gardens, the flame of the forest shone a bright orange, matching the intensity of the sun. The bees swarmed and buzzed around happy flowers as the hazy fog shook of its laziness to reveal the mountains and forests beyond. It was time to have a cuppa myself, I thought..

Chai

The tea was had just the right balance between sweetness and kadakness. But instead of that “aaaah” which usually follows a well made cup of tea, I sighed. There was something missing, the same deja-vu feeling whenever I have had tea in these last 6 months..

In a family of self-confessed tea addicts, where my uncle had even composed an ode to his fondness for tea, it may seem surprising that I started consuming tea on a daily basis only after I joined the corporate world. Though it may seem obvious, I can assure you that there is no correlation between the two..

On one of those days after I had started working, my mamaji had come to visit us. I was excited, for the simple reason that mom was bound to prepare an elaborate feast for her brother. Lunch was served, was seen and was heartily consumed. I sprawled around on the sofa, looking dazed and confused, with half droopy eyes, a reaction befitting a glorious gujju lunch. Mama looked satisfied as well, but I sensed he was waiting for something more…

As most gujju family get-togethers go, lunch soon gave way to tea time. Uncle’s lips curled up in a ear to ear smile as he took in the aroma wafting in from the kitchen. The first sip led to an almost meditative closing of the eyes, as if he was transported into a trance like state. I wondered what had mom added in that tea which otherwise did not induce any such feeling on a daily basis….

I cautiously took a sip. It certainly was different. There were a couple of elements which she did not add normally which enhanced the flavour dramatically. There was the usual slight hint of ginger and then there was fresh lemongrass and mint. It was wonderful. And it was unfair. Why was this not served on a regular basis, I demanded as I did my best Oliver Twist expression, asking for some more..

Though she always gave a roundabout answer, I guess that it was more to do with the fact that certain things are meant to be kept for certain occasions. A sort of artificial scarcity. Like when she had family coming over. Or on some special days. Or the time when she had to impress my in-laws, life imitating that silly bollywood song on mummy calling home for chai and my father-in-law’s reaction as he told his daughter “please learn this recipe and make it for us the next time you come home….”

Unfortunately that recipe was never written down and it never felt the same even though several honest attempts were made. The proportion of milk, water and sugar, the quantum of lemon grass and mint, and the brewing time – all went through numerous iterations and permutations. But again that feeling of something being amiss refused to go away. Maybe, to use a cliché, the missing ingredient was love. Or perhaps, she wanted it to remain a fond memory, undiluted by reality…

…As our leisurely breakfast continued, I told this to my wife. She just smiled and said “yes, maybe we will never be able to create that tea that your mom used to make. And even if we were to come close, perhaps, it is your mind who just wants it to remain a memory, a small little legend…”

Aaaah! Yes, indeed. The legend of my Mother’s Tea..

Halfway between the fireflies and the stars..

A story about a few boys lost in a forest and their journey back, guided by fireflies and stars…

The October heat was stifling. Even at 10  in the night, the atmosphere was claustrophobic and clammy. The wind was completely listless, seemingly defeated by the sweltering temperatures. And just then, to make matters worse, the electricity decided to play truant. The building plunged into darkness and a collective moan could be heard. I could not bear the heat and climbed the flight of stairs to the relatively cooler confines of the terrace. The entire block was awashed in black. It looked like a major fault. I glanced up at the sky. Even though there was not a speck of cloud on the horizon, not a single star could be seen shining on the residents of the city. They were probably hidden behind a blanket of smog. I sighed. It was pitch black all around. Quite similar to that unforgettable night in Coorg all those years ago…

It was the summer of 2004. College vacations had just begun and 11 of us had decided to go to Coorg, which was to be the first of  what was to become our annual holiday ritual. After an eventful journey, we decided to knock off the list of the must-see items one by one. Abby falls, world famous in Coorg,  was the first on the list. It was at a distance of some 8-9 kms from where we were staying . We set off around 4 pm in 3 autos on a narrow road which carved through a forest lined with dense trees and coffee plantations on both sides. It was almost like a wallpaper. We stopped to lech at the scenery while one of the autos carried on. Initially, we had planned to just “see” the falls, take pics and come back since we had started quite late in the evening.

But when we reached the site, apart from other tourists who were standing on the bridge posing in front of the falls, our friends who reached there first were nowhere to be seen. “Yaahooo” we heard from somewhere up above! “Yeahhhhhhh” sounded another war cry. And we saw them. Four of them were climbing towards the falls. Testosterone and sense of adventure had prevailed over good sense. How could we stay behind? And so off we went as well! After an hour or so of reaching the top, bathing and frolicking under the falls like Liril soap models, we decided to come down. Not that we wanted to, but the fading light forced us to think rationally for a change. After lots of slips and slides and scratch marks, we finally reached the bridge. It was now pretty dark and we quickly walked out to the road. But there was just one auto standing! The other two autos had left since it had gotten quite dark and it was dangerous, we were told. Those were comforting words indeed. Three people decided to go in the one auto and said they would send autos if they could find any. The auto started and the lights from the auto, bobbing up and down, disappeared into the distance. It was now completely dark. Luckily we had a couple of torches but what could two torches do against an army of darkness! Our hearts sank. The thought of what lay ahead now hit us with full force.

9 kms. 8 guys. 2 torches. 1 narrow road amidst dense forests. Infinite darkness. Unknown dangers.

Most of us were terrified, I have to be honest. We had never experienced something like this before. We formed 2 groups of 4, each one with a torch and started walking, slowly. The night was absolutely still. We were walking in eerie silence. The thud – thud – thud of our heartbeats could be heard. Fear started manifesting itself in ways only fear can as it gradually took control of our senses. It numbed the ability to think rationally. Even the most harmless noises sounded scary. Every time the leaves rustled and the wind blew through the trees, we stood still and flashed our torches wildly. The road which just a few hours back seemed so serene now took on a sinister shape. The silhouettes of the tall trees seemed to hide something or someone, waiting and watching.

The first 20 odd minutes everyone walked in silence, alert to the slightest movement or sound. Gradually, the distance started whittling away. As no untoward incident happened, the confidence started returning. The mind freed itself a bit from the vice like grip of fear. We found our voices. A few lame jokes were cracked and we allowed ourselves to laugh a bit. It was at that moment we saw it. An illuminated tree. As if someone had hung 100 min light bulbs on it. As we inched closer, we realised it was full of fireflies. It was a breathtaking sight. We smiled and our fear seemed to melt away. We stood there for a few seconds marvelling at the sight, soaking it all in. Our pace now quickened and a few of us even started singing. The road inclined upwards and we looked up at the sky above for the first time. It was full of bright twinkling stars. Stretched out as far as the eye could see. Millions and millions of them. We city folk could never experience such simple delights. We looked behind. The tree of fireflies was still illuminated.  We saw the stars above which illuminated the sky. It was a glorious sight.

synchronous-fireflies-philippines

It felt as if we were almost halfway between the fireflies and the stars.

The next hour we were enjoying ourselves. We reckoned we could not be too far away now. Suddenly, we saw a light from a bend on the road.  Some 200 metres away. It seemed like a small shop.  That was it. We just ran. Usain Bolt would have been proud. We reached the shop and saw each other’s faces for the first time after close to 2 hours.  Relief was evident on each of our faces. We laughed, more out of relief than anything else. We knew we were never going to forget that night ever…

..I smiled and then I sighed. There were no fireflies to illuminate things around here. Only the the dim light of candles flickering and dancing through the windows..

The girl on the Ranikhet Express

A love story, set inside a train..

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PC: Flickr

The train jerked to a stop. The boy awoke, startled. The old lady opposite him smiled and told him “station aa gaya beta!” He rubbed his eyes and saw the honeymoon couple stacking up their luggage.  There was another elderly couple which he hadn’t seen the night before. Were they Mr. and Mrs. Bakshi? He looked around. Seema was nowhere to be seen. He looked down the narrow aisle. She wasn’t there! Had she gotten off at the earlier stop? But he remembered her telling him last night that she was going to Kathgodam. He could not believe that it was only last night he met the girl. Last night …

..The air was warm and dry when he got off the auto at Old Delhi railway station the previous night. 10.10 pm, his faithful Titan watch told him. He checked the giant electronic screen hanging above the entrance to the station . Ranikhet express to Kathgodam. 10.40 pm. Platform 8. There was still time enough to grab a quick bite at Come Sum restaurant.

When he reached the platform at 10.30, the train had already arrived. He checked into his seat A3 20 and stepped outside to do his customary scan of co-passengers on the reservation list stuck on the side of the door. He had this weird fascination for on-the-road love stories, especially on trains and himself wished to be a part of one! Perhaps that’s why he liked Jab we met and Dil hai ki maanta nahi so much.  But he realised that some things happen only in the movies. The laws of probability fail in the real world. He quickly scanned the list.

500

A3 17 – Maya Srinivasan – 62.

A3 18 – Shilpa Singh – 25. A small smile.

A3 19 – Prabhjot Singh – 26. The smile disappeared.Probably a newly wed couple off on their honeymoon to Nainital.

A3 21 and A3 22 – Mr. and Mrs. Bakshi, an elderly couple in their forties.

He sighed! Somethings are not meant to be. He climbed aboard and sure enough there was the honeymoon couple and the old lady. The Bakshis were nowhere to be seen. The Ranikhet Express let out a loud hoot and the journey began. Maybe the Bakshis were boarding from a different station.

On a train which departs so late and is scheduled to arrive at 5.10 in the morning, passengers usually wait for everyone to settle down and go off to bed early. As if on cue, Mrs. Srinivasan raised the middle berth, made her bed and retired for the night. The honeymoon couple couldn’t take their eyes off each other. And they sure seemed in a hurry to reach their hotel. After 10 – 15 minutes, they climbed to their respective top berths. The boy glanced at his watch. 11.27 pm. Ghaziabad came and went but there was still no sign of the Bakshis. He too was feeling a bit drowsy now. He could feel his eyes telling his mind to sleep. The eyelids slowly began to droop …

…Suddenly he could smell a whiff of perfume. He shrugged off his sleep and looked up. It was at that moment when he saw the girl. She was about 5″4, hair straight and slightly curved at the edges which dangled delightfully just below the shoulders. Sharp face, high cheekbones, bright eyes. She was wearing a white Kurti and light blue denims. She came and sat just a few feet away from him. She couldn’t be Mrs. Bakshi.  He was wide awake now.

She pushed her luggage underneath the seat and turned. She caught him staring at her.  He quickly looked away, and had this sudden urge to open his rucksack and find something which he himself wasn’t aware of.  She pulled out a book and started reading. Of course, that’s what he was looking for as well! A book! He took one out ever so slowly and pretended to read. He stole a quick few glances at her but was careful enough not to overdo it. Just 3-4 glances every 15 seconds. She seemed engrossed in the book and did not look up even once. She was indeed quite pretty. In a span of 5 minutes, he thought of 500 ways to initiate conversation and all those cheesy corny pickup lines he had read about. He finally settled on one and was about to speak when she giggled. For the first time, he noticed the book she was reading. Three men in a boat! The funniest book he had read thus far! He smiled. This was his chance.

“Ah! Finally! I was wondering how long it would be before you laughed or giggled! When I read that book, I used to laugh every 2-3 minutes!” The girl looked at him from top to bottom and replied with a straight face “and I was wondering how long it would be before you realise the book you are supposedly reading is upside down! Unless of course that is a special trait you have!” At that moment, the boy wished he could disappear into the bathroom and hide there till the morning. He was tongue tied for a moment but said “umm..oh..yaa..some sharp eyes you have! My mind was actually preoccupied in something else “

“Lame explanation! But I think I know where your mind was preoccupied as well”. There was added emphasis on where.

“Well, you have a sharp mind as well then”

The girl smiled. “By the way, the book you are reading, ‘the case of exploding mangoes’ is also very interesting.”

And that’s how it started. A discussion on books and favourite authors and common books.

Her name was Seema Bisht. A common surname in Uttarakhand he felt. Indeed, she was born and brought up in a place called Lansdowne in Uttarakhand. A lovely hill station.  He had not been there but he knew a lot about the state since he had already been there a half a dozen times. An honorary citizen of the state, as his friends jokingly called him. This was his seventh visit to trek across the Kuari pass. She had already been there, done that. In fact she rattled off a list of must do treks. And the discussion veered onto places travelled, treks completed and favourite sights. Interspersed with humorous anecdotes and stories. So far so good! Somewhere in the distance, the train whistled loudly…

She had done her M.A in Economics from Delhi School of Economics. He was even more impressed. And the discussion took on tones of latest trends. Movies. Life in a small town vs life in a metro. He felt good. But she stifled a yawn! She said ” I think we better sleep. Will see you in the morning! Good night.” The boy wished time could slow down and reluctantly wished her good night and dragged himself to sleep. But as soon as he hit the bed, he wished time would hurry up. He couldn’t wait till the morning…

…but today morning she was nowhere to be seen. He asked Mrs. Srinivasan. She also had not seen anyone wearing a white Kurti. He got off the train and looked around the platform. No luck. He now checked the passenger list of his entire bogey again.  There was no one called Seema Bisht! He was confused. He needed a hot cup of tea. He took a ten rupee note from his front pocket and was about to pay the vendor when a note fell to the floor. It was white in color and he opened it. There was a cell number on it with the initials S.B! Seema Bisht! She must have slipped it in when he was asleep. Whenever you are confused or frustrated, ek garam chai ki pyali always helps. In one way or the other. He quickly dialled the number. “The number you have dialled does not exist. Yeh number astitva mein nahi hai.” He dialled again. Same response. What the hell was happening! And just then, someone tapped him from behind…..

…The boy awoke, startled! Mrs. Srinivasan was tapping him from behind. She smiled and said, “station aa gaya beta!” The boy looked around. There was the honeymoon couple.  And an elderly couple who were probably the Bakshis. And of course there was no Seema! She was a part of just a strange but wonderful dream. He smiled, got off the train and checked the passenger list once again ….

The Secret

Paradise Road – Why it is so aptly named..

Our mind is still a nomad. Its ability to wander off at the slightest possible excuse is unparalleled. Just the other day, while registering for a website, the webpage prompted me to “please select a Secret question”. The drop down menu presented a list of questions. The first one asked me – “which city would you like to retire?”

Almost instantaneously, the subconscious conjured up a slideshow of jaw-dropping images of a place we had been to and at the same time, remembered a question asked on the same trip,  a question quite unusual and yet earnest – “Can you keep this a Secret?”..

Almost three years have gone by since our visit to New Zealand. My wife and I reminisce about the trip often, marvelling at how lucky a country can get. He must have been in an extremely generous mood when He created this island, placing it in one corner of the planet which perhaps led to it being populated with so few people, and perhaps one reason why its beauty endures to date.

One of the most vivid memories of that trip came out of something we hadn’t even planned for, as it happens quite often. On the day we were scheduled for sky-diving, we woke up with a spring in the step and butterflies in the stomach. I guess jumping from 15000 feet had something to do with that.  But a phone call from the agency informing about a 99% chance of cancellation due to inclement weather was hugely disappointing. Nonetheless, the 1% chance of the weather clearing turned us into Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption, filling us with hope…

And so we set out,  knowing that in all likelihood, the highlight of our trip was about to turn into a nondescript footnote. A few kms out of Queenstown, the highway showed a fork approaching to the left, veering towards the high mountains visible in the distance. The GPS lady, aware of the same, directed to turn left after 500 metres on to Paradise road. Paradise Road. I repeated to myself. Let us see where does this lead to…

The road, which began with a gentle slope, gradually started to ascend as the mountains forested with tall trees and crowned with shimmering snow showed itself on the right. The road firmly hugged the imposing mountainside, as if afraid to let go of its shelter and comfort. On the left, suddenly out of nowhere, the dense green canopy gave way to the icy blue waters of Lake wakatipu. Straight ahead, we could still see the clouds looming, gradually descending, eager to kiss the mountain tops. It was an image I had dreamt of numerous times. In all probability, we would have painted it when we were kids – a road curving around a mountain, running alongside a lake…

I found it difficult to keep my eyes on the road, much to the concern of my wife. Sensing her worry, a few minutes later, a shoulder opened out on the road towards the lakeside, wide enough to park a few vehicles and ogle at the vista on offer; the blue of the lake and the green of the mountains yonder. We obliged gleefully as we trod gently on the soft gravel to the edge of the lake. The elements had worked hard on the pebbles, giving it a wonderful smooth roundness. I picked up a few flat ones and as I threw them into the lake, I felt my heart leap as it bounced once, twice, thrice and Splash!  And after sitting on the shore, hand in hand with my wife and only the gentle sound of the waves for company, another image from childhood flashed across my mind..

A cold gust of wind shook us out of our reverie and we continued on our journey. The clouds were now descending rapidly and just a few moments later, enveloped everything in its path. We felt like we were in a cotton field as the clouds wafted past. A few twists and turns later, they gave way to a drizzle, and that surely washed away the 1% hope with it. But we decided to carry on. Paradise road, with its bewitching views was too compelling to resist. The scenery was consistently spectacular as the roads went up and down past mountains, streams, dense forests and green fields on one side and the Lake on the other. The gentle rain and the car wiper played with each other, making a nice symmetrical pattern on the windshield…

The appearance of a few houses suggested that the town was now not far away. We passed a couple of relatively busy junctions and brought the car to a halt opposite a quaint looking cafe, which seemed straight out of a western movie set. It was still drizzling slightly and the weather had turned cold and nippy. We zipped up our jackets, hands shaking and teeth chattering. We called the skydiving agency only to hear what we already knew. They were sorry about the cancellation. We thanked them and smiled to ourselves. The disappointment had long gone… If it were not for that one percent hope the agency gave us, we would have not made this journey..

We stepped inside the cafe ordering coffee and hot chocolate. As we took our seats inside the cafe amidst the laughter of people, we realised how sometimes the best moments are the ones which aren’t planned. Obviously the baggage of expectations was missing which could be one key reason for the delight in the unknown. You could plan all you want but in the end, you may still fall short. As the beverages arrived, my wife echoed the cliché running in my mind; “so that’s why wise men say, the journey is sometimes far more important than the destination and to enjoy the little moments that lie enroute..” The first sip of hot chocolate was almost like nectar as the warmth seeped through the bones. I smiled as I dunked a soft juicy marshmallow in the hot chocolate and took a bite, “perhaps the wise men were not aware that hot chocolate and marshmallows awaited them at the end of the journey. They might have changed their mind..”

As we were paying the genial lady behind the counter, she asked us where we came from. India. And it was then she smilingly asked us to keep this place a secret despite knowing the futility of her request. To keep this gem a secret would be doing a disservice to this wonderful place. The road to Glenorchy deserves to be driven on and experienced. And whoever chose the name, chose wisely indeed. Paradise Road. It is the closest to paradise you might get…