Thursday, November 22, 2007

A weekend in the Hills...

I had been planning forever a holiday in the Hills. Ruhi had never seen the mountains...come think of it she has never seen the sea either but the mountains seemed closer by. My friend Sridevi is the quintessential traveller and for years now I have made vivid pictures of her mountain trips in my mind as she recounts her numerous sojourns in the hills. She now lives in Bombay and passes through Delhi whenever she goes up to the Himalayas to visit a piece of mountain land that she has bought to build a house. She always invites me to come along and I always have something more important to do. This time around when she invited me on her yet another trip to Kumaon, I was more than tempted to go along. Sri, Richa, Ruhi and me took a train to Kathgodam late on Friday night. I had no clue where we were going except that it was called 'Sitla'.

I had got our seats reserved at the shortest notice by calling up Manobendra, my childhood friend and now a senior Indian railways dude ! He is always my saviour at every last minute crisis. We took the Ranikhet Express from the dusty 'Old Delhi' Railway station which Richa said was very 'scenic', had 'character' and all that blah !! We reached Kathgodam early next morning - the station is a sweet little place and in anticipation of the hillside chill I tucked Ruhi under 3 layers of clothing and a woolen cap which she stubbornly kept taking off.

There was a white Maruti van waiting for us to take us to Sitla. We passed the Bhimtal lake and after about an hour of driving stopped at a small Tea Stall at Bathuakhan to have our breakfast of hot aloo paranthas and tea. There was a nip in the air and the usual pleasantness of the morning in the hills and i picked up a monkey cap, some vicks vaporab and hair oil (!) on thw way. Ruhi seemed thrilled and she pulled out two tiny plastic buckets disclosing with great earnestness that she had brought those along to carry back some snow from the mountains for her class teacher. I told here there would be no snow and those snow peaks staring at us from afar were thousands of kilometers away. She fought with me bitterly for letting her down - she had promised her friends to bring back the snow.

The rest of the two hour journey was most frightening for me. The road uphill was very narrow and as we moved up, the excuse of a stone railing that I saw also disappeared. each time there was another car coming from the opposite direction, the van would come dangerously close to the edge. I am scared of heights. Escalators, narrow bridges, open staircases frighten me like crazy. I become numb and immobile even if I peer down from the third floor balcony of my brother's house. The ride was crazy. Ruhi was sleeping in my arms and I was wondering what if...we were to fall off into the valley. The road was lined with pine and rhododendrons and Richa said we should take back some local rhododendrons squash, which of course we forgot to.

Sitla Estate turned out to be a 100 years old Apple Orchard ! It had a small and quaint British Bungalow overlooking the orchard which a long Sun facing lawn in front of the 5 cottages that have been added to make it a commercial resort. The lawn is in fact the common room of Sitla Estate since its a place for Breakfast, Lunch, Tea time and everything in between till sunset. In the backdrop is a fabulous view of the snow capped mountains - the legendary Peaks - Nanda Devi, Trishul and Panchauli standing together, almost peering down at you. In between the mountains and you is a very green and forbidding valley.

Two huge dogs got up lazily to greet us and then disappeared again. Tea was served to us right there in the Sun and a very suntanned man who turned out to be the owner and Sri's friend, Vikram Maira came and introduced himself. It was obvious soon enough that Sitla is a one man show. Vikram is the Chef, the housekeeper, The Manager & the accountant here. He lives alone in the main Bunglow and has literally adopted the Sitla village, runs a small school on his estate and employs a dozen of the villagers in his resort. Vikram is kind of a 'Robinhood' of Sitla and everyone we met later on our small trip to Mukteshwar seemed to know him with a sort of an awe. I envied him and his living an utopian dream of running his kingdom in the best of places with most modern amenities. I noticed he had a rather fancy music system in his room and that he had CNN blaring on his TV at night. Another story though that our mobiles deserted us up there.

Our large room with a small sitting area had a fantastic view of the mountains from the large bay window in the bedroom which was like a gigantic TV screen all day except at sunset ! I particularly liked the cowdung plastered floors and it seemed he gives a fresh coat of plaster before the arrival of every guest. There was a sawdust heater in the corner of the room with a chimney built into it to let out the smoke and Ruhi sat at the couch next to the Bay window and took out her Pandora's box of crayons and color pencils to draw mountains, sunsets and houses like always.

Sri and Richa sat in the sun and gave each other head massages with the hair oil we picked on the way. Vikram said he could serve us the elusive drinks in the evening in case he gets a free head massage which Richa promptly obliged with before it was Lunch time !

In the evening we sat around the fireplace in an ancient living room while Vikram conjured up a lip smacking chinese meal for us. The house is a 100 years old and I spotted the tail of a Yak in one corner of the adjoining 'baithak'. Vikram runs treks and expeditions in the Himalays, particularly to Leh during the Monsoons which he said was the lean season at Sitla. Dinner is served in a large dining hall with several big and small tables.

When we came back to our room, the sawdust heater had been lit and the room was very warm and cozy. Richa woke me up early next morning to watch the sunrise from the window. Ruhi woke up as well and lay down against the window staring at the sky with fascination...I love all the sights that I watch through her eyes.

We had breakfast of eggs and freshly baked bread in the lawn and went up a pine scented road for a trek to Mukteshwar. Little Ruhi ran up the mountains without her usual fuss. It was a very exciting trip for her. She gathered wood roses and pine cones on the way and Sri nicknamed her the 'little mountain goat'.

The coal tar road ended near a handpump and we went up the rocky path to Mukteshwar. As I found later, 114 years ago the British had bought 3000 acres of land under the Shiva Temple at Mukteshwar in order to shift the Imperial bacteriology Lab from Pune to the Kumaon Hills. The same Lab was renamed to Indian Veterinary Research Institute or IVRI, post independence. We saw the gate of the IVRI at the round about called Choufil just ahead of the Mukteshwara temple. I noticed 2 Guards in spanking new uniforms sitting at the gate which I later found out is out of bound to the public. Right opposite IVRI was a road leading to the Methodist Church. There is a sleepy little market called the 'Mall' ahead of a quaint hospital and post office. Both were locked - it was a Sunday afternoon.

Sri broker her slipper on the way and dragged it till the Mall where we found a cobbler under a tree. We spotted a local Mithai shop and asked for lunch which he cooked for us promptly. Paranthas and Aaloo baingan with fresh onions, radish and Bal Mithai in the end.

It became very cold as we started our journey back to Sitla. The clouds had covered the sun and Ruhi was finally tired and cranky. As soon as we reached Mukteshwara Temple an old man came up to me and invited us to see the temple. I was trying to ward him off when he said we should take the shorter way back instead of going down that road. Though Sri stared suspiciously at him, I convinced them to follow him so that he could show us the way. He offered to come half the way with us and even lifted Ruhi on his back which was such a huge relief. It was a scary way down and we slid and toppled over to follow him. On the way like a true Guide he kept telling me tales about every part of the trail and showed us the prom ontory called Chauthi Jaali, and the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam guest house, with the PWD Inspection Bungalow below it. But I was hardly listening and in my mind I was hallucinating about the eventuality that he would take us to a secluded spot where his gang would rape and loot us. I kept staring at that 'no network' sign on my mobile with great despair. Suddenly we reached a small house in the middle of the jungle and a dog barked. A woman shouted a pleasantary to him and I realisded I had a cynical and suspicious city mind and that he was after-all the friendly Hill Man whose Kids went to College in Nainital like he had been telling me. At an open spot where the worst part of the forest seemed over he dropped Ruhi from his back and went his way. I gave him a 100 bucks which he happily accepted.

Ruhi and Me were way ahead of Sri and Richa because of the old man and we reached Sitla a good 20 minutes before them. I rushed up to the room to pack our bags while Ruhi loitered around the lawn showing off her a new found bravado. I smiled to myself as I saw her chatting up the kitchen staff but I was cursing myself minutes later. She petted one of the dogs and then when he whined it seemed she got scared and ran. He clawed her leaving her thigh bruised. Poor thing was numb with fear and I kept cursing myself for leaving her behind.

A chatty young man took us back the Station and I bid adieu to Sitla promising Vikram that I will come back again to watch it snow so that Ruhi can fill her tiny buckets to carry back home !

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tav Prasad - this life, and all it holds, is by thy grace.

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I had been yearning to go to Amritsar ever since Ruhi was born. I have an unexplained emotional connect with the Harmandir Sahib, the sight, the smell, the sound..just the touch of the cold marble stirs my emotions like little else. But thats not surprising since I have noticed people from all kinds of backgrounds mesmerized by the unique experience of the Golden Temple.

My sister in law was returning to her Rajasthan home from Himachal and wanted to make a touristy stop at a Amritsar. I was delighted when she asked me to escort them and took the morning train along with a very excited Ruhi. At the Amritsar Railway Station we got on to a cycle rickshaw with Ruhi perched on it like a tiny bird and on an uphill flyover I knew by cue that I needed to get off as the Rickshawallah pulled the Rickshaw up the road. Ruhi tried to look brave as she balanced herself delicately on her latest adventure ride ! Many years ago on our annual school vacations Dad would take us to the Golden Temple on a Tanga. I looked around desperately but there were none now, and that is such a pity. I remember sitting in the front and shrieking at the touch of the pony's bouncing tail...and the sights and smells of the dusty, crowded city of Amritsar.

The main road leading to the Jalian wallah Bagh was blocked by the traffic cops and we got dropped off with instructions to walk down the road and turn right to reach Darbar Sahib. I slung the air bag on one shoulder and lifted Ruhi in the other arm but it was too crowded and difficult to get along so we took another Rickshaw which took us to what was the 'Sarai' area - a long road adjacent to the golden Temple lined with little white palaces - each called a Niwas . I had been told to go to Arjun Niwas and call up some gentleman who would organise a room for us. On the way was one of the alleys leading to the Sarovar and I couldn't bear to look towards my right as I dragged Ruhi and our bag to Hargobind Niwas where our room was allotted. I did not want to spoil my treat to feast on the most amazing sight in the world. I wanted to be at my own pace as I opened my eyes to the Golden Temple.

The room was basic and there were simple rules like no smoking or drinking, and to keep your head covered at all times. Little Ruhi had carefully wrapped the pink dupatta around her tiny head and was thrilled by the windows in the room. I quickly washed and dressed her before my sister in law, her husband and daughter arrived in a taxi from Mandi. In my mind I could not thank them enough for this trip...

We first went to the Langar Hall - a massive 3 floor building with huge community kitchens on the ground floor where devotees perform seva all day long. The sound of the steel thaalis being collected and cleaned resounds in that area from early in the morning to late at night. The langar is a day long affair and it works with clocklike precision. Someone cleans the halls as people get up to leave and someone serves the plates and spoons a drinking bowl. The 'prasadas' (Rotis) are cooked non stop and we got to eat them with Daal and rice Kheer. Considering that Lakhs of people visit the shrine daily and eat here, the floors and kitchens are spotlessly clean and there is no one barking orders - each one of the sevadars is busy doing their role like in a trance, a prayer on every lips. The Prasadas were hard and I was so proud of my fussy little daughter who put in all her effort to finish every morsel on her plate.

By the time we finished, the sun was preparing to retreat and my guests wanted to visit the Wagah check post ( indo-pak border) at Attari village to watch the daily ceremony of closing the gates between the arch rivals. We had heard so much about the dramatic ceremony and we decided to come back to the Gurudwara after the Retreat. There were hundreds of people at Wagah - tourists from every part of the country. Atleast 5 times the people we saw on the Pakistan side of the gate. There was mad shouting and hooting. Like always it upset Ruhi a great deal to see her mother get publicly excited ! I was shouting 'Vande Mataram' ; 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' with abandon and this embarrassed Ruhi a lot. She gets similarly embarrassed when I dance. It puzzles me, why she has such victorian ideas about public behavior at 5 years ! Specially since her life revolves around me, I would assume that must be a lesson in boisterousness !

She sulked and howled and said she hated the Retreat and that she wanted to go back to the Golden Temple.

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We came back and there it was - like a Jewel in the darkness. One almost gasps as suddenly you spot a magnificent glow in the middle of the dark murky water. May I be the Murky water....I read somewhere today. I showed them the Gurudwara as they marveled at the cleanliness, peace and the awesome discipline...despite thousands of people. The Shabads echo in every corner of the compound...long after you have left Harmandir that echo of the singing follows you around. We ate another quick langar and I rushed them inside again to participate in the 'sukhasan' which is the closing prayer ceremony. We were told that we had missed it unfortunately and that it was as amazing again to participate in the 'prakash' ( opening prayer ceremony) the next morning at 5 AM.

I could not sleep that night. After a couple of hours tossing in the bed I heard the Shabads resume and I got up and went out. it was 3 AM. There were scores of people in the compound - even little children. everyone was busy washing the premises. There were sevadars standing in a row along the sarovar handing over buckets of water to others who took the buckets and poured them on the parikarma floor. Sevadars with brooms, mops and wipers were washing every square inch of the marble. I took a bucket of water and thought I was going to drop it since I didnt imagine how heavy it was. On the second instance I almost slipped on the floor along the bucket. The third time around I got it right and for almost an hour till the whole floor was washed we carried on the seva. Then I sat for some time in my wet clothes on the Parikarma waiting for 'prakash' and listening to the hyms. When it became really chilly I went to sit inside in the warm environs of the golden house. I took the Hindi Sukhmani Sahib Gutka and read till I could not contain my mind from wandering.....I felt full of peace and quietude. There were no more questions in my mind. After many years I felt strong again.