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Article Published in PATRIOT

A bit of Himachal

Navtej Sarna

It all depends on how you look at a place. Take Nahan for instance. The district capital of Sirmur, a little town at three thousand feet, the edge of the Himachal hills. It sits pretty on a ridge watching the road winding up from Dehradun and onto Chandigarh or Solan or Simla. Here once can complain about the lack of entertainment, late news and the general one-horse-ness of it all. Little wonder that for my first month there, spent most of my time trying to escape and only ended up adding the discomfort of the buses to my list of complaints.

And then suddenly and unknowingly, I fell in love with the place. I discovered that its roads curved suddenly to reveal pine groves and silent brooding graveyards. And the sun broke through monsoon clouds in a sunset glow which set rooftops on fire. I found a squash court which did not have to be booked in advance and I was told that the local halwai made excellent jalebis at four every afternoon. And when I was introduced to the ramshackle but lovable district club, I began to wonder why anyone would want to go to Delhi.

Evenings began early at this club. The tennis net had collapsed in a stormy shower. In better days, a lusty forehand could make the ball go over the edge of the hill. Around the rummy table the same people won and lost to each other day after day. Half of them probably hated cards and would have gladly sent the deck after the tennis balls… but district etiquette.. so take your counters, my friend, pile them up and stake your evening on the turn of a whimsical ace. The billiards table had faded lines but true angles and the few players played for bottles of beer which were never bought or drunk. I watched a man who stroked with magical artistry and then stood talking to us of spin and speed late into the night.

And the chowkidar at the rest house waited patiently for us stragglers with a dinner which only rest house chowkidars in the hills can prepare. Later we stared blankly into the inky valley at the end of which lay the town of Paonta with the lights from its new hydel project dissolving into the Jamuna.

So passed the evenings in Nahan, the little town whose name probably come from Nahar, meaning lion after the lion-companion of saint who lived where the royal palace now stands. The name also figures in Sikh history as the place where Guru Gobind Singh stayed as the guest of the Raja and killed a man-eating white tiger. From the ridge with the yellow and white district offices, the hill falls away, to rise and fall effortlessly into the grey distance. Somewhere beyond those endless curves and drops are the towns of Solan and Simla. Years ago I travelled this road and it had seemed that the lurching of the bus would wrench our insides out. Incomprehensibly I had buried my nose in Wells, “A Short History of the World” and survived in the gathering dust to reach clean sheets and a hot meal in Solan. But this time I took the bus which lurched away from the main road and lurched precariously towards the wide valley through which runs the river Giri.

The Giri cuts the district of Sirmur into two, physically and culturally. Along the river runs a legend of how a woman was offered half the Raja’s kingdom if she could cross the river on a rope. When she did, the Raja defied her to come back the same way. He then had the rope cut. The drowning woman uttered a curse predicting the downfall of the empire. Soon after, the capital at Sirmuri Tal was ravaged by floods.

We spent a hot, squalid afternoon in the little tehsil headquarters of Dadahu. Spicy dal and tandoori rotis in the shade of a dhaba and an uneasy nap in the small rest house and then across the river. The sweat streamed down our faces and the rucksack straps began to bite. Into a heavily forested valley until we turned a sudden corner and stopped dead. On a grassy flat, a menacing sheep dog was quite successfully chasing three young lion cubs back to their cage where their parents stood waiting.

In the background was Lake Renuka, the silent brooding lake shaped like a sleeping woman. It was difficult to row across with a breeze picking up in the twilight and the phantoms of sunken trees visible through the water. Dark green and then grey black became the waters as we thought of the legend which lived here. Renuka was the wife of Rishi Jamdagini. The rishi in a fit of anger asked his son Parashuram to kill her. The latter did so and asked for her revival as a reward for his unquestioning obedience. The body of Renukaji, as the hill folk know her, is said to have finally formed the waters of the lake and a small pool at its feet symbolizes the obedience and devotion of the son. The bells of the temples, the drums under the hands of a bent old man and the conch shell in the hands of a unmoving pujari leaning against a tree venerate this legend when darkness descends. Then there is no place nor desire for questions. The peace seems ageless. The moon fragments into shimmering pieces in the sleeping lake and the animals in the little zoo are quiet.

Legends will roam these lands fearlessly, like the woman who walked by on the narrow path, stared straight at us and vanished. It was a beautiful, legend-kissed night like so many before and so many to come.