Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Fading visions……

Navtej Sarna

For some of us, going to the hills is always a homecoming. There is a gentle welcome in the dark green breezes and a silent reproach in the warmth of the yellow sun. The fires and the pine and the deodars and the silences that hang over them seem aware of the worlds beyond and are yet strangely indifferent. The senseless struggle, the passage of years and growing old does not matter here. And as the train curves in long twists through the damp dark tunnels, something falls in place and there are no questions.

Like a film running backwards I watch the chai shops in the winding bazaars of dozens of hill towns. At night these towns will vanish, leaving only strings of lonely lights on dark silhouettes of lonely mountains……

Like the one we stared at yearningly years ago if you remember. Or has it faded for you. That inhospitable mountain on which there was no light and there was no water. This mountain now stands across the valley. It was a long time ago, that night when we had hunted desperately for a light, a path and a long drink of water. Now in the daylight and after so many summers it holds no fears and I wonder why I point it out from the train when it does not matter to anyone. But there it shall remain and in the memories of youth and adventure and fear.

The gone summers, the vanished names, the faded faces come rushing by as the train sweeps through the little stations. They all have nice names, these stations but the only train that passes through them does not bother to stop. But there is a man at every station who wears a uniform every day and waits for the train to pass. A man with a garden and a cat and I wonder how he passes his days. Or even one day. And we curve away ………..

It wasn’t summer though when I used to wake up to the sound of horses hoofs below my window on the stony path. The sunny autumn, heady and evanescent, had burst forth into a brilliant winter. And in the freshness of the winter breeze we had thought it would all last forever. And just then, of course, it all began to fade.

It faded, all of it, in a maddening rush of days and nights in crowded neonlit streets. It vanished somewhere in the push and shove of the suburban train and in reams of meaningless paper. In stifling rooms, crowded theaters and dead offices one could not think, so far away, of the lone hawk which used to glide in the deep valley between me and the great dry brown mountain. I saw it that autumn and many seasons before that, rising and falling and curving away, feeling the air currents and testing his limits. I watched it always from a broken bench and wondered how long it would take to walk to the village which was splattered with light and shade in the depths of the valley. There was black magic there, they said. I never did make it to that village and I am not even sure whether it was the same hawk everytime.

And the night when it came used to stretch out on the curves of that winding road which wound away forever beyond that last corner. We turned back , night after night, just before that corner. Into the winter, we talked and dreamt and turned back under the ghostly light of the white marble temple which still stands on the dark hill.

Even the memory would fade now if you would let it. The memory of the strange light of the evenings when we headed for the little restaurant with the cane chairs. The restaurant whose owner never bothered whether there was enough food going or not. He sat alone in his little cabin with his faded black and white photographs in curved frames and his scratched 78 r.p.m. records. One evening he talked long of love, life and death. The last time I saw him he seemed even lonelier. His dog, too, had died.

And then across the hills to that little town on a knife edge of a mountain ridge, High above it was a resthouse where an old brass plaque pointed out the directions of the great Himalayan peaks. Breathlessly we had prayed for a clear day. Lazy afternoons with cherished friends were spent in the little town, when we wrote letters and posted them in the little one room post office.

Few things have the charm of a post office in the hills with the graying postmaster and his kindly smile, smell of sealing wax ad the cranking of the phone. It does not matter today somehow whether those letters reached their destinations. It is enough that they were written. After all, they were only long explanations, disguised apologies and clumsy goodbyes…..

All of the them would fade, these visions in the twilight. But on certain evenings and for those who were there, they are still as fresh as the first day of spring. And the otherday I read of the old English lady who came back to die on Jalori on a sunny morning and I know that she must be at peace.