Articles

Article Published in THE STATESMAN

One Summer Years Ago

Navtej Sarna

THE idea one steamy afternoon in a college hotel room was to take to the road. A map was bought, a route selected, and rest houses were marked out as little triangles. A World War II rucksack from a “Kabari” shop in a narrow Dehra Dun lane had to be given new straps. And heavy quilted sleep-bags were hired at a rupee a day.

That summer of 77 was a hot one. And we were new to walking in the hills. It all made for many memorable moments.

The Gurudwara at Paonta is a peaceful place. On a sunny plain with low hills not very far away and the higher ones shrouded in a dust haze, it stands out on the banks of the Jamuna at a spot where the river runs quiet. Legend has it that the Jamuna used to disturb the concentration of the 52 poets who used to work there, and in keeping with Guru Gobind Singh’s injunction, the river has been quiet since. Above and below that spot it churns and swivels and rushes from the hills to the mighty plains waiting below. But there it is quiet.

HOT AND SWEATY

We had taken the ferry across the river. A bridge now spans the crossing, but it wasn’t there those days. Behind us was a hot and sweaty bus ride from Dehra Dun. At the Gurudwara was “Lassi” and “langar”.We ate heavily, vaguely apprehensive of the mountain days that ahead.

Cutting across the Paonta-dun we climbed over to Nahan through the hot afternoon. At first sight it seemed what it is- a one-time capital of a king, now struggling on as district head-quarters. From the palace of the hill rajas the little town spreads out into lanes and bazaars, and little houses scamper down the hillsides among the many fallen pines. I have been there since but the memory of that day’s Nahan is one of heat and thirst and a merciless sun. Bending under the weight of our precious tinned food we climbed through the cobbled lane of the bazaar where the little high shops sold rubber chappals and mangoes . A sleepy chowkidar opened a guest house room where we washed up and drank water. Along the way chowkidars in far-flung rest houses would extend such hospitality and each time we would take it as a great act of mercy.

From Nahan a road winds across the ranges, twisting its way towards the heart of Himachal. It climbs up, dips down the ranges, and the setting sun lights up silhouettes of the tree line at many places. There are no bus stops or restaurants on this road. Occasional villages and teashops mark passing miles and sometimes an old hill woman with a pile of firewood and a bright scarf on her head waves the bus down.

Evening fell while we were on this road, and the quiet dark engulfed us. Each alone with his thoughts, the droning voice of Leonard Cohen on the little cassette player we carried took us further into unreality…. “sisters of mercy, I hope you run into them soon…don’t turn on the light, you can read their address by the moon…”

It was late at night when the bus lurched into Solan. We shuffled dirty and hungry into the house of the brewery manager. The sheets seemed too clean. We slept dreamlessly… tomorrow we would walk.

THEN THE CLIMB

Very few people consider the walk from Solan to Chail to be much of a trek. With this impression we spent a long time in the brewery that morning, some drinking beer from the huge casks and others gorging themselves on punch and fruit juice. The beginning of the walk only reinforced this impression as we raced downhill over grass and bush. Then the climb began, and a a towering dry inhospitable mountain tossed us around until night fell. We lost the path many a time and ran out of water. Across the dark the lights of Solan blinked relentlessly and Chail seemed nowhere in sight. A woman standing shyly behind a doorway of light gave us water. The stars were low and the half moon hung in a halo as we at last topped a ridge to see far away the silver blue lights of Shimla.

The one bright light that must have been Chail continued to move away. We stumbled on, tired thirsty, hungry and wondering what, in any case, we were doing there. Soon, however, a light appeared just below the road. A Gurkha chowkidar woke up to give us water and then woke up a Sikh carpenter who owned the sawmill that we had sighted. He told us that we would do well to spend the night there. The Gurkha went to work, and a pile of chapattis with ghee and tea soon appeared. Rarely if ever had we eaten a more enjoyable meal. We spread our sleeping bags on the sawdust and slept, convinced that if men like these existed the world was quite all right.

Next morning we ambled into Chail which remains, or at least did in 1977, a hill station yet quite unspoilt. Happy in the thought that this was the place known for housing the world's highest cricket grounds we sat on the hillside and heard the wind rustling quietly in the trees overhead. Behind us now lay the mountain that had taught us that nature, if we were to know it, would have to be respected.

ONE SUMMER, YEARS AGO - II

SIMLA was nice and hospitable. We wear clean trousers which had been tucked away in the rucksack corners. Making ourselves at home with a friend's family are spent long happy hours with large glasses of tea. The rain pounded the roof and dark green shadows hung low. In a drizzle we walked the lawns of the Viceregal Lodge, watching the valley beyond fall away. At night we scoured the Mall for entertainment...

Early morning took us to Narkanda where little children climbed on top of the bus From there the road wound down rapidly. Traversing the hills through the day, we went past bright blue nets which marked the apple orchards. Far below a heavily silted Sutlej churned its way through narrow gorges. We crossed it at a sweltering place called Luhri. The road moved slowly to a village called Anni and stopped. The bus would go no further.

FLOWING AWAY

There is something about a bath in a stream which lends a strange sense of dislocation. It is the feeling that the mountains and the trees and the sky are flowing away with the water leaving you strangely alone and behind. We walked out of the stream and located the only dhaba at Anni. The villagers gathered to have a look at four hungry strangers having a limitless meal for one rupee each. There was a dour, old wise man who spoke with authority of the paths ahead. Early in the morning the dhabawallah put us on the road with a large pile of Parathas. The old man in his saffron kurta-pyjamas had woken up to see us off. We wished him good-bye; he favoured us with a bright and totally unexpected smile. Our destination was the village of Khanag at 8,000 feet, 16 km away.

The path moves along the streak and is easy for the first few kilometres. Water mills are visible at regular intervals and herds of goats amble along. But soon the slope became steeper and the sun came up. Far away Khanag appeared-red and brown against the dark green of the hill. Clouds began to gather. Sitting on rocks surrounded by fir and pine, the parathas went well with black coffee. The sound of the stream was now far below.

It was drizzling when we pulled ourselves up the craggy edges of Khanag at 8,000 ft. where the PWD rest house is a pretty red building but where the chowkidar was unprepared. A desperate walk through the village revealed that there was no dhaba or tea shop. Then in the verandah of a house we found canisters of little biscuits which tasted like sawdust. We bought and ate dozens. By that time the chowkidar was dishing out the hearty pots of rice and dal which only chowkidars in the hills can dish out. Overcoming fatigue and sleep we sat through the gathering cloud, reading, writing and talking. My diary of may 28, 1977 reads: "It is charming in its own way when you climb a mountain and look down later. Trekking becomes despicable when you are at it-when one foot follows another, in a senseless numb motion over stone, rock and grass - as the rucksack cuts into your shoulder and the buster on your foot is reviving. But there is infinite pleasure in reaching a rest house or a village and looking at the spreading vista that you have just come through...A huge mass of cloud rolling over the edge of a majestic mountain. It rolled over gradually like a man falling off a bed in slow motion...It covered the stately firs and enveloped them. In the foreground were small houses dotting the mountainside and quaint people going about their work-sawing wood, tending cows or merely sitting and smoking..."

Six kilometres in the early morning when one is fresh and rested pass easily and we were soon having tea and the now inevitable biscuits on top of the Jalori Pass. At 10,280 ft. this is one of the ways into the Kulu Valley. A little stretch of that land on top of the pass presents spreading views on both sides. The southern ranges are heavily forested and that morning they rolled away into a light haze which shielded them only partially. In the north the ranges moved away towards end less rows of jagged snow-covered peaks that began to glisten as the sun rose higher. The small temple atop the pass overlooks the tremendous fall down the frosted slope. One could not help feel a sense of isolation and calm at the pass as if the spot were part of yet separated from the two valleys it controlled.

TIRED LIMBS

The path into the Kulu Valley from Jalori races quickly to Shoja, 5 km away. There, the PWD chowkidar, Khub Ram, maintained a tidy rest house. With obvious reluctance he watched us fling our tired limbs around the place. He pointed out that, tired or otherwise we would have to eat at the dining table. No bedside service, please! We ate a hearty meal under his watchful eyes and candle light and saw the quiet night fall outside the large glass windows.

From Shoja down to the village of Ghuaji is hardly a path. It was a wet slippery descent down a rain-washed mountain and it took all one could do to stay vertical. All around was a damp and delightful smell, a heady freshness. The first port of Ghuaji was a tea shop beside a roaring stream. Pakoras, an unexpected luxury, were being fried. We sat by the stream and watched the steep wooded hill move into the terraced fields of the village. The wheat was nearly ripe and glistened in patches of prosperous gold among the grass and the occasional fruit tree. From here a bus, when it came, would take us to Kulu.

One Summer, years ago-III

THE road along the Beas into Kulu is straight out of the tourist pamphlets as it were. Apples and plums weigh down the branches off trees along the road; their seeds flow down the crystal clear at twisting river.

The small town of Kulu nestles in a valley. Somehow it symbolizes the haunting quality evoked by drums and festivals and the sound of lonely flutes on moonlit mountain nights.

The tourists use Kulu as a stop over to Manali. On the road between the two towns they pass through Nagger and Katra in and talk about trout fishing. We got off the bus at Nagger. The one time capital of the Hindu rajas of Kulu which also houses Roerich's art gallery was dozing in the twilight as we landed. The plan was to move away over the Chandrakhani Pass and descend to Malana village. The very name of Malana still inspired awe in the minds of Kulu residents. It was an isolated spot...they had their own laws...they did not like strangers...black magic...huge gods...it had to be seen.

The snow ranges glistened as the track rose steeply through village end forest. A few Gujjars sold us fresh milk. Tortured by stomach cramps we learnt that one does not drink unboiled milk on the mountains. After that it became a question of the mind ruling the body as we pursued the track at a berserk pace over grassy high altitude meadows. At last after a 15 km climb there was snow which lay loose, fresh and 4 ft high guarding the Chandrakhani Pass.

Unprepared for the snow, we found that a step ahead often meant many backwards. The clouds began to gather, and a strong chill wind added to our desperation. In a heavy drizzle we finally made the pass which stands at over 13,000 ft. It was the highest that any of us had ever reached. All around were the snow-capped peaks and blue mountain faces. Below us was a symphony in brown, green and white.

The going had been tough, but as the rain grew stronger the pleasure of achievement was short lived. We celebrated with a hasty meal under the unturned collars of our wind breakers. Some one said it was Thomas Hardy's birthday, and we raised our cups black coffee.

Across the Chandrakhani there is a path to Malana. In the rain we did not find it. We followed instead a crisscross of steep descents down a suicidal, near-vertical face of wet grass and rock. At times we descended down a stream but ultimately caught a narrow, precipitous trail. A band of hunters were walking ahead but we lost them well before evening fell. Molana was still unsighted.

Just when we began to think in terms of sleeping in the open, we came upon two houses. Built many feet above the ground, they were stacked below with firewood. A woman came out, said something in an unintelligible dialect, and refused us water. One last bend, we decided. Beyond that, a large moon broke over the peaks and notes of a flute fluttered across.

Bayi Ram, a Malana tribal, welcomed us into his high hut. The smoke from the fire in his kitchen made our eyes water. There was a woman and two children; one of them bawled as he saw us. We dozed fitfully where our host prepared a wholesome meal. Ultimately we all fell into a numbed, groaning, uneasy sleep in that wooden hut alongside a strange family on a lonely mountainside under a beautiful moon.

When we reached Malana village next morning, it was easy to see why it had remained isolated so long. Resting in a bowl of rocks, it could be reached only by the way we had come or by a near-vertical ascent from the Parvati river. We moved into the identical huts and were guided to the headman, Kardar's hut over tea made with goat milk, he told us that the major decisions were taken by a committee of 11. Of these the Kardar, the Pujari and Guru-ka-Chela were life members.

The Kardar decided that he would accompany us on our descent to Jari village, from where we could get a bus to Kulu or go on to see the hot springs of ManiKaran. The path was one long slide over grass and pebbles until we reached a swift jungle nullah which ultimately would join the Parvati. The Parvati is a particularly turbulent and venomous mountain river. In its narrow valley it swirls and swishes over the smoothened rock.

The rocks hang over the river at many points and the valley looks like a dark gorge sealed off at one end by high mountains. At ManiKaran, the hot springs burst out in every home. The water as used for washing cloths and cooking food. At the Gurudwara the food is cooked entirely on the steam rising out of the waters. A lukewarm glass of tea became piping hot when I dipped it into the little sarovar that the Gurudwara has. A scalding bath in the same sarovar left one spent and we went to sleep by a window beyond which the chilling Parvati ran along the valley of springs.

The shoes finally came off in Kulu, and we found that the blisters had been worth it.