3 January, 2018, Pune, Maharashtra, India:
It was May 1972, a young man and his wife took their first-born on a train ride from Delhi to Shimla, where the young man’s younger sister and youngest brother stayed. They worked at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (erstwhile Viceregal Lodge). And they had an official residence on Summerhill, just above the Summerhill station. The younger siblings were excited, and had taken time and great effort to make special arrangements for the visit.
That May in 1972 marked my first visit to Shimla, my first train ride … and my first birthday. And that first visit to Shimla forged a bond between me, the Himalayan mountains, and my aunt (Pishi) and youngest uncle (Kaku) that’s stood me a lifetime.
Over the next five years, I travelled to Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir several times. Travelling with my parents, paternal grandmother, aunts and uncles. Shimla and Vaishnodevi were two frequent trips the family seemed to make. Among my very earliest memories was the second trip I made to Vaishnodevi at the age of 4 years and some months. I remember it vividly because I walked most of the way up, and most of the way down, enthusiastically encouraged by my uncles and aunts. And I remember a glorious sunrise from that trek to Vaishnodevi, visuals that have stayed with me till this day. We also travelled as often as we could to Shimla to meet my Pishi and Kaku, and my youngest Pishi (who had joined her elder siblings and was studying in Shimla). One could say that Shimla was where our entire family met at least once a year when aunts and uncles from Delhi, and Benares would also join.
By the mid 1970s we had shifted to Bombay, and thereafter I travelled to Shimla every summer with my family. And then, from my late teens onwards, I started taking trains and buses up to Shimla whenever my heart felt like it. Always turning up at my aunt’s door step, unannounced, late at night or early mornings. In my 20s and 30s, Himachal and its dense forests, remote mountains, and trails became my constant companion, as I learned about myself on long, solitary treks in winters, autumn, spring and even an occasional monsoon.
Today, as I sit in Pune, pondering about what 2018 might look like for The Mountain Walker, I am reminded of a particular dawn over Summerhill, back in the 1990s. (My co-Founders Abhishek and Ameen remember that dawn for their own reasons). I had arrived in the dead of the night (once again). I had taken a train from Mumbai to Delhi, and then taken an evening bus to Shimla. It was the first time I had seen and felt the coolness of the Himalayan nights as the bus weaved in and out of sleepy villages and towns. Have you ever tasted hot, sweet chai at midnight on a silent hill? Chai made on an age-old kerosene stove by a wizened old man of the hills, and served up with a tale from days gone by?
The bus dropped me at the bottom of the road leading up to Boileauganj, and I decided to walk up to the Viceregal Lodge instead of knocking on my aunt’s door on Prospect Hill at 3 am. (My Kaku had official quarters right next door.) The walk up was a test for my nerves since every thing was still, and there was no light but the light of the sleeping world. The wind was chilly when it blew and then when it blew, the sound was eerie. But somehow, I have always felt comforted by the tall Deodhar trees that stand guard all around Shimla. The Viceregal Lodge stood proud and alone on the crest, silhouetted against the dark sky. Never let any one tell you that there is no colour in the night. In fact, the deepest of hues are to be found in the dead of the night, everything from black to charcoal grey to silver-light and moon shine. (The leaves of an Oak and the needles on a Deodhar pine look surreal and exquisitely beautiful in silver, grey and black. The angles and curves, the shadows and darkness, the real and surreal, the excitement and fear, the sweet breath of life, and the chill up your spine to the nape of the neck – these complementary yet contrary aspects of beauty can only be experienced in the Himalayan night).
I sat on the lawns, walked the gardens, listened to the dawn amble out of the night, the first chirps, the first smoke from wood-fire, the first stirrings of a new day … and all of it shook me out of the despondent mood that I had been in the previous week.
I breathed in the sweet smell of the early morning and walked down into the new day. It was a dawn that I never forget for it taught me that every day is a new day. And that thought always makes me smile.
“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life … and I am feeling good” (from the song Feeling Good written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse).