‘Will these trees do well in Morni?’ I asked the dignified fauji owner of the beautiful nursery at the foot of the Morni hills. We were having tea in the Colonel’s breezy ‘field office,’ a modest wooden structure with a tin-roof. A tiny mouse peered at us inquisitively through a crack in the wooden false ceiling, directly over the Colonel’s head. Driving along NH-73 one can easily miss this well-stocked nursery at Moginand, as it is almost completely hidden from view by a shroud of dense bamboo thickets. The nursery sells healthy saplings at reasonable prices. The rear boundary of the nursery is lined with stately teak trees that reflect the army man’s enterprise. I had come scouting for some fast growing stout trees and he had offered the tall saplings of the Simbal tree (Silk Cotton). The saplings had shed all leaves and one could identify the tree only from the trademark protective thorns on the long green stems.
Morni had experienced torrential rainfall during the Monsoons that had triggered landslides all over the hills. A massive landslide from the Gajan ridge had let loose a shower of rocks and boulders that had narrowly missed the Tikkar Cottage. The cottage had bravely clung on to the capricious hill side as the sliding clay and falling rocks settled to form a mound at its doorstep.
The slush had dried up after the rains and we levelled it to form a terrace. I was looking for trees to plant on this patch of tightly packed clay, with the hope, that when fully grown, they would act as a line of defence against any future landslides.
The monsoon was over and autumn was setting in. I was apprehensive that it might already be too late for planting. The rocky Morni terrain is mostly made up of tight clay that is hard on some plants. Earlier that month we had ambitiously transplanted a 5 year old araucaria in Morni from Chandigarh. It had taken considerable effort but the tree had not survived, much to our disappointment. I wanted to be reassured that the planting of simbals would not end up as yet another wasted effort. ‘They should do fine,’ answered the Colonel. ‘A foreigner bought some for her cottage in Morni,’ he continued. ‘A foreigner in Morni?’ I was immediately curious. ‘ Yes. A lady. Seems to have retired from some job with a foreign embassy. Tough lady! Drives alone from Delhi in her jeep accompanied by her dogs. She buys her plants from me,’ the Colonel told me. ‘How curious!’ I remarked. It had been many years since I had started frequenting the hills. I had never heard of this cottage. I bought three simbals and resolved to find out more about this unusual lady. I like digging out quaint facts about the hills. One thing that Morni decidedly lacks, when compared to the Himachal hill stations, are the old-world cottages built by the British in the days of the Raj. The mysterious ‘angrez’ lady’s cottage, somewhere deep in the Morni hills, seemed to suddenly improve the character of the hills in this vital respect. Our generation is still not completely free of the ‘made-in-phoren’ mind set. The prospect that foreigners were also seeking out these hills seemed exciting and made the hill destination a wee bit more exotic.
As I got up to supervise the loading of the simbal trees I commented on the pleasant breeze inside the nursery. The mali proudly indicated the bamboos. ‘Yeh bhagwan-ka-AC hai,’ he educated me. The air picks up the moisture released by the bamboo as it blows through the thicket making it cool. This was a revelation and I made a mental note to plant some bamboos in the next monsoons. And thus the simbal trees were bought.
Months later, it was a typical, lazy Sunday morning at the Tikkar Cottage. The ‘Scribe’ and I, had come to the hills for a weekend with our families. The children had woken up early and were still clad in pyjamas. Their happy noises mixed well with the chirping of the bulbuls and the cacophony of the babblers. We had finished a heavy breakfast of omelettes and desi-ghee paranthas and were looking for some intersting activity for the afternoon. The ‘Scribe’ suffers from chronic insomnia but had managed to grab some sleep the previous night and was cheerful and feeling up to some limited adventure. I suggested a trek along the terraced fields of Rasoon on the jungle path to Deora, but nobody seemed enthusiastic about walking. I then hit upon this idea of looking for the ‘angrez’ lady’s cottage and checking out the Simbal trees she had planted. I made enquiries from the village Sarpanch who owns the next door restaurant. He had heard something of the lady who worked for a ‘dootawas’. He made some telephoniccalls and got us some general directions to her cottage. It was on the way to the Sherla tal and we could check out both in a single road trip. The kids were happy with their games and were not interested in my plan. So accompanied by the ladies and armed with the camera we headed for the road to Sarahan (in Himachal) that passes through Morni town.
Driving up from the tals one has to take a right under the fort of the Meers atop the highest hill of Morni. The fort his hidden from view by a thick veil of eucalyptus. The road descends through the town (Bhoj Jabial) which has some small shops, the water works, a bank and clusters of double-storied, whitewashed cement houses. The idle shopkeepers cast us a bored look as we drove through the market in our bright maroon ‘Jazz’.
The road passes under the Chakli-Ramsar village that has the wind-turbines installed by Vedanta (never seen them spinning?).
Further on, there is a Jwala Ji temple to the left.
Still further on, we crossed two cute looking cottages that were surrounded by freshly planted eucalyptus trees. I got off to take a picture as the rest waited in the car. The cottages were unoccupied and a sorry looking Nepali caretaker emerged from a make-shift iron shed. I learnt that the pre-fabricated huts had been imported from China.He wanted to know if he could get employment with me. Some goons had roughed him up the previous night and had misbehaved with his wife. He found the place unsafe and was looking for a shift. I asked if he had informed the local police. He nodded despondently and was decidedly not impressed with their response. The hills have a negligible crime rate and one rarely hears of such ugly episodes. We drove on looking for the Sherla tal.
On the way we spotted a cement pathway climbing steeply up a hill at Chhooyi village. ‘Let’s check it out,’ I proposed. The Scribe was reluctant of this new ‘adventure’. I have landed him in tight spots on numerous occasions and he has learnt to be wary of any sudden proposal. A drop barrier at the entrance indicated that the entry was restricted. ‘The plan was to locate the lady’s cottage and see the simbal trees and not to trespass,’ he reminded me. A man stood at the entrance tending to his mules. Apparently he was transporting some bricks to the cottage above where some construction was underway. We enquired about the owner. The owner was from Chandigarh and was not present at his Morni home. The man didn’t object to our driving up the steep winding pathway. At the top was a colourful little cottage built by the City Beautiful’s most famous artist in his characteristic style.
A naturally growing thor in the middle of the garden gave the place an artistic touch. The owner had planted some beautiful silver oaks and had undertaken major stone protection works to manage the rain water runoff. We posed for some snaps against the cottage, much to the discomfort of the Scribe who found this clear trespass. I chatted with the friendly caretaker and the workers, all locals from Morni. They were constructing a solid retaining wall using discarded concrete, paver-blocks, an intelligent low-cost alternative to stone that is no longer available due to embargo on its mining by the Forest department. A large abandoned house was visible from the top to the right of the drop barrier. ‘It belonged to some people from Delhi. The son who inherited the property rarely visits the place, is probably settled abroad,’ informed the caretaker. The place looked sad and brooding and I wondered if the house had seen happier times.
The caretaker told me that the road to Sherla was a steep forest track and not suited for a Honda. The tal was some kilometres further on fro the village. The ladies wanted their lunch, so we drove back to our cottage. After the lunch the Scribe left early with his family. My wife wanted a nap and I decided to take another shot at the earlier plan, this time on the Thunderbird. The Sarpanch arranged for a guide this time, his college going nephew who was to meet me at Morni town on his motorbike. I rode towards the town and was met at the turn below the fort by a cheerful youngster who wished me politely. He then directed me to follow him and went zipping through the market on his bubbly 100 cc bike. I was nervous driving the heavy bike at that speed and was ready to clamp on the brakes if I were to lose balance. We drove by the cottage I had visited earlier and continued further on for a couple of kilometres. We crossed a couple of abandoned houses and reached the point from where a dirt track led up to the Sherla village.
‘Her house is at the outskirts of the village,‘ he told me and enquired whether I knew her. I suddenly felt very sheepish as I was going uninvited. ‘She might not be interested in social callers. Would probably be a recluse why else would one live all alone atop a hill,’ I mused. But it was too late and I followed cautiously on the dirt track that rose steadily, as it turned around the hill. I was scared of slipping on the track that had loose soil and hoped that the Thunderbird was as stable as was claimed by the numerous die-hard fans of Enfield Bullet. We reached a gate that was blocked from the outside with a heavy mesh frame.
‘There’s probably no one at home,’ I ventured, wanting to move on, as by this time I had developed cold feet. The idea of meeting her now seemed stupid. She was not a neighbour. I had no reference or reason to see her apart from the general curiosity of finding out who that lady with a jeep and the dogs was and how her Simbals were doing. The cottage was a simple looking accommodation with a couple of rooms and a sloping green tin roof. There was a thick cover of colourful shrubs and a wide variety of trees all round though I could not spot the simbals.
We were still peering over the mesh when we heard a low bark and an unsmiling local youth appeared from behind some shrubs. He was the caretaker. I introduced myself and told him lamely that we were only taking a look. He did not invite us in but told us that the lady had arrived the same afternoon. Before I could stop him my guide had told him that we wanted to meet her. He gave us a cold unwelcoming look and disappeared into the shrubs. A white headed woman had emerged from inside the cottage and was watching us from a distance. The caretaker re-emerged this time with the angrez lady who held a Dalmatian on a leash. The lady had silver hair and sharp twinkling eyes and spoke in the ‘Saheb-log’s-Hindi’ of the Raj era. She enquired the purpose of my visit speaking from across the closed gate. My face was flushed with embarrassment as I introduced myself a second time and told her that I had come to generally see her! She was quiet for a moment and asked us to wait while she tied the dogs. The caretaker kept looking at us with the same suspicion as if we were lying and were thugs from Banaras out to rob the lady! He made no move to open the gate for us and waited until the lady reappeared. She was smiling tentatively but looked extremely alert (despite her age) as she got the gate opened and allowed us in. Her English was not too fluent making me wonder about her nationality. Her name suggested that she had some Indian connection. I kept my curiosity in check and could not help smiling at what the Scribe would have to say of this intrusion. She had built the cottage a decade or so earlier (a neighbour later told me that the gutsy lady had worked with brick and mortar along with the workers when it was coming up). She had driven with a friend from Delhi the same day. Her jeep had developed a snag on the way to Morni and she had managed to reach her house after considerable struggle. I realized that I had not chosen the right day for my first call on in Morni. She grumbled about the poorly maintained forest track and the expense of building and maintaining a house in the hills. I told her about the simbal trees and how I had learnt about her cottage. She told me that only one of the trees had survived. She had a table laid out in the garden and went in to get some juice with her maid. The guide sat beside me impressed at her inviting us in and offering us juice. ‘The first time I have entered this house,’ he said in a whisper. While we waited for her we tried drawing the caretaker into a conversation as he stood watching us from a distance. He had decided to dislike us and replied in monosyllables. She joined us at the table and I told about our own cottage. She told me about her visits to the tals in winters. How the pujaris at the Krishna temple had ruined the ancient carved rocks by employing them for building a wall around the temple. She said she had some old photographs of the rock sculptures. I thought it would be premature to ask for a copy and controlled my urge to make the demand. She promised to look up our cottage when she ventured that side. It was getting cloudy and a cool breeze was blowing on the hill. I asked her whether she had ever encountered a leopard. She recounted an incident when a leopard had visited their garden in the evening. ‘Your dogs must have chased him off,’ I volunteered. ‘Nooo,’ she exclaimed. ‘I had to lock my dogs inside lest the brute should attack them. Then me and my maid picked up sticks and chased him off our garden!’ ‘What a lady,’ I wondered to myself. The caretaker finally joined the conversation and said that people routinely saw leopards at the ‘Tiger Point’. My guide promised to show this point to me on the way back. I gave her my calling card and thanked her for her hospitality. It looked as if it would rain. She politely refused a picture against her cottage saying that the place was in a messy state as she had just landed. As the gracious lady came to see us off she noticed the violet-blue Thunderbird. ‘Uh! Enfield,’ she exclaimed, ‘every young man’s dream in India’. I have travelled a long way from my youth but I felt a certain buoyancy as I kick started the bike and revved up the engine to climb the track for heading on higher towards the village. The Sherla village is built on a hill overlooking a flat levelled patch atop a hill that was covered with fields. A dense grove of thorny gnarled trees (probably kikkar) on the far side of the village looked sinister in the fading light. I could actually feel the burning eyes of the big cat fixed on my back as it followed my movements from behind its thorny haunt.
The path narrowed considerably as it skirted the village and and had a large open drain running through it. There were small heaps of cow dung all over requiring some expert maneuvering. The track descended sharply and the guide drove his bike expertly down the slippery path weaving through a herd of cattle and pointing towards an ‘ancient’ Hanuman temple.
I had by then ‘regained’ my age as I followed him gingerly, praying that I didn’t skid into a dung heap. I survived the descent and the path levelled out crossing a fire safety institute and then started falling gently. The guide braked and halted by the side of the hill track pointing to the Sherla tal below. The lake looked beautiful and was smaller than the tikkar lakes.
We drove on to reach the metalled road that ended in a tri-junction by the bank of the lake. We had reached the road we had left when we took the forest track to Sherla. The road turned left towards Sarahan. To the right lay the road to Morni town and we started back along it. On the way back the guide stopped at a large outcrop of grey rocks that had strange scale like markings on it. The rocks were leading to a sharp drop down the hill side. There were thick shrubs all around. A narrow break in the shrubbery led to the rocks.
‘This is the Tiger point,’ he told me. ‘There are shallow recesses or caves on the cliff side, where the leopards rest with their cubs,’ he spoke like a leopard expert. I was extremely nervous as I followed the youth. He clambered on to the top of the slippery rocks in his leather chappals. He helpfully indicated the foot holds as I joined him. I was wondering whether the idea had struck him that any leopard tending to her cubs in the caves below would not take too kindly to this intrusion. The place was eerie and the rocks looked sinister with those yellow scales. There were deep crevices all around. ‘This place must have snakes,’I remarked. ‘Oh yes. Look!’ he exclaimed, ‘a snake skin.’ He pointed out to his discovery with great excitement. Anticipating the hiss of a cobra, I felt a raindrop on my cheek. ‘It’s going to rain, let’s leave,’ I suggested. ‘Don’t you want to check out the goofa (cave)?’ He wanted to know. ‘Some other day,’ I said hurriedly. He did not insist and leapt skilfully to the ground. I followed carefully quickening my step as I crossed the thick shrubs. I hate snakes. I later learnt that in the early 90s the forest department’s shikari had shot a man-eating leopard at the Tiger Point.
It had started raining steadily by the time we reached the Morni town. I waved him my gratitude, feeling guilty that I had made him spend on the fuel, yet reluctant to hurt his feelings by offering to pay. He was a very nice kid. I drove back to the cottage, parking the bike triumphantly. I had located the ‘Lady of Morni’ and had returned back from a long ride without breaking my neck. I ran up the pathway to the cottage, impatient to recount my latest adventure to my wife and kids, who were watching the rainfall from the verandah.
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