An evening with King Uncle

‘My naana-ji was a pehalwaan,’ he announced proudly, ‘Rustam-e-Punjab‘. This had us all in splits. Nobody comes to a post-grad hostel and talks about the physical prowess of his maternal grandfather.  Everybody just knows it without ever having been taught. But he somehow didn’t. He was a ready-witted, hard-core fauji kid who was born with the knowledge of the birds and the bees! Yet, curiously enough, he continued to retain a child-like innocence in many areas and could have you surprised with his apparent naivety. He was full of incongruities. My barrel-chested pal took equal pride in his bulging biceps and his baby-pink cheeks. He would confidently wear shirts with embroidered pockets over neatly-ironed formal trousers and army ammunition boots. His conversation would invariably be spiced with shocking profanities but he would blush if ragged about a girl! The undisputed arm-wrestling champion, his robust build concealed a gentle heart. He hated quarrels and acrimony of any sort, especially amongst friends.

He was good with the English language like all fauji kids. Had an ear for music. A thorough-bred Punjabi youth with an eye for ‘aesthetics’! He had a god-given flair for noting the tiniest peculiarities and oddities in the behaviour of those around him and revelled in making jokes about them. The razor sharp wit spared nobody. Yet the mischievous twinkle in his eye was entirely harmless and purely good natured. A repository of adult humour that was most certainly, not for the weak hearted. Definitely not for a ridiculous prude who had received his school education from nuns!  He thrived in the company of men. Women made him edgy as he had to reign in his ribaldry.

A gourmet whose shoe-string budget unfortunately restricted him to the insipid mess food. But he was not the one to take his culinary misfortunes lying down. He would routinely fish out a hair from his food and would then proceed to merrily discuss the possibilities of its origin. He would enjoy his food with exaggerated relish and slurps seemingly oblivious of the retching evoked in those sharing his table by his obnoxious descriptions.  And one could not put it beyond him to have planted the hair in the first place to ruin everybody’s meal. But once in a blue moon, when he could afford it, he would go buy a chicken and spend hours cooking it with masalas and rice on the two-penny exposed element electric heater at peril of being caught in a surprise check by the hostel warden. Heaters were not allowed to the hostellers. His love for food surprised me.

An imaginative guy who could see no merit in wasting his creativity and mental energies on the obsolete research on dogs and rats by the likes of Pavlov and Skinner. Who could fault with him? I was the typical conformist ardently pursuing the middle class goal of a ‘sarkari-naukri’ and our lives took us our different ways after university. As I saw more of real life and humans I realized what a gem we had in our Hercules. I would recall his bawdy jokes and marvel at his comic timing. I would relive his mad fury at the f***** censors for clipping all the delightful visuals in the foreign film while letting the cinema owners retain them on the posters to con the poor expectant student audience. I was thankful for his having gotten me into weight training to manage a respectable physique in the nick of time! His blind loyalty to all his friends. I thought of him often.

We had parted suddenly without even exchanging addresses. But I knew the town he came from. As is with life, a decade later I got posted to the same town. It didn’t take much to trace him out and I discovered my pal like I had never really known him. A warm affectionate simple hearted ready witted man who enjoyed the simple pleasures of life and his dreamy existence with music and aesthetics. We discovered red wine and English classics together, spending many a leisurely evening watching movies, having peanuts with wine. We led the raid on Aqaba with Lawrence of Arabia. We battled the fascist Italian army with ‘Omar Mukhtar’. We beat all odds and raced the hardy mustang, ‘Hidalgo’ against the Arabian steeds of the Bedouin riders to win the 3000 mile desert race.  We mourned the tragic fall of the ‘Last Samurai’.  We ruthlessly avenged the cowardly attack on the ‘Godfather’ with the suave Michael Corleone.  When we tired of the movies we would laugh at the worn out jokes about our days at the university and the curious tribe of people who stayed there. It was all like yesterday.

Once when we got down to recalling all the idiotic movies we had seen during the days at the hostel, I recalled ‘King Uncle,’ a Jackie Shroff starrer in which the actor sports a funny moustache and walks around with an exaggerated eccentric air. I suddenly hit upon the idea of calling him ‘King Uncle’. I went on to modify his picture in my phone contact list and placed a clip-art crown on his head. The uncrowned king of wit now had his crown! He didn’t find it particularly funny but didn’t bother to protest too loudly. Ever since, every time he calls his picture appears on the screen with him grinning sheepishly from under his ridiculously large crown and I feel tickled to see him so for no reason in particular.

I got posted out after a year but this time round the friendship endured. We would meet less often but would instantly connect with each other’s lives. We have kept the mundane out of our friendship, focusing on the good things of life- nature, music, food and wine. This is about an evening spent together at the Tikkar Cottage.

I had got dropped at the T-point on National Highway 73 and was waiting for him when he appeared in his rickety LPG powered Maruti-Alto. I looked suspiciously at the cylinder in the hatch. ‘Is this contraption safe?’ I wanted to know. ‘Aw, I’ve been driving this darling for a decade now, without an incident,’ he said in his characteristic fauji style.  ‘Looks its damn age,’ I mused. ‘What’s in these bags,’ I asked, pointing to the large polythene bags on the rear seat. ‘Nothing much, a bottle of red-wine and some stuff I got to eat.’ I noted with satisfaction the saplings he had got for planting in Morni. He can be amazingly naive on occasions. I had told him this absurd tale about it having been made compulsory for all tourists to carry saplings for plantation in Morni, and he had bitten this impossible bait. He said he had got two for safe measure! I smiled at the kind of leg-pulling this successful prank would have inspired in the good old days, but somehow his disarming trust killed the humour in the situation.

I readied my camera to get the leopard if he were to decide to show up. We were off with a sudden lurch that shook every tired nut-bolt of that poor old maid. We were meeting after a long interlude and there was a lot of catching up to do. He discussed his plans for his academy and I cribbed about the monotony of being tied to a desk-job. I had cribbed about the stresses of the field-job on the earlier occasion and he had nodded with equal sympathy! He drove his car at a punishing pace making it a point not to slow down while negotiating the rough patches. He cranked the gears and pumped the pedals violently as the car groaned on the sharp gradients. ‘It’s a 1000 CC engine,’ he proclaimed, ‘they don’t make the Alto with this engine anymore.’ I kept my fingers crossed and the ‘Darling’ got us to the Tikkar Cottage without any major event.

The caretaker was waiting cheerfully at the parking and lugged our bags up the sharp slope to the cottage above. I asked him to remove the saplings safely for planting in the forest area. We had tea with pakoras and went for a short walk along the Deora trek route. I had once tricked him into doing the entire 5 KM trek and he had broken into a frightful sweat as we negotiated the sharp climb to the Tikkar tal road. He had later told me that he had been advised against such tests-of-stamina by a doc and I had solemnly promised myself to outgrow the childish habit of pulling pranks on unsuspecting friends. So we restricted ourselves to a leisurely stroll. We settled down in the verandah waiting for the sun to go down before we uncorked the wine bottle.  He had brought some giant-sized jamuns and fresh-from-the-tree mangoes as snacks! He had rock-salt and black pepper for the jamuns, a connoisseur, who left nothing to chance. ‘They are the produce of the Military Farm and are the juiciest jamuns one can find.’ ‘We usually have peanuts,’ I pointed out, objecting mildly to the unconventional choice of snack. ‘Fruit is good for skin,’ he informed me. I was tickled to remember the endless jokes about his pride in his pink-complexion. Some people never change.

It was winters and we had the cast-iron fireplace going with the smokeless charcoal kept stocked at the cottage for the purpose. The warm red glow of the charcoal is infinitely more pleasing than the oil based heat radiators we use at home. The fireplace occupies a place of pride in our cottage and has been sourced from a 19th century foundry with considerable effort.

The Fireplace

I had carried my laptop and we argued over the movie for the day. I wanted to watch Jeremiah Johnson, Robert Redford’s adventure about a mountain man combating the elements and the Indians in the Rocky Mountains. The film had a haunting background score. My friend wanted us to watch ‘Austrailia’ that was closer to our favourite genre of ‘Epic movies’. We finally settled for his choice and watched Hugh Jackman ride across Australian deserts driving the cattle droves and bored ourselves with the mumbo-jumbo of an aborigine magic man. It was not much of a movie but we got stuck on the quote, ‘All you have is your story.’ We philosophised about the stories of our lives till we ran out of wine and had to seek recourse to Tikkar Cottage’s plentiful stock of Scotch. The quote, strangely enough, has stuck with me ever since and it does get me thinking about the journey of life. How we tend to waste the best years of our lives in mundane pursuits that don’t add up to anything. Would I like the story of my life if the almighty were to put a sudden stop to it?

We got up to a lazy morning. We had some hours to go before we embarked on our return journey. I fished out the kites that my pal, the Scribe, had bought for me. I had once had this fancy notion of introducing kite-flying to Morni. An eco-friendly sport that would be a hit with the tourists. Curiously, Morni does not witness any kite flying though it has the perfect weather for it with an all year round breeze that any kite-flyer should love. Kites, however, are very hard to get by in this age of i-pads and facebook and all we could manage was a couple of poorly prepared kites with three reels of thick tailoring thread to serve as kite string. The actual kite string or ‘Dor’ is prepared by coating the thread with manjha- a mix of powdered glass, colour and wax and is crucial to the expert manoeuvres by the veteran kite flyer. Also, there was no ‘charakhri’- the wood-bamboo spool for winding the kite string that helps in preventing the string from getting entangled. The kites had been lying at the cottage for quite some time and I had not mustered the confidence to try my hand at kite-flying in front of my daughters, lest my inexperience in this sport of yesteryears be exposed. Today was a perfect day to give it a shot and I produced the kites before my friend. I had already made him commit that he was an ace kite flyer and had heard him spin some yarn about his kite flying days in his naana’s village. How he would gladly wring the neck of that scrawny scamp who discovered his hiding place for his kites and had made off with the booty. He surveyed the kites with disdain and promised to get me the real stuff when he visited his nana-ji’s village. He then got down to business. He tied the centre of the Kamanih (the bow-shaped, flexed bamboo rib of the kite) at the point that it crossed the Tillah (the stiff central rib) with a double chord. He then tied the other end of the thread to the tillah at a point just above the tail to form an equilateral triangle. “This triangular chord is called the Talaawaahn,” he told me. He then placed the kite on his head and pulled it down gently from its head and tail thereby flexing the tillah rib around his broad head. I expected the bamboo to snap any moment but it survived the pre-flight check. He then tied the talawaahn with the thread and asked me for ‘Kanih’. I was to hold the kite from the sides of the Kamanih at some distance, while he held the kite line taut. I let go the kite with an upward thrust and he pulled in the line expertly to get the kite airborne. It came crashing down shortly thereafter and he cursed the poor quality of the kite with the choicest abuses. He is tenacious, however, when it comes to such idle pursuits and had the kite soaring after a couple of false starts. The kite had caught the upper currents and was tugging furiously for more line (dheelh) but we had run out of the cotton reels. We watched the kite dance against the serene blue sky as it settled for a point above the rocky cliff needing only an occasional wristy tug (tunh-kah) to keep its nose up. I tried my hand at it and panicked when it suddenly started tumbling listlessly down the sky, I having inadvertently taken it out of the air current.  ‘Jhaph kha rahi hai,’ he warned me and instructed me to pull in the line sharply to gain altitude. He cursed loudly when the thread got entangled around his feet. The ammunition boots had now been replaced with somewhat more respectable ankle-high shoes with a zipper to the side. We flew the kite for an hour or so, unmindful of the amused glances of the construction workers working in the vicinity who had stopped their work to enjoy our capers. He got the kite down and we stored it carefully. It was well past noon and we had to get back to life after an idyllic holiday.

The Kite Flyer

The drive back was uneventful. I had forgotten all about the LPG cylinder in the boot and we talked all the way back to the point where my vehicle was waiting for me. We promised ourselves a repeat trip before the rains and headed home.

P.S. My friend was true to his word and got some fabulous old-world kites complete with charakharis and dor. He still doesn’t see what was so funny about his naana being a pehalwaan. He has since retracted from his earlier claim over his grandfather having been conferred a title but still insists that he was a famous wrestler who had won several cross-border wrestling championships.

Driving with Zorba

The movie, ‘Zorba the Greek,’ immortalized by Anthony Quinn’s characterization of the rustic, full-spirited Zorba, left quite an impression on me. I thought and talked about Zorba until I had my wife worried. ‘You are increasingly mistaking eccentricity for style,’ she complained, ‘ and I hope you are not nursing a secret desire to live life like one, for it is not going to happen.’ Wives do like to keep you grounded! But then, not everybody can be Zorba. Zorba with his zest for life. His easy manner and good cheer. His indomitable spirit. His earthy, rustic wit. His disarming ability to engage and befriend. His spontaneity. His sense of justice. His impatience with the superficial. His flashes of temper. His ruggedness. His gentle heart. His curiousity. Who could forget that character? And then one fine day, he landed at my office for no reason in particular.  One could not miss his large bare head and the impressive silver handle-bar that set him apart instantly from the routine social caller. A query regarding his line of work was met with a blunt, ‘I’m a loafer’ statement, followed by a thunderous, full-bellied laughter that rattled the office window-panes. An irresistible laugh. We struck an instant friendship.

He is a good two decades elder to me in age. Has got by some money in life and has fashioned himself into some sort of a community ‘pradhan’. But he is no politician. Not by a long shot. He is the most candid guy I have come across in my life. Outspoken to the point of embarrassment. Is openly suspicious of any conversation that is not absolutely frank. He spends his life around causes. Could be the welfare of the community temple. Or the sanitation facilities of the mohalla. Or a guy not getting justice at the police station. His interests are numerous. He is intimately interested in everybody and everything. An overwhelming curiousity to know things first-hand drives him to call out and talk to any passer-by who may happen to look different or interesting. A lover of the Willy Jeep and horses. And hats. And big, nasty dogs. And hills. Wistful about the Bullet he once had but can no longer ride.  He believes in miracle men and faith-healing. And good food. Is steadfastly loyal to his friends but will not hesitate to convey his disapproval of anything that he does not like through exaggerated scowls. A champion of the underdog. Scoffs at the pretentious, city-bred over-grown lads whom he labels ‘English Boys’! He smokes but disapproves of alcohol! But more about his story some other time. This is about our driving together.

I have occasionally driven to Morni with him. He is always game for travel and is ready to leave at a moment’s notice. The best thing about him is that he will never pretend to be busy when he is not. And will not sulk when you don’t take his call! He is too self-assured to get miffed by your failure to observe social niceties with him. I called him one evening to know his availability for a day-long drive in Morni. He had not been keeping well but immediately cheered up at the prospect of a drive and time to connect. I promised to join him for breakfast the following day.

I was late in reaching Chandigarh that night and it was well past the breakfast time when I reached his house the following morning. He was waiting patiently and had not eaten in his characteristic style. He is a warm host as well! We enthusiastically discussed our plan as we hogged on the desi-ghee paranthas, curd and butter. The curd and the butter were special as they were prepared from the milk with 100% fat from the cows at his nearby farm. The home made butter melted in the mouth. We got our lunch packed for the ‘picnic’.  It was decided that I would drive his sparkling new 4 X 4 Gypsy that he had lovingly got modified with a power-steering and radials. I had not driven a Gypsy for a decade and it felt good to behind the steering of this old world style icon. As I donned my cloth jungle hat and the shades to get into the holiday mood he got off suddenly and disappeared into the house. He emerged minutes later with a broad grin, sporting a cloth cap and his Raybans. He was not going to be out-done in party spirit.

We drove sedately on the Shimla highway till the Jallah road turn. The new eight-lane toll-road was a pleasure to drive on. A right turn under the flyover took us through to Chandimandir and Burj along the road to Jallah. We were crossing the stone crushing zone. The machines had fallen silent after the Courts put a stop to the quarrying and crushing along the Ghaggar river bed to protect the fragile Shivalik eco-system. The dust covered ‘Dumpers’ with their reckless novice drivers, the noisy tractor-trolleys, the iron-clawed diggers, the polythene-roofed hutments of the labourers and the foul clouds of stone-dust were all gone. The large rusted iron fabrications with conveyor belts that had moved so incessantly not so long ago now dotted the river bank like the carcasses of some evil giant species that now lay dead. The entire area looked like the ghost towns of the gold-rush days in the wild wild west!

The Ghost Town

HSIDC has built an astonishingly wide road till Jallah from where the ascent for the Mandana hills starts.

Road to Jallah

We were still short of Jallah when I spotted the small bee-eaters on the overhead transmission line. There were loads of these pretty green-gold birds that flew from their perches, diving and tumbling through the air to catch insects in mid-flight, with curious quill like twin-feathesr sticking out from the tail. It’s a pleasure to watch the aerobatic display of the bee-eaters and I had my pal amused at my excitement to spot some green ‘chirhies’ (sparrows).

Small Bee-eaters, near Jallah

The slopes of Mandana hills were well covered with the dry, scrub forest and I wondered for the nth time whether a leopard was on the prowl somewhere deep in that scrub.

Mandana Hill Slopes, Jallah Road

I clicked the bee-eaters and a pied-bushchat.

Pied Bush Chat, Jallah Road

I then spotted a khair tree with tens of weaver-bird nests in the fields by the river bank. The nests swayed with the breeze and somehow looked eerie and deserted, no different from the ghost town we had crossed earlier.

Weaver Bird Nests, Jallah Road

I had planned to locate the water harvesting dam in the vicinity of Jallah that I had spotted on google earth. I enquired about the Dam from the locals as we crossed the turn for the narrow hill road to Chandi-ka-bas. Nobody seemed to know anything about it. Finally, a villager loading cement bags on his donkeys realized that I was looking for the silted dam made by the forest department and directed me towards Bharal village.

Donkeys near Bharal

‘Zorba’s’ knee was giving him trouble and he decided to take a smoke while he waited for me. I warned him that it might take a while to locate and click the dam but he waved me off cheerfully. I have been after him to quit smoking and he wanted to enjoy a quiet smoke.

I walked towards the hills along a wide-dry choe. I saw a teenaged youth studying under the shade of a tree and he directed me towards the dam. A lady was grazing her cattle and goats on the grass and shrubs growing along the banks. The dam was a good 30 feet high. A stream of clear clean water escaped through a breach near the top to form a gentle waterfall. There was a shallow green pool at the foot of the dam and I wondered if wild animals visited it for a drink.

Bharal Dam

The Breach in the Dam Wall

Pool under Bharal Dam

Goats at Bharal Choe

There was no way to get behind the wall to check out the reservoir that lay beyond. The lady informed me that the dam was mostly silted up and was of no utility. She grumbled about the wall blocking the natural grazing path along the choe into the hills and blamed the ‘sarkar’ for wasting money on ill-conceived projects. I spotted a white-capped red start and a blue whistling thrush.

Blue Whistling Thrush, Bharal Choe

White-capped Red Start, Bharal Choe

I wanted to find a local to take me through the steep scrub covered slopes to the reservoir and I toyed with the idea of requesting the youth. But the project would have taken a long time and I decided against testing my friend’s patience and good-humour. I trudged back to the jeep and explained how difficult it was to spot a new type of bird. ‘I have pictures of some 50 birds, getting the 51st is a challenge.’ He nodded in agreement keeping his thoughts on the subject to himself.

We drove on climbing the narrow winding road that meets the main Panchkula-Morni road beyond Mandana. Thereafter, we turned left for Morni. Zorba had settled down to a good mood after his smoke and started on his favourite theme, the good-old days of his misspent youth! The brawls and the guns. The open jeeps and the Bullet motorcycles. The camaraderie. The food at the rehris. And cops. The good cops and the bad ones. The student politics. The brush with the terrorists of Punjab. The encounter with Rajeev. How everything is destined. I kept an eye out for the birds as we turned left for Barisher, short of Morni.

The road descended sharply till we reached the bridge across Ghaggar at Chhamla.

Chhamla Village

Chhamla Bridge

We drove on towards Barisher, the last village of Haryana on the road to Naina Tikkar. I had planned to check out the Tipra Hills and I turned left to climb the 25 KM long hill road to Thapli on a Ghaggar tributary. The road was in reasonable driving condition and we halted at a newly constructed Forest Guard’s Lodge under a pine hill.

Forest Guard Lodge

It was a scenic spot and the fast breeze blew-off my hat. Zorba stopped a local heading towards his village and enquired about the crops and the greenhouses visible at a distance along the river bank. The greenhouses belonged to one ‘Vijay Babu’ who grew roses inside them.

Green House of Vijay Babu

I had once spotted a stack of coir-pith manure at the Barisher turn awaiting transportation to these greenhouses. Seemed a big enterprise and we decided to check them out someday. My friend loves flowers and has an amazing garden. It’s his dream to settle down to growing flowers like this Vijay Babu, whoever he may be. A wizened gurkha walking down the road stopped by us out of curiosity for my jungle hat. I enquired about the presence of the leopard in the area. He confirmed seeing one once in a while. A man at Bharal had also confirmed the presence of the ‘Baghera’ in the Mandana Hills. We drove on to cross a section where major repairs by PWD were going on. The workers confirmed that the road was ‘jeepable’ till Thapli.

Repair work on Chhamla-Thapli Road

We decided to have our lunch at Thapli. The drive was enjoyable and we crossed a number of scenic villages.

Chhamla-Thapli Road

I stopped to photograph some cute school kids heading home at Jamti. To my astonishment, the child was still using a wooden ‘Takhti’ that belongs to an era long gone.

School Kids at Jamti

School Kids at Jamti- Wooden Takhti

We stopped at Daman a large village built at several interconnected levels. My friend caught hold of a local to find out about ginger farming. Daman was one of the ‘Pandit’ villages, the Rajputs having their villages on the lower slopes.

Daman village

School at Daman

Daman has a big school by hill standards and it was undergoing further expansion. We crossed a sheltered watering-point and a lady grazing her goats.

Watering Point near Daman

Shepherd Woman

We drove by Gyanan a hamlet of Bhoj Tipra. Bhoj Tipra was visible on the top of the hill above us but the track seemed risky for a jeep.

The road deteriorated as we neared Thapli. Large parts of the road had been damaged by landslides. We met a nomad family taking their curious golden-brown buffaloes to Ghaggar for a drink as water sources in the higher parts had dried up. He intended heading on for Shimla. ‘They are Hirs from the Jammu region,’ my friend educated me. He knew their chief in that area, one Kaku Shah! I thought they were Gujjars but did not dispute his knowledge lest he should insist on our driving back to the herdsman to settle the issue. My friend dosen’t take too kindly to being contradicted on such things.

Nomad family

The road broke on to a clear view of the cultivated plains along the Ghaggar. A beautiful country home by the side of the river with fields and mango trees all around looked perfect for settling down to a life of quietude and idleness.

House on Ghaggar Bed

I spotted some plum-headed parakeets on a Simmal tree.

Plum-headed Parakeet, Thapli

We reached the river bed at Thapli only to discover that the path along the bed towards the Jallah road was blocked by the ongoing work on a bridge.

Bridge across Ghaggar at Thapli

We were left with no option but to turn right for Pinjore through the Bir Shikargarh Wildlife Sanctuary. It was 4 PM and we had still not had our lunch. I decided to visit the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre near Jodhpur village on the fringe of the sanctuary. I knew from my google earth research that it was somewhere close to a large choe that flowed down the Kalka-Pinjore hills. A local directed us to turn left along a forest track near the bridge on the choe. I spotted a peafowl and a large bee-hive and we reached the Centre.

Pea-Fowl, Bir Shikargarh WLS

Bee hive, Bir Shikargarh WLS

The Centre has been established by the Haryana Forest Department in partnership with the Bombay Natural History Society with funding support from UK. The Centre consists of a basic and unpretentious set up where resources have been concentrated on the functional aspects. The head scientist, Dr. Vibhu Prakash of BNHS is an unassuming dedicated professional who started his career in ornithology under Dr. Salim Ali and is an expert on raptors. We were offered tea by the scientists who were happy to share their work with us.

VCBC, Pinjore

We walked around the green campus that sits quietly at the fringe of the Bir Shikargarh Forest. I clicked a Great Barbet and a Grey Hornbill on the Banayan inside the campus.  My friend wanted to know if it was the elusive 51st!

Grey Hornbill, VCBC, Bir Shikargarh WLS

Great Barbet, VCBC, Bir Shikargarh, WLS

We saw the vultures on CCTV and collected the printed brochures. We were told that a leopard frequented the area till a year back and had been photographed by a scientist. We talked about vultures, their peculiar habits and the issues involved in their breeding in captivity. We thanked the team and drove on to Pinjore to head back for home crossing the Kaushalya Dam to our left. We had traced out one long circle through the hills and the forest driving close to 100 KM by the time we reached home. We had spent eight hours on the trip and had missed our Lunch but had enjoyed the day of driving and idle talk, me and my unusual pal. We promised to check out the greenhouses on our next trip to the hills.

Trip to Tipra Hills- The route we took

The Lady with the Mastiff

The construction of the ‘Tikkar Cottage,’ our dream home in the Morni hills, was finally coming to an end. We had not realized the challenges involved in undertaking construction in the hills and our time schedule and budget projections had gone completely haywire. The plan was to have a cute little hill cottage with a pretty sloping-roof, tucked away in the middle of a thick, green forest. The newly planted trees and shrubs had taken root and the forest around the cottage seemed well on its way. But the sloping-roof part of the dream had gone awry. The roof looked artistic enough when seen from the road overlooking our hill side, but it was not at all visible when viewed from the front. As one drove up the grassy drive to the landing at the foot of the pathway to our cottage, one was faced with a tall square block of brick. The sloping roof that had cost us a bomb, was completely eclipsed from view. ‘The roof looks like a chhoti-pagri on top of a tall, big man,’ complained my wife. Her imagery is vivid and we couldn’t help seeing this disturbing picture of a grotesque looking man superimposed on our dear cottage. We argued and quarrelled over what had gone wrong. The Scribe, our fall guy, was blamed as usual, for the design failure and for his opacity to ‘timely’ suggestions to introduce mid-course corrections. He has a one-thing-at-a-time philosophy and had rubbished the suggestions that the look was not quite coming out as we had planned and had asked us to be patient! Actually the design would have been perfect had the cottage been built on a level piece of land. But perched up high against a sharp slope, its front elevation changed completely from what it had appeared on the architect’s drawing board. We gradually got reconciled to the look and started looking for arty solutions to reduce the ‘boxy’ look.

We didn’t have the budget for the expensive modification of the ‘boring’ facade that was suggested by an architect friend. So we decided to look at the cottage-type houses in the vicinity for getting cost-effective, workable ideas to change the face and to dilute the starkness of the tall bare brick exterior. The cottage-type look is fairly common these days and virtually every second house that is being built in the Chandigarh-region, has a sloping roof and is fashioned after a European cottage. So began the hunt for the right look.

I had just been posted back to the town and the goons were giving me a busy time. A cop’s job, whatever the fancy nomenclature or the number of stars on the epaulette, essentially entails living on the road. Be it the scene-of-crime visits, VIP movement or the bandobast duties, one has to be reconciled to spending long hours on the road. When the monotony would get too much I would look out for innovative cottage exteriors. One such day, I finally spotted a cute, woody cottage, complete with grey-slate roof and a chimney. An open verandah ran around the large French-windows on the first floor. An inexpensive but stylish wooden railing ran along the verandah. Some antique looking lanterns were hung above the railing. Most of all there was that ‘wooden criss-cross’ that my wife wanted for our verandah but had thus far failed to explain the design of the jafri she had in mind. I also noticed an ornate metal fascia that ran all around the house under the slate roof overhang. I clicked some pictures with the phone camera to convince the Scribe and the ladies that a solution had been found and that we could actually borrow a couple of good ideas from that fairy-tale house.

The next day we all reached a cafe from our respective offices for a quick lunch. We then proceeded to check out my discovery. I had asked the beat-incharge to sound the owner that we would be coming to take a look from the outside. We found him standing at the gate with a Gorkha and he informed us that the owner was away and that only the caretaker was home. ‘We won’t take a peek inside but can always inspect the exteriors from the outside,’ I concluded. The beat incharge looked doubtful at my suggestion. Years of police work gives you a nose for sensing trouble. ‘Some of these people can get very fussy,’ he cautioned me. But I refused to catch the polite hint and asked the caretaker to allow us in.  The Gorkha was not too pleased with the intrusion but we were accompanied by our wives and were looking perfectly respectable, at least to my unprejudiced eye! We entered and stood in the driveway and I pointed to the wooden jafri and the beautiful fascia of painted tin sheet with carving on the end. Scribe was most uncomfortable. ‘It’s rude to enter when the owner is not home,’ he reminded me. ‘I’m sure he would have been flattered at our heart-felt appreciation of his good taste,’ I objected. ‘I would not be so sure,’ he countered. My wife saw an artistic iron and slate awning over the main door of the house and moved closer to note the design. I followed her ignoring the discouraging glares of the Scribe. She was peering intently at the awning when the door suddenly opened. A lady stormed out in a fit of rage and glowered at us with flashing eyes. She demanded to know who the hell we were. She informed us in unequivocal terms that we were trespassing and had no bloody-business invading her privacy. Scribe’s ears went beet-root red. He would have happily stepped into the hole that mother earth had opened for Sita, to make the quickest exit possible. To be buried deep in the hidden depths of the earth rather than suffer the ignominy of being publicly harangued. The shame was tempered only by the murderous thoughts for the one who had got him in that spot! Had he not been so taken aback he would have joined hands with the lady and launched himself on a long moral sermon on the need to respect other people’s rights. I was myself out of depth. If a lady decides to give it to you there is precious little one can do to save oneself in the situation. My wife was sheepish too but was the first to recover from the shock and started explaining our position. That we were not aware that she was home. That we had been allowed in by the servant. That she had a wonderful house so tastefully kept. I chipped in meekly by telling her that we were ourselves constructing a modest home and were fascinated by her beautiful home and were merely appreciating it. The storm having passed, she probably realized that she had overreacted and that we meant no harm. Our praise also mellowed her down and she thanked my wife for the compliment and invited us in. We were reluctant. Scribe wanted to be home, away from the scene, to recover from the embarrassment. But she insisted and was suddenly in good humour. We agreed if only to recover some of the lost prestige in the eyes of the beat incharge who stood outside the gate and had witnessed the tongue lashing. She ushered us into a nice, comfortable living room. We noticed the unusual yellowish stone with which the floors were done. ‘It’s Jaipuri stone. Is too soft and cracks. Avoid it,’ she advised. We sipped the iced orange drink as we waited for the ladies to finish the polite small talk when a muscular looking mastiff with jaundiced yellow eyes swaggered in.  My heart missed a beat. She introduced the ‘darling’ and I kept my eyes pinned on him as he moved and stood dangerously close. The Scribe has a way with animals. His family has always kept all sorts of pets- dogs of all breeds, cats, parrots, a horse, goats, cows etc. He sniggers when I act wary of wild monkeys and stray dogs and says I’m irrational. That no animal harms unless it feels threatened by your presence. That you should approach a big dog by offering your hand with your palm facing up rather than trying to pat him on the head, which is perceived as threatening. He decided to give a live demonstration of this pet theory of his and impress the ladies. He advanced his hand towards the brute with the palm upwards, offering it to be licked. The dog regarded his hand with the same, cold malevolent glare. He then opened his heavy jowls to reveal his nasty incisors. My heart came into my mouth as he clamped his jaw in a firm vice around Scribe’s bare forearm. One snap and the arm was gone. You have to grant this to the man that he has some misplaced guts. He did not panic or cry out in terror but just kept very still. The lady tried to get the arm released but the dog let out a deep warning growl accompanied by an angry tremor that travelled like Tsunami through its heavily muscled body. She backtracked and told us lamely that he was ill-behaved and was afraid only of the master of the house. She further expounded on his lack of obedience by narrating tales about how the dog decided the direction and pace of the evening walk as he effortlessly dragged the servant holding his leash behind him. There was no escape. We would have to wait for him to release the arm. The Scribe was still managing a half-grin but the cold sweat on the forehead indicated that he realized the terrible danger. He had once given a long talk on why Labrador is the best pet and how some of the other breeds are not so suitable. He had told us that the mastiff is banned in many countries of the world as there were instances of savage unprovoked attacks on owners. It was all coming back to us as we prayed for him. We pretended to be listening to the lady but all our attention was focussed on that ill-tempered villain. Finally the ordeal ended and it let go of his arm, gave us a contemptuous look and padded out through the kitchen door to the rear courtyard. We could have hugged him with relief but he had decided to pretend that it was all intended and part of his great love for that ugly canine.

The lady then proceeded to take us around her house. It was exquisite and the ultimate in taste and refinement. The sloping roof had an attic below it that was accessed through ladders travelling up from each bedroom. We liked the floor tiles in the verandah and instantly reached a consensus that we would use the design for our flooring. We finally moved out thanking the gracious lady for her hospitality. Before we left she explained the reason for her outburst. On seeing us enter and inspect the house in such detail she had concluded that we were people from the Income Tax department!  The khaki cap bobbing above the gate also convinced her that we meant trouble. By the time she had realized her mistake she had already given a panic call to her husband. So naturally, we had it coming when she stepped outside, like Rani-of-Jhansi, to confront us. I came back one evening with our carpenter and the iron-smith to take a surreptitious look at the designs we intended to replicate (this time from the outside!). The jafri, the fascia and the awnings were faithfully reproduced with some improvements and today occupy a place of pride in our hill home. The Scribe still remembers the episode as one of the most embarrassing moments of his life and uses it to shoot down all my rash proposals. I tease him about his failed theory about canine behaviour. I often wonder what our plight would have been if instead of the lady, her dog had emerged from the door, with equal rage!

Copycats!

Sherla Revisited

My appetite for Morni is insatiable. I can wander aimlessly in these hills without ever getting bored. We were into the second day of a weekend and I had managed to convince my pals to accompany me for a photography excursion to the hills. The ‘Doc’ had lost 25 pounds since our last misadventure with the Thunderbird and was once again raring to go. The ‘Scribe’ had relented after some persuasion. He invariably needs a push to break his inertia but is swell company once he shakes-off the mantle of ‘maturity’. I had ruined his holiday the previous day. We had driven to Garhi-Kotaha in the afternoon to click pictures of the ruins of the fort and the small 17th century mosque. We had then proceeded to the Gulabi-Bagh Kothi of the Meers. The Kothi had served as the residence of the later Meers and was in a state of disrepair, overrun with weeds. The dank, musty air hanging heavily under the high-vaulted ceilings had spooked my friend completely. The dust and the pall of gloom had depressed his sensitive heart but this did not deter me from dragging him to the royal cemetery of the Meers of Morni. It had taken a couple of stiff drinks later in the evening for my pal to put the dark trip behind him. But, tomorrow is another day. His weekend was not yet over, so I had promised a brighter and happier excursion to the hills. The ladies cried foul at our disappearing for the second day in row. I convinced them that we would be back after a quick drive and we finally managed to leave. The stated mission of the day trip was to click some pictures for this website.

Ruins-of-Qila-Kotaha

 

Kothi-Gulabi-Bagh

 

Royal Cemetery of the Meers

We halted at Green Park, a dhaba of sorts, just short of the Mandana valley. It was perched on the side of a low hill overlooking the valley. The owner of the dhaba had christened it the ‘Tara Hill’ to make his address sound more exotic. 

Green Park, Mandana

The Scribe and the Doc got engrossed in some deep discussion on the future of our nation while we waited for tea on the airy garden terrace. The Scribe has a theory and definite views about everything under the sun and the Doc likes nothing better than contradicting him to enliven the atmosphere. I quietly slipped away and trekked up the pathway leading to the top of the ridge forming the northern flank of the Mandana valley. A small white-washed temple guarded the levelled hill top that afforded a breathtaking view of the Mandana valley and the plains beyond. A few semi-sculpted stones were arranged around the temple shrine. I walked back to check out the Tara Hill top, to the immediate rear of Green Park. It was occupied by a modest two room brick structure, a large water tank and a number of grassy terraces. The owner had planted numerous ornamental and fruit trees on these terraces to my immense satisfaction. I returned to find the duo still locked in some animated discussion. The difference in opinion was on the brink of getting out of hand and I had arrived just in time to break the stalemate. On spotting me they pounced on me for having disappearing unannounced. The Scribe reminded me of our commitment to return by lunch. I swore my deep commitment to his never ending timelines and wondered how much of a row he would kick up when I delayed him as planned.

Hill Top on Mandana Ridge

View of Mandana Valley

Water tank at Tara Hill

On the way to the Tikkar Cottage I started on my favourite theme. How the British officers in the days of the Raj would hunt and camp at far-off locations for weeks on end. How the families would be content with the safety and comfort of the bungalows. How a table would be laid out every evening, next to the campsite fire and the sahib log would have their scotch recounting their narrow escapes in encounters with the big cats. There would be talk of hard won battles. Of leading cavalry charges, at the head of valorous men. Of defying deadly volleys fired by the enemy. Of storming of forts after long sieges. Of fallen comrades. What life. And here we were, condemned to the mundane existence of meek householders, worried stiff about the complaining wives, the demanding bosses, the kids’ homework, the grocery purchases and what have you. The Scribe protested that ours was a good life too, but I detected a lack of conviction. I worked insidiously on the minds of my pals. Trying to make them rebel, if only for an afternoon. To break free of the shackles of domesticity. To convince them that they needed no one’s permission for spending a couple of additional hours on the hills. They are sharp characters mind you! And are extremely suspicious of me when it comes to Morni. But I continued to prey on their minds as I restored their faith in being men-of-men, who could embark upon any dangerous journey to the end of the earth out of camaraderie. I achieved partial success in pulling wool over their sharp minds and they agreed to a short ride on the Thunderbird after lunch.

To complicate matters, the Thunderbird was out of fuel and the brand new Honda 100 cc, that I had intended borrowing from our neighbour, the Sarpanch, was not available. We managed to get hold of a worn out bike instead and hoped that it could carry one of us. The drivers had to be decided. The Scribe was yet to try his hand on the Thunderbird but it was ‘not wise’ to do it on the steep winding roads and the slippery forest tracks of Morni with the Doc riding pillion. He grumbled at not getting a fair deal every time, for by now he was keen on riding the Bullet and kick started the tired looking phat-phatti. The Doc was secretly toying with the idea of driving the Thunderbird and made a half-hearted suggestion to that effect. I ‘failed’ to catch the hint and he did not persist. There are several ways of getting your neck broken, but ending up so while riding pillion behind the Doc was not a particularly exciting prospect. So we started off with the Scribe leading on the phat-phatti and us following on our powerbike. We were headed for Sherla. I had spun some yarn on how wonderful and scenic my previous trip to the hill had been and they were mildly excited.

The Doc’s missing extra-pounds were easy on my shoulders and this time we cruised effortlessly as we climbed the winding road to the shops at the Trilokpur road turn, from where some fuel was to be arranged. We then turned back and turning left under the fort took the road to Badiyal. The Scribe seemed lost in some happy thought as he drove ahead, having forgotten his disappointment over not getting to ride the Thunderbird. We drove through the Morni town and crossed Ramsar and Chhooyi villages to reach the turn for Sherla. The dirt track rose sharply to our left as we turned to climb the hill. The Thunderbird suddenly experienced a loss of power and the engine spluttered and choked. The Doc hopped off and took a few pictures taking it for a minor glitch. I struggled to start the bike and in my anxiety to not waste time, received a vicious kick from the brute. I finally managed to get it started and revved up the engine. The gears were feeling clunky. I wondered why the bird was suddenly acting arthritic. The Doc ran to take his seat as I slipped directly into the 2nd gear, at full throttle and the bike took off with a dangerous forward lurch. There was something definitely wrong with the bike and it was groaning with strain as I tried to compensate for the drag in the transmission with high acceleration. The Doc clung on the pillion, oblivious of the grave peril that his life was under. He is a trusting guy when it comes to friends and he did not doubt my ability to manoeuvre the bike over that tricky track. I would certainly have gotten off and proceeded on foot, had he been driving. I halted briefly to indicate the cottage I had visited on my earlier trip which was looking deserted today.

Dirt road to Sherla

We drove on until we reached the level patch of pumpkin fields short of the village. The engine seemed to have heated up and I decided to switch it off to give it a break. I was intending to drive through Sherla to reach the lake and then turn left to drive till the Himachal border after crossing the Ghaggar. I was keeping my cards close to the chest lest the duo turn back in protest.

Before the 'Bird' went kaputt

I was wondering what the odds were of their making out in time that we were headed for Himachal and not Morni. But man proposes and god disposes. Or as my witty classmate from the university days with his earthy sense of humour would put it, ‘Jab kismat ho gan**, toh kya karegah pandu!’ The 200kg piece of obsolete machinery decided to ruin my plans and refused to start again. I cranked its engine till my leg hurt. The Doc suggested that we push start the bike, drawing from his rich experience with the Lambretta scooter. He was sweating profusely before we decided to give up our attempts of reviving the dead monster.

We now started thinking of plans to get out of our predicament. It was impossible to drag the bike all the way back. The teeny-weeny phatt-phatti that the Scribe was driving could not possibly bear our collective weight. The Scribe and me, perhaps. But certainly not the Doc. The Thunderbird would have to be left behind. We were close to a small brick house with a broad cemented terrace to its front. A school-going girl stood outside the house with some little kids and was eyeing us curiously as we struggled with the bike.  I parked the bike at a distance and asked the girl to get her father. She emerged with her father who came out with a welcoming smile and shook hands warmly, totally unmindful of the white wash splattered all over his clothes and face. He readily agreed to my request of leaving the motorbike parked on his terrace till we could have it collected but insisted that we have a cup of tea before we left. He had been busy whitewashing his kitchen that Sunday and did not seem to mind the interruption. Hill folks are nice and happy people by temperament. The conversation revealed that he owned some of the pumpkin fields we had seen earlier. He taught in the school by the side of the lakes and did the daily journey on his motorcycle. I considered asking for his bike to complete our own ride to the Himachal border but the Scribe would have found it preposterous and I did not broach the topic.

We were struck by the good-humour of the teacher. He seemed content and at peace with the slow, relaxed pace of life at his quiet hill side home. The house itself was simple and clean and exuded warmth. The ceiling had a cute pattern of bird feet painted in different colours against a white backdrop. The pattern seemed hand painted and would have been a tedious affair. I asked about his neighbour I had called on earlier that year. He was all praise for the gritty lady and the way she ran her tiny ‘estate’. Having thanked him profoundly for his hospitality and help we decided our next course of action.   It was decided that the Doc and the Scribe would walk back till the metalled road and wait at the intersection while I took the phatt-phatti back to the cottage and returned with the car. I reminded them about the frequent leopard sightings at Sherla and the likelihood of an encounter with the cat on the forest track, to give them some food for thought, as I rode off to get the car. By the time I reappeared they had walked back a considerable distance towards the Morni town and looked fatigued but happy. The Scribe is a curious character. The short ride on the miserable bike and the chat with the cheerful hill man had put him in good humour. To my complete surprise, he did not grumble at all about my having delayed him. They had managed to inform the ladies about the breakdown when they got mobile coverage for a brief period. The ladies would be sufficiently anxious by the time we got back and would not badger us about their wasted weekend. We drove back happily. The Thunderbird was eventually retrieved after a fortnight in a pick-up jeep. The mechanic said that the clutch-plates had given way due to clutch driving by an inexpert rider!

The Lady of Morni

‘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.

Landslide, Gajan Ridge, September, 2010

 

Mountain of Mud

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’.

Morni Town (Bhoj Jabial)

The road passes under the Chakli-Ramsar village that has the wind-turbines installed by Vedanta (never seen them spinning?).

Wind Turbine at Chakli Ramsar

Further on, there is a Jwala Ji temple to the left.

Jwala ji Temple, Morni-Sarahan Road

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.

'Chinese' Huts at Chhooyi, Bhoj-Jabial

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.

Artist's Cottage, Chhooyi, Bhoj-Jabial

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.

Abandoned Cottage at Chhooyi

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.

No trespass!

‘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.

Sherla-Cottage

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 Thorny Grove at Sherla

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.

Hanuman Temple, Sherla

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.

Sherla Tal

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.

Way to Tiger Point

Tiger Point 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.

Route to Sherla *

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.

 

* Image used as per ‘Google Maps and Google Earth Content Rules & Guidelines’

The Mason of Tikkar

It was afternoon by the time I reached the Tikkar Cottage. I had a quick lunch. The usual dal makhni and aloo fry with paranthas that the cook of the next door cottage-hotel specializes in. I donned my biking shoes, slung my camera, strapped my helmet and thundered off to Tikkar Tal, my destination for the day. The drive to the lakes from the cottage is a steep descent for 8 km or so. The road had gravel all over. Large parts of the hill sides had experienced landslides in the devastating monsoons of 2010. The locals compared it to the similar calamitous rains of 1977. It seemed as if a demon had ripped off the sides of the hills. I silently repeated my resolve to source the deep rooted vetiver grass and raise funds for plantation to secure the fragile hill sides. I drove at a cautious speed in the second gear. It was my first venture within Morni since I had decided to park the Thunderbird permanently at Morni and I was slightly nervous. The road was deserted and the forests were looking sinister with the fading light. I crossed the all-important water pumping station on the way. Water is supplied from the tube-well near the tals at a height of 600 metres through this step-up pumping station to the Gajan water works at 1000 metre elevation. The tals and the adjoining meadows form a bowl enclosed by gentle hills to the South and sharp cliffs to the North. The hill sides that ensconce the twin lakes have terraced fields all around, though lately a part has been acquired by the Forest Department. Heavy plantation is needed in the catchment areas to stop the silt. The sacred lakes are described as bottomless by the devout. The Central Fisheries Department found them no deeper than 4 metres. I had intended photographing the 1000 year old stone sculptures at the lakeside temple of Krishna but a Grey Hornbill by the side of the Draupadi Tal caught my imagination. The bird obliged by posing boldly as I clicked several pictures for my bird album.

Indian Grey Hornbill, Draupadi Tal

Draupadi Tal

The sun was going down and I decided to head back to the cottage. As I turned back I was flagged by a local waiting for some transport for Morni. He was a mason from the Tikkar village bound for Pinjore. The shared jeep from Tikkar to Morni was expensive and he was looking for a free ride. He hoped to catch a bus to Panchkula from Morni (A recently started mini bus service by the State Transport for the steep single lane road from the Tals to Morni has proved to be a boon for the poor locals who were earlier fleeced by the jeep drivers). ‘I will be stopping a couple of kilometres short of Morni,’ I warned him. ‘I’ll walk the rest of the distance,’ he replied cheerfully. He was happy to get the lift and was not going to miss the opportunity. ‘The rains have caused a lot of damage,’ I said congenially as we drove back in order to start up a conversation. ‘If only locals did not damage the trees,’ I said thinking about the damage done to local trees that are mercilessly lopped in winters for fodder. ‘Are you from the forest department?’ he enquired cautiously. I smiled. ‘No. What made you think so?’ I enquired. ‘I saw you clicking photographs of birds,’ he informed me. ‘The forest guys are the cause of all trouble,’ he continued. ‘They plant saplings and claim to have planted many times the actual. They then start forest fires to destroy evidence. The plants are planted again the next year,’ he explained, quite convinced of his investigation. ‘Are the forest guards not locals?’ I quipped. ‘And I do see a lot of plantation by the roadside, the Silver Oaks, theTeak trees, the Bottle Brush and the Gulmohar,’ I pointed out. He looked unconvinced. ‘There is rampant corruption. Lets hope Baba Ramdev does something about it and gets the foreign funds back home. He’ll make a good PM,’ he announced.  ‘Manmohan Singh is an honest guy. Let’s not write him off. What are Baba’s credentials as an administrator?’ I argued, slightly irritated with his simplistic analysis of the situation. He cast me a suspicious look and clammed up. I dropped him near the cottage and saw him undertake the steep climb effortlessly as he disappeared round the bend, his tools, tiffin and work clothes stuffed into a modest home stitched cloth bag. I halted at the cottage for a cup of tea and reviewed the bird pictures with satisfaction. The sun had set and Ii had to reach back home for a family dinner. I started back in my car leaving the Thunderbird behind. I couldn’t help comparing it to a warhorse as it wistfully watched the master leave after an exciting cross-country ride. I had barely crossed Morni when I spied my cheerful companion walking confidently towards Panchkula, a trifling 30 km walk in the dark through forests!  I deliberated on the pros and cons of offering him a lift. Finally the milk of human kindness prevailed and I stopped by his side to his complete astonishment. He had missed the last bus to Panchkula and could not believe his luck- air-conditioned car and Lucky Ali’s music! I wanted to know the reason for his desperation to get to Pinjore. ‘I have landed a masonry job providing a week of continuous employment and I have to start work in the morning,’ he informed me. ‘Don’t you get work in Morni?’ I wanted to know. ‘People are poor. They get work done and are unable to pay up for months,’ he replied. ‘What about the road protection works being undertaken all over Morni after the rains?’ I asked. ‘They require stone masons. I am a brick mason,’ he responded. I learnt that Morni provided a large number of masons to the neighbouring towns. ‘Why don’t you settle down at Panchkula? It would be easier for you and you would earn more,’ I advised. ‘I like getting back home,’ was his simple reply. It is perhaps in the genes of the hill folk of Morni to be content with their humble existence in the hills. The British administrators made a special mention of this trait in the 19th century gazetteers.

The conversation veered round back to Ramdev. This time I curtailed my cynicism as he described the country’s enormous wealth that was stashed in Swiss banks. I got back to environment. He agreed that it was imperative to protect our trees and plant some for our posterity. ‘People remember you for a long time if you plant trees. Everybody remembers the person who planted the mango tree in our village,’ he said. ‘Who planted it?’ I wanted to know. ‘I don’t know because it was long before my birth but I am sure the village elders know his name. Anyway, I plant one tree every year even if it’s only a safeda (Eucalyptus),’ he said with pride. I wondered how many of us with resources can claim this. I enquired about the education of his children. His son and daughter studied in the government secondary school close to their village. ‘How are the teachers?’ I wanted to know. ‘They are okay, mostly locals. But the new generation is going to the dogs. School kids own mobiles and watch obscene clips. We work so hard to support their education but they don’t realize this. Especially my son,’ he complained. We chit chatted on the future of our country as we drove down to Panchkula. He requested me to turn down the car AC. I dropped him off at the intersection with Kalka road. He thanked me and said that he had been lucky. We proceeded to our different destinations.

The Journey Begins

‘It’s a monstrous waste of money,’ I beseeched my brother-in-law for the nth time. He was in the process of buying a ‘Thunderbird’, a jazzed up version of the Royal Enfield’s 350 cc motorcycle,  the classic ‘Bullet’. ‘A fuel-guzzling world war II relic that is bought only by the doodhwallahs (milkmen) for door-to-door delivery. An archaic contraption that is somehow passing off for a motorbike in this modern era of fuel-efficient Japanese technology,’ I argued. ‘It kicks back viciously on the shin,’ I warned ominously. ‘It’s 200 kg. You’ll get imbalanced and you’ll break your darn neck. I have heard of people getting the leg trapped under its weight,’ I continued. ‘I’ll buy a leg guard,’ answered the twenty-two year old doggedly. He had decided not to see reason. Was probably having visions of riding in the shiny piece of steel with the deep throated ‘dhuk dhuk’ to his college. The ‘bult’ would be his style statement, his macho response to the snooty rich brats who came in chauffeur driven cars to his upmarket business school. ‘Why don’t you buy him a car instead?’ I reasoned with my mom-in- law. At 80 grands it was costlier than a decent second-hand car. She gave him an exasperated glance and shrugged. She had explained the situation to herself by labelling it as an episode of total cerebral failure. ‘Damaag fail‘ as she put it in rather plain but clear terms. She had realized that he would not be dissuaded and had probably exhausted herself earlier in a similar effort. ‘You’ll regret the purchase,’ I grumbled, having realized that the battle was lost. So he had his way and grinned ear-to-ear, avoiding my eye, as he rode out the shiny purple-coloured Thunderbird.

Years later, when the ‘Thunderbird’ had lost its thunder and was lying dumped in an open-to-sky parking I started convincing my brother-in-law to sell off the piece of junk. ‘Why do you waste money on its insurance? It will still fetch some money if you sell it off now. Maybe some ‘doodhwallah’ will be foolish enough to purchase it!’ My prophecy had come true. He had bought a car and drove to office like all ‘respectable’ men of his age. He had persisted with the bike after getting a job but the Delhi roads and weather don’t go down well with a on-my-way-up youngster clad in a business suit! He parked it reluctantly, still wasting money on its maintenance. Eventually, even his pals tired off the novelty of riding the ‘bult’ and it was dumped. The gleaming steel was now covered with rust. The ignition key was lost. So was the kick. The console was gone. It had no battery. No papers (Registration Certificate was lost too!).Tyres had cracks. The tubes inside were punctured. The leather seat was torn and the foam pecked out by birds. The leg guard was twisted, as was the mud-guard. Accelerator and speedometer cables were missing. Clutch lever was gone. The brake shoes were worn out and the foot brake was jammed. The central stand was broken. The silencer had holes. The bike was parked tilting crazily on its bent side stand. It was obvious to all that the monster was dead. An ignoble end.  As I had prophesised! But, the man was beyond reason. ‘I love this machine. I’ll get it fixed and ride it to Leh. It just needs some minor repairs.’ ‘Why don’t you get it back to Chandigarh, employ a driver and go pillion! You’ll recover something of your investment,’ I joked with my mom-in-law. It was a sore point with her and she didn’t find the joke funny. It was a dead-lock and the bike continued to rust.

It had been a couple of years since I had started my monthly day trips to Morni, on car, listening to Lucky Ali and clicking the hill birds on the way. The windows would be rolled-down to allow in the fresh breeze and to register the scenery. The 30 km drive to Morni along the winding road through Mandana is scenic and a spiritual experience for the initiated. The road has been cut into the hill-side close to the ridge and winds continuously along the contours of these small, clay hills of lower-Shivaliks. The drive offers breath taking views of the Tipra range that runs parallel to the Morni hills and the Ghaggar river that seperates the two ranges. Wide expanses of the plains become visible near Mandana and the view is impressive.

The Tipra Range

The River Ghaggar

 

View of the plains

As the road dosen’t lead to any major town, there is virtually no movement of goods traffic on this road unlike the busy roads to the Himachal hills. The hourly bus service of the State Transport is the only noisy interjection that briefly jolts the serenity. On the way up one encounters an occasional car bound for the Tikkar Tal. One can spot a few cars parked by the roadside with couples looking for ‘privacy’. The ubiquitous Punjabi revellers also make their loud presence felt in this otherwise quiet corner of Earth. But the most striking are the scores of youngsters weaving their flashy motorbikes through the winding roads of Morni. The breezy road through wilderness with sparse traffic is a biker’s paradise. Maybe, it was the gay abandon of these youngsters or possibly, the Spanish film ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ that unleashed my urge to breakout and experience life through nature. And I wanted to do it on a motorbike. With friends. I broached the idea with my friends. I proposed our getting hold of a motorbike to drive down the narrow hill pathways leading to the obscure villages and hamlets of Morni (I have been fancying the idea of writing a book on these hills someday). At forty nothing of the old life excites you much. You realize that you have successfully reached nowhere in particular. Work is an everyday drudgery and larger questions of existence start bothering you. The ‘doc’ jumped at the idea. Boredom with years of successful clinical practice was getting him down and the thought of biking in the hills caught his imagination. He suggested our transporting the Thunderbird back to Chandigarh and getting it overhauled for our biking expeditions. The ‘scribe’ was sceptical, as usual, but promised to help me with the repairs as he was known to the owner of a bullet workshop. I checked with my brother-in-law. He promptly agreed to hand over the bike provided it was not sold off by us. He is a good lad and concealed his snigger. My wife did not think much of my plan. It reminded her of the irritating ‘uncles’ of her childhood who unsuccessfully tried similar gimmicks to look young!

The bike landed at Chandigarh in a Mahindra pick-up. It was a dismal sight. The overalls of the delivery men were covered with rust and grease as they struggled to off-load the beast. They were quick to refuse the cup of tea. Probably wanted to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the bike, before we realized that it was beyond repair and asked them to carry it back to Delhi. A week later it was lying at the workshop. The workshop owner got the machine fixed part by rusty part. The workshop mechanics did a phenomenal job and removed most of the layers of rust, grime and grease. The lubricating oil inside the engine block had turned into solid grease due to long disuse and the muck had to be tediously removed from the heart of the metal brute. Our request for a paint-job and new chrome parts was, however, refused with a mild reference to our age. The owner convinced the scribe that it was unlikely that we would actually ever use the bike, that biking for fun was only a fancy (crazy?)notion and that he had himself never even sat on one, that it would be a waste to spend beyond what was functional and absolutely necessary. My idea of an olive-green vintage look bike (World War II German relic!) had to be given up and I tried to get reconciled to riding a violet-blue bullet. It took a new battery, headlamp, turn-indicators, foot-rests, parking-stands, horns, seat, chain assembly, mud guard, leg guard, tyres, silencer and days of polishing, servicing and fine tuning before the Thunderbird resurrected itself. The weathered paint, the dull chrome, the dents and the missing console made the bike look tired and beaten, but there was no mistaking the guttural throb of the 350 cc engine that gives the Enfield Bullet its cult status in India. Its state was quite close to that of its forty-plus riders. Somewhat worn-out but not likely to call it a day in the near future!

 

The Thunderbird

I drove the motorbike home from the workshop. It had been nearly twenty years since I had given up motorcycle riding and the evening rush-hour traffic made me nervous. I could not help imagining myself being retrieved from under the bike with a fractured leg and bruised ego, with everybody telling me ‘I told you so!’ I controlled the involuntary shiver and managed to get home without any major episode. My brother-in-law visited us that week and proudly roared up and down the city lane on his dear bike and this bolstered my confidence. My wife and daughters got a diffident first ride. The confidence was getting back. Then the doc and I decided to overcome the diffidence with a bang and do a day trip to Morni. My wife baulked at the idea. Said it was crazy and risky at ‘my age!’But I was completely hooked to the idea. We bought new helmets, slung the camera on the shoulder and started off for Morni sporting our Raybans for style. I had pulled on my heavy knee-length shoes of the Italian Carbineri under the jeans for safe measure.

We avoided the main trunk roads. The doc was a far cry from the petite pillion riders of the youngsters who had inspired the trip! But we lumbered on cautiously until we reached the turn for Morni. It was sheer pleasure, thereafter. The doc had my camera and was busy clicking anything and everything by reaching out at impossible angles, all but unbalancing us. But the Thunderbird doesn’t get imbalanced easily. Half-way through and we were riding like pros. We took our first break at the famous viewpoint at the start of the Morni forest range next to the much photographed hair-pin bend. The bike gave its first scare when it gave trouble restarting as we continued with our journey. We had parked it on a slope on its side stand and the carburetor got flooded with fuel. This was a common technological hassle with the bikes of the 70s and the solution lay in working the engine with the kick till it decided to oblige. The bike had kicked back viciously several times before the engine coughed back to life and we continued the descent to the Mandana valley.

Hair Pin Bend on Morni Road

We lifted the helmet visors to feel the fresh breeze on the face as we drove through the golden mustard fields of Mandana.

Mustard fields of Mandana

Drive to Mandana Valley

The lonely forest stretches registered on the mind like never before.  The colourful winter birds added their charm. We reached the Tikkar Cottage around lunch.

Mandana-Morni-Tikkar

Tikkar Cottage

The back was beginning to ache. Shoulders were getting a heaviness, probably out of the strain of balancing against the antics of an amateur pillion rider. The 50 km ride back home was seeming a challenge. A single shot of vodka was all that the doc was ready to permit but it did help fortify the flagging spirit and arrest the mild tremble in the back. We had lunch and hot tea and were off again. On the way back we took the shorter hill route via the Trilokpur Road.

Morni-Trilokpur Road

The road had been damaged extensively during the monsoons, earlier that year and the gravel near the turns was treacherous. The scenic drive offers breathtaking views of the hills that recede into the plains below. Sunsets give the hills amazing hues. That day the hills were appearing blue and the doc captured the scene in an amazing photograph.

The Blue Hills

We stopped to pose before the picture perfect rolling mustard fields at Bhood, at the foot of the Morni hills. We posed with the Thunderbird against the amazing backdrop.

Mustard fields of Bhood

I dissuaded the doc with great difficulty from taking an arty shot of a village woman heading back home from the fields with a head load of fodder. I had caught the belligerent eye of her husband watching from a distance and avoided a disaster by zooming down the Trilokpur-Raipur Rani Road that is lined with majestic Eucalyptus trees. We halted at a roadside tea stall and continued through the equally scenic road through Toga to Bhanu, Ramgarh and Panchkula. It was getting dark and the fast moving trucks on the busy Panchkula-Ramgarh road seemed threatening to the tired body. I turned left to take the inner HUDA road along the Ghaggar river, then crossed through the riverside slums through the inner city roads to the Mansa Devi-IT Park road-to the Lake road and then to doc’s home at 21. It was a long detour and did not help our precarious condition. The decision to not invest in an original leather seat as a replacement for the torn one was a disaster. The cheaper imitation had caused havoc with our backsides and we would raise the sore, aching butts from the seat every time we halted at a traffic signal to get some relief, however brief. The wives were anxious by the time we reached back. We narrated our adventure to our amused spouses over wine and dinner, with an excitement that belied our years. I had fever that night. The body was rigid and sore for days. But we had done it. The journey had begun.

Good Wood

Goodwood, Shimla Memories

Goodwood, Shimla Memories

My father loved the hills. He could feel the romance of a hill station. He would have loved to own a little ivy-covered stone cottage on a pine hill. To have walked down its cobbled pathway through the morning mist, sporting a masculine overcoat, the broad brim of his stylish felt hat pulled low over the brow and the gloved hand tight on the polished wooden staff. Headed for work, that afforded meaning and dignity. To have retired in the evenings with a book, to a wooden study, by the fireplace. To have shared his scotch with gentlemen. To have debated on the issues of the world with men of substance. A modest ambition by certain standards, but it was a far cry for the gentle village boy of Daad.
My father was brought up by his grandfather, a devout Sikh, who had settled down to farming after having retired as a Subedar-Major from the Indian-British army. He would sit on his lap learning the hymns and the prayers, which were a part of the old man’s daily routine. The grandfather was well regarded by the entire village. He had donated land for the village school. He would make occasional donations to the Gurdwara. He had had the guts to go against the tide and had afforded protection and shelter to the hapless Muslim families of Daad and had saved them from being butchered in the genocide that accompanied the Partition. My dad loved his Grandfather and was by his side till his last breath. He learnt the value of quiet dignity and grace from the man. Though he spent his entire childhood and early youth in the village, yet the village life never really caught his imagination. The typical concerns of his rustic peers, their love for the daily fracas, the highs of ‘santra’ (cheap country liquor) or the peasant’s pride in getting a good harvest, were completely lost on him. He would be ridiculed for ironing his pajamas, for his pretentions at being more cultured than the rest and for the framed picture of Kennedy that was a part of his permanent possessions. He yearned to be away from it all. To a place and a life that had grace and style.
He got himself an education. He studied literature and got a job as a college lecturer. He rued missing out on a more dignified and manly profession but there was optimism in the heart. He successfully wooed a city-bred colleague, beating better placed suitors by his innocent charm and gentle style, got married and settled down at Amritsar. He lived beyond his means as he was convinced that a gentleman must have his dignity and he had no fear of the future. His children had to study in the best of public schools, wear the best of clothes. The couple’s twin salaries could barely meet the lavish lifestyle. But it was a happy family. The colleagues found the couple cheerful company, their parties warm and their manner endearing. My dad had settled down to the simple yet tasteful life of a middle class householder.
But the hills were calling him all the time. He studied for a course as a company secretary and landed himself a job in Shimla. The colleagues advised against the career move as the new job would not pay enough to offset the loss of my mother’s salary and the benefit of free Government accommodation. But nothing would dissuade him. He felt it was his destiny to live a life of quiet dignity inspired by all the literature that he had read. He landed in Shimla and scouted around for a good house befitting a gentleman’s family. Shimla has always been an expensive town. But he was not going to be deterred by rentals. What was the fun of living in a hill station if you did not have an open terrace overlooking a wooded valley? So he settled for a pretty little house which was a part of Good Wood Estate, a mere half hour walk from the ridge. While he was running around getting things ready for his family, we kids were going crazy with anticipation. We would imagine the snow covered slopes and the snowmen. The housemaid, who was a constant companion for the kids, was equally excited at the prospect of living in a fairyland, called Shimla. Finally the D-day dawned and we were all off to Shimla. The maid was to be left behind as we would not be able to afford the luxury of a full time help any longer. It acted as a spoiler and the poor girl was heart-broken, but our excitement made every other thing pale into the background.
It was probably my first train journey and we switched trains at Kalka. The sight of the small blue compartments of the hill train took our breath away. The quaint compartments swayed gently behind the chugging steam engine as we began the ascent. I looked out at the mesmerizing hill views, feeling the pine scented hill breeze. The goats, grazing idyllically, on the slopes along the rail-track. I was six and I fell in love with the hills.

On reaching Shimla the porters carried our luggage piled high on the back and we walked through Shimla to our new home. The scenically located Good Wood Estate consisted of a huge building with separate portions built on terraced slopes that were rented out to different families. It was a small community with lots of kids. We shared a huge open terrace with another family and it overlooked a fascinating valley. A white haired lady lived alone in a tin roofed house down a slope and we kids used to throw pebbles on her roof and scamper for safety before the lady emerged. Her lonely existence and cranky temperament fed our fertile imagination and we half expected her to come after us flying on a broom. Shimla of the mid-70s was everything that a child could wish for. The ponies on the ridge. The toy shops on the mall that fascinated me. The ‘Ashiana’ restaurant with songs of Kabhi-Kabhi. The book stores that my brother could not resist. The long walks. The snuggling against my Dad to stave off the evening chill as he carried me home from the Mall, while my older siblings trudged along.

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