7 June 2018

Summer trip 2018: Kasauli

I’ve dreamed of hills and mountains more often than I’ve visited them.  But sometimes – not too often – but sometimes, dreams, in part, come true. And so I found myself on a trip to Kasauli with Pupu and Suvro da, the last week. The days preceding the holiday deserve a blogpost of their own – but I’ll stick to the trip for this one.

We left at an early 6.30 a.m. Pupu and Suvro da being veteran travelers said we would stop for breakfast on the way. We were waiting at our assigned pick-up point and the driver came along in a few minutes. I had the sinking feeling about the driver for when I called him, he yowled on the phone saying that he had missed CCD and was returning to the pick-up point. We got into the car and were off on the road. The Delhi roads seemed and looked peaceful at that hour. I was sitting in the frontseat and looking about. The highway roads are in excellent shape and if it weren’t for our horrible habit of ignoring lane rules – it could have been a highway from the US. Pupu’s to-be university rose up on the right and she pointed out to it. We stopped at a roadside place for breakfast. The restaurant while it was named Shiva dhaba had a huge three-headed grinning dragon adorning its front. The road journey would have been absolutely fine, despite the heat, if it hadn’t been for the rude and yowling driver who had an uneven and unpleasant temper, kept texting or jabbering over the phone, and insisted upon playing the radio all through the journey. There were toll taxes and state taxes stops as we made our way across Delhi into Haryana, and crossed over to Punjab before journeying into Himachal. The heat was intense. The road in front seemed to be shimmering with rising heat waves. Yet inside the car, it was pleasant. I was waiting for the mountains to fist appear on the horizon, and almost on cue Pupu called out to her father and pointed to the mountains. They appeared as a haze in the distance – barely sketched into the distant landscape. And then came the winding mountain road with cars and buses hurtling in from around the bending road, which always seem to me to disappear into thin air before the road swerves back into one’s vision.

We reached Sukhi Johri, a hamlet in the Shivalik Range. The exact road to the hotel was hard to locate. Suvro da asked at a roadside shop and the owner helped out. The road wasn’t much of a road and when we came to a halt in front of two tracks – one at a sharp decline, winding about the hill and disappearing at a curve and which looked about half a foot in width and another which rose steeply only to end at a gated house/home/could that be our hotel? As we debated and the driver was of no help – Suvro da got out of the car and trotted off on the horsetrack path which disappeared around the curve. I hopped out to ask a couple of men sitting by the roadside – and sure enough they told us to take the road Suvro da had taken. We followed in the car for Suvro da had walked quite far along that narrow footpath. The winding path curved about and it looked like an alarmingly precarious track but Suvro da was walking along nonchalantly and speedily. The car inched forward and the bellboys from the hotel arrived to meet us, and told the driver where to park. I noticed Suvro da standing near the edge of the path and smiling, and he remarked on how apt the name of the hotel was.

It was a little past 2 in the afternoon or so, and I could hear the wind whispering through the pine trees. God knows what secrets and songs the wind was whispering.

The Whispering Winds Villa was truly a lovely place that Pupu had picked on-line with her unerring eye. The rooms with a view and the terrace were delightful.  The Villa was perched high up on that weird and precarious goat track/horsetrack/dirt road but what a lovely, clean forest it was that surrounded it on all sides. The room was a fine one with a view on three sides and my bed was right next to a grand view. The private terrace was all ours since there were no other guests, and the wind kept whispering away, softly and gently and continuously as I stepped out and sat in the shade smiling beatifically and with a somewhat goofy expression on my face, I’m sure. I couldn’t quite believe the sights, sounds and least of all the fact that I was really there with Pupu and Suvro da whose voices I could hear drifting about with the wind in my ears.

I didn’t think I was particularly hungry but as I sat for lunch I polished off more than my fair share of rajma , roti, dahi and salad, and I’m sure I felt guilty later but the deed was done. Very soon after that amidst the looks and comments of disbelief (for the A/C was running – it was rather warm inside the room) from both Pupu and Suvro da, I wrapped myself up in a black and white harlequin-like printed blanket and dozed off into a deep sleep in my bed right next to the huge glass window.

One of the best things of traveling anywhere with Pupu and Suvro da is that one gets to walk about. So after the noon snooze, we went off on a walk. The precarious horsetrack was negotiated and I stayed as far away from the ledge as was possible. The French have some term for the feeling of being pulled and drawn by some force when one is looking down from a height or even glancing at the earth from a height. We reached the curving mountain highway, which was still bustling with trucks, buses and cars. An old, old Sikh man who gave off the distinct but gentle and harmless living-in-his-own-world air and who had greeted Suvro da earlier on in the afternoon when we were trying to locate the hotel road waved to Suvro da as though he were seeing an old friend after a long time. The old Sikh told Suvro da to visit Giani da Dhaba on the other side of the road. We did indeed cross the road after a bit and walked up the slatted stairway to the dhaba. There was an old Sikh woman manning the counter. I’m not sure any more whether we were supposed to have had ice-cream or something else but Suvro da spotted the sign of ‘Chilled Beer” and asked Pupu what she wanted. We ended up sharing a nice bottle of chilled beer among the three of us. The waiter brought out three paper cups and the old Sikh woman scolded the boy softly but roundly and told him to get the glass beer mugs for us. After the beer was over, we walked along the mountain road, enjoying the scenery and avoiding the traffic. A motorbike backfiring noisily made me leap up like a goat. It sounded like some rapid gunshots but otherwise the stroll was idyllic. We walked back to the pine forests along the sides of the hotel. The wind had stopped whispering. Maybe it had gone to sleep. We sat there along some edges and ledges and as the train, which quite honestly looked like a toy train to me with its six little carriages tooted loudly and sonorously – the sound and sights in the middle of the approaching dusk felt like the scenes from some book or film. Pupu and Suvro da were reminiscing about the time that they themselves had travelled on the train so many years ago.

We walked back to the hotel through the gathering dark. By then I couldn’t see much but managed to skip along without falling on my face as Suvro da and Pupu created some trail ahead of me. We went back to the terrace and sat there chatting and admiring the lights and views. Dinner was as tasty – well, even tastier than lunch with chicken curry, rice, yogurt, and a green salad. Thank heavens though that Suvro da had told me to inform the owner that half a chicken was going to be more than enough. I had rather rashly said a ‘sure, fine’ to a whole chicken for the three of us after my mountain-air appetite during lunch. We sat out in the night light for quite a while. The first evening had come to an end, but not quite.

Suvro da, Pupu and I were chatting about myriad things and then out came Parashuram’s book. Suvro da read out – nay, performed the story of the utterly eccentric, bizarre and loveable Lambokorno, the goat. I kept breaking out into hoots of laughter. Pupu couldn’t stop laughing at one point and even Suvro da was laughing while deftly donning roles in the story. The evening and night came to a close with that hilarious and marvelously read-out tale. I stepped out onto the terrace one last time for the night, and could hear the strange cicadas. They make a twanging noise like some musical instrument – a zither, I think would come closest to it. And they keep at it, twanging and twingging away. The lights in the dark and distant hills shimmered and swayed and flickered. Yet the lights closer by stayed still like little unmoving blobs. It was time to go off to sleep and I trudged back in and went off to sleep in my bed near the window. As I tucked up in bed with my black-and-white harlequin patterned blanket – I fell asleep even before I knew I was asleep.

I could feel the sun and the hills even before I fully awoke into consciousness in the morning. After leisurely cups of tea, we proceeded to Giani da Dhaba for a breakfast of aloo parathas, pickles and yogurt.

For the umpteenth time I wondered how lovely it must be for mountain folks (with some money) who can stay in the mountains all their lives and what a Godwaful wrench it must be for those who have to leave and be stuck in the plains for some reason or the other. I feel that way about people who might still have homes near or in the forests and near rivers and in the mountains and even right near the sea sometimes…if it’s the seas – it cannot be in the tropics. That merely gives one a headache in the blast of summer.

Post breakfast it was off to Kasauli – an army and air-force cantonment. We passed the military hospital along the way and I followed it from above the winding mountain roads. I was reminded of the T.V. series M.A.S.H from decades ago. Kasauli was so awfully clean, quaint, quiet, lovely and neat that it seemed like an unreal town. We drove past Christ Church and to the air-force base. Monkey Point or Manki Point – I’m not sure why or how “Manki” came about – is located right within the ramparts of the air-force base, and I found that more than peculiar. Suvro da pointed out that the “Monkey Point” had been there for ages and the vantage point offered to the air-force was something that couldn’t be passed up, and so some reconciliation was made. There were monkeys of all sizes and one toddler monkey was being fed some tidbits by a tourist, and the little monkey was far more polite and sweet than many human beings I have come across. We walked up the slope of a road, and sat upon a bench looking about and around, and then went over to a small shack for some excellent cold coffee. Many of the roads within the cantonment barring the steps leading to the Monkey temple were closed off to civilians. The coffee took awhile in the making but it was awfully good. I watched the dark green military trucks winding up one road and turning into the air-force base and uniformed men coming and going on bikes and on foot, and a little child running about not too far away from his caretaker. Soon it was time to leave and I downed the icy coffee in one lovely delicious gulp. On our walk back to the car, Suvro da shot off the names of the air-force fighter jets – the pictures were gracing the roadsides of the air-force base. From there, we went to the church and a walk around the town of Kasauli. The church itself also looked like it was out of a picture book but I would have preferred far fewer people running about hollering and shouting on the grounds. Inside the church, it was very quiet and there were more than a few lit candles at the altar. The stained glass window had one panel of the Christ on the crucifix. On one of the walls there was a long scroll with The Lord’s Prayer.

From there we took a long and winding walk about the town. The town is so clean and quiet that I loved it. It looked like a town from a dream. There were pretty and large villas dotted all along both sides of the road, and beautiful blooming flowers, and the sun dappled in and out magically from in between the trees. It felt like it should be a little cooler but on the whole, the weather was fine. There were military and army and air-force placards and posters all along the roadsides. A few of them made me wince (and I am a person who from her late 20s wished she had joined the army) There were pictures of military martyrs along with one poster, which kept appearing at intervals that said military men are always prepared to die but they never will. But the roads were lovely and long and a couple of the villas made me sigh. One was named ‘Pahari Villa”. We reached one army stop-post and took a detour and I spotted a little brown puppy sitting very smartly near the army check-point. The off-road track sloped down gently and wound around and along the way we spotted a place called “Blarney Place”. Both Pupu and I remarked that it sounded like it was from an Agatha Christie book. Suvro da painted a picture of words on how the place must have been more than a good century ago. I found myself imagining how the Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welsh and Irish had managed to come up 6000 feet on horses and some basic amenities. The detour road although it was well-shaded felt distinctly warmer and the sun felt like it was shining more brightly near Blarney Place. In a few gentle turns around the mountain road, we spotted the main road. We had made a complete circle back to the army check-point, and I found the brown little puppy whom I petted happily while he wagged his tail nineteen to the dozen. It tried leaping into Pupu’s lap as she bent down to pet the little mongrel. On our way back we paused at one of the rest benches and then stopped by Khushwant Singh’s Villa. It was right against a ridge, a little off the main road – a white house with red paneling. I couldn’t help wondering whether the old Sikh was watching us from somewhere above.

We returned via another road, and Pupu picked up a lovely like birdhouse from a market. I was playing with some bells and looking at the various colourful and interesting little and medium-sized knick-knacks for sale. Back to the car it was after that and the petulant driver wasn’t happy about even driving back to the hotel. Back at the hotel we lazed about and wandered about on “the banks and brae of”, if not the Scottish “bonny doon” of Burns – the Shivalik range. It was enchanting. Pupu asked her father at one point while looking intently at the sky whether it might rain. To me it looked like there was not the slightest possibility of even a wee drop – but what did I know. The pinewood forests had soft and clean turf and I slipped many times by accident and one time I slid a bit on purpose but not once could I slide down all the way with a whoopee or yippee or even a short whee. No. The turf had a mind of its own. Suvro da did not slip even once. Pupu slipped once. We took a few pictures, romped abut a bi’ and then it was back to the room with a view. I dutifully went off for a snooze and without a shred of guilt.

At some point I dreamt I was in the middle of a glorious hailstorm. I should have known it was a dream because I could feel the chill and I could see the hailstones. I woke up and it was raining in thick and wild sheets. One could hear the rain sheets as they flew down and hard and they were being whipped about by the wind whistling through them. And outside on the terrace – it was a sight to behold. I caught sight of one mesmerizing violet lightning fork shoot straight down the entire expanse of the sky. Otherwise there was the continuous rumble of thunder, the steady sheets of rain, the scudding clouds which looked as though they were racing along for a terribly important meeting or maybe carrying fragile news, the freshly washed trees swaying and almost dancing in the wind and the rains. The temperature had dropped suddenly and sharply. Pupu and Suvro da were wrapped in blankets and I was spreading my arms like Superman in my jacket. It doesn’t even feel very real when I remember the images. They feel like they are images from some dream.

The rain showed no signs of ebbing. It sounded like an intermittent magnificent drum roll and the wind kept hurrying into it and kept slamming against it playfully. The power had gone out and so we couldn’t make tea or coffee in the room but we ordered a huge bowl of egg bhurji, which was as tasty as could be, and we chatted a lot about this and that. Later on as the rain slowed down and the wind stopped playing with it – the sky looked like it had been painted with a soft golden paint made of light. The whole landscape looked clear and stark. I felt like I were wearing new glasses. And the trees placed artistically all along the hilltops really looked like they were from a fake too-good-to-be-true painting.

Once the rains stopped – the silence could be felt. We trooped out to Giani da dhaba later on in the eve’ and supped on some poori sabzi and the staple yogurt. I was so busy stuffing myself that I missed tasting the pickle on the side. The power was still out so there was one long and stern candle at the table standing like a sentinel in the dark. We walked back to the hotel, and before too long I was back in my bed tucked up under my blanket. The second day and night had come to a close.

The next morning, we left at 10.30 in the morning, and were back in Delhi by 5 p.m. Early in the morning or I guess that should be in the middle of the night, Pupu and Suvro da departed for Durgapur from IGI Terminal 3.

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