I am on the Mall Road; this city has an amazing capacity to live with people.
The road is busy as ever – hawkers, rickshaws and cars take up all the space. I prefer to walk down the road. I have no qualms about the honking horns or the excited restaurant/hotel bearers who think that this is my first time to Naini and want me to sample their dishes or choose their luxurious rooms for stay.
This is my first time. I am in awe of Nainital.
No one is watching me scribbling on my notepad. Luckily, I am not famous.
The lake is calm green and poke marked with boats – colored boats, multi-shaped boats, and beautiful boats. The air is yet to be corroded with smoke for the morning is still young. I take a long deep breath and feel the chill rushing from my lungs to my spine.
My ginger tea is yet to come. I have missed that glass of tea so much – how it used to bring life to cold stiff fingers.
The tea comes without ginger and thankfully without sugar too. I ask for ginger and pepper separately.
There is an old beggar on the road. She is draped with rough, patched wool blanket. Her eyes plead silently with passersby on the road. She stands nonchalant, nonexistent on the busy road, in the busy city.
A girl, young and attractive passes the old beggar and halts to adjust her red kurta. The beggar-woman is asking for money. The girl looks incessantly at the woman while taking small bites from her chocolate. On an impulse, she hands her chocolate to the old lady.
The cool mountain air gushes into her hair, as I realize that I’ve emptied my cup. Our eyes meet. She has contagious laughter in her eyes. I do not look away, unabashed; I keep drinking in her beauty until she turns around and walks back. I’ll keep looking at her until she disappears on the mall.
I meet a black mutt near the flats. Is he a mutt? I am not sure, a hybrid perhaps, certainly not unheard of in these parts. He is looking at me with his dark black eyes. Should I run, I suppress the urge. Does he read my mind? He starts walking with me along the edge of the flats to the mosque. The mosque is pearl white, of marble, stands tall overlooking the vast expanse of flats. I wonder when it was erected. It has been there since my first memories of Naini. I make a mental note to study about it.
I pause for a moment to take in the grandiose of the view of the lake and the hills converging from both sides on the other end. There is nothing yonder only sky – cloudless, limitless. I wonder if the end of the earth looks like this.
The mutt is bored of wagging its tail. He barks his disappointment at me once and returns. I am the last standing Pandava.
I feel out of breath as I climb the university road. I do not belong to the mountains, not anymore. I keep walking, not allowing myself to look sideways. The road gets steeper as I climb higher to the high court and then to the sleepy hollow.
The girls’ school road through Bhotia market has remained same through all these years. That aroma of momos and chowmein is still intoxicating.
I wonder why they are not calling me to their shops as they always do. Do I not look like a tourist anymore? Or perhaps because of that notepad that I carry, nobody travels alone and with a pad in hand.
I must be a lunatic, amongst the honeymooners, momos, bright colored shawls and cheap electronics.
Ma used to call it lovers lane, it’s actually known as thandi sarak. It is cold alright, the shades of the hill trees and lake side vegetation leaves only small patches of sunlight.
I observe a tall, old banyan tree and an accompanying peepul. There is a kaner, seesum and assorted patches of pine.
It’s a rainbow of green and brown – as many shades as can be. There’s also a lot of wild growth. I do not know their names. There are no flowers except for a wild white one – a tiny dot in the sea of green.
There are no other colors on the hill, what has happened to the rhododendrons, the wild dahlias? The birds are chirruping from somewhere. I can’t see them. I feel culpable for having disturbed their terrain. As I sit down to observe some of the wilderness, someone rings the bell in a distant temple. There is no noise, only calm, composed breaths of nature.
A black mynah has come down. It has a golden beak. I have never seen this species before. Another one, no, a couple has come down – fluffy, dirty golden-brown with shining feathers. I make yet another promise – to learn more Himalayan ornithology. There are a couple of red beetles, the ones that used to bring luck in another life, on my jeans. They’ll accompany me as long as they want. I am lost in their red and black patterns.
They have made aeration centers for the lake, finally some environmental concern; I hope, not too late. They are pumping air/oxygen into the bottom of lake to preserve life. I would have loved to go inside that room to observe the working mechanism but the area is closed. There is a big ‘sarkari’ lock on the gate.
The lake is 27m deep at some places. I’ll not try boating (it’s mandatory to wear life jackets). Drowning is one of my worst fears.
But that does not stop me from rushing down the steps towards the lake. The water is as green as the trees surrounding it. Does it become white in winters when snow covers the entire valley?
It’s good that not many people come to this side of the lake. Behind me, a couple descends the stairs. I turn around instinctively. They are holding hands, they are not married, they are… beautiful.
I return to the lake and observe the lone yacht. More honeymooners – I laugh to myself, apprehensive of their love.
On mall, there is lone-green library facing the road. It is named Durga Shah Municipal Library. I walk in out of curiosity and my love for books. The building looks as old as the popularity of the town. It reeks of damp pages, cobwebs on history and fresh moist air from the lake.
I look around to find a few broken window panes and green-white colored tape fluttering against the air. The walls are yellow and the floor wooden, part carpeted. The windows of glass and old teaks are the natural sources of light in the old building. They’ve divided the building into two halves – reading section furnished with long tables and chairs and low hanging lights. The walls are lined with old photos and some paintings – a woman in white sitting alone looking towards the black trees, waiting perhaps; one of Krishna dancing on the giant snake. The photographs are of awards won during old plantation drives.
The other section has books lined up in shelves. There are some really old books on some really old shelves. A lot of books are tattered. I wonder if they have always been like this. Most of the books are in Hindi; somehow, this doesn’t surprise me in a town full of convents.
I quickly scan the books – Kumauni history, Himalayan history, of flora and fauna, of economy and development, on the fight for Uttarakhand, of prominent Kumauni people.
I do not find Namita Gokhale’s titles, not many people have heard of her, even in her hometown. This must be related to general disinterest in books.
With a fleeting look at the shelves, I make a mental list of books I want to read – before retirement and after it. I’ll forget it but I am at ease with my decision to read.
The sun is setting beyond the hills; I do not want to leave the library. I never do. Reluctantly, I look to the mall and try to find attractive faces. In a weak moment, I’ll walk out, but with a promise to return.
Twilight is dancing on the lake water. All the myriad reflections of life are alive. The sun is receding behind the mountains. There are no more clouds in the sky. I wish for a starry night. Soon the last boatmen will oar his way back; his mind will be occupied by his earnings of the day. How much is sufficient, how much is luxury? In the end, we’ll all be Capitol Cinema – alone, old, dead.
My favorite bench near the band house is unoccupied. I scurry my way to it. The gurudwara, the oaks and the local salesmen stand tall. They have lived lives here, they are living lives here…
Soon the darkness will descend and lights will start coming out. There’s a calm, potent power to the black as it engulfs the valley. I watch as random dots of illumination come up in the hills. The small homes that were invisible in the day have been caught by the light – lone, flickering in the mountains of darkness.
The silence of the flats is accentuated by thinning crowds, only to be broken by the last chiming bells of the Naini temple.
The clouds have crept in once again from somewhere. I cling on to my last cup of masala tea for warmth. Sometime in the night, one of these clouds will walk down the slopes of the valley and enter our lives. I’ll watch the faintly illuminated lamps of the mall from my balcony. The gods live somewhere in this valley.
The cloud did run down into the valley at night, making the mall wet and weather foggy, in the morning. I will not descry sunrise today. Next time, may be, I console myself.
There is a drum floating in the middle of the lake, white bobbling drum. A bluejay is sitting on it with eyes fixed on the lake water. He looks determined. He will be my last memory of this visit to Nainital.