Last night I dreamt I was in Shaya. The whistling thrush was calling incessantly, the doors were rattling and the mice were scuttling on the slate roof. I woke up and saw to my dismay I was miles away from my beloved orchard. Like most people who are fortunate enough to have a second home in the mountains, I always leave a part of myself behind in the hills, however far I travel.
We first came to live in this remote part of Himachal Pradesh almost 40 years ago. The orchard, with about 500 peach, plum and apple trees, sits right above a rushing mountain stream. Ancient deodar trees stood watching us as we stumbled down the steep, hilly paths, offering much amusement to the village people. For some odd reason, we had chosen to arrive on a bitterly cold day in February and were seeing Shaya at its worst. The hillsides were bare, with pockets of frost on the dry grass, and the sun was coyly hiding behind the hills. Our dream cottage, with a gleaming slate roof and garlanded with climbing roses, was an icebox. The next day was even colder, and when we stepped out the wind made our eyes water and set our teeth on edge. My children, eight and ten then, refused to get out of bed for two days.
We occasionally had electricity and running water; the telephone, a landline, was moody. It would suddenly burst into life, giving us a start. Though it was always a wrong number, we would have a long, cosy chat. Since there were only three telephones in the village, we knew who was calling.
Our tiny village shop only sold dal, rice, rubber slippers and cattle fodder. We had to carry everything with us from Delhi, and if we forgot something, we had to drive to the nearest town two hours away. A lonely bus rattled past Shaya at noon, and there was no other sound of any moving vehicle—only mules with bells around their necks.
So much has changed in the last four decades, including our ability to trudge up and down the hillside. We still get a bit breathless, but we can walk without stumbling. There are four village shops now, selling a range of packaged food, brightly coloured Chinese toys and smart sneakers. Rice, dal and cattle fodder still sit in heavy sacks in one dark corner of the shop, like ghosts from the past.
Everyone in the village has a mobile phone now. I often see the village women walking down the hillside carrying bundles of grass on their heads as they chat on their phones. The traffic has increased tremendously since most people here now own a van or a small car. Young men roar past on motorcycles, shattering the peace of the hillside. I do mind the noise but cannot complain since these helpful young men often bring me coffee, fruit and newspapers from the town.
The orchard, with its grove of fruit trees, is never quiet either. The thieving red-billed blue magpies are here all day long, screeching gleefully to each other as they grab the sweetest and ripest fruit before we can get to them. The monkeys often drop by too, always with a cunning plan. An adult male appears first to check out the scene. He mutters something, and then the females and the children come out. They leap on the fruit trees, breaking off branches, and grab all the fruits, ripe or unripe. My dogs, a pair of Himalayan sheepdogs called gaddies, go berserk and bark hysterically. They chase the bandits away to the edge of the orchard, but the trees, sadly, always get damaged. Sometimes a leopard appears silently at dusk, and there is more mayhem. This predator is not interested in fruit; it is here to attack the dogs or my chickens.
In winter the orchard is not so noisy except for the ravens calling from the treetops. I love their velvety, yet harsh, calls that echo all over the hillside. The fruit trees stand bare now, making the orchard look a bit forlorn, but the tall deodars and pines are fortunately evergreen. I see the velvet-fronted nuthatch creeping up the tree trunk and the Himalayan pied woodpecker is here too, drumming away. The birds maintain social distance, though they are both looking for insects in the bark. Winter is the time we prune the fruit trees and also plant new apple, peach or plum saplings.
Shaya, at a height of 7000 feet, is surrounded by dense forest, so it gets bitterly cold in winter. We huddle by the fireplace even during the day and creep into bed clutching our hot water bottles. If it rains, then Shaya is the most miserable place to be in, and I long to be back in dry, dusty Delhi. The water in the tap freezes and we have to boil our bath water. Now I understand why people did not bathe for days in medieval England. Then the sun suddenly comes out, bathing the hillside in light. The pale green pine trees, emerald ferns, blue-green moss-covered rocks and dry brown grass form a beautiful tapestry of green and gold. Rosefinches search for food on the ground and cinnamon sparrows never stop chattering from the bushes.
The sky is always a clear blue in winter, and you can see far into the horizon, where the hills gradually merge into cultivated fields. The village people grow mostly garlic here since it fetches a good price in the markets of Punjab and Delhi and monkeys leave the crop alone as they do not like its taste. Any other crop like maize or wheat is attacked and ruined by monkeys unless the farmer, his children or his wife guard their fields all day. You will hear a loud clanging of tin sheets accompanied by shrill war cries as soon as the enemy is sighted.
When spring arrives the monkeys and their dignified and better-behaved cousins, the langurs, manage to find enough food in the forest and do not make raids so often on the village fields. They keep an eye on the fruit trees in my orchard, though, and sometimes creep in at dawn to steal the tender blossoms just to spite me and my brave dogs. A large alpha male langur, chewing on a delicate twig of apple blossoms, is a sight to behold.
It seems to me as if the cruel winter will never end and my bones will remain frozen permanently, but gradually the days get warmer as the sun tries its best to assert itself. Spring arrives, bringing out hundreds of wild flowers on the hillside, and various herbs like wild thyme and basil sprout in nooks and crannies. I find a clump of shy lily of the valley in one hidden corner of the orchard. The meadows now change their colour to a deeper shade of glossy green. As the days get warmer, musk roses, wild raspberries and rhododendron begin to flower. The stream, filled with melting snow from the higher mountains, is much louder now, and marsh marigold, watercress and wild balsam spring up along the banks. The noise level goes up as the Himalayan hill partridges call to each other endlessly as they walk around the orchard.
Sometimes I can hear the Himalayan barbet calling from far away, the sound of its call slowly fading away into the mist. The fruit trees are covered in gleaming new foliage and tiny pink-and-white flowers appear on the peach and plum trees.
‘The setting is good, but who can tell what bad things will happen later—rain, hail or pests,’ declares my pessimistic neighbour whose orchard produces much more fruit than mine. As spring recedes and summer arrives on the hillsides, we celebrate the long days of warmth and brilliant sunshine. I watch the majestic Himalayan golden eagle soar in the clear blue sky. The hillsides seem to sparkle as they soak in the sunlight. Away from my prying eyes, deep in the green shadows of the forest, the elegant white-crested Kalij pheasant roams around, stopping occasionally to preen its gorgeous feathers. I can hear it but very rarely see its steel-blue plumage. Warm, sunny days stretch ahead endlessly and all seems well in the orchard. We hope and pray for a bumper crop when the rainy season comes. Peaches and plums ripen during the wettest month in Shaya, and as we harvest the fruit, we ward off leeches, snakes and scorpions. It rains continuously for days on end and the ground is squelchy under our feet.
Now I long for the dry, cold winter months to arrive, but the orchard is content in every season. I am slowly learning from my apple, peach and plum trees how to be content in every season, but I hope, this year, they will give me more fruit than my neighbor’s trees.