The last month saw milling crowds rushing to the hills of Uttarakhand in what was no less than a stampede. What were they searching for as they tried to run away from the cities: To escape the anxieties of the pandemic, the isolation of the extended lockdown? The coronavirus brought home our hapless mortality; perhaps they were seeking the absolution of nature, the hope of being closer to the stars.
Blake wrote, ‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet/This is not by jostling in the street.’
The mountains and valleys of Kumaon remain the emotional home of a large community of people who visit but have never lived there. As for me, I spent my childhood in Nainital, with my grandmother and a bevy of unmarried aunts. Visitors would descend upon us in the summer. Our beautiful lake town would be lost to the hordes of tourists, then relapse to silence and solitude when they were gone. The monsoons were when I loved the mountains most. The deodar tree outside our house would drizzle raindrops upon my window in a sort of ongoing conversation, a pitter-patter with the wooden eaves, sometimes melancholic, often chatty, even flirtatious.
Nainital, Ranikhet, Almora—I return to the hills whenever I can, to listen to the stories of the whispering winds, the melancholy flute, the song of the ghuguti bird so much a part of our folk tales and folklore.
Kumaon is, in fact, a protagonist in the three novels that make up my Himalayan trilogy. There are, also, two anthologies—Himalaya (co-edited with Ruskin Bond) and The Himalayan Arc-East of South East—as well as the oral biographies of Mountain Echoes, which have covered different aspects of Pahari life.
The geography and terrain of the Lake District of Kumaon, with its tumble of tourists, its off-season melancholy and the continuum of living myth that encompasses every rock and pebble, a sort of mind map, stays with me always. Each village, town, region is distinct, and yet they share a larger collective identity. I have worked on ‘high altitude’ literature festivals in Kathmandu, in Bhutan, in Nainital, in the Doon valley, and all these have enriched my understanding of cultural nuances across the Himalayas. These festivals provided an opportunity to listen to and amplify local voices, oral literature and pan-Himalayan conversations. More than a decade ago, the Doon Festival gave me a precious opportunity to meet and to host the legendary Gir Da—the late Girish Tiwari—who was the beloved ‘people’s poet’ of Kumaon.
The sense of place in my mountain writing is palpably stronger than in my other books. It derives inspiration from the great Kumaoni writers Shivani (Gaura Pant) and Manohar Shyam Joshi, as well as my great-grandfather Badri Dutt Pande, who wrote a definitive history of Kumaon.
Sometimes, the connections this evokes puzzles even me. There is a deodar tree in The Book of Shadows, a rather intense novel whose varied cast includes a vanbhanjika—a forest nymph emanating as the gentle lady of the deodar. That noblest of trees, the deodar, (Cedrus deodara) is sacred to our mountain people. It can grow up to 60 metres (190 feet) and its branches can spread from 10 to 15 feet from the trunk. It is an intense part of my inner life, and surfaces as a motif in many of my books and novels.
My debut novel, Paro: Dreams of Passion, written almost four decades ago, was set in Mumbai and Delhi, and the green-eyed gin-drinking Paro scandalised middle-class India. After that sizzling, best-selling and vastly amusing tale, my heart and mind returned to the familiar terrain of my home. I began work on A Himalayan Love Story.
It was a sad novel, funny in parts but with the plaintive notes of the udas murali, the ‘mournful flute’ that characterises the mood of our hills. I began work on it in 1984, soon after Paro was published internationally, and success seemed to beckon me. This novel, however, was about failure, about defeat and dashed hopes. I was 28 when I began writing it, but already the shadows were darkening around me. The decade that followed was the most difficult in my life, and it was in some senses foreshadowed in what I had written.
The majesty of the Himalayan massifs is humbling. The dwarfed human figures inhabiting that beautiful but challenging landscape are used to tragedy and fortitude. This is what I tried to write about, but A Himalayan Love Story was also a love-song to the place that has always been my emotional centre, the schizophrenic tourist town of Nainital.
My husband, Rajiv, died when I was 39. He was 42. I had already begun writing what was to become The Book of Shadows. I had read bits of it to him before he died, and he was excited at the shape the book was taking. It was set in Ranikhet, where we had leased an old bungalow. The house had that same dazzling view of those Nanda Devi peaks that inspired the novel. The goddess Nanda Devi, as represented in the 7,816-metre peak, is the tutelary deity of Kumaon. The novel, in its final form, was told by a ghost. It is set in colonial times and is a savage tale of terror and deceit.
A young university lecturer from Delhi, whose face has been ravaged by an acid attack, retreats to her childhood home in Ranikhet. She is alone except for a strange, almost magical caretaker, Lohaniju. There, in the old house, built originally by a doomed missionary, she encounters the ghosts of a homosexual couple, Marcus and Munro, and other spirits, including the vain and foolish Captain Wolcott, erstwhile companion of Aleister Crowley.
The Book of Shadows was channelled by the landscape, by the old house I had once lived in, by my own hurts and humiliations. It rose from a different level of understanding than any I have accessed before or since. It is also my deepest book, which dives into the secret recesses of memory. It could only have been written there, in the shade of the snow mountains, under the sheltering branches of the deodar tree.
The next novel in what was to become the Himalayan trilogy, Things to Leave Behind, was begun in 2002. I carried it around like a piece of unravelling knitting, miles and miles of it, until it was finally published in 2016. I wrote other books and novels in between, even as I held on to the threads of this one for 14 long years.
Things to Leave Behind chronicles the mixed legacy of the British Indian past, and the emergence of a fragile modernity. It begins with the image of six mountain women, in black and scarlet pichauras, circling the waters of Naini Lake. It evokes the essence of colonial times, of the Upper Mall Road (for Europeans and horses only) and the Lower Mall Road (for dogs, servants, and other Indians).
We follow the spirited Tilottama, whose uncle is hanged during the Mutiny, her husband, Jayesh, and her troubled daughter, Deoki. The young missionary Rosemary Biden establishes the utopian Eden Abram, which Jayesh enters after converting to Christianity. It is a complex narrative of intermeshed cultures and the Himalayan landscape in which they converge.
Mountains, lakes, meadows, mist, rain, landslides, hail, snow, sleet. Cars and buses and diesel fumes. The people, rugged and strong, yet somewhere broken. Their stories, of faith and resilience, belief and cynicism, hope and betrayal. These mountains, the youngest in the world, still growing, still seeking.