The Kumaon Himalayas are a scenic range of mountains located in the west-central part of the Himalayas, largely within the state of Uttarakhand. Seen here: the high alpine pastures or bugyal of Khaliya, above Munsiyari. (Photo: Vaibhav Kaul)
The Kumaon Himalayas are a scenic range of mountains located in the west-central part of the Himalayas, largely within the state of Uttarakhand. Seen here: the high alpine pastures or bugyal of Khaliya, above Munsiyari. (Photo: Vaibhav Kaul)

The Quieter Life: Slow Living in the Mountains

The first time I spent a few weeks on my own in a small Kumaoni village near the Binsar forests, I almost ran back to Delhi’s aggressive clamour. The cottage belonged to artist friends. It was warm and done up in vivid colours, and on a clear evening, you could see all the way to the towering majesty of Trishul and Chaukhamba, snowdrifts falling impossibly far away on the slopes of the Panchachuli. Mr Negi, the caretaker, lived on the other side of the hill with his family. The days were drenched in beauty, the rustling sounds of the forest, the birdsong and the slow buzzing of bumblebees investigating the stranger in their midst.

At night, shadows lengthened, and the villagers bolted their doors against the entry of leopards or bears. The silence was meditative, which is to say that your own thoughts and uneasy imaginings are amplified when you’re the only inhabitant of a stone cottage on a hillside with no harsh or glaring city lights. I thought I liked peace, solitude, darkness. I did, theoretically. But on the third night, the power cut out completely, and an earthquake rumbled through the house, making the wooden floorboards shake and rattle, the tremors had stilled, an animal with a heavy tread crossed the roof, click-click.

A view of the beautiful Panchachuli Peaks of the Himalayas, as seen from Munsiyari, Uttarakhand, India. Habitation is sparse, in these regions. (Photo: Images of India)

I was truly all alone. Mr Negi and his family had gone off, piling into a Maruti van in impossible numbers in shiny saris and dapper coats and caps, to attend a wedding in nearby Almora. I sat in darkness—miserable, nervy, absolutely sure that I had made a terrible mistake. ‘What am I doing here?’ I said out loud, and at that precise moment, the hurricane lamps guttered and blew out in a gust of wind that came down the chimney. I was not trapped in my mountain eyrie—I was trapped in a poorly scripted horror movie.

The next morning, I started to pack. My relief was tremendous. I would hire a taxi or take the bus down to Kathgodam, just another city girl with romantic ideas about the mountains, who had the good sense to admit that she had made a mistake.

This stunning view of the Kumaon Himalayas in Nainital from overhead shows rampant development, next to stunning vistas. (Photo: Vaibhav Kaul)

The front door was open, and the sunshine streamed in like a dancing river of gold. I wrote polite, apologetic notes for my friends and looked out idly at the wildflowers, the forest paths, the thrush perched on the windowsill, breakfasting off toast crumbs, pausing to sing hosannas and hymns of praise.

I hesitated, left the suitcase half-packed, wandered out and took a walk up the hillside. I met the postmaster, the local plumber (a VIP, his services much in demand), gaggles of well-behaved and cheerful schoolchildren, a bevy of women washing clothes and filling jerrycans with water from a pipe stuck in the hillside, and I was followed around by two local dogs who appointed themselves my guardians. I walked slowly, finally reaching the top. Three older women came leaping up the same track that I’d just crawled along and inspected me. ‘She’s the writer, the one who’s staying on her own with no husband or family,’ one announced. The second sighed and said, ‘She’ll leave soon. People from the plains find it too scary to be here alone.’

I said, lying through my teeth, ‘It’s not that scary.’

They nodded, unimpressed. ‘We were going to come and see you after the earthquake. You’re not used to earthquakes. Mrs Negi said someone should check on you.’

‘That was a little bit scary,’ I admitted.

The third woman laughed. ‘That was nothing! You should see what happens after the monsoons. Wherever they’ve built too many houses or made tunnels, the hills themselves collapse.’

The fears that I’d been carrying began to dissolve. Those who actually live in the mountains deal with the reality that comes with the terrain: from the lack of hospitals and medical clinics to water scarcity, summer fires, earthquakes, the occasional flood, the evils of over-construction.

‘Don’t tell her these things,’ the first woman said. ‘She’ll call a taxi now only and never come back.’

‘I think,’ I said, ‘that I might stay, actually.’

They uttered a collective ‘hmmph’, then said, ‘If you have any trouble at night, just open the glass window—not the bars, the glass— and shout. We’ll come.’

‘Shout. Right,’ I said. I was too green to know then how far sound carries in the hills.

‘Yes, and bring out the solar lamps. They’re in the upstairs bedroom. We saw your windows were dark. The hurricane lamps must have blown out. Use the solar ones instead, okay?’

There’s always something to do in the mountains, especially for women—preparing firewood, looking after the livestock. But everyone makes time to smell the flowers, and rest. (Photos: Vaibhav Kaul)

‘Okay,’ I said meekly, and walked back to the cottage. That night, the darkness didn’t seem so threatening, the shadows merely the shadows of pines and deodars, concealing nothing sinister. These women took the perils of hill life in their stride. Perhaps I could learn from them. I stayed for weeks, settling into something I hadn’t known I needed.

That was more than a decade ago, and my last visit to the Kumaon Himalayas was a brief weekend trip in December. Life has been clamorous, humming along at high speed. When my third novel, Black River, came out, I joined others on the sometimes-frenetic winter-literary-festival and book tour circuit, meeting hundreds of readers, booksellers and fellow authors. Many of the Nobel and Booker-winning writers I’ve met at these events have adopted the brisk demeanour of veteran showmen and -women—if it’s Tuesday, it’s Dhaka; Friday, Dubai—retreating to either the bar or the spa in search of some respite. I seem to be packing and unpacking the same suitcase every few days. In my dreams, ghost Himalayan ranges beckon, reminding me in the middle of this often-pleasurable whirl that the mountains once showed me what might unfold in a less hurried, less busy life.

Over twenty years ago, I began to spend weeks (and once, a whole glorious autumn) at a stretch in the homes of generous friends and an especially warm and generous aunt. Drawn to the Himalayas for the usual reasons—fresh air, blue skies, spectacular views, deodar and oak forests, rhododendrons in spring—but also for something deeper, less easily nameable. I do not have a mountain home, but the gods have been benevolent, sending a shower of beguiling, empty-half-the-year cottages in my direction for inscrutable reasons. What I wanted was to try out a different kind of life.

 Still scenes, captured by the author in Kumaon, reflect the stillness and quality of the slower life. (Photos: Nilanjana Roy)

Time changes in hill towns and villages, becomes molten and slow. Your day starts early; you rise to catch the light, to revel in whatever view the mornings might bring of the forests on cloudy days, the Himalayas invisible and hidden, or the full glory of the range at dawn, streaked with red and gold, when the veil drops. My aunt and uncle live in a small hill town near Nainital, halfway up from the foothills, an artist and a photographer who have spent over twenty years learning to relax into the day, to be present for the passing of seasons, to take life in their stride. If you really want change, perhaps you need to commit for years rather than settle for brief escapes. Over time, their quiet village has grown into a giant rabbit warren of holiday homes, some parts of the hills destroyed by reckless building, though some of the original soul remains. From them, I also learn to accept change, however unwelcome or jarring.

Sap glows in a tree trunk, full of nutrients and minerals (Photo: Nilanjana Roy)
Things move at a different pace, when you look at the web of time up close, in the mountains of Kumaon: slow down to look at the bracket fungus growing on the tree trunks and the spider, content at the centre of its universe (Photo: Vaibhav Kaul)

The natural world brings solace, astonishment and everyday wonder. Walking in the deodar forests, my attention sharpens, and I start to notice little things: the beauty of monsoon mushrooms on a tree trunk, the friendliness of timid spiders and the stunning architecture of their webs—some the size of a cave’s mouth, the tracks left by the neighbourhood leopard on its patrols. If you spend your holidays rushing from one sight to another, you forget how to live in your senses, how to take in the world through texture and scents and truly inhabit a place, not just pass through it. Every walk seems to retrain my attention—I learn to skirt around the local cobra, who rustles high up in its hillside hole but will not bother you; to pace myself so that I can get to the top of a hill by early afternoon and be safely back before leopard hour; to spend an infinity of hours listening to the wind singing in the high branches of pines and oaks, to name and befriend small birds. But nature is a living force, not an Instagram backdrop. Rivers swell and flood, carrying away cows and humans, and quakes can swallow up entire villages. Forest fires were set so often by the timber lobby or property developers keen to clear a hillside that large sections of the mountains remain permanently scarred, charred, the smoke lifting to reveal the still bodies of deer, monkeys, porcupines who had been unable to outrun the flames.

A bell rhododendron blooms at the feet of Nanda Devi and Sunanda Devi. (Photo: Vaibhav Kaul)

Villages are rarely idyllic—you’ll find the same caste prejudices, human weaknesses and religious biases you’ll find anywhere. But you will also find it easier to access everyday kindness, hillside philosophers and an unencumbered generosity of spirit that seems to flow everywhere.

Every time I go up to the hills, something restless in my spirit quietens. The hours are filled with long walks and writing and slow time, and the days flow in a rich stream, sometimes challenging, always invigorating. I make friends with the night, even on stormy days; the darkness, impossible to find in brightly lit cities, brings gifts of deep sleep and makes me feel that to be human is to be just another creature of many, a tiny part of the landscape. In the cities, I miss that deep darkness; we have banished the night. But in Ranikhet, the forest seems to return to itself at night. When my husband and I dropped a friend back to her place, we were profoundly aware as we walked through the inky darkness, the deodars towering over our heads, that the mountains belong to animals by right, especially after dark. We were just guests in their home.

The beauty of the Himalayas, seen here in Trishul—a group of three Himalayan mountain peaks in western Kumaon, the highest reaching 7120m—is the subject of many a dream or painting; as also seen in the evocative dreamscapes of Nicholas Roerich. (Photo: Vaibhav Kaul)

Mountains are the Zen teachers of the universe. In their presence, everything changes, everything inessential is scraped away, only the truth surviving in that thin, pure air. The nature of the work you’re doing can change and deepen, without the full calendar and stresses of city life, and in the face of such tremendous, awesome beauty, my writer’s ego dwindles. I begin to understand what some of my poet and artist friends mean, when they say that you are a conduit for a kind of universal creativity. Many of the people I meet create effortlessly—songs, gardens, building communal water sources, cleaning plastic trash from forests—and that, too, makes the act of writing feel like just another human act of creativity among many.

A gorgeous sunrise in the Kumaon Himalayas, where light is just as beautiful when it dwindles as when it enters the scene. (Photo: Vaibhav Kaul)

At the end of one blissful stretch in the mountains, I visited a gracious friend who used to run a charming homestay in Jeolikote. She had guests from the city, who sounded the way I used to, twenty years ago. ‘So what is there to see here? Don’t you get bored without malls, theatres, anything to do?’ I thought of how every day brimmed over with discovery, how you didn’t need a list of things to see because every ramble, every walk or drive, brought surprises.

‘It is,’ my friend told them, ‘impossible to be bored in the mountains.’ Her friends nodded politely, not quite believing her, and she and I exchanged a secret smile. We knew, and that was enough.

Nilanjana Roy

Nilanjana Roy is a noted essayist and the author of The Girl Who Ate Books and The Wildings, as well as the editor of anthologies including Our Freedoms: Essays and Stories From India’s Best Writers and A Matter Of Taste: The Penguin Book Of Indian Food Writing. She writes about books and the reading life for the Financial Times’ Life & Arts section and has written extensively for the BBC, Business Standard and others. A founder member of PEN Delhi, she has served on several literary juries, festival boards, and gender and literacy trusts.


  1. Your stay and experiences in Uttarakhand, beautifully elucidated Nilanjana. I am based out of Almora and currently working in Kodaikanal, your piece makes me miss home this Sunday morning more than other days.

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