Last year, in the month of July, usually a time of reckoning that comes in the wake of appraisals at an advertising agency, I realised that my days at the office were drawing to a close. Signals had been sent and received; meanings deciphered and mulled over. Some conversations were had. It was one of those things that are not always in our control, but sometimes do happen. One does, what one does.
It took me a while to loosen the tent pegs, stuff the tarp in and kick clods of earth over that patch which had been mine for three, mostly happy, years. And by the time I officially left, October had come with its slanting, dappled rays and skinny trees. Tethered though we are by our sense of security to the big city, some of us are still drifters and journeymen, when it comes down to it. Or so we would like to think, though reality lies somewhere in between.
With time no longer measured by the siren of work, it didn’t take me long to realise something – I was out of practice. I had become too used to knowing what the next day would be like. And certainty had brought with it, some rust in the joints. There was an office to go to, and I did. There was a home to come back to, and I did. There were savings to be made, and I did. The map had become too crowded with jottings for the future. I didn’t need a map anymore, or even a plan to begin with; I needed air and empty space.
It isn’t easy, though, when the mind is scattered – like mine was, as the year gradually wound to a close. The festivals of autumn had come and gone, the drumbeats and firecrackers had stilled. The sense of jubilation among people had given way to an anxious vigilance as the government decided, in its wisdom, to usher in new currency notes and do away with the old. Even so, I had already begun to travel by then, making short sorties into the crinkles of the folded earth. It felt good to feel the ground beneath my feet again.
Sleepy hamlets below the rolling clouds of Kangra valley, the mist-laden Singalila trail high above Darjeeling, apple orchards on the stepped hillsides of Himachal, the small town of my birth in the Jharkhand forests… I sped off in different directions without any pattern, sometimes with friends and at others, with family. In between, I reconnected with Kolkata over some trips to wind up my late mother’s affairs but otherwise, was mostly home when my daughter would come back from school. The journeys, while never ambitious or grand in scale, suited me fine, jogging me along but never tipping me over.
And so it was that at the dog-end of December, with the shadows lengthening faster and the fog rolling in to a watery sun, I went camping with my wife and daughter to the foothills of the Kumaon. We had the year to bed down, and we wanted to do so in a tent we would pitch under an open sky. In the low light of a solar lantern and the soft touch of sleeping bags, there lay the hope of communion.
We’d chosen Syat as our base, a rustic village rising a few thousand feet higher than the adjoining Terai grasslands and dense jungle of Jim Corbett National Park. It wouldn’t be our first visit here, having stayed twice before at the picturesque Wildrift camp by the edge of a hilly forest. But this time, we planned to go further in and higher up, aided by their able staff. They were good, hardy men we had come to know over the years who’d made even our city child blend into the wild scenery. Our destination was a village in the forest, where stood just a single house. I was curious.
About six hours into our drive from Delhi, we reached the Wildrift camp, artfully concealed within the thick vegetation and tall stands of trees. After a leisurely lunch under a towering banyan, we hefted our rucksacks and set off in the afternoon with Puran, our guide, and two of his men. The path, such as it was, sloped up a forested ridge till it disappeared into the tree cover of the intersecting hills. We walked single-file in the pale winter sun, dry fallen leaves crunching under our feet, and it wasn’t long before we had left the last house behind. Colourful spices were drying on its slanted roof next to a peering dish antenna, smoke billowed lazily out of a window and the dull violence of the outside world seemed far away.
In a while, we crossed a shrine to a local god, plastered in white. Faith runs deep in these parts, like the meltwater of the Ramganga and Baur that flows down from the heights in spring. The villagers here don’t have much, apart from the slow grind of the day disappearing over their fields and their voices raised in song to the beat of a drum by the evening during a festival. Belief in something beyond the self is not hard to imagine.
As the trail grew steeper and the trees much thicker, Puran would suddenly freeze in his tracks, motioning us to silence, and point with his binoculars. There in the branches, if we were lucky, we would spot a glimpse of a flurry of wings – a Scarlet Minivet, Fantail, Blue Whistling Thrush or Himalayan Bulbul poised delicately for flight. They were beautiful, tiny creatures whose kingdom we were trespassing. In reproach, they stole away at the roll of a dislodged pebble into the skies above.
Soon after, we had traversed the Ninety Steps, a section of an ingenious system of stone chutes that brought water from high up to the fields far below. The path then veered right, skirting the edge of the hillside. For close on half a kilometre, we marched along the level but narrow margin of a chute, mindful of the yawning fall on one side. My daughter, all of eight, sped ahead like a mountain goat with Deepu, one of the men, though I had a hard time keeping up. The young know little fear; that usually is an inheritance of age and long habit.
When we left one hill for the other, the rough path through the forest started rising again, this time without any relent. Before, we had passed village women on the way, with customarily heavy loads of grass and firewood strapped to their backs, exchanging a casual greeting when we crossed. Now, there was no one except for us, and the eyes in the undergrowth that may have been discreetly watching.
On and on we went against gravity, climbing up on tired knees, as the sun dipped lower in mocking descent. And then, just as I – lagging in the rear – was beginning to regret having set off on this little adventure, we crested a rise near the hilltop and reached the skyline again. There it was, just like Puran had said: a simple, one-storied homestead in a clearing set against nowhere, standing in magnificent isolation. We had reached the village of one house. It was almost five in the evening and I felt knackered, but something about that proud dwelling spoke to me.
Puran dispatched Raju the cook to rustle up some hot mugs of tea in the smoky kitchen, while my wife and I struck up a conversation with the old lady who was the owner. She had come as a shy bride many years ago to this house. It had been passed down the generations to her now-late husband; his brothers had bought land in other places near Nainital. She’d become used to living here with just her son, daughter-in-law and the rare visitor for company, tending to the flock of lambs we saw nuzzling the grass and the cows mooing in the shed above. It was the life she knew, and she didn’t complain.
Her son would hike every morning down the steep paths to sell milk to the villagers at Syat. By day, he’d be working the field, and watering the crop. And the nights were spent on a machan erected beside it, keeping a watch for any intruding animal. His wife came out briefly, freshly bathed and wearing a magenta salwar suit, her long open hair falling on one side. She carried a platter of flowers, offering them to the gods at an altar built in the open, before looking at us incuriously and getting down to washing the utensils. It was a hard and lonely life, but a quiet dignity clothed these anonymous people. I could sense it in the decorations they had fashioned with care that ran along the eaves of their home.
The fierce barking of a dog interrupted us without warning. Inside an open room, a black Bhotia lay leashed, suckling a lone pup and guarding it with all her will. When I remarked that I had never seen a litter of one before, the old woman laughed and said, neither had she. There must have been something about the place that bred solitude. I asked her where the father was, to which she simply stated, “Bagheera le gaya.” Leopards still prowled in the Kumaon foothills, and here was grim evidence. Man and beast, live here in wary alliance to the rhythm of the passing days.
That night, we pitched our tent, a birthday gift from my wife, on an uneven patch of land that served as the family’s wheat field in summer. It was pitch dark, the kind of inky blackness that alienates and yet, illuminates. Orion the Hunter, hand outstretched to belt and bow, had made his appearance. So had the silvery ‘W’ of Cassiopeia, the vain Greek queen, and Pleiades of the Seven Sisters. Puran knew his constellations; having guided us on land by day, he was now navigating us along the sky at night. As luck would have it, a shooting star suddenly arched across the heavens, before vanishing in a defiant blaze. It was the night of December 30, strung out in myth and cloaked in awed whispers. And in that faraway place below the glimmering pinpoints of light, lay the ending of something powerful that I could not quite explain…
Even on journeys where nothing really ‘happens’, there is something to take away. I’m in no hurry as yet to get back to the Big Top. Maybe, I never will; I really can’t say. It is the life I’ve chosen at present, and I can’t complain. This interlude won’t last, of course; nothing ever does. But till then, I’ll remember that mud and stone house, independent and solitary, on top of the wooded hill. I’ll see the fire on the earthen oven, tugging at the darkness all around. I’ll hear the stillness of a single pup mewling at its mother’s teat, safe for now from the gaze of a leopard.
I’ll be a village of one house because sometimes, that’s all you need to be.