“The sights and smells and sounds of the Himalayas have never left me”
THE HIMALAYAS LODGE THEMSELVES IN ONE’S MIND’S EYE, ONE’S SOUL, AND NO OTHER MOUNTAINS CAN COMPETE WITH THEIR GRANDEUR AND SHEER MAGNIFICENCE.
II grew up in Nainital, with some years in Shimla as well. The mountains were all around us, but when was it that I first encountered and understood the snow clad majesty of the Himalayas? Somehow, I can’t seem to place it in the context of my own age, the month or the year or the season. Yet, I can never forget that liminal moment when I first glimpsed those distant ranges, spread out before me beyond a vista of intermediary hills and valleys, draped in blue haze. The towering presences in the horizon were luminous with grace, I saw them not a geographical feature but as people, as characters, as individuals.
I played with their names in my mind. Nanda Devi—it was she who attracted me most, this tall calm lady who seemed to be smiling through the low clouds around her. And Trishul who looked like a powerful king, strong but kind.
My maternal grandfather, Dr Chandra Dutt Pande, had taken me to Kilbury to the Forest Rest House there. We were all packed into an Ambassador car, cousins and aunts, and as we tumbled out after a long and winding drive I saw them, those
glistening peaks, those silent sentinels, Nanda Devi, Panchuli, Nanda Kot, Chaukhamba. They were ghostly, enticing, and utterly transformative in how I understood my relationship with mother earth and our tiny blue planet.
“These are the highest mountains in the world” my grandfather said to me; he whispered into my ear, as though he was sharing a secret. Something in the deep silence around made us all whisper, but only in the beginning. Soon the sheer joy of a clear sunny day in the mountains made us forget our inhibitions and high pitched laughter was competing with bird calls and the sounds of the whistling wind.
Delving into memory I realise now that it must surely have been the late autumn, perhaps October, for the trees were beginning to change coour, they were turning red, and yellow, and ochre. And the snow mountains had a sheen to them, a resplendent glow that I know in retrospect would be because of the first powdery snows falling on those distant peaks.
There was a viewing point, a sort of ramp, in the centre of the garden. I stood there, staring at these new friends, examining the bond I seemed to already have established with them. It was there, then, on that day, that my love affair with the Himalayas began. What started as a childish infatuation became a lifelong commitment, a love story like no other in my life. The Himalayas are with me wherever I might be; Lucknow or London, Boulder or Mumbai. They reside in my prayers, in my dreams, in the books I have written.
In my dreams, I encounter the snow mountains in the most unlikely places. Recently, I dreamt that they were just outside Delhi, beyond Sohna where the Aravallis, the most ancient mountains in the world, stood transformed into the Himalayas, the youngest range in the planet. When the Himalayas enter my dreams, I savour the visitation, keeping the memory alive even after I have woken up, imagining I am elsewhere while drinking my morning coffee.
A SENSE OF SCALE
After the unexpected success of my debut novel, Paro, I began working on A Himalayan Love Story.
The three books in the Himalayan
Trilogy are all set in the Kumaon region. I have co-edited Himalaya with Ruskin Bond, and the new anthology, The Himalayan Arc: East of South-East takes readers on a journey across the eastern Himalayas.
In his poem Meru, W. B Yeats called them “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise”. What did that first sight of the Himalayas teach me? What did it convey? Perhaps, it imparted a sense of scale, of the significance of things, and their insignificance.
The sights and smells and sounds of the Himalayas have never left me. There are some lines from Kipling, taken from a short story called Namgay Doola, that have stayed in my memory. “...the scent of damp woodsmoke, hot cakes, dripping undergrowth, and rotting pine cones. That is the true smell of the Himalayas, and if once it creeps into the blood of a man, that man will at the last, forgetting all else, return to the Himalayas to die” . As I hope to.
In my dreams, I encounter the snow mountains in the most unlikely places. When the Himalayas enter my dreams, I savour the visitation.