I leaned against the moss-covered trunk and closed my eyes, breathing in deeply the fragrance of the pine-scented air. My heart sung with the bird on the bough as I strolled down the hillside, stopping here and there to pick up those pretty white blossoms at the foot of the trees. I paused to think - that giant towering deodar and a couple of petite flowers crouching at its base - it was the most splendid illustration of the lesson that Nature teaches.
A voice shouted exasperatedly, "Aren't you ever going to come?" I laughed aloud and hurried to the car. Luckily for me, not only did the route we were following cut through woods, but Gauri Udyar, where we were headed, was a mountain-cave in the very middle of an obscure jungle.
Ever since I was little, my father's passion for exploring remote and quiet locales of beauty, has had us all treading the most remote of places. Now we were in the Baageshwar district of the Kumaon Uttaranchal hills and were nearing the village we had been told about. There it was, I could see it up the curve - and here we are! The car stopped and we tumbled out.
After a conversation with the owner of a nearby chai-shop we learnt that Gauri Udyar was 'a bit farther' and the only way up there was by foot. Parking the car under a tree, we made our way through the lush terrace fields and up the narrow road. On the slope of the hillside stood many stunted mango trees, the green unripe fruit of which left a delightfully sour and tangy taste in the mouth. Mother collected quite a few and put them in her handbag, hoping to pickle them when we would go back to Lucknow.
Soon we had climbed much higher up and the throng of mango trees was only faintly visible. Tall parched chir trees lined the path on either side and the ground draped with their dry leaves, had become horribly slippery. I looked up to observe their weird hair-like leaves hanging in bunches from the stems. They reminded me of my best friend back at home who would probably compare them to the amazing alignment of leaves on the branches of trees in Yercud's forests. Now the path was very narrow, not more than a foot and a half, and we walked in a single file, leaning towards the hill, trying hard not to notice the steep fall on the other side. Everybody was beginning to feel increasingly tired, our limbs ached and our wits struggled to concentrate on keeping our feet firm on the ground. My sister had started to whimper and father shouted words of encouragement to her, while my mother fumed that the shop owner had told us that it was just 'a bit farther'. I stopped to admire the valley below as she handed me the camera. Far below, I could see the churning waters of the Saryu river sparkling here and glinting there, in between the multitude of green trees and swarms of village huts. Having taken a few clicks from different angles till I was satisfied,and long swigs of water from the only bottle we were carrying, we started again, my sister perched on father's shoulders this time.
A landslide must have occurred there probably not more than a few weeks ago, for there were long weary stretches of dry pebbles, gravel and mud, the bareness of the landscape relieved only by the presence of uprooted tree trunks on the ground. We met very few people on the way, and those whom we did, told us, much to our disdain, that we were almost there. It was quite clear now that a good few kilometres were just a matter of a couple of steps to the natives. Already we had put approximately six kilometres behind and there was not a clue as to how many more we had before us. What pushed us further, though, was the increasing greenery and the loud sound of gushing water.
To be sure, our spirits were lifted instantly as we turned round the corner. Surprise and wonder overwhelmed us at the sight of the small but magnificent waterfall. This side of the mountain was shrouded in the greenery that strangely eluded it on the other side. In the midst of the lushness, cascading and catapulting, tumbling and gushing, splashing and spluttering posed the majestic waterfall, emerging out of what seemed to be a thick curtain of green moss. The splendour of it was stupefying and we watched in silent fascination, observing the trembling streaks of green light and the patches of yellow sunshine flicker on the shimmering, glimmering, sparkling waters. Following what must have been a lifetime, when our numb senses reverted to their original activity, did we think of moving on, naturally after the clicking of cameras. The waterfall was crossed by means of a frail-looking 'bridge', if it could be called thus, for it looked more like a bunch of planks casually strung together - and it surely did whip up a weird feeling of thrill in the pit of my stomach as I walked on it.
The beautiful sight of the waterfall had refurbished our energy enough to take us through another three kilometres without noticing it, and there we stood, at the threshold of the cave. A narrow stream gurgled at its base and my sister had a marvellous time counting the little fishes that kept weaving their way about the rocks. The huge gaping entrance was fringed with stalactites and stalagmites that continued further inwards. Inside, the amazing display of these weird CaCo3 formations was several times magnified -- the jagged projections jutting out of the ceiling and the floor glistened in the slanting sunrays, while at places they joined to form imposing pillars. Tiny mica deposits lay glittering on the floor of the cave and reflected light into our faces. It was so silent that even the echo of our breathing was audible, just as the steady dripping of water from the tip of a stalactite was.
We caught sight of a native crossing the stream and hailed him. An hour-long talk with him told us that this cave was named so because it was dedicated to goddess Lakshmi (In Pahadi, Gauri means Lakshmi ; and Udyar means a cave). He pointed to the relief sculpture of the goddess in the very centre of the cave. Perfectly carved out of an enormous pillar, all that adorned the figurine was a red 'teeka' on the forehead. A reluctant glance at the watch informed us that it was five in the evening. The native also told us that tigers and wolves emerged after dusk and that we must hurry home. He further alarmed us by squinting at the sky and declaring that rain was due in an hour. Though we could not spot a single cloud, we hastily bid him goodbye and started on our way back.
Astonishingly, precisely an hour had passed, when I turned backward glance at the sky, the horizon seemed to have shrunken due to the emergence of a mass of leaden clouds. We walked faster, but everyone was tired, and rather cross too, because I insisted on collecting pinecones as we went. The sudden gush of water when one turns on a faucet, was heard and a strange sight met our eyes as we turned around. It had started to rain, but it wasn't raining where we were standing. I could even see the line in the sky beyond which the clouds poured, and that line seemed to be rapidly edging towards us. The rain was 'approaching' us. We turned on our heel and strode along, casting frantic glances at the clouds which had almost caught up with us. I laughed, for it seemed like a mad race with the clouds, and of course, they were soon over us. Drenched and teeth chattering we stumbled on, ducking out of the way of hailstones which the heavens pelted upon our heads. The shower washed away the pebbles and gravel that had provided a grip under our feet, and the ground was more slippery than ever. Each one of us slipped numerous times, rising ashen-faced and thankful that we had not plunged into the valley below. I sensed a vague regret when mother told me that that was no time to stand and admire the waterfall as I was doing.
The rain had probably had some kind of a cutting effect on the path, for most of the mud had been washed away, and the path had thinned to an incredible one-foot width. That too sloped dangerously towards the valley, and we crouched low as we strengthened our foothold, clutching at the clumps of prickly grass on the hill- side. The last straw on the camel's back was when we had walked for over four hours and had only a few kilometres to go. It was the area where the landslide had occurred. Let alone the triple amount of sliminess and slush, a massive tree trunk had slid down from the top and was obstructing our path. My sister gave a painful sob, and I certainly felt very near to it. My father was leading us, so he went first with my sister. My mother followed them and then it was my turn to climb carefully onto the trunk and cross over to the other side. As I was sitting on the broad stem, I looked down. I felt dizzy and in panic made a quick movement to the other side. The trunk lurched and I shrieked. With the immediacy of instinct I jammed my feet onto the ground and pulled away from the trunk, which gave a sickening groan and went hurtling down into the valley. A grin spread across my face as I saw the expression of terror on others' faces relax.
After another hour of uneventful walking, we reached the terrace fields and crossed them to reach our car. I was bone-tired as we drove off, but couldn't resist a smile as I thought of my narrow escape. I whispered shakily to myself, 'That was a classic Steven Speilberg shot.'
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Coming to Nainital and not boating was the most ridiculous thing one could do. Squeals of excitement and urgent nudges prompted my father into assenting hastily. We followed the boatman down to the lake and into the rickety blue boat that bobbed up and down on the water surface as we climbed into it.
I craned my neck as we passed under the shadow of one of the towering mountains that sprung sharply all around the glassy lake. I peered into the water, but I saw nothing except slimy weeds suspended in the murky green. Shivers ran down my spine, as I decided that I didn't like lakes much, for their menacing insides are veiled so discreetly. Instead, I fixed my attention on the cheerful splash of colour made by the many boats and yachts that floated merrily aside the one that held their observer. A familiar click and a glint of light told me that father had just bottled the very scene I was savouring. It was too soon that two rounds of the lake were done and the boat wobbled at the shore.
We entered the flats and trooped into the narrow aisles crammed with tourists, browsing through the stalls on either side. From clothes that the 'Vogue' would have been proud to showcase, the funkiest watches and perfume collections that'd beat Paris' best, to the latest Yashica cameras, antique items and an amazing variety of toys for children - there was something in there to suit everybody's taste. Three hours seemed to have flitted past with annoying rapidity and yet our bulging shopping bags didn't weigh down our hands enough. I couldn't keep my eyes off the shiny new watch on my wrist and experienced the same pleasure as I patted the fat brown paper bag that held a leather jacket for my father's birthday. My sister's eyes shone as she told me about the new videogame Mum had just bought for her.
Realising that my father's impatience wouldn't allow me to examine those lovely wind-chimes any longer, I reluctantly followed him to the food stalls, for it was three-thirty in the afternoon. A long line of these posed temptingly before us, but our obvious choice was the Tibetan Food Mart. Soon we were munching piping hot momos and tucking in to large helpings of chowmein. Ice cream for dessert ended the delectable affair. I felt sure that I'd never enjoyed a meal so much before.
Having had our fill, we resumed shopping. I spent the next two hours bargaining for pretty trinkets, buying churan off a vendor's cart and trying my hand at the air-gun. I lingered at the Learn-Magic-Tricks-In-1-Minute stall for much longer than a minute, learning some fabulous magic tricks and ended up teaching the shop-owner a few. Father bought a lumpy grey package which, on curious inquiry, turned out to be, much to my amusement, two pairs of warm hand-knitted socks. While my sister found her interests wedged between the different kinds of chocolates at the confectioner's, mother, on the other hand, contented herself at a shop that sold hand-woven shawls.
We then moved out of the flats and into the Mall. Not many shops there captured our attention except a woodcrafts shop and the Customs-free Imported Items Store. It was just half past seven as we came out of the latter, and already quite dark, but the town of Nainital lost none of its fervent liveliness. Instead, it twinkled with a thousand lights and tourists still crowded the streets and flats -- the nightlife pulsated with vibrant vigour. Looking around at the sparkling city, it seemed as though its lights were imitating the dark star-spangled sky. I wondered that the skies always seemed closer and clearer and the stars brighter from the hills than from the plains.
Even at nine, when we discovered that at we were not very hungry, we decided to treat ourselves to softie ice-creams. A row of softie machines lined the streets and we stopped at the nearest one. I licked my ice as we drove off to the hotel and the activities of the day filled my head even as I lay down to sleep in the warm and cozy bed. As I pulled the covers over my head, I invited my sister to indulge carefree in the sin of eating chocolates under the blanket, and end the cheeriest of days in style.
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Published on 1/25/04