Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mid year vacation in Kasauli


I knew I had a vacation coming up at the end of May, but I barely had time to dwell on that happy thought until almost the last minute. The university took its own sweet time to announce the dates for the final examinations, and once it did, the dates clashed with our travel plans. So while Baba flew off to Delhi on the morning of the 28th, I still had two examinations to go, and too harried to anticipate the holiday. On 30th, the last examination was done and dusted, and after a quick farewell photo session with my friends, I rushed to the airport for an evening flight. This was already my fifth flight of the year and third flight alone, and so I took a chance at the self check-in kiosk. That worked out without a glitch, leaving me to feel quite accomplished and grown up. A laid back round of retail therapy at the airport, and soon I was aboard the Jet Airways flight on to Delhi. It was a lovely flight despite the rather strong bout of turbulence in the middle, and the view outside was mesmerizing. The sky changed colour before my eyes, and looked unreal, like a Van Gogh painting. But more about that another time. I landed at 8.25 and was out of the airport in another twenty five minutes. Baba and Shilpi Di were waiting for me at the entrance.  I must say, Baba coming to receive me at the airport and at a place away from home was a novel emotional experience for me, and I still haven’t quite recovered from the thrill and slight sense of disbelief of it. Baba said that I had the quiet and slightly bored demeanour of a seasoned flier about me, so I have definitely come quite a long way from the clumsy nervous fool I had been the first time round. Shilpi Di’s place is a not-too-long drive away from the airport, and soon enough we were home and relaxing with the beer that I had been demanding for quite some time. The rest of the evening was spent in easy jesting and some last minute packing for the next day, and then we turned in to catch the few hours of shut-eye before our trip.

We were up and ready to leave well in time the next morning. We were headed to Kasauli, a small cantonment town in Himachal Pradesh, not very far from Shimla. The ride was a long one – Google Maps had predicted six hours, but we ended up needing almost seven and a half what with the multiple tolls and tax counters on the way. We crossed Haryana and Punjab, and got a glimpse of the university I am about to attend next – again, this I’ll talk about later. The road was lovely and well maintained, something that we have been noticing around the country nowadays, so that is one thing that India seems to be definitely making progress in. The heat was unbelievable, and the air conditioning had to be kept on throughout the drive except for the last stretch up the hills. The upward climb was a short one, barely an hour, and we arrived at our hotel in time for lunch. The place is not in Kasauli proper; it is a small area called Sukhi Johri about eight kilometres away, and the resort is a quaint little place called Whispering Winds Villa. You don’t often see nomenclature that is so apt: the resort is a little way off the highway, across a winding dirt road that leads to the other side of the hill giving way to a lush pine forest, and on arrival we were greeted with the magical sound of the wind blowing through the trees producing a uniform rustling sound. The trees really seemed to talk to each other by the wind! It was a steep climb up to our rooms in the villa, which Baba traversed as nonchalantly as the local folk, but which left me huffing like an engine by the time we had reached. But the location and the view from the room made the effort well worth it. With clear glass facades on three sides opening out on a wide terrace and the view from the bed stretching across the pine groves towards the rear end of the hotel, it was everything that the mountain lover could ask for. Everything but the pleasant weather that one usually expects at the higher altitudes – we still had to keep the air-conditioning on in our room. Refreshing baths and a quick and simple lunch later, all of us dozed off for a well deserved siesta after the tiring ride. Much later in the evening, while it was still light outside, we went out for a walk, after first grabbing a beer to quench the ever present summer thirst. This was at a local restaurant called Giani da Dhaba that was being manned by an adorable Sikh grandma. I have always found it delightful how unflustered and matter- of-fact the hill folk are about drinking. Throughout our vacations cross the mountains, we have come across roadside liquor shops and bars run by women of all ages, and sometimes even little kids who will hand you your choice of liquor without batting an eyelid. Compare that to the stony faced men behind iron grills at the shops in West Bengal, and the difference in the social attitude towards drinking in these regions will become apparent to you. We ventured into the pine groves before it got too dark to see the narrow road track, and from there we looked out on the twinkling lights from some village on the far side of the hill. A little way below lay the tracks of the famous Shivalik rail that runs from Kalka to Shimla and crosses over a hundred tunnels along the way. We had travelled by the train way back in 2004 during our trip to Shimla. Now we could see that the railway was much more heavily trafficked than before, with trains crossing us by every hour. In fact, we had even been stopped for ten minutes at a level crossing to allow a train to pass the previous day while coming from Delhi. As we looked around, we heard the horns blowing from a long way off, and it was quite some time later that a small train of about six carriages lumbered by, whistling to announce its arrival. These were all ordinary carriages though, nothing like the luxurious Shivalik Express we had travelled by all those years ago. The rest of the evening was spent lazing around on the terrace. Since we were the only guests on that floor we got the entire place to ourselves, which added to our sense of comfort manifold. Dinner was a sumptuous affair of rice and chicken curry washed down with curd, out on the terrace itself. We watched the headlights from vehicles travelling along the mountain curves far away, looking like blobs of moving torchlight. Everything grew quiet and still, and it was silent all around except for the gentle droning of the cicadas and the occasional horns from the trains. Then it was time for bed. Baba read out one of my favourite stories from the Parashuram collection about the intrepid goat with the exceptionally long ears, and I fell asleep still quivering with laughter.

The next day was kept for exploring Kasauli town. A breakfast of oily aloo parathas later, we took off on a small road leading out of the highway with Google Maps as our guide. It was a lovely drive, though quite short. As we climbed higher – almost two thousand feet in the span of eight kilometres – the air got increasingly more pleasant, and finally we could make the most of the hills. Once there, our first stop was the air-force base that houses an old Hanuman temple at the top of the hill. There was a thorough security check and we were asked to leave almost all belongings behind ostensibly because the monkeys had a bad habit of snatching everything, and the warning ‘trespassers will be shot on sight’ did not exactly inspire confidence anyway. The place is named ‘Monkey Point’, with creative alternations like ‘Manki Point’ making appearances on signboards. Definitely a colonial era name; no Indian will risk the wrath of the great mythological sage by referring to his apish anatomy. We walked around a bit in the area, but gave the actual temple a miss. A combination of lack of piety and back and leg aches made the prospect of climbing hundreds of stairs up the hill quite unpalatable. But we did have a lovely cup of iced coffee at an air-force run canteen there, before retracing our steps to the car park. This was a little way off the main town, and as we drove back, I looked out over the numerous bungalows and villas dotting the hillside. Those who can afford to live up in the mountains are lucky people indeed. And many must share my opinion; on the plaque outside one pretty villa, along with the name of the owner was the exasperated turn-off  “this property is not for sale”!

Kasauli is a small place, even by hill standards. The main tourist hub with the mall road and the church is in an area barely a square kilometre in size. We made a quick visit at the Anglican Church, where the reverend turned out to be a Bengali gentleman, and afterwards went for a walk up the less frequented upper mall road. It was a steep climb, but shady and peaceful. There were bushes of wild flowers and shrubs along the pathway, and occasional benches for weary travellers. The military has put up many signboards venerating martyrs from the local divisions in various wars, as well as quotations that are hilarious in their self-aggrandizement; one went so far as to claim “Those who say the pen is mightier than the sword obviously haven’t seen automatic weapons”. We explored two small detours pathways, one that led to a hundred and fifty year old estate established by some Scottish sahib, all the while imagining what it must have been like all those years ago, with the lone Britisher clambering down the dust road on his horse. The other was a tiny track we found leading down to a quaint and somewhat rundown house that had the names of Khushwant Singh and Sir Teja Singh on a plaque at the roadside. It was not difficult to visualize that grand old man sitting down with his glass of whiskey in the garden overlooking the gorge, composing his masterpieces. Afterwards we were ready to return to our hotel, but only after I had managed to bag a lovely little birdhouse from the Heritage Market at the lower mall area. The return drive was quicker, as it often is on the mountains. Before retiring to our room, we spent a little time sitting at the edge of the pine forest behind our resort, listening to the whooshing wind and trying to slide down the soft tuft.

I spent the afternoon reading while the others slept. Around four thirty it was suddenly too dark to read, and there was an increasingly loud roll of thunder outside. Pretty soon it started raining in earnest. Baba was now up, and we went out on the terrace to watch. Thunderstorms in the mountains have a flavour of their own. Everything becomes grey and hazy and there is a distinct sense of otherworldliness about everything. The temperature declines rapidly, and before long we were wrapping ourselves with the hitherto untouched blankets. It rained for a long time, and afterwards there was a stillness in the air and a clarity of vision unlike anything you see down in the plains. We went out for our customary walk once the rain had stopped, and had piping hot puri bhaji at Giani da Dhaba. But a sudden power cut forced us to return quickly using the torches on our phones. Once again we moved to the terrace and stayed there for a while, and later called it a night earlier than usual, looking forward to a good long nine hours of sleep.

And then it was time to go home. It was the second of June, and we were ready for the long drive back by ten thirty in the morning. This time the journey was smoother, with much fewer stops on the way. We were in Delhi by five, Baba’s estimate being as impeccable as ever, and in bed by six thirty, after squeezing in a meal of sausages and sandwiches. It was the weirdest sleeping session we have ever had, from seven to ten in the evening and again from eleven to two thirty. Our return flight was due at 5.50 in the morning, but because I tend to be paranoid about these things, we were at the Delhi airport by three forty five! And I wasn’t too wrong either; even at that hour the place was milling with people and the queues seemed to be miles long. We were done with the formalities well within time, though both Baba and I got stopped at the security, him for his metal support from the leg fracture, and me from a metal refill that a pen apparently had. Talk about arbitrary airport situations! The flight was a peaceful one and I slept through most of it, and we were received at the newly opened Andal airport by Thamma. We were home in Durgapur before nine.

It was a short and sweet vacation, much needed after the examination grind of the last month. The one less than perfect element was the driver we had been assigned by this app based service called GoZo in Delhi. His control over the vehicle was good, but that apart there was nothing suitable about him. He either texted or made phone calls or worse still, practically dozed off at the steering wheel, all the while driving along the highway at ninety km per hour. He was also spectacularly uncooperative and constantly grumbling about having to move off the highway into mountain roads. To anyone looking to hire cars from Delhi, I will suggest that you give this particular service a miss. That apart, the trip went off without a hitch, and I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to travel, this time from Delhi itself.

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