In the covered shelter overlooking the temple hot pools the women are singing, perhaps 30 or 40 of them; a robust, brassy chant that rises and falls to the accompaniment of their clapping. Round and round the chorus goes, as wild as the mountains that surround us, bold, glittering and defiant. I can only make out their shadowy figures from afar, but can picture them from the sound: a grandmother bawls out the lead in a voice cracked with age, a call and answer to the high, clear notes of a young girl, perhaps in her teens. Then the rest join in a shrill, powerful chorus. It has a barbaric splendour to it, full of strength, and slowly the village becomes quiet around us in awe as the women make their voices heard. Then the singing dies away, and the low roar of the distant river rises again as it rushes on into the darkness.
Naggar had been picturesque, but after a week it was time to move on. With no clear destination in mind many possibilities presented themselves: Kinnaur was out, but perhaps we could go to Dharamsala, and a small village above the town where we had stayed three years previously. But it was going to be a long slog to get there, and at peak holiday season accommodation might be in short supply. We toyed with the idea of a return to Ladakh, but the region’s remoteness, previously an attraction, now became a liability; we both needed somewhere to rest up and recover, not go into one of the wildest parts of the Himalaya which took two days’ ride to reach.
Then I remembered Vashisht. It was a village just three kilometers across the valley from Manali, but a world away from the snarling traffic and reggae-blaring coffee shops that Old Manali had become. Vashisht was known for its hot springs which lay in the very centre of the village as part of an ancient temple complex, and when I had visited previously, nerves frayed from Afghanistan, it had been a tranquil spot to linger in for a while, still retaining something of its village atmosphere.
Trudging up the hill past the castle, laden with backpacks, we emerged into what passed for a town square in Naggar. There were several taxis parked up but no drivers in sight. A lone autorickshaw was parked by the chai stall, and we found the driver – a young, sleepy-eyed guy in a red polo shirt. Could he take us all the way to Vashisht? Certainly, he said. No problem. We agreed a price, clambered in and set off on a roller coaster ride down the lanes. A short way beyond the village he turned off onto a dirt track that zigzagged its way down the mountainside, past small stone houses and bushes of wild cannabis. “Short cut,” the driver explained. We clung on, pitching and yawing our way over the bumps. We crossed a narrow bridge bedecked with prayer flags that was just wide enough to accommodate the rickshaw, and turned onto the main highway to Manali.
As we buzzed along, I started to notice that the driver appeared to be swaying. He’d glance down at the handlebars with his hooded eyes, give a strange half-smile, and begin a slow clockwise rotation of his upper body. It looked like he was going into a trance.
I tapped him on the shoulder. “Thik hain, bhai?” You OK, brother?
“Haan, haan, thik hain.” He straightened up once more. He was driving well – his reflexes seemed good: he braked swiftly to miss a motorbike that pulled out in front of us, avoided the potholes and anticipated all the countless hazards. But again, after a few minutes, he began that odd swaying rotation. Was he drugged? Falling asleep? I couldn’t tell. We were coming into Manali now, past the private bus stand by the river where we had arrived three weeks earlier. I did a quick risk assessment, debating whether to get him to stop and find another rickshaw. But relative safety – he’d got us this far. Nevertheless I kept a close eye on him.
The traffic was worse than ever. Nose to tail gridlock for several kilometers. Masked Himachali cops waved arms and blew whistles seemingly at random, trying to control it. As we neared a line of parked rickshaws, a paunchy guy in blue shirt and aviator shades stepped in front of us, blocking our progress. He began barking at the driver in the manner of officialdom everywhere. He wanted us to turn back, it seemed. We had the wrong plates. The driver explained he’d come from Naggar. It was the rickshaw cartel, where they had unofficially assigned themselves certain routes. Our driver was an outsider, and not welcome. There was some shouting back and forth in Hindi, and then we drove on once more.
“Yahan se right.” The directions came back to me after a three year absence, through the mental maps of other cities. Straight on led to the Rohtang Pass, culminating in a wall of mountains, the other side of which lay Ladakh. And much seemed familiar, but so many other places intervened: these trees are not the gum trees of Victoria; not the pines of Scandinavia, nor the poplars of Italy. How many places have I been? Sometimes you feel you have seen too much, travelled too far. The memories blur together, superimposed over one another. A place will pop into your head at random, temporarily transporting you in time and space. In the end destinations become immaterial, and the only consistent theme is your endless journey. But over there was a hotel where I had once stayed, and there a barber’s where I had a haircut. I had been here before. What had changed in three years? Myself, immeasurably.
Dharma Hotel was a succession of long, echoing corridors which carried the unmistakeable reek of cooking gas. A six storey monstrosity, it had a perfect bird’s eye view over the village from the hillside, reached by a flight of steep stone steps from behind the temple pools. These lanes were mediaeval – spattered with cow dung and with open drains running alongside. Rounding one corner we had a near miss as a lady in a nearby house flung the contents of a bucket out of her open doorway. Gardez l’eau. I remembered this slow trudge up, heart hammering. We had come from sea level in Goa, and were now at 6,500 feet. Ahead of us three local labourers toiled upwards, each with a stack of bricks on their back supported by a band around the forehead: I counted 24 bricks in the load of the man ahead of me. They would do this journey over and over again each day, 40, 50 times. They moved in slow motion, faces impassive, eyes on the step ahead, lost in their own private worlds. And how many people had I followed up mountain paths over the years? Robustly jovial Manyikas in Zimbabwe, endlessly laughing and singing; the fearsomely proud Tajiks of Panjshir who brought a casual, dashing flair to everything they did; rugged Gurungs in Nepal whose men supplied the Brigade of Gurkhas, legendary for their toughness, who knew no flat land from the day they were born – all mountain people whose steps danced effortlessly up the track ahead.
We adjourned to the terrace for lunch, and found we were back in backpacker territory; the menu was a combination of Western and Indian dishes – pizza, falafel, aloo gobi. In the distance the white wall of the Rohtang Pass barred the valley, and above it the sky was darkening. A wind sprang up, and the first spots of rain began to fall. Seizing our plates we moved into the dining room, which was notable for the absence of any tables. A group of six or seven men were sitting in a circle in the centre of the room, gathered around an enormous hookah. It was one of the largest I’d seen, with a stem that was over a metre long. Each would puff on it for a while then give it a little flick, and it would spin round the group before coming to rest in front of someone else. On one wall an enormous television played an Indian soap opera, involving liquescent-eyed beauties demurely quailing in front of scowling mothers-in-law – a staple of the genre. Occasionally a banner would pop up on screen titled “Breaking News – Ranbir spotted in Colaba nightspot with Deepika”, or “Karina dazzles at blockbuster launch”, on what was ostensibly a news channel.
You can tell a lot about a country by its media. Bollywood has never translated particularly well to other cultures – it’s too Indian somehow, too rigidly formulaic – but that’s precisely what offers an insight into local aspirations. A film of any genre would be unthinkable without at least one song and dance routine, although if it is the type of Action blockbuster popularised by Hollywood the routine might be not-so-cunningly hidden; in a nightclub scene, for example, which the hero and heroine just happen to visit before becoming the stars of the show, everyone else somehow magically lining up around them. There’s also a dearth of originality; it’s quite common to find yourself watching a sequence which somehow seems oddly familiar, due to it having been lifted almost scene by scene from Hollywood. But nobody cares – nobody cries foul, or sues anyone else. The local audience doesn’t mind; indeed they somehow relate far more to the sight of Shah Rukh Khan chasing a baddie over the same red-tiled rooftops of Dubrovnik than they would Daniel Craig. Never mind the silliness, the parodies and the intertextuality. He’s our boy.
But the night bus movie to Manali unwittingly showed everything that was wrong with the country. Racist, sexist, disablist, homophobic, it would have prompted howls of outrage in any Western audience – in fact it did so even on the bus; two of our fellow passengers, both British, winced their way through it – while all around us Indians laughed. It was called Housefull 3 (how they had made two previous ones along similar lines defied belief) and revolved around a patriarchal Indian father not wanting his three daughters to marry. He was a millionaire, the setting somewhere in England (success comes only with getting out), and it managed, typically, to make the women look like silly bimbos who sneaked out to spend their time jumping up and down in slow motion to a series of Bollywood hits on party boats up and down the Thames, pausing in their tepid twerking only to pout for selfie shots. Their hapless suitors feigned disabilities to gain admittance to the family home (one blind, one crippled and one mute), and were mocked for their afflictions. The grand country house that was the family home was run by a domestic staff who were all black. In one unforgettable scene an Indian actor woke in horror to realise that the woman beside him in bed was also black – a fact he had been unaware of because it was dark (the audience howled with laughter at that one). And in almost every shot, somewhere, looming with semiotic aspiration, was a Union Jack flag – either hanging from a flagpole, or as the logo on somebody’s sweatshirt, or on the masks of three jewel thieves. It was a slavish display of repugnantly Anglophone loyalty, a perpetual Stockholm Syndrome of the mentally colonised. Kick us enough and we’ll lick your boots in gratitude. We only want to be like you. Trouble is, we just don’t know how.
Sometimes you cannot see what is right in front of you. Your mind is elsewhere entirely. The eyes unconsciously take in a scene, but it means nothing, has no relevance to what is going on in your inner world. Then suddenly you register what is before you, and the present comes rushing back, like surfacing for air. I am miles away, reliving events, rewriting new ones, and then I find myself noticing a flock of white egrets flying up the river. I’ve been watching them for perhaps a minute without realising, taking in their curious head-up posture while flying, their neatly trailing legs, the shape that their wings cut through the air, a sideways figure-of-eight, tracing infinity. They rise, climbing, and split into twin skeins, perfectly framing the rising moon behind the mountains which turns them silver, then they are heading in different directions, one group gliding across to the western bank and settling there on a small beach, the other flying on over the village, making for the pass. I’m grateful for their presence now, like a sign, and wonder at how I could unthinkingly observe something so beautiful and be so preoccupied as to not notice.
I was woken soon after six in the morning by loud voices outside. Many voices. Emerging onto the balcony I saw an Indian family on the next balcony. Beyond them were another couple on their balcony, and on down the line – six balconies in a row, each with people standing on them, all of them having a shouted conversation with each other. A man on the next balcony saw me and called out: “Good morning sar!”
“Morning,” I croaked at him.
“Where are you coming from?”
Goa. Delhi. London. Suffolk. I don’t know.
“England,” I replied. “And you?”
He gestured to all the adjacent balconies. “We are from Jalandhar. In Punjab!”
Jullundur. “I know it. Lawrence Durrell was born there. The writer.”
He smiled uncomprehendingly, so I nodded in their general direction and went back inside. K sleepily stirred. “What is all that bloody noise?”
“Oh god.” She pulled the pillow over her head and went back to sleep.
By nine the Punjabis had gone, perhaps on a jeep ride up to the snowfields to have their photographs taken – one of the more popular excursions for the plains dwellers in mid-summer. On a flat roof below us a blonde girl was doing exercises, standing up, touching her toes, then forming a bridge with her bottom in the air before repeating the process. I watched her perform the same routine for half an hour – in which time I drank two masala chais and smoked three cigarettes. Then I saw another western girl appear on a balcony below her, dressed head to toe in skintight black lycra, headphones in, some kind of health monitoring device strapped to her upper arm. She looked as if she was about to go jogging round Hyde Park. She unfurled a skipping rope and began bouncing up and down, her ponytail jigging prettily behind her. “And now I must do my skipping!” I thought unkindly.
I was distracted from observing her aerobics by the sight of an Indian couple slowly climbing a spiral staircase to the rooftop. Both were decidedly large, and must have been in late middle age. They hauled themselves upwards using the handrail, then tottered across to a swing seat onto which they collapsed, fanning themselves. There they stayed for a few minutes, until the man rose and began a curious, knee-lifting walk around the rooftop perimeter. He wore baggy white shorts and a yellow T-shirt. He turned and beckoned to his partner, who slowly got up from the swing seat and went over to join him. She began to imitate his strange gait, lifting the knees high, then they both turned on the spot and went backwards a few steps, turned forwards again, and clapped their hands over their head. One, two, three, four steps forward, turn, turn, clap. One, two, three, four, turn, turn, clap. I realised they were dancing. Perhaps they had music on a mobile phone that I was too far away from to hear. They went in a circle around the rooftop, then reversed their steps and went backward. I watched, mesmerised.
“Come and look at this!” I called inside.
K emerged. “That aunty and uncle? What are they doing?”
“I think they’re dancing. Isn’t it awesome?”
Together we sat and watched these big people, aunty and uncle ji, high-stepping and clapping their way round and round the rooftop, and as they turned I realised both of them wore huge smiles.
The rain comes at four o’clock every day. The sky darkens, the Rohtang Pass slowly vanishes and the mountains echo to thunder. The wind sweeps up the valley, prompting a flurry of activity in the village below – washing is taken in, the hay which is laid out to dry on the flat roof opposite is bundled up hurriedly, and tables and chairs are cleared from the terraces. Soon the rain begins to fall, and the cloud descends down the hillside opposite, dripping stands of conifers looming, silhouetted against the mountain’s flanks. Twin headlights nose cautiously along the other side of the valley as vehicles tentatively find their way back down from the high passes, and eventually the road snarls into gridlock, a long line of vehicles inching forwards with a muffled honking. The sky boils black and grey with torn cloud, tendrils of shredded mist, and a lowering fog draws a diaphanous curtain over the scene.
By evening the rain has stopped and people emerge into the streets again, waiters shaking off chairs, stallholders setting up once more. The river has doubled in size across the boulders of its bed and is roaring in full spate, silt-grey and green woven through with twisting braids of white water. Sometimes you see fishermen selling their catch, smoked on roadside braziers, a small bundle of trout held aloft, with scales of burnished gold, sightless eyes opaque now, fins akimbo. There is a damp chill in the air, reminiscent of home somehow, which induces a certain wistfulness – I haven’t felt this cold for months. You look out at the rain-slick streets of London through the droplets trickling down the bus window on a blustery evening, monochrome passers-by clad in black and grey, huddled in coats, clutching umbrellas, hurrying home. And perhaps you think to yourself: What am I doing here?
I was leaving India in two weeks. The end of another half-year, my biannual peregrination to the subcontinent like that of a migratory bird. This time I had covered a lot of ground, from arid Gujarat in the far west to the deep tropical south of Kerala, and now the north, here in Himachal – “abode of snows”. That was why, I knew, my mind was turning to other destinations once more. Thoughts of home mingled with other places, other possibilities.
Travel becomes its own imperative – a legacy of latent nomadism. It winds up some internal spring within you tighter and tighter, some escapist urge to see new places, other people. It might take a month, or a year, but sooner or later it manifests itself. You pace out the corners of your apartment, stare out of the window for the hundredth time, and everything familiar is sickening. Your life is on hold. Your mind turns to other places you’ve been, other trips. You remember the colourful awnings of a market flapping in the breeze on a sparkling day, like prayer flags. Where was it?… There was a big red ship in the harbour, an icebreaker. Hobart.
We went to Salamanca Market and bought some local honey – blackwood, I think it was. Acacia melanoxylon. It came from way down on the south-eastern coast of Tasmania, where the road ended and there was just miles of bushland, the Franklin-Gordon National Park. The bees flew through the forests all day and returned to their hives at night. The honey tasted strong, not floral so much as a rich, vegetable scent, rather like artichoke. And it was just like the Heaphy honey from the top of New Zealand’s South Island, at the start of the Heaphy Track. I walked that track, and had the honey for breakfast each day, with Weet-bix (no ‘a’) and dried apricots and water from the river, mashed into a paste. Perhaps there’s a connection – similar flora, rain-lashed island wildernesses on the same latitude, just across the Tasman amid the Roaring Forties of the vast Southern Ocean.
I had met Mick in a hostel the previous day. A great black-bearded gentle giant of a guy, he offered to show me round Hobart, his home town. He was in his late 60s, and his marriage had just ended, so he had pitched up at a backpacker hostel as he had nowhere else to stay. His memory was going, and lines of concern at what looked like a bleak future were etched across his brow like lightning. Now he was forgetting the words for everyday items, and I had none to offer him in consolation.
After the market we went to watch the footie in a pub – the AFL final. Hawthorne Hawks against Sydney Swans. I snatched off my bush hat when Jane Fonda sang “Advance Australia Fair”, prompted by Mick rising rather unsteadily to his feet and removing his own. He nodded approvingly.
The barman came over. “What can I get you, gents?”
“I’ll have a…” Mick frowned, trying to remember. The barman was a young guy with a frosted mat of spikes for hair and tattooed arms. The silence went on.
“Sorry mate. Gimme a minute. I’ll have a…”
He started to go red. His forehead puckered with a knot as he tried to remember. The barman looked at me, and I silently willed him to wait, to be patient. He did.
“Bugger it, a beer, dammit. In a…”
We waited a bit more. A bottle? A pint? The barman started fiddling with glasses, eyes drifting to the screen overhead.
“A schooner! A beer in a schooner!” It was a half-pint glass. Mick’s face cleared with relief. He’d remembered.