Tales from the Hills

The train left New Delhi Railway Station at 6am and it was already hot. Six lanes of traffic nudged slowly around Connaught Place, narrowed to the width of one car by a yellow police barrier just before a set of lights which admitted only a vehicle or two at a time before cycling back to red. The consequent tailback grew to such proportions that eventually a policeman wandered over and wheeled the barrier aside, parking it next to the sleeping form of a man stretched out flat on his back on the pavement. The forecast for that day was a high of 42 degrees C, with “very unhealthy air quality”.

The station entrance was pandemonium, the masses of India engaged upon a slow shuffle up and down walkways. Due to a quirk of the system there was no central billboard indicating which platform one needed; instead you had to walk past each platform to check the sign at the entrance, and the station was huge. A porter in scarlet tunic with two suitcases on his head told us we needed platform 14. At the top of the steps a man with an air of officialdom blocked the path of the uncle in front of us and demanded his ticket. Suddenly there came a cry of “No, no, no – don’t show him anything. He’s a scammer.” It was a woman with a backpack and North American accent. “Come on, let’s go to the police station,” she challenged him, and he edged away, somehow retaining an air of wounded pride, to try his luck elsewhere.

We found our carriage and stowed the bags, glad of the air-conditioning; my shirt was already soaked with sweat. There were a group of around 15 middle-aged Bengalis in the seats around ours, all in high spirits at the prospect of holidays. They were incredibly loud. One man, perhaps in his 50s, with Nehru vest and white goatee, had clearly appointed himself in the role of class clown, and kept up a string of quips which reduced the aunties to loud squawks and hoots of phoney laughter that is the sign of the truly humourless. “Ooh, you are awful! – hee hee hee.” This went on for the next six hours.

We rolled slowly through Delhi’s interminable northern suburbs, halting briefly at a packed platform where I made out the Hindi lettering Ghaziabad Junction. The people were quite different to the Goans – many wearing kurta pyjama and several women in veils. The staff brought a thermos of hot water for each passenger, a sachet with teabag, sugar and milk powder, and a pack of Marie biscuits which were described on the label as having been invented long ago by a girl called Marie in the countryside of London, who found long lines of Englishmen queueing up to taste her biscuits. As K was showing me the packet across the aisle, one of the Bengali aunties, who had a curious duck-like pout and corresponding waddle, came and stood right between us to engage the row behind me in conversation. After trying “excuse me,” a couple of times, I hissed at her and made a shooing gesture like one would with a fly. It worked – she retreated to her seat for more squawking. The two Indian gentlemen in the seat opposite, who had been discussing linguistics in low murmurs and sketching things on a notepad, rolled their eyes at the appalling behaviour of their fellow travellers.

The flatlands of Uttar Pradesh rolled by at a steady 50mph, open fields with occasional trees. Sometimes a solitary figure crouched in the shade, or you’d see a group of distant women in vividly coloured saris making their way along a dyke. There were small ponds packed full of water buffalo lying submerged nose to tail. I was reading Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which he retraced his previous route of The Great Railway Bazaar some thirty years before. He was just setting out, passing through Clapham Junction in a thin drizzle, through the dismal suburbs of south London, and musing on how trains would take him all the way across Europe, into Turkey and then on through the Stans, all the way to the plains of India – those same plains I was trundling across now. There was a pleasing sense of things having come full circle.

Occasionally we’d pass through a settlement, a melee of motorbikes and tractors and bullock carts held at a level crossing, small, dusty towns under a broiling sun – “these towns that we live and die in”. This was rural UP, a huge, dysfunctional state with a population of over 200 million, heartland of Hindu nationalism and militant groups of gau rakshaks, cow vigilantes who had lynched people accused of transporting beef – Muslims, in other words. Dirty streets full of rubbish, the smell of spices and rancid cooking oil, filthy hotels, nowhere you’d want to stop.

By the time we rolled into Lal Kuan breakfast was served, the non-veg option being a kind of rubbery white materiel described on the lid as “omlit”, and two pre-packed slices of bread. Large buildings set back from the track proclaimed themselves as “Engineers Boarding House 2nd Class”, and “Conductors and Drivers Club”. This was clearly a railway town, and a branch line led off towards the gates of a paper factory, with small shacks nestled up close to the edge of the tracks. People lay about on charpoy rope beds in front of them: a woman brushing a small girl’s hair, two young guys watching something on a mobile phone, a boy scowling at a textbook as he chewed his pencil. In India life is lived in the open, and these scenes rolled slowly past the window like a stage set. I must have dozed off, and was woken by a jaunty automated female voice announcing that we were approaching Kathgodam, our final stop. Suddenly in the distance a huge escarpment was visible, the town nestled at the foot of it. We had reached the hills.

We emerged from the station into a car park snarl of hooting taxis and jostling passengers, the sun like a hammer on an anvil. Here again the people were different – shorter and stockier, many with an oriental cast to their eyes, speaking a soft, blurred form of Hindi: Pahari log – hill people. We found a driver and joined a long convoy of vehicles snaking up the escarpment, round endless hairpins. We passed the HMT Watch Factory, which looked deserted, and then a series of small roadside restaurants where jeeps packed full of tourists from the plains had halted for lunch. We decided to press on and soon had left the traffic far behind. We stopped in a small settlement round a lake near Bhimtal to buy toothpaste and an ice-cold bottle of 7-Up, and I noticed that despite the strong sun, I had stopped sweating; the temperature had fallen to 30 degrees C. On we went, ever higher, through forests of enormous pine trees that swayed and creaked in a breeze scented with resin. Past a small shrine the driver took both hands off the wheel and placed his palms together in the namaste gesture. Blessings for the road ahead.

The car was a small, boxy Suzuki, and it ground its way upward, in first gear round some of the bends, tyres skittering on patches of loose shale. We halted at a small junction and the driver made a phone call to summon the porters. This was as far as the car could go – the next 30 minutes up to the cottage would be on foot. Two men appeared, skipping down a narrow trail. Both were in their mid-50s. One loaded a sack with vegetables from the car boot, and set off uphill. The other, whose name was Ram Lal, unfurled an old sari and piled the two backpacks and suitcase of dry rations inside it, knotting it carefully. He then slung it about with a length of rope, and bound a strip of plastic about a foot long around the centre part. Squatting down he hoisted the load upon his back, settling the plastic strip across his forehead. The entire load must have weighed 50kg, and I offered to carry one of the bags. “No problem sar,” he said. “I can carry 100kg.”

Off we went in a slow trudge up the hillside, over rocks that glittered in the afternoon sun. Within a minute my breathing had quickened; after two I realised my heart was thumping. I had come from sea level in Goa the day before, and we were now at 6000 feet and climbing. Ram Lal halted to roll his trouser legs up above the ankle, exposing shins as narrow and brown as dry sticks, and I followed his flapping cuffs and worn tennis shoes along the narrow path. We passed small terraces of what looked like spinach, the fields interspersed with sticks from which flew strips of ragged cloth. Sometimes the trees met in a canopy overhead, draped with lianas, and the air became cool and damp. Leopards still prowl these hills, and I cast my eyes upwards into the branches overhead on the lookout for snakes. In the distance the ridges rose and fell, their spines surmounted by the serrated outline of pines, beneath which glimmered the light of the afternoon sky. This type of tree had foliage that grew from halfway up its trunk, and the effect was curious, as if the mountains and the sky overlapped.

We halted at a small terraced garden perhaps 20 metres long. A two-storey chalet stood beyond it, the entrance flanked by varnished pillars of dark wood. The only sound was of birdsong and the wind in the trees. Two dogs rushed up in silence to greet us in a parade of sniffing and wagging. This was to be our home for the next week. Biscuit-coloured brick and rough stonework dominated the interior, the existence of a fireplace in each room an indication of how cold it could get up here, although now, in late April, the daytime highs were in the mid-20s C. A cool breeze came down from the snowfields of the high Himalayas that lay just out of sight behind the ranks of forested ridges marching off into the distance.

These small cottages dotted around the hills retain something of the lost world of the Raj – a strange fusion of British and Indian cultures, the dak bungalows and old “chummeries” where young, unmarried British officers came to avoid the heat of the plains and tire themselves out with the assorted wholesome pursuits of hunting and riding. The furnishings reflect this to this day – heavy drapes and rugs, plush, chintzy furniture and overstuffed armchairs one can sink into at the end of a long day to enjoy a peg or two of whisky. Faded photographs sometimes decorate the walls, people staring out from a sepia fog of time, in pith helmets and breeches, enormous moustaches and all too often, some slain animal laid out at their feet. In the heat of Goa the furniture is more practical; any physical contact with material causes one to sweat relentlessly, so wicker chairs or slatted wood are favoured for ventilation, with bed and sofa frames made of metal to prevent them being eaten by termites. I remember kites wheeling above the palm trees in a white-hot sky over Tarchi Bhat, the clang of corrugated iron roofs expanding in the sun, the gaudy buses parked up at the fish market, half a subcontinent and a whole world away.