Our Zui is an odd one. When she was about two, one winter, I once found her sitting in her red plastic bath tub, filled to the brim with cold water. What on earth are you doing, I yelled. To which she replied with all the dignity a shivering 2 year old can muster, "I'm meditating on Shiva, like Parvati did." It was them Amar Chitra Katha comics that did it, primary coloured pictures of Parvathi's beautiful and naked shoulders emerging from ice Himalayan pools. There was another time as well. In Kamakhya in Assam. When Zui first saw the crowds of red-robed tantriks on the hill, she shrieked "Take me back mama, or these rakshasas will cut my head off with their treshuls (sic)!!" Wha..? It didn't take much probing. Remember the pictures of Shiva cutting off Ganesha's head with his trident? That's what.
Our daughter's Parvati fascination and my memories of romantic train journeys from the South to the North of India were the spark. We decided, along with my parents, to take the Rajdhani to Delhi and from there to head to the Himalayas. In a coupe, no less, so we could feel much like passengers on the Orient Express. Dressing for cocktails, dining on oysters and turbot with green sauce and so on.
We boarded the Rajdhani Express on November 20th 2012, about 24 pieces of baggage, 2 guitars, 1 guitar amp, 8 bottles of Khodays XXX (not enough, by far, for what was to follow) and 5 motley humans ages 19 - 78 in all. We played Dragon Tails and Rummy or just talked. I, largely, stared out the window. Passing Nagpur...stopping at Bhopal. Orange trees endlessly and then a large group of women sitting in a huddle on Bhopal Station. Wondering about them.
The highlight was the tomato soup, Amul butter and bread sticks. I missed the old II Class AC bogeys though. Watching the landscape change. The shapes of temples change when you pass Andhra and enter Orissa. The vibe of platform food changes from the masala vades of the South to the samose-kachori of the North. There is less romance in coupe travel.
Nizamuddin. Delhi in the winter. Aching soul, answering city.
Of famous addresses, this one utterly moves me.
Ghalib ki haveli, Ballimaran
Gali Qasim Jan, Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk, Delhi.
Mirza Ghalib wrote...
"....Bhai, kya poochte ho. Kya likhoon. Dilli ki hasti munassar kai hangamon per thi. Qila, Chandni chawk, her roz majma Jama Masjid ka, her hafte sair jamna ke pul ki, her saal mela phool waalon ka. Ye paanchon baatein ab nahin, phir kaho Dehli kahan. Haan koi shehr is naam ka Hindustan mein kabhi tha."
Maybe, but the madness around Lal Quila and the daily majma at Jama Masjid are still ours to enjoy.
Meena Bazaar, smelly, intense. Giant long eared goats and an old woman sitting in front of her hut getting a nice winter thel maalish. Radishes, rikshaw guy promises to be waiting near the blanket sellers. Bunches of fresh, green sarson on carts. Green chillies. Rusks. Where's the man with the python? Skipping over snot and dung towards the dargah, then up the stairs of Jama Masjid. Man who keeps our shoes later says dawn is the time to be here, at Jama Masjid, to watch the sun rise over Old Delhi. But I'd miss the pigeons. Rising, settling, rising. He also says to make a wish in the dargah. The fried-in-ghee jelebis near the Gurudwara and then a gun shop. Out of the blue. People snaking past a tree covered with talismans on the way to the metro. Serenity. Zui bought a green nose stud on one of the lanes near Paranthewaaley gali. Suddenly Delhi, is everything to her. Morning spent listening to the azan and watching the pigeons at Jama Masjid. What it must be like during Eid.
This was on the way back, actually. After Almora, Binsar, Bhasoli, Kasar Devi. (A song in there, right? Music.)
On the way to, we went on the great Cellars Hunt. In Connaught Place. Kuki and his band had a 6 month gig at Cellars when they were teenagers. Konarak Reddy, the great drummer - Porgie Pope and Stanley Joseph. Kuki remembered it was opposite one of the Pallika Bazaar's entrances, somewhere near Regal. But everything was so different. We'd heard Cellars stories for years; the short walk from some MLA's home on Jantar Mantar Road, the band eating chicken curry and chappatties for Rs 5 at midnight, meeting assorted freaks like Silver Boots, Stud, Cornelia 'The Butterfly' Tchaspo, dropping acid and thinking his guitar was a snake. Now here we were some 40 years later and no one had heard of Cellars. Until, we asked a grey haired man and he says "yes, it was famous hotel" and points ahead. We crossed the road and there, next to Regal Theatre, was Cellars which has now been transformed into the fantastic Pind Balluchi. From disco to dhaba, what to do. Make no mistake, the food was gorgeous - sarson ka saag, makki ki roti, palak pan....damn, what is the secret of the paneer in Delhi?
We took the night train (2nd class three tier, no AC coach, no coupe) to Kathgodam. This was more like it. Reminiscent of journeys past. Closely pressed bodies, helpful suggestions, seat changes, offers of biskoot? Plantain? Are you going to Haldwani? Freezing cold because we, big time buddhus, don't have travelalls and razais, on a train climbing into the Himalayas. Kuki does a midnight warm-up of rum for us girls. Mmmmm.....But it's a crazy feat trying to keep warm. Then suddenly, I, on the topmost berth, wake with a start and think I'm looking at a gigantically tall man in silhouette because his head is near the fan on the ceiling. What the....? Someone's sitting on my berth! Chatting laconically to his friend on the opposite berth. "What are you doing?" I scream, sotto voce. "Bas, bait raha hai...Just sitting" he replies. "Then get off" I say, uncharitably and he does. No complaints.
The drive from Kathgodam to Binsar, oh God. The spectacular Kosi River to our left and Zui and me vomiting non-stop thanks to cowboy driver tactics designed to show us plains folk the hills. Through recurrent waves of nausea, I see on the river bed beneath us, pearly white, smooth rocks washed clean by the seven Himalayan tributaries, Saptakosi, that feed it. Kosi or Kausiki, where Sage Visvamitra meditated. She the wild, little sister of the Holy Ganga. Exactly as in those Amar Chitra Katha comics, river rocks like dinosaur eggs.
Would that I had the energy, as we passed through Almora, to consider for a moment the great Almora dance experiment of Uday Shankar and his love of the Kumaoni Ramleela.
Finally, tender Bhasoli, nestled in the lap of Nanda Devi. Somewhere, far below, continues to snake the River Kosi. We heard her one night as we walked past the tiny Hiath Hotel, where we would eat soft phulkas, bhang ki chutney, aloo jeera and shani hui mooli, past the shed with the single motorcycle, past the man covered in a razai sleeping on a charpay on his terrace, past the archway, past the provision stores and gas depot, past the bend in the road with four silent taxis.
Bhasoli, the apricot and walnut strewn playground of Parvathi, will forever be the place that Aala tried to get her Shiva on. It all started with painful arthritic knees and a concerned daughter who suggested that a well timed joint would do the trick. Then there was a guitar class that Zui wanted to take with a certain Yotam from Kasardevi (left fork on the road from Bhasoli to Almora. Swami Vivekananda meditated in the temple here) at the fabled Mohan's Cafe. Long and short, said daughter scored a tola of dark Kumaoni loveliness from a waiter at Mohan's Cafe. Then the smoking of it. Aala, like a fire dragon, with huge gusts streaming from her nose, nothing staying in long enough to give her the faintest buzz. And us knocking ourselves out with this daily medicine, all for Aala's knees ;)
Hara Bhum Bhum Bhole Nath Shiva Shambho Shankara Vishwanatha Shiva ...
The first thing that happened on the walk to Zero Point was that a giant, Nandi-sized bull, on a really narrow path, semi-charged me. In slo-mo. The others say it was your garden variety cow and it was just waiting for me to move my ass the hell out of it's way, but what do they know. Oh, and Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary... Oak and rhododendron sholas as far as the eye can see. Crunching our way up through nests of pine needles. The air smelling of Pinesol and then, light bulb moment, huh... This was the real thing, the smell of fresh pine. Pale green and yellow light streaming through the ferns and hanging moss.
Did I tell you we dreamed of this for so long? The long distance train and traveling with Aala and Ajit to the Himalayas before Zui goes off to college.
Finally, there we were.... 300km of Himalayan peaks before us in a blue-white, mad-mad-mad unending arc. Nanda Devi, Nanda Khap, Nanda Khot, Trishul. Parvati running around somewhere in the snowfields, I'm guessing, trying to seduce Shiva. Calming his Tandava with her Lasya. Ready-mix and chocolate to beat the cold. My father's downy, silvery head looking off at the peaks, Kuki and I, pointing to distant villages in the snow, let's go there or there, let's take the Gypsy and drive there next year when Zui is off. Milk chocolate, but all else bittersweet.
One day, Deepak our taxi driver, told Zui about his dog who had recently been lifted by a leopard, but had miraculously escaped! Come to my house and meet him, he said. So the next day we walked up to his home. Built Kumaoni style on the top of a hill, Krishna's footprints, painted in red and white, running along the courtyard. Alapana on every threshold. His mother made us sweet, delicious ginger tea and we met his beautiful black and tan Bhotiya and the heroic Rocky (a Pomeranian, would you believe it!). A young leopard (Deepak told us that the scent of a leopard is goat-like) had picked up Rocky by the neck. Rocky struggled and actually released himself and made it back home, bloody and miserable. Now he doesn't step out post 4pm, choosing instead to sun himself on the upper terrace where the bhang seeds dry. He's got the battle scars to show for it. Deepak gave us a bag of walnuts to take home. In Kumaon, people are generous like that. Leela and Shanthi gave us small sacks full of bhang seeds. We hitched a ride to Kasardevi for Rs 15. Smokes manifested themselves, through Yotam, through a waiter. Grace.
The graceful Goddess. The grace of Parvati. She didn't scramble for anything. Lasya: small, slow, graceful steps. Grace. The ability to make sacrifices. To think of others at least one frikkin' nanosecond before oneself. To give of oneself, in energy, in spirit, in bhang seeds. But to give nonetheless. It's worth meditating in a Himalayan pool for, sweetheart...