It was my first year in Degree College and I had made many new friends. The usual hectic routine of ours was full of presentations and examinations. The want of getting away from it all was there inside all of us.
Then it happened. A notice was put us saying that the college was organizing a week long tour and the seats were limited. The office was flooded that day with students enquiring about the details of the tour, the hotel arrangements etcetera. I went to office with my friends and we all got a copy of the itinerary – it said “Educational tour to Jim Corbett National Park, Kausani and Nainital.” Our hearts filled with excitement and we hurriedly got home to tell our parents about this.
We registered for the tour in the right time and completed all the formalities. The morning of 22nd January 2006 about 130 students from the BMS and B.Com sections took off to Jim Corbett national park, Uttaranchal by the Pashchim Express, the word ‘Pashchim’ meaning ‘west’ we were still traveling east. The train journey was comfortable and enjoyable. We sand songs and kept tasting the delicacies that every new station had to offer. The drastic change in the colour of the soil and the species of trees was quite visible.
The countryside is quite spectacular when it comes to nature, abundant with small streams, rivers and lakes.
Fortunately I was on a window seat and it felt great to be able to see the passing land with its changing patterns after every few kilometers. I had seen something like this before but I was only a child at the time. Back then it was just a mindless delight for me to be seated at the window. But now with the passing light poles, platforms and the peoples faces blurred into one continuously moving scene, I felt like I was going somewhere far far away from my city, my friends who didn’t accompany me on the trip and far away from my family. “Traveling across three to four states must have something in store for us that is worth so much of time, energy and expectation”, I kept telling myself. It felt great to be sharing so much quality time with friends but at the same instant something inside me made me feel solitary.
The colours of the native clothes and the leaves of the passing trees that had turned yellow and red, played a mosaic of unsymmetrical designs in my mind that made me feel like a real traveler.
While on the tour I saw three things I will never forget. Their images are trapped under my eyelids. I just have to close my eyes and remember – to see them again just as picture perfect.
What I saw made me travel away from myself, yet closer to finding a face for the old man trapped under my skin.
After about 18 hours of journey we reached Delhi and took a bus to Corbett National Park. We stayed the night at the hotel Mannu Maharani where the accommodation was absolutely superb, the rooms complete with wooden floors, a large bed and a bathroom with hot/ cold water available all 24 hours.
The temperature outside was 3 degrees and we had never experienced weather like this. It was breezy and there was a campfire next to the temperature controlled pool. Also next to the pool was the dining room where we had delicious dinner and later joined our friends to dance to the music around the bonfire.
The night was beautiful and it felt like we had never seen so many stars so clearly. After a while I went out for a stroll around the hotel. The hotel is surrounded by dense forest on all sides and everything was pitch black. I could only hear the sound of the cicadas and the dry branches and twigs which came under my feet. I was standing at the hotel gate which was a distance away from our rooms. I was alone. Next to the hotel was a rough gravelly road meant for traveling in the forest. It was illuminated by dim light poles each one separated by a distance of almost a kilometer.
There was one light pole right opposite our hotel gate. Beyond its dim light was the deep, black, invisible forest. It was quiet and still. But in my heart beating loudly was an unknown tribal rhythm, while I stared motionlessly in the blackness that concealed from my eyes tigers, deer and wilderness alike. I was standing in the abode of the Tigers and the Tiger being a nocturnal hunter I realized that somewhere in this forest the predator must be feeding itself, at this very moment, on a sumptuous feast of fresh flesh it had just killed.
Even as I thought so, a pair of cat eyes began to shine across that road. They shone bright green and appeared to look straight at me. I froze with fear imagining it to be a Tiger. I inched back slowly trying not to make even the slightest noise and even in three degrees I began to sweat. Just at the second I was about to scream the eyes vanished. After a moment one eye began to shine again but it was at a different place. Puzzled at this I walked a few steps closer with great courage to see more clearly. My heart still pounding against my ribs I was relieved to discover that it was a firefly. Even the other eye was a firefly.
I smiled and turned around to return to my room. I laughed at myself while walking back and found myself reasonably relaxed. I was truly amazed at the kind of games nature could play. But later I wondered, “what if it would have been a real tiger?” The thought was exciting. It could have been a once in a lifetime experience. Yes, because otherwise I would not even be writing this travelogue.
I played some games with my room mates and we had a round of dirty jokes later. We didn’t even realize when we fell asleep and the next morning at 6:00 am sharp we went for a tiger safari inside the Jim Corbett National Park sitting in open jeeps.
Seated in the jeep we felt like we were explorers featuring on some wildlife channel program. Our eyes scanned the forest to spot animals and luckily we saw quite a few. We were asked by our guide to keep absolute silence and we kept that in mind. We also had binoculars with us. We didn’t really get to see any tigers in Jim Corbett National Park but we saw their paw marks in the mud which also gave us some satisfaction. We saw many spotted deer, elephants and crane too. The animals are timid and are afraid of us. They hide at the sound of approaching jeeps. There is a small river which flows through Corbett National Park which was dry this time of the year but there were small streams of crystal clear sparkling water flowing through the river bed of marble and granite.
Jim Corbett National Park could easily be one of the best places to observe natural wealth in India. So unbelievable beautiful that it overwhelmed us. It was full of greenery.
With the shafts of the morning sun rays coming down through the trees and the calls of the birds we came very close to nature. We saw a peacock later.
The adventure thrilled me so much, I wanted to camp inside the park for a few days. The park displays a great variety of natural rock formations, it being set on an undulating hilly terrain. Everywhere my eyes turned I could see nothing but unlimited expanse of natural forest. The Jim Corbett National Park is a treasure trove for the nature lover. Even if you are not a nature lover you will become one after visiting the Jim Corbett National Park.
The visit made me feel a sense of contentment but still somewhere inside I was guilty – guilty of intruding the animal’s home and of invading their privacy. I even felt ashamed of belonging to the human race that foolishly believed that it had the right to hunt and kill these gentle, mute creatures for sport or trade. The humans who regard themselves as the higher form of intellectual beings in this system have a basic congenital tendency to destroy the element of danger before it destroys us. It is quite rational for us to attack a stranger in our territory.
Let us keep in mind that we are strangers in the forest which is a territory of the animals. Would it be too much if I were to say that we deserve to be attacked by them?
On other thoughts the Tiger doesn’t really want to kill us.
The way I perceived Indian natural wealth had changed by the time I came out of the park. I was completely taken over by the entire natural splendor I had witnessed.
The drives through the national park and the sights are one of the three things I will never forget in my life. I feel a certain belonging toward that realm of boundless nature.
We returned to the hotel after about 4 to 5 hours and had a delicious lunch before leaving for Kausani. The journey to Kausani was done by bus and the drive through the ghats was full of tall eucalyptus and pine trees that towered over us.
On the way to Kausani the flavour of the country was beginning to be seen. We saw typical stone homes of the Himalayan people with small wooden lattice windows. The valleys had characteristic step farming and the people looked fairer with rosy cheeks. Their eyes peered through our buses as if they were looking at tourists for the first time. They looked at us as though we were some strange animals with darker skin colour in mobile zoo cages.
Even they looked distinctly different, distinctly Himalayan I should say perhaps, with their rosy cheeks, high cheek bones and the attire that comprised of a long kurta and pyjama with a sweater they wore all around the year. The children looked especially sweet with big innocent eyes underlined by mischief. They waved at our passing buses.
While in the drive I fell asleep. I don’t remember when but I opened my eyes with a jerk to look out of my window. I couldn’t believe it, to the left beyond hundreds of miles of valleys I saw the Himalayan range. The skies in the back drop were orange and they enveloped the majestic snow capped peaks. The Himalayas looked lustrous in the light of the afternoon sun which felt peaceful. I couldn’t take my eyes off the window, I was speechless. We saw the Trishool and the Dronagiri Mountain.
We had a short halt on the way for tea and snacks. It was already dark by then and the stars were beginning to come out. We finished the tea quickly because a drive of about three and a half hours was yet to be completed before we could reach Kausani and if we would have wasted more time sipping on hot tea, we would have had to deal with severe visibility problems later.
We reached Kausani at around 8:30 pm and checked into our hotels. The temperature must have been around 2 to 3 degrees that night. Vapors came out with our breath every time we spoke. Kausani is an incredibly tranquil place. I was watching some TV in the room later. Quite surprisingly the cable operator in Kausani provided ‘Fashion TV’! And we were thrilled about this. Later we had dinner and soon we were fast asleep. We must have been sleeping like babies.
In my sleep I dreamt. Suddenly I felt weightless and then my soul left my body and flew out of the window toward the Himalayas. I flew through the snow capped peaks, through the clouds and I played in the snow with child like ecstasy – tossing the snow up in the air and then letting it fall on me again and again, and making shapes in the snow with my fingers. But I was in search of something – something I couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t smell but I could still feel it. It definitely was there.
But what was it?
I didn’t find the answer in my dream.
I woke up the following morning at around 6:00 am. The sun had risen by then. I walked over to my room window and what I saw made my heart skip a beat. I didn’t wait one more moment and ran out of the room barefooted, to the terrace of the hotel. And there, about 450 kilometers away, beyond the valleys that suddenly looked so small were the Himalayas. The same range I saw while in the bus on the way to Kausani. They were so much closer now. I could see them clearly. The sky was a clear blue and the snow shined brilliantly under the beautiful bright morning sun. The vision took me over completely and I wished I could stretch out my hand and touch them.
There was a white ring like cloud around the tip of Dronagiri Mountain. The Himalayas beckoned endlessly. I closed my eyes to find an answer to the question from my dream; what was I searching for?
I was looking for God and now I knew where to find him. My eyes moistened with tears of satisfaction and fulfillment.
The sight of the Himalayas is the second of the three things I will never forget.
Later in the morning we visited a tea plantation and after lunch left by bus for Nainital. We sang songs in the bus and played games. The journey to Nainital was via Almora where we had a small stop for refreshments. Almora is a small well set town on the mountains. The people are friendly and the houses look inviting. We reached Nainital in the evening and checked into our hotel which was followed by dinner and a quiet walk around the quiet Naini Lake.
Nainital derives its name from Naini Lake. The lake is called ‘Naini’ because it is in the shape of an eye. ‘Eyes’ translated in Hindi would become ‘Naina’ or simply ‘Nain’. ‘Lake’ translated in Hindi would become ‘Talav’. The word ‘Talav’ has many colloquial forms like ‘Tal’ and ‘Talaiya’. Hence we combine the two to get ‘Nainital’. Nainital is a civilization set around the perimeter of the lake.
The next morning we went sight seeing. This was on the 26th of January 2006 – The Republic Day. We went to a point called ‘Himalaya Darshan’ and also saw a small waterfall. There was a small assembly in the afternoon and the National Anthem was sung. That evening we did some boating in Naini Lake. It was a wonderful experience and the lake was well maintained and clean. We were seated in paddle boats shaped like ducks. There is a small temple on the edge of the lake on the other side which is inaccessible and can be seen only when boating in the lake. Boating was followed by very good coffee at a restaurant and then we returned to our hotel. The same evening we went to a discotheque. Yes there is a discotheque in Nainital, in fact there are two!
The next morning offered sight seeing again. We saw a beautiful temple and then visited ‘Sattal’ where seven different lakes have joined to form one huge lake over the years. Now it is known as ‘Trital’ which means ‘three lakes’. We were accompanied by a guide who imparted all this information to us. We shopped later in the day and were allowed to roam in the market and return to the hotel at our wish. Some of my friends also did horse riding.
Nainital is famous for beautiful ornamental candles. They come in all shapes and sizes in scented and decorative varieties. There is also the china market and Tibetan market where high quality winter jackets and novelty items can be purchases at nominal rates after great and easy bargaining. You can find everything from candles to weapons in both these markets. Clothes, fashion accessories, shoes, knives, binoculars – you name it and its there! I purchased candles worth Rs.800 and my friends purchased wooden handicrafts and cane work along with candles.
This was our last day at Nainital. The lake looked serene and beautiful from my hotel balcony. It was surrounded by mountains from all sides and all along the boundary of the lake were trees. The waters were calm and reflected the light of the setting sun. Crane and pigeons were flying in vivid formations. The boats of the tourists looked like tiny specs of dust floating on water, from my fourth floor balcony. The view was panoramic with the birds returning to their nests and the evening fog beginning to settle over this small civilization. Soon the sun disappeared behind the mountains letting darkness fall upon Nainital. I was still standing in my balcony looking at the lake which now looked black, reflecting the lights of the hotels constructed along its shores. It was cold and breezy. I decided to go out for an evening walk.
The temperature must have been around 6 to 7 degrees. I was alone with my hands in my pockets and a sweater to keep me warm. I walked along the night streets of Nainital and after a while I realized that I had left the shops and the hotels quite a distance away. It was much quieter here and I could see more of houses around me. Some people were outside sitting around a small fire that kept them warm and they smoked ‘Bidis’ and chatted in colloquially accented Hindi. Their conversations sounded familiar yet there were some words I could not understand.
I walked further up ahead and found myself standing opposite a ‘Gurudwara’ – the Sikhs place of worship. The gates of the ‘Gurudwara’ were closed and locked. There was deafening silence all around. A cold draft could be felt. At the gates, sitting on the cold bare ground were two children. They were clad in clothes that were torn in many places. The boy and a girl – his sister perhaps, were begging. They opened their small bony shivering palms in front of me. I couldn’t bear their sight and took out some loose change from my pocket, threw it at them and walked away. But the children followed me and after covering a short distance the little boy started pulling at my sweater. I turned around and yelled at him, but he didn’t let go and kept pulling at my sweater with whatever little weight his frail body had. I gripped his arm and we both struggled till I shook him off. The girl standing a few feet away was wearing only a small t-shirt and was stretching its ends to cover her cold knees. The little boy stared straight in my face with his tiny eyes.
I looked into his deep eyes. He didn’t want my money, he didn’t want food and he didn’t want shoes. His eyes reflected innocence beyond my reach. His eyes reflected the injustice inflicted upon him by the creator. His dark eyes reflected the light around Naini Lake. They appeared still but they contained within stories of unfathomable misery. My eyes welled up and at just about the moment I was about to remove my sweater and give it to him I heard a loud voice, the children heard it too and scampered away into the darkness and the fog settled up ahead on the street. They vanished like ghosts do.
It was the voice of a local resident who saw the beggars and decided to drive them away from me. He also warned me against them and said that it was unsafe for me to wander around these parts at this time.
I quickly turned around and started walking toward my hotel without saying a word. In my heart I felt bitterness. For a moment I almost began to look down upon myself and all the comforts I was blessed with. But just like all the other people who are blessed with the comforts of life, I decided that the begging children were meant to live this or perhaps I should say, die like this.
The lord has different ways of manifesting himself. Ways that I or you cannot possibly understand in one lifetime.
The third thing I will never forget is the look on that little boys face. It would forever remind me of my selfishness and the innocence I lack.
I returned to the hotel and after having half a dinner went up to my room. I wanted to go home now, like the evening birds returning to their nests. I packed my bags. The night passed away fast and the following morning we settled back into our buses for a 12 hour journey to Delhi. From Delhi we boarded the Swaraj Express back to Mumbai. We touched down on Borivali station at 5:30 pm on the 29th of January, 2006. It was strangely refreshing to find myself back in the congestion that Mumbai offers.
The tour lasted only a week but I felt like I traveled for millenniums and yet learnt so little about this life. I felt complete yet something felt amiss.
I returned to this city of dreams with memories and friendships that would last a lifetime but left behind parts of myself with the unseen tigers of Jim Corbett National Park, with the Himalayas and in the shivering palms of the little ghost boy who was begging at the ‘Gurudwara’ gates.
~ Fin ~
22nd March, 2006