Part I The Magic Mountain: The Mehra Reunion
The party had reached Kathgodam. It seemed nothing less than a miracle when Priya’s father ambled toward us with his large mustached face bent toward the ground, hands jutted into his jean pockets, and large arms pressed like suspenders along the side of his puffy blue jacket. The taxi driver slipped out of the car to wave him down with an ill-concealed urgency. But we were already ahead of him—grabbing, pulling, and ripping bags from the floor, seats, and rooftop with the speed of thieves stripping a car.
Priya and her father embraced. Priya’s father was tall and sturdy, with a chest as wide as the deodar trunks towering over the Kathgodam train station. The deodars and pines were natural billboards reminding us we’d left the Gangetic plains. Ever since blinking awake to the bright light of Uttrakhand in the morning —the wide-open spaces, the dancing shadows beneath the pine branches, the hills climbing atop one another up into Dev Bhoomi, the land of the gods—the scale of the world had suddenly grown innumerably larger.
Rajendra Singh Mehra, grandson to Bacchi Singh Mehra and founder of Sarghakheht Village, was surely a product of this fertile soil.
It was due to Mr. Mehra’s patronage, in fact, that we’d suffered our journey to the hills. Mr. Mehra was the custodian of Somerset Lodge, located in his ancestral home of Sarghakeht in the Nanital District of Uttrakhand, three miles north of Mukteshwar. Somerset Lodge used to be a tranquil hill-station retreat for mountain climbers, hunters, and nature lovers of the British Raj. They escaped the heat of the plains to trek glaciers, hunt tigers, or enjoy strolls in the forest. If Priya and her father—the same slightly hunched over posture, the same full cut of mouth and crinkle in the eyes when they smiled—had not offered us hospitality at their lodge, we, too, perhaps, would have been stranded in the dry, dusty heat like our colonial predecessors.
Mr. Mehra wrapped his arms around his daughter, who hugged back with limp indifference. Priya’s face was smaller, more delicately pointed and rounded than her father’s. When Mr. Mehra had approached from afar—speaking with his driver with his head bent in concentration—he had given the impression of a severe general listening to a field update by his subordinate. But, now, I could tell that this was far from the case. His eyes softened as they rested on his daughter’s lowered face. There was a shy, timid embarrassment in his smile, as if he was unable to express everything he wanted to his daughter through the warm press of his arms alone.
Priya lives with her mother in London. She only sees her father once or twice per year. While Priya studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, her father remains the king of the mountain maintaining his ancestral property in Mukteshwar and his duties to the village.
We hung back, reluctant to intrude on this intimate moment. Mr. Mehra muttered something. Priya’s lips moved mutely back at him as her eyes rolled in our direction. I wondered what part of our journey they had been discussing—being thrown out of the train, standing at midnight in Old Delhi station, our sleepy sojourn across the pot-holed roads in the taxi. There were many crises to choose from.
“It must have been a long journey, I think,” Mr. Mehra said, glancing up at us.
We threw our bags into the van and drove through the quiet streets of Kathgodam. We passed lakes and women carrying large bundles of thatch on their heads. We all sunk into our seats and chittered with the carefree glee of having survived a long, sleepless night. Mr. Mehra, seated in the front, occasionally glanced in the rearview mirror at his daughter. Priya was caught up in the diplomacy of entertaining her guests. Mr. Mehra spoke with those of us seated in the middle row instead. But once the civil questions and introductions had been exhausted, he turned his attention once again to the road and slipped into Kumaoni with the driver.
We were left to a scenery-absorbing silence.
The passing window-scenes wind reminded me of a novel I had recently read, The Folded Earth, by Anuradha Roy. In this novel, the author captures the lifestyles of the people of Ranikhet—a village name I had glanced on a green sign as we curved up the mountain. The story depicts the chaste world of the hills tainted by tourism, development, and politics from the fast-paced urbanity of India below. The narrative is told in simple first person, recounting the tale of a young woman who mourns for her deceased husband after he vanishes in a glacier-trekking accident, and a cow-herding girl, pining for a Nepalese cook who works in Delhi.
I know this place, I thought, leaning closer to the window. And as my eyes climbed the cliff face the fictional cowherdess inched down the road with her back pressed to the rock face. This was her first time so far from Ranikhet; she winded down the road with terrified eyes as the headlights of honking cars zoomed past her. She braved the road in the black of night to catch a bus to New Delhi, so that she could profess her love to the Nepali cook before he could accept a job offer that would steal him away to Singapore.
This fictional girl’s passage from hills into the dusty skirt metropolitan India undoubtedly came to my mind because it mirrored the passage my friends and I had undergone from the Jaipur train station up into the mountains. The crude abuses, catcalls, hawking, and Great Impatience of city life had been replaced by tall, healthy evergreens stretching their branches into a thin, crisp air; placid lakes glittering in a sunshine that danced, unfettered by pollution; the trickle of water down time-carved crevices in the mountain slope and its cascade over boulders in the river beneath us as our van leaped and jumped over an old, rusted, iron bridge.
The peace of the hills had settled into the intonation of Priya’s father’s voice, who spoke in yawns of,“Hoi, Hoi, Hoi, Ha, Ha, Ha, yes, yes, yes.”
It was no wonder Priya had grown frustrated with her father over the phone before, while we were on the train and the TT tapped his foot beside her. Her father’s consonants and syllables flowed with the same unhurried fluidity of the river, expressing an “all is right with the world” mentality that had juxtaposed sharply with our experience on the train: when everything was certainly not all right; when our tickets had been deemed unconfirmed and our five hundred rupee “fee” and “special connections” had failed us; and when, left without plans for transportation at the dead of night, beggars materialized out of the darkness toward the temple beside Old Delhi station while dogs growled and barked at a sadhu who growled and barked back; when, while a friend sat on her bag, trying not to be sick, we wondered how we would possibly make it to Mukteshwar.
The van jolted to a stop in front of a tea stall. We sipped from the steaming paper cups as our eyes traced the river’s serpentine curves blow the cliff face. Indian tourists unloaded from their buses for samosas and resumed their lumbering caravan back up the mountain.
Then we told Mr. Mehra everything that had transpired.
Please Continue On to Part II