Home in the Hills: Ratna Pande
Though I was named Jagdish, which means ‘Ruler of the World’, I was always called Jaggu. Even I thought of myself as Jaggu rather than as a ruler of the world (or a ruler of anywhere, for that matter). And that day I was trekking and panting loudly as I reached the top of the hill, but I knew that in a few more steps I would be able to gaze down at the valley and the pristine lake below.
Even today, I can close my eyes and recall that fervent moment when I, along with my family and a few other relatives, having trudged all night with our bags and belongings in silence, reached the hilltop in the early morning. Tired and sleepy, my body aching with exhaustion and my heart sinking in fear, I peeped out from behind my mother, whom I called Ma, to see an endless spread of green grass and the blue lakes in the valley below us. The cool breeze dried our sweaty faces, and the sound of distant bells filled our hearts. Ma said, "Woh ghar aa raha" (We are reaching home), and I knew, this was going to be one of the most treasured moments of my life.
But when the group started to climb its way down, there I was, sprinting, and skipping ahead of them. When we approached the flatlands, the group broke up. Some decided to go further on until the village that was still a distance away, while others began looking for spots to start making their thatched dwellings. Ma needed to feed my younger sister, Jhabli, and so she and an older lady went to the sanctuary of some thick bushes for privacy. My dad, Pitaji, and a few men sat on their haunches at a clearing on the edge of the road, forming a closed group, and began to smoke beedi.
The beedi is a cigarette that women make by wrapping tobacco in the leaves of the temburni or tendu plant. This plant grows in abundance in most parts of India, and the women are adept at picking undamaged, large leaves which they clean and flatten in between sheets of thin plywood. When somewhat dry, they roll the leaf with tobacco in it like a cigarette, tie it with a thin thread, and pack it in small cotton pouches. Both men and women enjoyed taking a few puffs of the beedi; the women would, however, do so judiciously, only after a long day of cooking or having carried firewood up the hill. The men would smoke whenever they felt like it, which was often.
My grandfather, whom everyone called Nana, had found a flat boulder overlooking the valley and he sat on it with his legs crossed, hands over his knees and eyes closed. His silver-white hair waved softly in the cool breeze, the bells in the distance making a rhythmic sound, as the edge of his shawl fluttered against the dry leaves that lay around. It seemed almost a crime to disturb his saint-like trance, and so the family decided to make a temporary shelter for the night in the clearing nearby. The rest of the group sprinted down the narrow path towards the village, and I stood waving at them till they had disappeared out of sight. Then I went to help Ma light a fire and fill a pot with water from a stream nearby. A few hours later, the temporary structure was up; it had a roof made of branches, and separator walls of dried wooden stumps that had been hurriedly collected. The smell of rice and lentil (dal) cooked with ghee was tempting. It was soon devoured and then everyone laid down to look at the clear skies as it turned dark; everyone except Nana, who was still sitting on the stone ledge in a deep trance.
A few people went past on that route, some of the more fortunate ones on mule back. Pitaji would wave at them and they would call out to reassure us that the area was safe except for the occasional jungle cat. It was much later that I learned that the jungle cat they referred to was actually a small leopard!
I drifted off to sleep with my Nana's silhouette on the rock against the now dark horizon. A cool breeze blew, caressing my tired body, and I woke up only when the morning rays streamed onto my face. A land facing east is always preferred in the Hills as sunlight is precious, though it makes a nasty early morning alarm. Nana was still sitting on his rock, and I wondered if he had slept at all. Of course, he used to tell stories of how he could catch forty winks even while standing in a queue—but sitting on a rock, right through the night, seemed insane to me.
My parents were gathering wood—necessary for our daily needs, from reinforcing the shelter, to use as fuel for cooking, or to ward off wild animals. My parents were stooping low; I could see the colourful scarf tied around my mother's head bobbing as the bundle of wood and branches on her back grew higher. It was a reassuring sight as I trailed behind them over the unfamiliar grassy hillside.
I had learned to pick berries from thorny bushes on an earlier trip, and when my pockets and mouth were full of the juicy purple-red fruit, I started to run back to where my Nana was sitting.
From a distance, I could hear the sound of loud talking; a small group of people now encircled my Nana. Quickly spitting berry pits out of my mouth and wiping my violet-red lips, I began to run toward the crowd, fearing the worst. When I finally pushed my way between the legs of the men standing around him, I saw my Nana on the rock, still as a statue. A man dressed in silk clothes and gold ornaments was standing next to him.
"O wise man, you are like Shiva himself. When my cook told me about you this morning, I did not believe him and came to see for myself. I am blessed that you are here," the rich trader was telling my Nana, who looked ever so statuesque as his white hair floated around his face, creating an aura as it caught the morning sun. My Pitaji looked confused and told the trader that they would be leaving for the village soon.
"O wise man, please do not go. Shiva incarnate, stay here and make this your home, bless us all," the rich trader pleaded.
My Nana did not move.
"O wise man, I will give you this land to sit here and pray, and the flatland below it for you to make your dwelling," but on seeing my Nana unmoved, he added, "and the grassland on the hillside for your family to farm and gather wood."
At that very moment, the bells in a distant temple began to ring, and my Nana opened his dark, expressive eyes and smiled at the trader. The trader fell at my Nana's feet and everyone thumped each other's back, and my mom wiped her teary eyes with her veil.
We had found our home.
As I looked at the rock my Nana sat on, taking in the open land that would soon be our home, the distant mountains, the clear blue skies, the trees with the red jacaranda flowers, the green hillside and the small group of friendly people now busy in conversation, I felt a shiver of excitement run through my body.
In sheer joy, I did a cartwheel and after an almost perfect one, I stumbled and fell and rolled down the slope. As I stood up, all dusty and flustered, the group laughed and thumped my back. One of the men opened his bag and offered me a cream roll. It was more an apology of a cream roll; the cream had dried up and turned into a cold paste, the bun itself had taken a beating from the mountain climb and had crumbled in many places. However, it was my first food of the day and I licked every crumb with contentment and sucked at the lump of cream till it melted away in my mouth.
We began our lives there, and over time our house got larger with mud and brick walls and red tiles and metal sheet roofs. The garden had vegetables and pumpkins that we stored on the rooftops to last through winters. Fruit trees and shrubs lined the hills and crops were abundant. Nana sat at his favourite spot, and the rich trader came often to meet and chat with him. He had become successful and a richer man, and often thanked my Nana for staying on with gifts of bags of rice or sugar. Very welcome for us, of course!
Legends of my Nana travelled fast, and soon more people came to stop by and pay their regards to the "Shiva on the rock". My Nana would indulge the ones who were quiet and mindful of their surroundings, but often rebuked the ones who littered or disturbed it. Over time I grew older and busy with my school and friends but once in a while, I would notice Nana looking frailer and quieter if that were possible. But life kept me busy and soon I left home and went to Nainital to study, and then on to Lucknow for a government job.
The years rolled on. I was transferred to different places in the State and lived in large houses with my family which consisted of a loving wife, who was a schoolteacher and a voracious reader, and my twin boys whom my Nana had named Anirudh and Rudra. The quaint names always caused confusion and so they grew up being called Ani and Rudy respectively. They met their great-grandfather whenever we visited him during the summer holidays.
As I reflect on my life—years lived in the large government-allotted houses with sprawling gardens—with my happy family, I realize I was inherently restless and yearned for the stillness of mind that I had seen in my Nana. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness practice, and many other training sessions later, I realized that I could not, and possibly never would reach that level of inner silence I had observed in him, that I was seeking.
Recently after having retired from my government job, and whilst my wife was still busy with hers, and the boys with theirs, I took my first solo trip to the Hills.
The trek was almost over. At any moment now I would reach that magical spot to catch my first glimpse of the village and the lake. It was indeed as exhilarating as it had been the first time I saw it almost four decades ago, though now electric wires and poles marred the panoramic view. Fortunately, the breeze was still as cool and the hills mercifully as green as before.
Heart racing in excitement, I walked towards where my home had been. The house was now painted Snowcem purple, with the words Dalmia Cements written across the roof, but that did not matter. The garden was still full of flowers and plants and the trees were bent low with fruits. Every turn in the road evoked a memory, and filled my heart with nostalgia.
Panting, I reached Nana’s large rock, and gingerly touched it. Memories of my Nana came flooding in, and exhausted from my trek, I sat on the rock. With my legs crossed, arms by my side, I went into a deep meditation, which I had earlier believed was impossible for me. Much later when I opened my eyes, I saw a group of people sitting around me, looking at me in admiration.
"Shiva has come back!" one of them finally said.
I smiled at them, at peace with myself.
Indeed, I had come home.
Ratna Pande has over three decades of corporate experience in leadership positions and has always used storytelling as a powerful medium to share her experiences and in building the learning philosophy. For the past few years, she has been a Consultant, Advisor, and a Coach and enjoys writing on business or fiction. Her book of fiction short-stories Not so Long Ago, Not so Far Away: Stories from Across India (Notion Press 2019) was released last year.