I had roamed in these hills a quarter-century ago. I was young then; I had just finished college in America. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do next. I had a fellowship that had brought me to this sparkling city surrounded by mountains and facing a lake. I walked daily by the lakeside, marvelling at the spurt of Jet d’Eau—the fountain that sprang from the lake—with people running along the stone path by its side, getting splattered by the water. You could see the colours of a rainbow emerge as the sails of hundreds of boats fluttered. One evening I had even seen actor Dilip Kumar, walking by the lake, obligingly getting photographed with eager Indians, the landscape above him a multicoloured and tinier version of the hills and dales among which he once walked, singing Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen.
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I had few responsibilities and fewer worries those days. I’d take the ferry to Nyon, and then beyond, to Vevey and Montreux, to those postcard villages, with their manicured gardens and sculptures of topless women surging towards the water, and I’d get off and step into those cafés where the waiters miraculously appeared with crisp croissants and fragrant coffee. Then I’d walk along the lanes taking me to the trails that would ring the mountains, and follow the scent of the trees, pausing occasionally to look beneath. I didn’t try to sing the Dilip Kumar song, perhaps wisely.
Déjà view: Hundreds of boats frame the moody skies over Zurich Lake.
And I’d see the landscape as nature had intended. And if there were gods, this is what they saw, how they saw, the earth beneath those green meadows, snow-capped mountains, clear skies and the deep blue lake. It seemed so perfect—palpable and momentary, making me feel it would always be like this—heavenly, cloudless, without tumult. Occasionally my friend Javed would join me, with his girlfriend of the season, and other friends he knew at his college in England, and my friends from America would come, and we’d trek those hills, our backpacks light, our concerns minimal, our cares none. I often carried my Walkman, but instead of listening to the sounds alone, I’d turn on the speaker, and with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Ravi Shankar’s Megh Malhar as my calling card, I’d make friends with kindred souls—from New Zealand, from Denmark—exchange addresses at youth hostels at night, hoping that one day we might meet again. We had our lives in front of us; we had our resolves, our plans. We had seen the sun that calmed, the moon that mellowed, the stars that we thought would guide us.
It would be a good life; things would be all right. Bliss was it in that dawn.
Almost two decades later, a little older, I came to those hills again; this time with my family. Neither my wife, nor my sons had seen the Alps or the Jura yet, and I wanted them to discover the world I had seen once.
We drove along the lake, stopping to eat fondue at some places, looking for chocolatiers in other villages. I did not remember any landmarks with names attached—but the Mont Blanc obliged with its wistful smile in the evening, looking pink at twilight, the water crystal clear and blue.
I wanted to share that innocent enthusiasm of my youth with them, before my sons became older. And I wanted that calm sun to shine on us, that cool breeze to give us the push in our onward journey.
But then darkness came, as it often does when least expected, shattering lives. It forced all of us to grow older, stealing our smiles, dimming our vigour, as my sons and I learnt to negotiate the path that lay ahead of us, but now, on our own.
In September this year, we were there again, my younger son and I, alone, one more time, the time that marked the week that changed our lives. My older son was also alone but in America, studying, soon to reach the age when I left India the first time. We had all had to grow up faster.
A friend and his daughter drove us through small towns that formed the border between France and Switzerland. We stopped on a perch above Nyon and saw Mont Blanc waving at us, as if to tell us that it will be fine. Beyond the blue haze we could see the resurgent spurt of the fountain. The meadows spread out below us, and the blue lake reflected the sun thousands of times, making it look as though someone had placed thousands of memorial lamps on the lake.
Later that day, when it was morning in America, I talked to my older son on the phone, and we talked about what we would do tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and then the day after, and we continued to look towards what lay ahead; by living, we were reaffirming ourselves. Later, we went with a friend and her dog for a long walk by the lake. We bought cheese.
We knew we weren’t alone. We had our friends. We had the sky and the lake and the hills which had once inspired me; at another time reassured us, and were now comforting us.
The sun would shine again—it already did. We had to shed that cloud of grief and let its warmth invigorate us—so that we’d all be in our 20s again.
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