Until I was old enough to learn how to pack my bag (which was much after I learned to tie my shoelaces), it was my mother who arranged things for me—the clothes I should take, the books I should read, the board games I should play, and the stuff I should carry, as she took me and my two younger brothers every alternate summer to Nadiad, where my grandparents lived, and then to whichever city in Gujarat my aunt and uncle were living in at the time.
My uncle started as a district collector, and I remember spending summers at his various homes—in Surat, and drinking sherbet with my cousin Neeraj; in Ahwa, and being scared by the stories that he and my aunt would tell me, of wild animals entering their courtyard; in Bharuch, exploring dungeons from the Mughal era with my uncle; in Vadodara, and playing badminton in their garden (and losing most of the time, while my aunt showed the vegetables they had grown to my mother), and finally, in Gandhinagar, the featureless state capital, listening to Simon and Garfunkel on hot afternoons. At all times, there would be a jeep in the house, and travelling with my uncle in those jeeps was a great adventure.
Summer song: Kanchenjunga’s peaks. Photo: Aaron Ostrovsky
Several of the summers in between were spent in Matheran with my family; the hill station nearest to us, the toy train, the long walks to the various scenic points, the horse rides and the chikki, made of gur, groundnut, sesame seeds, almonds, pistachio and dried fruit. One afternoon, I recall bowling a rather fast ball to my father, who tried to play it back to me with a straight bat, but the bat hadn’t been seasoned properly, and it promptly broke into two. That ended our cricketing vacation.
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But then I learned to pack my bags, and started going on summer vacations on tours our school organized. Those were elaborate affairs, the nearly four weeks filled with sights to see. But we were Gujaratis first, so the tour party included a few cooks who would produce dal, kadhi, batata-nu shak, and puris and sometimes even shrikhand at odd locations. But those three summers—in 1975, 1976 and 1977—are etched firmly in my memory. Our group typically comprised about 50 students, boys and girls, all in mid-teens; there would be up to four teachers; and we would pack 10-12 towns and cities within those four weeks.
We would begin with a long train journey to Delhi. May is the wrong time of the month to see the capital: the trees offered little solace from the dry heat to which we coastal folk were unaccustomed, and the monuments reflected light with an intensity and brightness that seemed blinding. But Pathankot—and Kulu-Manali— our next destinations—were only a bus ride away. And how pleasant it became once we were on the banks of the Beas or Chenab! I remember the white foam of the flow of the river, the cool mountain air, the verdant banks, and the tall deodar and (rarer) chinar trees.
One night in Manali, I remember one of our teachers asking me if I knew one Professor Sushil Panjabi from Kolkata—she was in Manali in the same complex where we stayed with her students and her daughter, Kavita. Indeed, I knew them; the good professor was an old friend of my mother’s from their college days in Mumbai, and it was the sort of coincidence that only happens in improbable Bollywood films, but the next morning Kavita and I went with our friends for a walk through an apple orchard, making the trip even more memorable. Later that week, with another teacher as our shield, 11 of us broke away from our group, which was headed for Vashisht Kund, and walked towards Rohtang Pass.
Once we started to climb, it became exciting; we ignored our watches, took deep breaths at the spectacular views, and kept walking up. And we discovered snow—solid and yellowing, clinging to the rocks, like dusty, unwashed drapery on furniture. We had never seen snow before, and the yellowing snow didn’t seem inspiring, when, as if to oblige us, fresh snow began to fall. It was a light flurry, and we were ecstatic, holding out our palms, catching it, letting it settle, and then seeing the flakes liquefy and disintegrate. One of my classmates, a boy called Dhiren who later went on to become a doctor, intoned knowledgeably that what we saw was the phenomenon of latent heat (I probably still don’t understand the phenomenon properly so please don’t ask and I promise not to attempt an explanation). The teacher who was with us taught physics and mathematics; he was pleased that at least one of us had paid some attention in his classes.
We were scolded when we returned—there were no mobile phones then, and the teacher in charge of the entire group was in a panic, wondering where 11 of us had gone missing. That we had a teacher with us didn’t help matters. We, the children, were grounded the next day, which was just as well; the climb up to Rohtang had been exhausting. Of the 11 of us, seven were girls: Not only had they outnumbered us boys, the girls went on to jeer everyone who hadn’t come to the pass. We were proud of our shared secret, the awesome view of the Lahaul and Spiti valleys the 11 of us had seen together, which the rest of our obedient, unpunished classmates hadn’t seen. They probably got an extra helping of shrikhand. We didn’t mind.
Later that week, we were in that unspeakably beautiful town of Dalhousie, and I remember the sheer expanse of the valley seen from our hotel. In Dharamsala, we saw the river flowing, miles down from where we were. It moved soundlessly; sunlight rested on the water; and rocks forced the river to take amazing twists and turns—and the water turned effortlessly, with the grace of a dancer, circling the rocks.
I saw the truly big Himalayan peaks only the following year, when we went to Nepal and Darjeeling. Annapurna and Dhaulagiri towered on the horizon on a perfect, cloudless day, with the sky blue, the air crisp, the wind mild, and the air cool. Seeing Kanchenjunga was harder, once we returned to India; clouds covered it as though it was a precious jewel that required a prior appointment for viewing. But then the sun relented, and the clouds parted; with sunlight resting on Kanchenjunga, the peak turned golden, as if it was aflame. The sky turned pink that evening, and the peak’s awesome beauty stayed imprinted in our minds. It was meghe dhaka tara, the cloud-capped star.
Then we grew older; studying and preparing for the exams that would follow began to take over our summers. Soon I left India, and the months I understood as “summer” changed—instead of late April to early June, it became July and August. Visits to India happened, of course, but it meant chasing the monsoon. That has its own joys, like the late-season mangoes, but that’s a story for another time.
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