In the shadow of the ‘deodar’

A writer goes back to the muse of her new novel

Namita Gokhale (right) with her mother, Neerja Pant, at her book launch in Nainital last month. Photo: Namita Gokhale
Namita Gokhale (right) with her mother, Neerja Pant, at her book launch in Nainital last month. Photo: Namita Gokhale

I grew up in Nainital, and a part of me, the core of my literary imagination, has remained in that impressionable childhood landscape. The tall deodar tree that grew outside our house returned as a full-fledged character in The Book Of Shadows. Several melancholy figures from family history were resurrected in A Himalayan Love Story. And in the third novel in the Himalayan series, Things To Leave Behind, the narrative revolves around the story of Kumaon, from approximately 1840-1912.

Last month, I had a book launch in the beloved environs of my home town. That’s the way I wanted it, in the bright autumn sunshine, with the waves glistening in the lake below, and Cheena peak silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky. Then we waited for the shadows to lengthen, and the temple bells of Naina Devi to peal in the dark still night, before my fellow writers and speakers settled before a blazing fire for an evening of merriment and camaraderie at the Abbotsford Literary Weekend.

No matter that today’s Nainital is a crowded and rather dirty tourist town, a far cry from the immaculate hill station of my childhood. There are things that do not change, places in the heart and mind and memory that keep them as they always were. Every corner of Nainital is imprinted in these indelible maps of memory. They may not correspond to the urban horrors of today’s Nainital, but remain located forever in some once-was neverland. My four Kumaon books have etched and graphed those landscapes time and again, pebble for pebble. Nainital and Almora feature prominently in Mountain Echoes, the transcribed reminiscences of four Kumaoni women of the last century. A Himalayan Love Story is a tale of failed love and regret where the protagonist returns to his home town in search of lost time. The Book Of Shadows is set in Ranikhet, against the backdrop of the glistening snows of Nanda Devi. And Things To Leave Behind travels between Nainital, Almora and the lake district of Kumaon.

These books are a way of searching, of returning home, wherever in the world I might be. The shadow of the deodar shelters my mind through all these journeys. Be it amid the unparalleled beauty of Bhutan, or the magnificence of the Rockies and the Flatirons that stand guard over Boulder, Colorado, my heart harks back to our denuded terraced Kumaon hills.

It’s not just the landscape. The food, the music, the architecture are a part of this deep-rooted, almost obsessive nostalgia. First, the food: The nutritious and unremarkable pahari cuisine is compensated by a sugar-laden palette of mithai—be it sugar-coated, poppy seed-encrusted bal mithai, syrupy jalebis, or the exquisite leaf-cone singauris stuffed with khoya. My cousin, the food historian Pushpesh Pant, was in conversation with me at Abbotsford last month, and we ended up discussing, and eating, pahari food.

The music—it sounds different in the hills. It echoes and resonates across the peaks with plaintive joy. The melancholy flute, the udas murali, the beat of the hurkiya, the joyous rhythm of the dholak, the distinctive notes of raga Pahari, the whisper of the wind, the rustle of the leaves—these are all part of the music of the hills I call home.

And the birdsong: the cry of the ghuguti, the harsh caw of the Himalayan crow, the morning chorus and the rising crescendo to greet the dawn. Then, the skies: the blazing blue of daytime, the grey mists and dense fogs of the monsoon, when the heavens reach out to the earth, and the bucket of glittering stars in the black night, the Great Bear, the Pole Star, the Milky Way. These things are still there, in Kumaon.

And the houses. Let us forget the concrete monstrosities, the municipal architecture flats, the Greater Kailash-II villas that dot these hillsides, and return to the joys of Kumaoni architecture, of lintel and beam and raised thresholds, of carved exteriors that have weathered time and fortune. Or the bungalows of the Raj, such as “Primrose”, where I grew up, which is resurrected to feature fleetingly in the distant historical past in Things To Leave Behind.

Or imposing Abbotsford, built in 1876 and in the Prasada family since 1903. It is this heritage home stay that hosted the lit weekend, where the Nainital Book Club and the Nainital Nostalgia group met to read, write and celebrate the hills, and where I dedicated my novel to the goddess of the lake, Naina Devi, and to Pashan Devi, the goddess of rock, who together guard the ancient lake of the Tri-rishi Sarovar.

Rudyard Kipling writes of “...the scent of damp woodsmoke, hot cakes, dripping undergrowth, and rotting pine-cones. That is the true smell of the Himalayas, and once it creeps into the blood of a man, that man will, at the last,...return to the hills to die.”

The sights and sounds and smells of Kumaon and a long ago Nainital remain with me, in dreams, reality and the spaces in between.

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