At the great rooftop of the world
''In a thousand ages of the gods, I could not tell you of the glories of Himachal.'' So wrote a Sanskrit poet who found himself at a loss for words to describe the beauty and magnificence of the Himalayas. But when you have grown up in these mountains, and go away to live in a distant country, you cannot but try to recapture some of their magic.
It was while I was living in England, in the jostle and drizzle of London, that I remembered the Himalayas at their most vivid.
I had grown up among those great blue and brown mountains; they had nourished me; and though I was separated from them by ocean, plain and desert, I could not forget them.
It is always the same with mountains. Once you have lived with them for any length of time, you belong to them. There is no escape.
And so, in London in March, the fog became a mountain mist, and the boom of traffic became the boom of the River Ganga emerging from the foothills.
I remembered a little mountain path that led my restless feet into a cool sweet forest of oak and rhododendron and then on to the windswept brow of a naked hilltop. The hill was called Clouds End. It commanded a view of the plains on one side and the snow peaks on the other. Little silver rivers twisted across the valleys below, where the rice fields formed a patchwork of emerald green. And on the hill itself the wind made a hoo-hoo-hoo in the branches of the tall deodars where it found itself trapped.
During the rains, clouds enveloped the valley but left the hill alone, an island in the sky. Wild sorrel grew among the rocks, and there were many flowers - convolvulus, clover, wild begonia, dandelion - sprinkling the hill slopes.
On a spur of the hill stood the ruins of an old building. The roof had long since disappeared and the rain had beaten the stone floors smooth and yellow. Moss and maidenhair grew from the walls. In a hollow beneath a flight of worn stone steps, a wild cat had made its home. It was a beautiful grey creature, black-striped, with pale green eyes. Sometimes it watched me from the steps or the wall, but it never came near.
No one lived on the hill, except occasionally a charcoal burner in a temporary grass-thatched hut. But villagers used the path, grazing their sheep and cattle on the grassy slopes. Each cow or sheep had a bell suspended from its neck, to let the shepherd boy know of its whereabouts. The boy could then lie in the sun and eat wild strawberries without fear of losing his charges.
There was a boy who played a flute. Its rough, sweet notes travelled clearly on the mountain air. He would greet me with a nod of his head, without taking the flute from his lips. There was a girl who was nearly always cutting grass for fodder. She wore heavy bangles on her feet, and long silver earrings. She did not speak much, either, but she always had a bright smile when she met me on the path. She used to sing to herself, or to the sheep, or to the grass, or to the sickle in her hand.
And there was a boy who carried milk into town (a distance of about five miles), who would often fall into step with me to hold a long conversation. He had never been away from the hills or in a large city. He had never been in a train. I told him about the cities, and he told me about his village, how they made bread from maize, how fish were to be caught in the mountain streams, how the bears came to steal his father's pumpkins. Whenever the pumpkins were ripe, he told me, the bears would come and carry them off.
These things I remembered - these, and the smell of pine needles, the silver of oak leaves and the red of maple, the call of the Himalayan cuckoo, and the mist, like a wet facecloth pressing against the hills.
Odd, how some little incident, some snatch of converstaion, comes back to one again, in the most unlikely places. Standing in the aisle of a crowded London tube train on a Monday morning, my nose tucked into the back page of someone else's newspaper, I suddenly had a vision of a bear making off with a ripe pumpkin.
A bear and a pumpkin - and there, between Belsize Park and the Tottenham Court Road station, all the smells and sounds of the Himalayas came rushing back to me.