TOWARD the end of the year, those few monsoon clouds that still linger over the Himalayas are no longer burdened with rain and are able to assume unusual shapes and patterns, chasing each other across the sky and disappearing in spectacular sunset formations. I have always found this to be the best time of the year in the hills. The sun-drenched hillsides are still an emerald green; the air is crisp, but winter's bite is still a month or two away; and for those who still like to take to the open road on foot, there are springs, streams, and waterfalls tumbling over rocks that remain dry for most of the year. The lizard that basked on a sun-baked slab of granite last May is missing, but in his place the spotted forktail trips daintily among the boulders in a stream; and the strident sound of the cicadas is gradually replaced by the gentler trilling of the crickets and grasshoppers.
Cicadas, as you probably know, make their music with their legs, which are moved like the bows of violins against their bodies. It's rather like an orchestra tuning up but never quite getting on with the overture or symphony. Aunt Ruby, who is a little deaf, can nevertheless hear the cicadas when they are at their loudest. She lives not far from a large boarding school, and one day, when I remarked that I could hear the school choir or choral group singing, she nodded and remarked: ``Yes, dear. They do it with their legs, don't they?''
Come to think of it, that school choir does sound a bit squeaky.
NOW, more than at any other time of the year, the wildflowers come into their own.
The hillside is covered with flowers and ferns. Sprays of wild ginger, tangles of clematis, flat clusters of yarrow and lady's mantle. The datura grows everywhere with its graceful white balls and prickly fruits. And the wild woodbine provides the stems from which the village boys make their flutes.
Aroids are plentiful and attract attention by their resemblance to snakes with protruding tongues - hence the popular name, cobra lily. This serpent's tongue is a perfect landing stage for flies, who, crawling over the male flowers in their eager search for the liquor that lies at the base of the spike, succeed in fertilizing the female flowers as they proceed.
One of the more spectacular cobra lilies, which rejoices in the name Sauromotum Guttatum - ask your nearest botanist what that means! - bears a solitary leaf and purple spathe. When the seeds form, it withdraws the spike underground. And when the rains are over and the soil is not too damp, sends it up again covered with scarlet berries. In the opinion of the hill folk, the appearance of the red spike is more to be relied on as a forecast of the end of the monsoon than any meteorological expertise. Up here on the ranges that fall between the Jumna and the Bhagirathi (known as the Rawain) we can be perfectly sure of fine weather a fortnight after that fiery spike appears.
But it is the commelinea, more than any other Himalayan flower, that takes my breath away. The secret is in its color; a pure pristine blue that seems to reflect the deepest blue of the sky. Toward the end of the rains it appears as if from nowhere, graces the hillside for the space of about two weeks, and disappears again until the following monsoon.
When I see the first commelina, I stand dumb before it, and the world stands still while I worship. So absorbed do I become in its delicate beauty that I begin to doubt the reality of everything else in the world.
But only for a moment. The blare of a truck's horn reminds me that I am still lingering on the main road leading out of the hill station. A cloud of dust and a blast of diesel fumes are further indications that reality takes many different forms, assailing all my senses at once! Even my commelina seems to shrink from the onslaught. But as it is still there, I take heart and leave the highway for a lesser road.
Soon I have left the clutter of the town behind. What did Aunt Ruby say the other day? ``Stand still for five minutes, and they will build a hotel on top of you.''
Wasn't it Lot's wife who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at the doomed city that had been her home? I have an uneasy feeling that I will be turned into a pillar of cement if I look back, so I plod on along the road to Devasari, a kindly village in the valley. It will be some time before the ``developers'' and big-money boys get here, for no one will go to live where there is no driveway!
A TEA shop beckons. How would one manage in the hills without these wayside tea shops? Miniature inns, they provide food, shelter, and even lodging to dozens at a time.
I tackle some buns that have a pre-Independence look about them. They are rock hard, to match the environment, but I manage to swallow some of the jagged pieces with the hot sweet tea.
There is a small shrine here, right in front of the tea shop. It is no more than a slab of rock daubed with vermilion, strewn with offerings of wildflowers. Hinduism comes closest to being a nature religion. Rivers, rocks, trees, plants, animals, and birds all play their part, both in mythology and in everyday worship. This harmony is most evident in remote places like this, and I hope it does not lose its unique character in the ruthless urban advance.