The other day I was just wondering how different it was when I traveled with my parents as a child. There was no agenda, no plans to make, no decisions to take, not even any conscious desire to see the wonders of the world. I was just there because they were traveling and I went where they went. From the faint memories I have of those times, I enjoyed those travels but there doesn’t seem to have been any conscious thought attached to it. For example, I don’t remember ever really standing in one place and pausing to look at something and absorb its beauty. It all seems to have been a rushing stream of images and memories, memories captured with my knee high sensibilities.

I had just turned 9. It was the autumn of 1984. A trip to “Kedarnath-Babrinath” was planned. My father (baba), Mother (Ma), my elder sister (didi) and me.

Memories of Haridwar

 

The Travel Memoirs of a Nine Year Old through Haridwar, Rishikesh, Kedarnath, and Badrinath

I remember going on the train. I celebrated my birthday on the train by showering and putting on a new dress. It was a checkered pink cheese cotton frock, my favorite. We passed these stations with monkeys running around everywhere… finally reached Haridwar

I remember we went around looking for a hotel to stay in and I loved this one that had balconies hanging right over the river. It appealed to my romantic side. (Yes, I did have a romantic side even at 8. These things are genetic, didn’t you know?) But for some reason we couldn’t stay there. We finally decided to put up in this hotel which was right across the road from the river. It was run by this Hindu Punjabi man. It was a many storied building with a courtyard in the middle and rooms on all sides rising up to the top floor. The rooms were nice.

I remember  walking out of the hotel and being scared looking at this stark naked sadhu covered in ashes and sporting the most obscenely tangled hair. And then I saw another one sitting beneath a tree. And then I saw more.

I remember the beautiful river and the scores of people in that place. Needless to say strains of Bengali conversation passing you at every corner. I stood in the middle of Laxman Jhula, thrilled that it was swinging softly, and a little scared that I might fall through the gaps. I don’t know where I was standing but it was on the other side of the bank and I’d never seen anything as beautiful as the temples lighting up against the dark sky and hundreds of ladies dressed in red hued saris sitting on the steps of the bank, lighting diyas in little bowls made of leaves with flowers in them and setting them afloat on the river. They would stand ankles deep in water and watch the “dongas” float. I think the idea was that it should float really far and stay lighted for the longest time. But I just stood there looking at the temple lights twinkling against the dark sky and hundreds of diyas shimmering up the dark liquid of the river. And the chanting of hymns and songs with the sound of cymbals and gongs could be heard right till we reached the hotel.

I remember the crowded lanes of the bazaar, colorful, bulb lit, the smell of pickles even beyond the rows of shops with all kinds of pickles for sale. We went to, no prizes for guessing, “Dada Boudis Hotel” and dug into a sumptuous Bengali meal.

Memories of Rishikesh

 

I remember  the river in Rishikesh is really dirty with all the factories dumping their wastes in it which you can see when you are crossing the bridge. There were endless temples and all crawling with monkeys of all sizes. I went back to the hotel room and sat looking at the terrace where we’d put out our washed clothes. (Bengalis are notorious for washing clothes when they travel and drying them in every conceivable place) And there was this monkey which came up and took off with my favorite cheese cotton frock And then another monkey came along and started snatching it from him and tore it between the two of them and they took off with it. There was no consoling me. Why would the monkeys take my frock? Dumb fools!

 

I don’t remember Rudra Prayag and Dev Prayag except for this very big and quiet temple place called Joshi Math. I thought it was really tranquil beside the river.

I remember we were to take this conducted tour organized by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam. We sat on the bus which would take all these families which had signed up for the trip. Most of them were Bengalis from Calcutta. Three middle aged Bengali couples with their grown up sons. A group of three or four young boys.

I remember there was this guy called Kaushik. Of the kind who is a little quiet and detached and look very intelligent. His mother was really beautiful and very witty. Then there were two brothers. One was the cartoon of the class always in the thick of things. The other quieter but nice and friendly. Sadly I don’t remember their names. So we will call them Khokon and Choton after my childhood neighbors. There was one guy with endless legs, (if your eyes were reaching only his knees you would also feel that way) well, very tall and his name was Bapi, I think. We would eventually all make friends over the period of the trip and many stories will follow that they would play important parts in.

I remember going to this place from where the trek would start. Maybe Gauri Kund. I don’t remember for sure. The kund (hot spring) area was filthy and muddy and all men and women and children in different states of undress were sitting on the steps dipping their feet or bathing. I turned my pretty little nose up at it all. The conversation was invariably about this one said that disease gets cured if you bathe in this water and that one said something else. Apparently a whole lot of really sick people were lounging there. And some people were boiling rice in it I think and basically messing up the entire place. Anyway, we stayed in this dormitory. And when I woke up and went out in the open all bundled up in woollies I was so excited that my breath was misting over. That was the first time that I’d experienced mist and fog and bone tingling cold. I pretended to smoke a cigarette and blow the smoke mist out and was very tickled about it. We went to this crowded market place, narrow mud lanes, a little uphill with stalls on both sides. I think my parents bought these long rough wooden sticks to use for the trek, and another carved wooden walking stick as a gift for back home.

Memories of Kedarnath

 

The Travel Memoirs of a Nine Year Old through Haridwar, Rishikesh, Kedarnath, and Badrinath

I remember there were excited discussions about who would reach Kedarnath by what means? The options were expensive horses, little less expensive Kandis - the seats that people carry over their shoulders and chair palkis, and of course walking. All the men and the group of young boys went on about how they had all decided that they will trek up the 14 kms. And it will be good fun and horses and such were only for women and so on. Baba got all pepped up and decided that he was going to trek it up with didi, and me and my mother would take a back chair each. So we started on our trek up. We soon found out that after the big talks all the boys had promptly taken horses and gone off. Our little entourage climbed slowly up the mountains. The sky was blueeeee and the air was crisp. I was wearing at least two sweaters and a coat and I thought, “but it’s not cold,” even while I was digging in my pockets for cashews and raisins because we were supposed to munch on them in this impossibly cold weather! (Bengalis are also famous for bundling up in woolens at the slightest hint of cold) Sometimes, I would get off the chair and walk for a kilometer or so. The mountain that we were on was green with water falls round every bend. The mountains far away were snow capped and stark. There was always a river running down at the very bottom. Sometimes the path would become really narrow so barely a horse and a man could pass. The mountain wall on one side and a steep cliff drop on the other sides. In 1984 at least, most of this road was not tarred and most places did not have any guard rails on the cliff side. To me it was all very adventurous. Didi started having cramps in her legs and we would rest for a bit every now and then. We were warned against sitting down because that would make the muscles freeze.

 

I remember we reached the guest house in Kedarnath when the last of the light was fading from the mountains. Ma was unwell, did had terrible cramps. There was a lady doctor in the group. Ma forced herself to vomit and felt better. Didi put her feet up and felt better. Baba forced spoonfuls of Brandy with our tea down our throats and we all went back to feeling horrible. All said, it was still my first taste of “spirit” ever. After didi and ma bundled up and went off to sleep, I wandered out in search of baba. The guest house was quite beautiful with slanted roof and an open space right outside it stretching out to the road overlooking a range of mountains. Baba was standing there looking at the mountains. It was a full moon night and the moonlight was gleaming off the snow covering the mountain tops. I stood beside him in silence. It was really beautiful.

I remember getting ready in the morning and stepping out of the guest house to find my sister in a discussion over whether that huge chunk of snow on the mountain face was a glacier or not with the monosyllabic Mr. Kaushik. There were endless steps leading up the temple area and it was lined with beggars sitting on either side of it. The face of the temple was quite simple and white and there were long length of stone steps leading up to it. We stood in a queue to get inside the temple. Inside was really small and really dark and claustrophobic. People jostling each other, smell of incense sticks choking up the air. I think we circled the temple once. There was this old man sitting against the temple wall. Old and bearded with tattered clothes. I thought of one vague story about how a man had left his family and riches behind and went off to the Himalayas and thought that this could be that man. How did he feel living here like this? What did he think about? We sat on the steps in front of the temple and posed for family pictures. On our way back, ma shopped for semi precious stones and rudraksh beads. I found the little tables with stones in all colors spread on them very fascinating.

 

The Travel Memoirs of a Nine Year Old through Haridwar, Rishikesh, Kedarnath, and Badrinath

I remember all the brave men with their brave words finally braved the trek downhill. We stopped for lunch in this Cliffside Dhaba. It was a small shack hanging over the cliff on stilts. I kept thinking it would fall over and we would all crash and burn. Bapi da and Choton da and Khokon da and their parents and we all had lunch together. I came out to wash my hands and drink water from this jug of water that stood there. As I lifted it over my mouth to drink I looked inside to find a big spider sitting inside the water. I screamed. I decided to walk down the rest of the way with the various dada’s and my didi.

 

On the way we met a chameleon sitting right in the middle of the road blocking our way. Boys will be boys. They started pelting stones at it and scared it away. Bapi da kept looking back to see if it was following us. Half way down the road, Bapi da suddenly realized he had left his sunglasses behind in the dhaba. He urged us to go on ahead and said he will run back and fetch his sunglasses and catch up with us. So we plodded on without him. Everyone unanimously decided that he had to go back, because he kept looking back over his shoulder. Apparently, when you are coming back from somewhere, if you look back, you will have to return to it, so goes the myth.

We had hardly walked for fifteen minutes when Bapi da came tearing back from behind us screaming and shouting, and I was like, “How did you come back so fast?” "Oh my God! Oh my God! Do you know what happened? I almost died!” He had our attention. By now only the young, all the guys and my sister and I were trailing on. Our respective parents had gone on ahead of us. We all stopped to listen to him. He had run back to the dhaba and picked up his shades and had started running back downhill so he could reach us before sundown. He was in such a tearing hurry that he lost his footing on the narrow road and fell down the cliff. You know how the mountain roads have hairpin loops. He fell through the end of one and fell down four or five loops before he was caught by the branch of a tree. And so he actually saved the time walking or running down the length of the road. We stood around and admired his wounds. He had scraped skin all over but was mostly unharmed otherwise. Khokon da suddenly remembered how someone had told him that chameleons are sacred in this part of the world, and concluded that Bapi da must have had his accident because he stoned that chameleon on the way. We were all totally sold on this theory. Later when Bapi da had recovered from the shock he took his time and dramatized the incident with relish telling us how he had held on to one branch with one hand and then the branch was about to snap... Anyway, we all promised not to breathe a word of the accident to any of our parents or he would get the wrong end of their tongues. Most of the women went right back to the kunda and soaked themselves after the journey. And as baba opened his shoes to reveal toe nails that had turned blue, I related the fantastic story of how Bapi da escaped death!

Memories of Badrinath

 

The Travel Memoirs of a Nine Year Old through Haridwar, Rishikesh, Kedarnath, and Badrinath

On our way to Badrinath, we stopped for the night in this place called Chamoli?? I am not too sure about the name of the place. Any which ways, it was this small town kind of place on the mountains. They put us up in a guest house kind of place. There was an open area, a little uphill stretch by the road and then this big building in not such good repair. There was this pretty cottage right beside the guest house campus. I remember the caretaker saying they didn’t have electricity. So the men decided to occupy one dormitory and the women and children the other so we could make do with a few candles.

 

Once we had settled our stuff, we surveyed the market place for food. There was only one restaurant, well, dhaba, actually. And the Bengali folks decided that the dhaba food was too spicy for their delicate digestive systems, and somehow they discovered that this cottage beside the guesthouse serves home cooked food. It was an important and interesting discovery. Apparently, a few young college girls from Delhi were staying there, finishing some kind of research and they cooked home meals in the make shift restaurant that was the cottage veranda fitted out with basic tables and chairs. A simple meal of dal-chawal and fries was ordered. As we sat down to our meal, this motorbike came bhut-bhutting up to the cottage and two !!!girls!!! got down from it. They joined the girl who was cooking up our meal and then helped serve us. In the middle of the meal one uncle (Choton and Khokon’s father) says, “bhaisaahab, thoda sa noon milega kya?” (a typical Bengali mix of badly spoken Hindi translating to: Brother, can you get me a little salt?) There was silence for just a second when everyone looked from him to the bhaisahab in question, and then resumed the meal as usual.

The confusion was inevitable. This was 1984. The girl wore jeans and shirt, had really short “boys-cut” hair, rode a bike, had dark lips, and lived in a cottage on the mountain all by herself. Well, living with two more girls doesn’t count. All these points were bandied about back in the guest house when we (youngsters) accused uncle of calling the girl bhaisahab. There was much debate. The entire busload of people was divided into three groups. It was a girl. It was a boy. It could be either. Even bets started being thrown in the equation. There was complete mayhem in the dormitory. Finally the brave heart Bapi da decided that he would shoulder the responsibility of finding out the truth. I was appointed the assistant. Both of us bundled up in our woolens and walked down the slope to the cottage, Bapi da holding my hand apparently deep in thought. It was quite dark outside. When we reached the cottage, the girls were in the middle of their dinner out in the veranda. Bapi da climbed the few steps to the veranda and said, “Thoda mouri mil sakta hai kya?” (Again the hopeless bilingual attempt, this time asking for fennel) The girls were confused in unison. Mouri? What is that? Bapi da made several attempts at explaining wat “mouri” is. It is taken after meals. Helps in digestion. I cleared my throat and squeaked, “saunf.” And suddenly the fog cleared. “Oh, you mean, saunf!” One of the girls, whose gender was not in question got up to get the requested saunf. Bapi da’s grand scheme was working wonderfully. At this opportune moment, he addresses the “girl” in question, “If you don’t mind, what is your name please?” The girl was taken aback, but had the good humor to answer him, “Gita. Gita Pathak.” I looked up at Bapi da. Considering both our respective heights, his face was a long way up. The saunf in question was handed over, thanks muttered, and we turned to go back. The moment we left the cottage and hit the slopes, Bapi da burst out laughing. He was laughing so hard and so loudly, I was quite positive the girls must have heard. Screaming at the top of his lungs we ran back to the guest house and announced that she is definitely a girl because her name is Geeta. Bet losers were promptly reminded of their promises of chocolates and such. Of course, some people were still reluctant to believe it all. Uncle said, “Why, there was this man who lived in our neighborhood whose name was Gita…”

However, a good round of antyakshari by the candle lights restored peace back amongst the residents. I remember Khokon da sang “Ek mai aur ek tu, dono mile is tarah, aur jo tan man me ho raha hai, wo to hona hi tha.” (A peppy Hindi Film song which was a big hit in those days.) And I remember thinking that Khokon da was very crass to be singing such cheap songs. At nine, I undoubtedly had a very warped sense of morality.

 

The Travel Memoirs of a Nine Year Old through Haridwar, Rishikesh, Kedarnath, and Badrinath

I remember the final bus ride to Badrinath has to be the most interesting ride to anywhere by far. After arming ourselves with the various candy items that we earned, courtesy the bet from previous night, we took our respective seats. I was sitting with didi. The seats right in front of us were occupied by Choton da and Khokon da. I remember these other families always had a good supply of bourbon biscuits. The ones with chocolate flavored cream fillings. And I remember thinking they must be very rich to be able to afford chocolate biscuits. Anyway, we set off. All along the way the curling river down the cliff was clearly visible at all times. After going for a bit, we were suddenly struck by a scene of disaster. Some bus had crashed on the same road, probably the previous day, and all of us could see the broken and smashed up bus down below in the ravine. The most startling picture however was one red sari caught in one of the rocks and floating in the water by the edge of the river. Everyone was quite shook up and the atmosphere in the bus had sobered up. I remembering noticing that Khokon da in the seat in front of me was putting on his sweater inside out in his state of fright. I was obviously very amused. Anyway, so on we went some more distance. And then there was a loud noise at the back and some screams. The bus was stopped. The passengers from the back were all rushing to the front. Apparently the bus had broken down. Literally. Everyone got down from the bus and inspected the damage. The portion of the bus behind the rear wheels was broken and was hanging loose on the right side. Oh my Goodness. How could we go on in this manner? We would all surely get killed. All passengers were screaming and shouting and ready to kill the tour conductor. What was the meaning of this? Conspiracy theories about cheating the innocent traveler were discussed. Various options were considered including walking the rest of the distance. At the end of it all, it was decided that we would all board the bus and the passengers at the back would just come forward and share the seats with the others. The bus would drive slowly, and God willing, we would all reach Badrinath without any mishap. As passengers boarded the bus the general feeling of anger gave way to a general feeling of fear. God had to be willing for us to reach safely. After all we were there visiting God. The moment the bus started, everyone unanimously broke into a song of “Hare rama, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare!” The loudest voice belonged to brave heart Bapi da. As I looked at him he gave me a sheepish smile and continued singing. Since I was only a child, and presumably did not understand the gravity of the situation, my giggles were excused.

 

I remember Badrinath was very crowded. After the stark bare and unadorned Kedarnath, Badrinath was colorful and ornate and crowded. I remember looking at it from a distance over this bridge and nagging Baba to let me take a photograph. So he let me hold the camera and take my first photograph. The horizon came out a little lopsided and till date my horizons are lopsided! (I have an axis problem) From the bridge we could see this entire jam packed settlement on the slope of the mountain and the temple at the top of it all. I remember the Badrinath temple was very ornate. That’s all I remember. I do not remember much of what was inside the temple. Just the huge ornate doors. I just remember that it was very crowded with shops everywhere.

Back to Haridwar

 Aarti in Haridwar By Mistral
I remember the trip back to Haridwar was without incidence. There was just this place where we stopped for a night, I do not remember where, it was sort of in a valley with a beautiful view and the thing I remember is that half of the hotel was underground. I was endlessly fascinated by the fact that we stayed in rooms that were below the ground level. Like when you come off the road and get into the reception lobby, that was probably the 2nd floor. And I kept thinking that I would love to have a house with rooms underground. (I have long since gotten over that desire) I also remember thinking that I would love to have a small house in that valley, overlooking the mountain and the river. (This desire remains, just the location keeps changing to wherever I am traveling at that point in time.)

I remember back in Haridwar I was at a total loss to find that the river had disappeared. Where there was once the Ganges some 15 days back, there was now a huge bed of stones. The cemented bank with the steps and then a dry river bed of tiny smoothed out stones. No water. The Baba explained to me the concept of canals, and how the Ganges in Haridwar was not a real river but a canal in which the water was regulated by the dam. Imagine that! After the shock of that wore off, I suddenly noticed that a lot of people were busy collecting coins from the river bed. All the millions of coins that people had thrown into the water making wishes, and the coins that they put in the lamp lit diya dongas obviously keep getting collected at the bottom of the river. Did anyone ever think of what happens to them? Well, when they stop the water in the canal and the river bed is dry, the local people collect them and then sell it to the tourists again for real money. So you have all these peddlers lined up by the river bank with coins piled up high. They will exchange your money for these coins so you can go and throw it in the water to make a wish. And then they will collect the same coins a week later and sell it to another tourist. Technicalities apart, I remember wondering if wishes get fulfilled when your wish-coin gets stolen from the river. Very pertinent, don’t you think?

I remember  we put up at the same hotel of last time. Diwali was just around the corner. While we were freshening up in our rooms in the evening, Baba went out to get us some snacks for the evening. We could hear the odd crackers burst outside the hotel. One time there was this loud bang. We just assumed it must be the crackers. After a while there seemed to be a lot of activity in the hotel, people running about and talking loudly. We stepped out of our rooms into the open corridor to find out what the commotion was about. If you remember, the central portico was wide open right up to the top floor. We tried to peep down. Someone said it was gunfire. Ma was frantic because Baba was out there somewhere. Soon, however, we saw Baba coming back and he told us that the hotel owner was just murdered right at the entrance. A matter of some personal enmity. Needless to say, it was topic of conversation for quite some time. He was a good man, why would anyone want to kill him, maybe professional jealousy… I remember a lot of guests left the hotel within a couple of hours. We decided to stay on since Baba said they have enough trouble as it is without loosing out on business too. I remember going out the next morning and noticing dark blood stains on the cement steps right at the entrance. Anyway, for meals we went through the pickle filled lanes again to Dada Boudi’s Hotel and helped ourselves to daal, bhaat, and macher jhol.

I remember  on the train back home we shared the train compartment with this middle aged couple of which the wife was mad. I mean, literally mad, because the husband was taking her to Ranchi for treatment. (anyone who says they stay in Ranchi / Agra is at the receiving end of the common joke that they must be mad. Agra has the Taj for redemption, but Ranchi has no such excuse. Now you know why Jyoti da and Somnath call me “pagli”!) It was quite weird, because she was completely silent throughout the journey and just kept staring at all of us. Anyway, thus ended out journey of Kedarnath, Badrinath.

It was a trip of so many firsts. My first sight of Himalayas. My first mist. My first mist smoking. (Technically my first mountain and mist would be Darjeeling, but then I was just a year old and have no cognitive memory of it.) My first snow. My first taste of spirit. My first photography. My first murder!

Of your varied travels, there are some that have a special place in your heart, some that you carry memories of for always. And then there are those travels that you experienced as a child, and to relive those memories has always held a lot of fascination for me. At that age you look at the world with different eyes. It is probably especially true of my generation and before because we didn’t have TV at that time to take away our wonder of looking at something for the first time. The perceptions at that age are different and so are the experiences. The memories that you carried with you and the details that you do not remember is a journey that has been very telling and interesting. But most of all, I am just happy I remember so much. I guess it is a hangover from being an elephant in my last birth!