Few places made me feel as lonely as Nainital did. Behind every tree, sitting on every bench, hogging tables at every restaurant, snogging in a corner on every forested trail, floating on the lake in every boat, were young couples in love. My desolate self would be welcomed at restaurants by a grouchy face indicating clearly that I was unwelcome, that I had been occupying space meant for amorous dealings or family gatherings. It became so overbearing after 2 days that I began to interpret even friendly gestures and smiling faces as gentle trolling.
So after a day or two of this humiliating ordeal, I stuck to the fast food places at the Stadium corner of the lake. Even though the meals here were engineered to attack a digestive system as virulently as possible, the fact that they were crowded and had locals eating came as a relief. They served some of cheapest food one could get in the tourist trap and it was a delight to sip infinite cups of sugary chai and watch the waiters make snogging couples romancing over a plate of chowmein hurry up to make way for other customers.
One day while I was having a toxic lunch of mushroom chowmein and pepsi, I was made to share my table with an excitable gentleman from the town. His manner was like that of a fidgety squirrel with such an abundance of nervous tics that I felt as if his heart was pumping less on blood and more of coffee. His mind too appeared to be in sync with his body as it abruptly and shapelessly shifted topics in the middle of a conversation.
It was difficult to keep track of what he was saying and I let him babble for as long as he wanted to. From what I gathered, he worked as a cook at one of the Army hotels in the town. So why did he have to come and eat in this unhealthy joint all alone when he could be making decent meals for himself back where he worked? He nodded his head thoughtfully at my question, then ignored it completely as he began telling me about the peculiar quirks of some of the Officers he served, like how one of them liked to have his palak paneer spiced up with chillies or how one particular individual collected bird feathers or oh, did I want to visit this Officer’s house which he had delectably turned into a museum full of Kumaoni artifacts…? Before I could say yes, his monologue had moved on to his jobless son in Delhi who had run away with a girl and was dependent on him for sustenance. He was 55 years old, how long was he expected to pay for his son’s irresponsible life? The least he expected, he said mournfully, was a dowry which his son was too much of wimp to snag from the girl’s family. And, hey, since I was in Nainital, did I happen to go up to Chini Top? I should totally get a view of the lake from the top of the hill. A friend he knew went up and down every morning. He was a super fit individual but he passed away a couple of years ago. A pity, he was so young…
The next morning, I began the long walk up to Chini Top aka Naina Peak. Before going, I asked a bunch of shopkeepers and chaiwallahs on Mall Road if they knew what the place had to do with China. No one knew and after attracting a number of suspicious looks and rude retorts, I hit the trail in a bad mood. Despite my grumpiness and the unsolved mystery behind its nomenclature, this hike was a refreshing change from the overcrowded honeymoon tourism of the town below. Not many tourists had a reason to hike all the way up. There was a cable car that took them to the top of another hill for a bird’s eye view of the lake and the mountains beyond and a metaled road that took the others within meters of the top. The trail, it seems, was only meant for those who sought solitude and hardship, people like the fidgety cook’s friend and myself.
The trail wound up through thick pine and rhododendron forests and was alive with the sound of mynas, cuckoos, bulbuls and minivets. The birdlife here was astoundingly rich. There was a Rufous treepie up on an oak here, a scarlet minivet with its deep scarlet belly chirping from the tree above, seven sister babblers frolicking about the bushes, flame-backed woodpeckers poking at the barks. In 2018, I would be busy looking at these scenes with a telephoto lens of a DSLR camera and would be deeply worried if any of my shots were poorly exposed or not in focus. But in 2009, when I didn’t have much of a camera, I was more alive to these scenes and spent my time experiencing nature more purely without any filters.
The scenes at Chini Top were as busy as mass tourism hotspots tend to be. There was a circular platform at the end of a flight of stairs for visitors to take in the view. It was so crowded the day I went that people were finding it difficult to find a foothold to get a view of the lake below. Some enterprising people had set up games on the way and one of them had hung plastic bottles from the branches of trees which tourists willing to spend 20 Rs. could shoot down into the forested slopes below. Since the walk through the forest was enough of a highlight for me, I walked back without braving the crowds for the view.
Jim Corbett lived in Nainital and since Gurney House, his residence, had now been turned into a museum and was on the way to Tiffin Top (another of Nainital’s much vaunted viewpoints) I thought I would take a peek. As I swung open the main gate and gallantly strode into the courtyard, a big dog barked threateningly and came running in my direction. I was so shocked by this creature hopping and snarling towards me that I slipped unceremoniously and fell. I shouldn’t have panicked so hastily because the dog was silenced immediately by the caretaker with a swift order to calm down.
It was a quaint colonial cottage, and very much in the spirit of the man who had once lived there. It wasn’t luxurious but was furnished just sufficiently to provide reasonable comfort. The walls of the house were abundantly decorated with Corbett memorabilia, his hunting trophies, his family photographs, his African drums, his fishing rods, his cups and saucers etc. So steeped are the rooms in Corbett history that it’s easy to forget that the house was sold to the family of its current owners back in 1947. I can’t imagine too many households preserving and cherishing the memories of illustrious residents of the past for so long. It was a lovingly kept place in beautiful surroundings and among my most memorable experiences in Nainital.
One evening, tiring of the acidic food at the fast food places by the lake, I ventured bravely into a proper restaurant on Mall Road. Now, I’m not a terribly pragmatic person by nature but since I was sick of eating alone and being judged for it all the time, when I saw a girl sitting by herself reading a book in a corner table, I went over to her to ask if we could share a table. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I thought to myself. “She would say, ‘No, you look like a creep and I don’t want to know you’ or ‘No, I’m waiting for my boyfriend/husband so would you please find yourself someplace else to sit’ and I could go back to eating alone and wallowing in misery.” But to my abundant surprise, she said yes.
S was a rare solo female traveller making her way through the Kumaon mountains. She had quit her high-flying corporate job some months ago, sold the house her parents had bought for her in Delhi and was now a full-time traveller hoping to cash in by writing about her travels for magazines, maybe snagging a book deal in the process. We connected immediately as two single travelers in a honeymoon resort. As we swapped travel stories, she did the bulk of the talking because she had travelled a lot more than I had. S had been to places that weren’t even in my radar, places like Uzbekistan, Luzon, Bolivia and the Reunion Islands. She didn’t particularly enjoy traveling in India and stuck to the mountains because she felt creeped out by the attitude of people in the cities.
S brightened up my time in Nainital immensely as we walked around the perimeter of the lake making fun of the honeymooners snogging on the shores, took long walks on the hidden trails that she had meticulously researched, sat for hours drinking rhododendron juice and watching cricket matches at the ground etc. One afternoon, we went on a cable car ride up to the “Snow View Point” where the Himalayan range in the distance delivered a hazy view of its peaks. Here, over a few beers at the bar, I watched her tell off a brash, flirtatious group of guys from Delhi who wanted to know what a pretty girl like her was doing with a fat guy like myself. In just a couple of days, Nainital had metamorphosed into the most fun place on earth.
The only time I was a bit troubled in her company was when she urged me go with her to the zoo. I hate zoos on principle because, well, birds and animals in cages are just a strange, cruel idea devised by humans for their amusement. The one in Nainital was one of India’s only “high-altitude” zoos and was predictably full of tourists behaving at their worst; making faces at primates who looked like they were in depression, shouting abusive words at napping bears hoping they would take offence, banging at the cells of animals to rile them up. The cages holding the animals provided the perfect safety net for them to bring their worst natures to the fore without the probability of suffering any repercussions.
S wanted to visit the zoo not because she liked going there but because she wanted to do a piece on Nainital for a magazine and any write-up without this most vaunted attraction in the town would be incomplete. After we had gently sauntered around these depressing scenes and seen all that S had wanted to see to write her 100 words, we went up to an old Shiva temple in the area. Here, a pandit was performing an elaborate puja that some of the tourists, having exhausted their unruly energies, were observing patiently. After the puja, all of us followed protocol which was to collect our prasad (offering), give the pandit some money and go on our way. All of us except S i.e.
S went up to the pandit, flung a 5 Rs. coin at the donation plate and then instead of opening her palms to receive the prasad respectfully, whipped out her monstrous Nikon D700 camera and began snapping pictures of the pandit on burst mode, circling him for an ideal composition. The pandit became furious both at being treated like an unpaid model and the paltry sum of 5 Rs. lying on his plate . But being a divine soul, he composed himself, cleared his throat and asked her not without a hint of scorn, “Camera bandh karo, bitiya, aur dhyan se suno. Bhagwan ke liye itne hi paise hain tumhare paas?” (Shut your camera, my daughter, and listen. Is that all the money you have to offer God?)
S rolled her eyes, then rummaged in the pockets of her Levi jeans and brandished another 5 Rs. coin. This act enraged the pandit even more. He showed her the plate which was full of 50 and 100 rupee notes and berated her angrily, “Itni door se aaye ho. Thoda toh pyaar hoga Bhagwan ke liye tumhare dil mein? Ki sirf photo kichane aaye ho yahaan pe?” (You’ve come from so far and that’s all the love you have for God? Have you come here just to take pictures?) S told him, “Haan bas photo hi kheechne aaye hain. Aur aapko dene ke liye sirf itne hi paise hain humare paas.” (Yes, I have only come here to take pictures and that’s all the money I have to give you.)
The pandit then flew into a rage and told her, “Agar aisi baat hai toh jaao. Nahi denge tumhe prasad. Is harkat ke liye bhagwan tumhe kabhi maaf nahi karega.” (If that’s the case, then I won’t give you any prasad. God will never forgive you for this misdeed.) These caustic censures had little effect on S as she calmly focused her lens for one final close-up shot of the pandit and walked away like nothing happened.
S had to leave the next day because she was flying to Kenya on an assignment. I would have followed if I had a passport but we had to make do with vague promises to meet whenever possible. I felt the blues when she left and lingering in Nainital would only have made it worse. So I took the first bus I could find to a place I hadn’t been to. Almora.