This was our last day in Nainital.
My grand aunt had once again prepared her special delicious parathas on high demand from every one. She packed a few for our journey to Delhi. In the few hours left for us to depart, I finished packing. It was quite a warm day, so we were all out of our jackets. It had been very cold for the past few days. Strange it was that the cold weather didn’t seem to affect the locals at all. Instead they discussed how hot this summer had been and walked around in their cotton clothes. A few tourists wore shorts and sleeve-less dresses and seemed to be quite comfortable, while we were shaking under three layers of clothes.
Here none of the houses had ceiling-fans. The weather never got that warm for the residents to use fans.
My grand uncle and grand aunt had once come down to visit us in Mumbai. It had been a disaster. They had fallen sick and were bedridden for large part of their visit. The drastic change in climate had not been good for them. Once you get used to living in a certain place, you cannot adjust to a new place so easily, especially after a certain age. We thought that Nainital was quite cold. They must have felt that Mumbai was very hot. When I watched my grand aunt cook, I saw that the ghee she used for cooking was completely frozen, even though it was not refrigerated. The only reason they use the refrigerator, was to ensure that mice do not nibble on the fruits and vegetables!
The kitchen at the compound was a curious little place. It was a bit away from the main house; you would have to walk on a tin platform which would lead to a small stairway of rickety wooden steps, down to the kitchen. It was a dark, mysterious place, illuminated only by a single light bulb. A small plank was attached to the wall to provide as a seat. A small kerosene stove was placed on the floor and a gas stove was placed on a small cabinet nearby. The cabinet contained different vessels and spoons. A small shelf in the corner contained many different spices, the magic ingredients that grand aunt used to give the food its lip-smacking taste. Behind the kitchen was a shabby room which I never dared to explore. On my previous visit, grand aunt had said that small scorpions lurked in the dark corners there. I was tempted to take a peek, but the possibility of an encounter with a scorpion could wait till my next visit. I guess, some fears you have grown up with, are hard to get rid of.
I walked around the house and tried to observe everything so that when I am back home, I should be able to remember every detail. The large tree with pink leaves in front of the house, the amphi-theater and a few actors constantly rehearsing for some play, an empty ice-cream cart lying abandoned on the side of the road, great uncle’s garden where he grew many beautiful plants and flowers, people bustling around in the streets, the ambrosial smells wafting up from the numerous food stalls and restaurants, the trap door in the kitchen which led to my great aunt’s brother’s house ,and many other sweet nothings I promised to keep with myself, locked forever in my memory.
The Holy Quran was kept on a high shelf, wrapped in a cloth that resembled one of those dresses which grand aunt had stitched for me. Oh, did I mention my grand aunt is a very good seamstress? Most of the ladies in the maternal side of my family are crazy about clothes and they make most of their clothes themselves. And yes, this also includes my mom. Grand aunt had brought out all her suits right from the time of her wedding and educated us on their history, patterns, designs, making. By the end of her lesson, I was pretty sure I knew more about fabrics than the designer at my neighbourhood in Mumbai does!
On the very first day of my arrival I had inquired about the cats that used to come in their kitchen. My great aunt told me that they were frequent visitors and that she would let me know when they come again. Today I asked her about the cats, once again. She informed sadly, she hadn’t seen any of them around lately. I was quite disappointed. I love cats.
In the afternoon, an aunt of mine – one I didn’t even know existed – came to meet us. It turned out that she lived in Nainital as well. Mom and my new-found aunt started talking about their childhood memories, while Sadaf Aapi and I just sat awkwardly at the side occasionally adding to the conversation. Again, I noticed that she was not wearing a sweater. Could be because it was quite a warm day, else she was immune to the cold as everyone here seemed to be.
After lunch we were all set to leave for Delhi. We bid goodbye to my great aunt and great uncle. The trip to the railway station was much shorter than it had been when we arrived, earlier that week. Kathgodam station was nearer to Nainital than it was to Ranikhet. We got up on the train and realized that we had arrived earlier than we were supposed to. We would have to wait for one more hour until the train started moving. My mother and Sadaf Aapi started talking while I quietly observed the scene outside.
So many different people were bustling around in haphazard leisure. There was a large joint family sitting on the floor of the station, with a full meal spread in front of them in tiffin boxes. They were hardly paying any attention to the strange stares thrown their way. A group of trekkers made their way across the station, with large rucksacks slung across their backs and hiking poles protruding out of their bags. A small family of three people climbed onto the train with their 3-year-old child bawling his lungs off.
At last, the train started moving. I sat back in my seat, enjoying the stories that unfolded on the other side of the window. This time I didn’t get bored. While coming here, I was eager and excited to explore a new place, so the views outside didn’t interest me as much. But this time I was going back home, with a plethora of memories to call my own. The views outside were only adding up to them. Or perhaps, the journey had taught me to find little stories hiding in its nook and corner. The blinking lights of little houses on the dark bodies of mountains at night, people with thin eyes and beautiful hair, the vastness which I woke up to in the last few days, everything seemed like an unspoken tale waited to be told.
And yet, I knew that, no matter howsoever many new places I explored, my home would always be there waiting for me.
The train we boarded was Shatabdi Express and lunch was served to us. I already had had lunch at home, I refused it. For some time I sipped on the lemonade they served with lunch and just stared out of the window, drinking in the view. It was the same view over and over again, endless fields with a few trees here and there and occasionally a few cows grazing in the fields, but for some unknown reason, it was very relaxing.
Mom started applying mehendi on Sadaf Aapi’s hands. Even though the train was constantly moving, making it very difficult for her to keep her hand stable, my mother managed to craft some perfect designs. In the evening we were served some soup and breadsticks. Now, I don’t usually like soup but I made an exception for this train ride and welcomed it. It was quite warm and tasty. May be defences loosen up and rigid choices relax with a soulful travel.
When we started nearing Delhi, I was quite excited and impatient to meet my relatives again. At long last we arrived at New Delhi station where my great uncle, also Sadaf Aapi’s father, was waiting for us. He had ordered some kind of golf cart, which drove us and our luggage to the parking lot. We got quite a few curious and amusing stares from the people, but I was too excited to be back to Delhi, which is a second home for me, to take notice.
We reached my grand uncle’s home in the city, where a lot of relatives had gathered to welcome us. All of us sat around and exchanged the travel experiences with everyone. My uncle, who had gone on a hiking trip to the Himalayas, told us all about his adventures and we told him all about ours. Over dinner with a large group of people, I ruminated on the days gone by. How lucky I am to enjoy life like this while millions aren’t as privileged! Thank God for the small mercies and numerous joys He has given me!