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JUL 2001
Mashobra: The Romantic’s Home
Pankaj Mishra   At home in the 'silence and solitude' of this unfussy hillstation, the writer finds the words

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Untitled Document

I spent much of my twenties in a little Himachali village north of Shimla called Mashobra. It was a serene and fulfilling time; and like most good things in life it came about with a minimum of fuss, with no anticipation or planning.

I had gone to Shimla in the spring of 1992 in order to find a cottage I could rent cheaply for a few summers. For the first couple of days, a bored estate agent showed me around a few sunless houses with damp cement walls, and it became clear that the silence and seclusion I associated with living in the mountains weren’t to be found in the city’s aggressive favela-like squalor. I had given up on Shimla; and that morning, when I took the bus to what had been described as a ‘nice picnic spot’ in my guidebook, I was hoping only to kill some time before taking the train back to Delhi.

Photo Credit: T Narayan

The half-empty Himachal Roadways bus never stopped groaning, as it travelled through the broad open valley that slumbered peacefully in the pale sunshine. After about half an hour, we were surrounded by damp pine trees, and didn’t regain our freedom for some time. Miniature mountain ranges of snow sat muddied beside the rutted road; at tea-shacks in dark little clearings, men in woollen rags hunched over pine cone fires.

The bus left the highway, stuttered down a steep road cramped by tottering houses of wood and tin, and then abruptly stopped. The driver killed the ailing engine, and everyone got out.

I was the last to leave. After the warm pungent smells of the bus, the cold came as a little shock. I saw that I was on a long ridge, facing a vast abyss filled with the purest blue air. The overall view, extending far to the East, was quite spectacular: a craggy row of white mountain peaks, watching over, along with its minor underlings, the layers and layers of hills and ridges, a deep wooded valley.

The cliché fantasy broke with renewed force into my mind: wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, to live here? I wondered if I should ask someone about places to rent. But the bus had emptied fast — I had been the only tourist on it — and there was no one around. It was then that I noticed the red tin roof of a largish house, and the steep spiralling dirt path that seemed to lead towards it.

The house was indeed big and handsome, if in an old-fashioned, unostentatious way — it had been built, I later learnt, in the early seventies, when wood was plentiful and cheap. Flower pots with peonies hung from the eaves; on the wide sunny porch, some red chillies lay quietly drying on a bright yellow sheet.

A window on the second floor was open; so was the main door that opened, I could see, on to a wooden staircase. I knocked and then heard the thump of bare feet on the floor. Someone appeared at the second floor window: a boy. I tried to explain what I was looking for. He disappeared and a little later Mr Sharma came down the stairs.

He was a tall man, and seemed even taller in his fez cap, which I didn’t see much as the years passed, and the air of sombre dignity it gave Mr Sharma deepened by itself, became an air of mourning.

I told Mr Sharma, a bit awkwardly, that I was a student from Delhi, had spent two summers in Mussoorie and was looking for a place in the mountains where I could read and write for a few years.

Mr Sharma gazed uncertainly at me for a moment, and then said that he would show me a cottage he had just built.

We walked through an orchard — I didn’t know then that these were apple and cherry and peach trees—and came to a narrow spur at the corner of the hill. It was here that a small cottage stood, directly above a cow shed and what looked like storage rooms for fodder.

It was just about functional: there were altogether three rooms, built in no particular order or design, but plonked next to each other; a bathroom and kitchen had been tacked on almost as an afterthought. The rooms were still full of the aroma of wood shavings — it stayed for many months until pushed out in October that year by the fragrance of freshly plucked apples stored underneath.

It was the balcony, however, that held me. It had the same view I had seen as I came out of the bus — the valley and the sky locked in a trance so private that you could only watch and be still yourself. In my mind’s eye, I could already see myself sitting there on long evenings and gazing at the darkening world.

Mr Sharma asked for only Rs 1,000 per month. He said that he too had come to Mashobra many years ago, wanting to read and write. His father had set up the first Sanskrit college in Shimla; he himself published a magazine in Sanskrit. He said he hadn’t built the cottage to make money; it was meant to host needy scholars like myself.

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