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.
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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.