The clouds had started gathering overhead and a cool wind blew, as we started our drive again after the tea break at Haldwani. One could see the mountains in the distance, beckoning, as the road meandered along the route to Kaathgodam, the next town on our way to Naukuchiataal.
Nearing Kaathgodam, the tentative patter of a few raindrops soon turned to a steady shower, drumming incessantly on the car’s roof. The car windows were pulled up and the air-conditioner switched on, as the car slowly started its winding climb from Kathgodam to Bhimtaal, its tyres squishing in the slosh that had suddenly appeared on the streets, as if by magic. Inside the cabin, the sound of the rain hammering the roof, mixed with the intermittent squeak of the wipers and the soft music flowing out of the car stereo. As we drove on, admiring the verdant mountains on the one side and the beautiful valley on the other, we could see several roadside vendors selling corn. Travellers would stop by the roadside, and enjoy roasted corn smeared with liberal amounts of salt and lemon juice. Tempting as it was, we rushed along, as we wanted to reach Bindiya’s place before nightfall.
Several kilometers of climb later we neared Bhimtaal, one of the nine lakes that dot the mountains in the Nainitaal region. The rain had eased by this time and the road that wound around Bhimtaal looked clean, except for the occasional dumps of plastic garbage littered around its perimeter. The water, however, smelled like stale fish and an occasional tourist stood by the lake edge, clicking pictures or dumping garbage into the lake; the quintessential activity of the Indian tourist! Once we had circumambulated the lake, the road climbed into the mountains once more, narrower and steeper this time. The car could now run only in the second gear or, occasionally, the first. The smell of stale water soon fell away behind us, replaced by a cold breeze carrying the smells of the mountain – flowers, smoke from chimneys, and cow dung; the smells that define the average mountain countryside.
Driving up the narrow lanes, I was worried. What if another vehicle came from the opposite direction? What if the road turned out to be a dead end? Could I turn the car around? The questions buzzed around in my mind as I fumed in irritation and anger, while Vaishali crosschecked the directions on her phone and verified them against Google Maps. Several nail biting minutes later we were assured by a gentleman, walking his dog, that we were on the right track. Another steep climb, another hairpin bend, the groan of the engine in first gear and we stood before the white-green house.
It was not yet twilight, as we ascended the steps to our friend’s place, surprising her! Yelps of surprise and squeals of delight were followed by warm hugs and presently we were all comfortably stationed on the terrace, armed with warm tea and nachos. We had lots of catching up to do, having met after several years. And the talk flowed, like a mountain stream, fresh and fast and sweet, drenching all those participating in it, soaking us to the very bones. By the time we had drunk all the tea in the house and crunched all the nachos available, it was twilight. The sun was poised over the mountaintops in the distance, ready to take the plunge. The sky was amber. As Vaishali and Bindiya, collected all the utensils and carried them indoors, I lingered on.
I sat there on the terrace, facing the valley and looked around. Far to the left in the distance, one could see the Naukuchiataal , its dark green waters stringed by a row of halogen lamps. The water rippled and bubbled at a few places, where the pumps tried to keep the flora and fauna alive in the lake by pumping air in it. Immediately facing the terrace was the main valley with several houses, farms, hotels and resorts dotting the landscape, stringed together by the narrow dirt road, which we had taken in the afternoon to reach the house.
The valley was surrounded by several mountains, arranged in layers around the vale, their peaks crested with conifers. Clumps of dwellings dotted the sides of these mountains facing the valley, standing out against the lush green carpet of the mountains. Over the farthest of these mountains, to the west, the Sun stood poised, hesitating. There was still light in the sky when I noticed clouds starting to roll in from the east. Slowly they crowded the skies, diminishing the already dying daylight. On and on the torrent rolled, conquering one peak after another, flying across the sun, challenging it, blotting it out and then letting it go. As the celestial armies of the dark clouds continued their assault from the east, the sun suddenly dipped behind the farthest mountain and was gone! Though there was still some light left in the sky, it started to diminish fast.
The clouds continued to roll and cover the mountaintops, and a cool breeze began to blow. The valley was surrounded from all the sides by clouds of all hues, white, grey, black; pushing each other, descending from the peaks, filling the valleys. The light continued to diminish and, in the growing darkness, the mountain peaks started to disappear one by one. Starting from the most distant peak, the darkness and the cloud cover swallowed the peaks, one after another, till only the ones flanking the valley were left standing. The lights from the houses on these mountains twinkled, piercing the darkness, peeping from behind the cloud cover, like a wild animal crouching in a dark forest.
I closed my eyes, trying to listen to the sounds of the mountains. The birds chirping, the crickets stridulating, the occasional bark of a stray dog. Breathing deeply, I listened intently, closely, the swish of the breeze, the splat of the occasional raindrop that fell. As I concentrated, I could peel off the different layers of sound surrounding me, I heard the trees swaying, the snap of a twig from deep in the forest, an owl hooting, the scurrying of little feet – squirrels? Deeper and deeper I went, unwrapping the sounds and then wrapping it around me, completely ensconced in the language of the mountains now. Finally we were talking. I could hear what it said, could understand it, tried to answer it. The mountain was saying something. ‘Come in’, it said, ‘its starting to rain’. The layers peeled off once more, the sound broke my reverie, jerked me out of the hypnosis that had held me. The mountains receded. Vaishali was calling out to me, ‘Come, its raining. Can’t you see?’ Indeed, I had not noticed, it had started to rain!
As I got up to go inside, I could not help but notice a large cloud, which had descended in the valley in front of me and stood there now, motionless. Like a ship that had strayed in a landlocked lake and could not find its way out again, the cloud stood in the valley, immobile, dark, threatening. The rain had picked up force now and I rushed indoors to avoid getting drenched. As I closed the door behind me, I took one last look at the dark valley with the ghost ship stationed on the lake, my mind resonating with the voice of the mountains, our talk still unfinished!