For the past year, I’ve been so focused on exams and college applications that I’ve become numb to the world around me, to my own feelings. And now, there is a pulsing rhythm, a song of yearning, of aching longing thumping in my heart. A yearning for the mountains, for clear blue skies, for deeper connection, and for an escape from everyday life and commitments.
We stuff our suitcases in the car and begin driving. As we drive further and further north, I feel my heart and mind opening up to the world, my self flowing into the beyond. This warm earth under the blue skies, skies with their arms wide open, is our only home.
We drive through cities and towns, through lush green fields enriched by the waters of the Ganges, and through wind-worn mountain forests, their trees lost in clouds and mist. The sweet waves of the Himalayan mountain forests wash over us. We smell the heady scent of the earth and feel the cold wind on our skin, numb with pleasure. Finally, at about nine o’clock in the night, we reach the cottage and drink cups of sweet-smelling tea, watching the full moon float like a boat in a sea of clouds. An owl hoots somewhere.
We are home.
Our cottage is situated on a hill overlooking the valley of Dehradun, so when I run out of my room in the morning, I see the sprawling city of Dehradun and the hills surrounding it, all bathed in the soft honey-coloured sunshine of a new day. From that height, the nearby hills look like waves rolling in a sea of green and brown, beyond which shimmers the vast shore of Dehradun with its labyrinth of buildings. Clouds drift along like spray in this foaming sea, and birds dip their beaks in the soft sunshine, singing a song that makes the air, the sky, the wind seem honey-thick and golden. I take off my shoes and stand ankle-deep in the long, dew-heavy wild grasses, in the flowers opening their door-faces to bumblebees.
As I shift my gaze back to the valley, I am reminded of Australian lawyer and author John Lang, who spent almost half his life in India, and who too had been enchanted by the sight of this valley as viewed from the mountain on which Mussoorie is perched. He described the scene in Wanderings in India and Other Sketches of Life in Hindostan: ‘From an elevation of about seven thousand feet the eye embraces a plain containing millions of acres, intersected by broad streams to the left, and inclosed by a low belt of hills, called the Pass. The Dhoon, in various parts, is dotted with clumps of jungle, abounding with tigers, pheasants, and every species of game.’
After breakfast, we head for a walk in the woods. A walk in the forest is an exercise in reclaiming the attention that the grey asphalt and dark concrete pavements of cities have stolen from us. Once I begin to pay attention, my heart begins beating with the rhythm of the forest’s leafy heart. I start to hear birds singing, their songs punctuated by moments of silence. I start to smell the petrichor, letting it fill up the hollows of my bones. I start noticing the galaxy of life on every tree and the bright pink and orange flowers shimmering on thick, dark bushes like the stars of some faraway constellation.
As we walk, feeling the trees’ cool breath on our arms, I recall this line written by Mary Oliver: ‘The world’s otherness is an antidote to confusion – that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.’
Karl Marx was also hinting at this otherness when he described the alienation that characterises modern industrial society. In the rush of modern life, in the mindless flitting between tasks, we are alienated from nature, from each other, and from the self. Till now, I have been an other to nature, an other to myself.
Till now, I have been an other to nature, an other to myself.
Now, walking in the forest, holding my little brother’s hand, lost in the symphony of trees and sky, and listening to my parents and uncle telling stories about their childhoods, I feel this vast echoing space, this hollow gulf of alienation vanishing. I feel more in touch with myself than ever before.
We continue walking, twigs crunching beneath our feet, until we reach the end of the path. My dad points at two chirruping golden-brown birds fluttering from one branch to another, from one tree to another.
‘What would it feel like to be one of those birds?’ he says. ‘To call the borderless sky your home, to fly from tree to tree, forest to forest, simply revelling in the brightness of being?’
In the city, away from the forests and stars, we were so eager to become that we forgot how to be. That day, wandering in the woods, we simply let ourselves be – beings belonging to the Earth, washed with the clear music of light, wind, and water.
At night, I sit alone, writing in my journal. There is something about the wilderness that forces you to confront the depths of your mind – suppressed feelings, dark fears, deep desires, a numbing longing to escape. I notice my writing style change slightly: language starting to become wilder, more reflective of the unrestrained gush and flow of the consciousness. As I write in the wild, I feel my fragmented self become whole once more. A round moon that has come full circle. The sky opens up a door for me into the beyond, and I step into it, lost in the swirling eddies of flickering stars, in the wind’s high, wild melody. Sometimes you need to get lost in order to find yourself.
I lie awake in my bed till midnight, listening for foxes and rabbits and owls. But all I hear is silence – silence, and perhaps the soft sound of paws.
Something is wrong. Those initial hours of naive appreciation of the glory of the mountains are past, and I am beginning to notice the darker edges of this world.
Driving through the central part of the city of Dehradun, instead of seeing the ‘clumps of jungle’ that Lang had described, I see a jungle of concrete: congested, traffic-packed roads, crowded residential and commercial centres, and swanky malls. On the outskirts of the city, trucks laden with felled trees trundle down the narrow mountain path. Patches of bare earth yawn as cranes clear land for the Delhi-Dehradun expressway. A small rivulet twists through the landscape, leaving scars on the eroding soil: the skeleton of a life once lived. I can only wonder how different this Dehradun looks from the one that John Lang beheld when he stood on the Mall Road in Mussoorie, gazing breathless at the vista stretched out below him.
Like other natural landscapes in the country and in the rest of the world, Himalayan hill towns have been subjected to ecological destruction. Uttarakhand (the mountainous Indian state where Dehradun and Mussoorie are located) has lost 50,000 hectares of forest land in the past two decades due to commercial activities. Numerous tigers, leopards, and elephants die every year due to wildfires in Uttarakhand. Thousands of trees have been felled in Dehradun to build the Delhi-Dehradun expressway. Rivers and streams are choked with garbage due to the lack of an efficient waste management system. Yes, beauty still thrives in the Himalayas, but this beauty is fading away due to a model of development that considers environmental degradation a necessary and unavoidable byproduct of economic growth.
Grey clouds gather in the skies, settling near the tops of the hills. The wind picks up. A low, moaning sound. A storm is approaching Mussoorie, a storm which reminds me of the storm that Lang himself witnessed when he was in the town.
The storm that Lang witnessed was, of course, not everlasting: ‘The day after the storm brought forth the loveliest afternoon that can be imagined. The sun shone out brightly, the clouds were lifted from the Dhoon, and the vast panorama resembled what we read of in some fairy tale.’ The current storm of ecological destruction, deforestation, and alienation from nature does not have to last forever either. Citizens are already raising their voice against the felling of trees and the consequent loss of biodiversity.
The current storm of ecological destruction, deforestation, and alienation from nature does not have to last forever.
Himalayan towns have a rich legacy of environmental movements that we can draw inspiration from. For example, the Chipko movement is a socio-ecological movement that began in Uttarakhand in 1973 to prevent the reckless exploitation of natural resources and felling of trees for commercial purposes. The Hindi word ‘chipko’ means ‘to hug’ or ‘to cling to’ and refers to the demonstrators’ main strategy of embracing the trees to obstruct the loggers. This movement was rooted in Gandhian principles of non-violence and saw the collective mobilisation of women. One of the results of the movement was that the Prime Minister imposed a fifteen-year ban on commercial felling in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. This movement expanded and evolved into the ‘Save Himalaya’ movement, which protested the construction of the Tehri Dam and various other mining operations.
I am walking among these trees for the last time. I touch their worn barks, hearing them whisper stories of all those who have come here before me, those lovers of the world who had stroked their branches and danced with their leaves amid golden shafts of sunlight. Beyond the hills, cars are honking, traffic is slowly crawling along, and people are rushing to work.
As I walk back to my room to pack, I think of the folktales and legends associated with the Himalayas that used to echo in every valley and nook of these great mountains. Many of the literary and religious traditions connected with the Himalayas reflect a deep reverence for nature and capture the age-old practice of worshipping natural systems. For example, in ancient Sanskrit literature, the Western Himalayas are referred to as ‘Devbhoomi’ (‘The Land of the Gods’) and are worshipped. Many Himalayan communities hold animistic beliefs and have historically had a deep connection with nature.
Alice Elizabeth Dracott’s book Simla Village Tales; Or, Folk Tales from the Himalayas (originally published in 1906) is a compilation of some Himalayan folktales. In the preface Dracott wrote: ‘Himalayan folk-lore, with its beauty, wit, and mysticism, is a most fascinating study, and makes one grieve to think that the day is fast approaching when the honest rugged hill-folk of Northern India will lose their fireside tales under the influence of modern civilization.’
In today’s modern world, it feels imperative to preserve and promote our literary and cultural heritage in order to stay in touch with our roots and foster our collective love for nature. At the same time, we also have a responsibility to tell new stories: stories that reflect the current state of crisis we are in and chart our path for the future.
I am on the banks of the Ganges. The marbled sky is a pale, greyish blue. Leaves susurrate in the gentle breeze and the misty blue outlines of the mountains loom in the distance: a shadow of reality.
‘In the water that departs forever and forever returns,’ writes Mary Oliver, ‘we experience eternity.’ As I dip my fingers in the cool water, feeling the shimmering song of time rushing through my fingers, I hope with all my heart that this water keeps gushing, that the song of life and time keeps flowing in the Himalayas, and that these great mountains of life continue to tower over the Northern Plains of India, reminding us of who we truly are.