Nani passed away when I was in UK. Geet and I were returning to Manchester from Halifax. I had gone there for a week-long training. I remember sitting in the train when dad called up and broke the news. I remember staring at the hills as they rushed past. I tried to remember the last time I had seen her. It was ten years ago in a cousin’s marriage.
A few days before her death, I told Geet that we will go to Dalhousie and meet Nani as soon as we go back to India. Nani had not attended our marriage that happened a year ago. She was too old to travel from Dalhousie to Delhi. Mom told us that she took out printouts of our marriage pictures and showed them to her when she went to Dalhousie. She kissed the pictures and blessed us.
She died three weeks before the end of my deputation in UK.
I could never understand why mom and nani cried every time they met. My father and nana looked out of the window uncomfortably as the women went all teary eyed. Later I realised that it was the distance. We were not very rich to afford a yearly visit.
Dalhousie was the only hill station I had seen while I grew up. For other people, it was Manali or Nainital or Shimla. For me, it was always Dalhousie. It was a home away from home. It meant looking at the lines on my nani’s face and listening to her stories. It meant that intoxicating aroma of pine and deodar trees. It meant the scents of the creaking wooden floor of her house. It meant the flavours of the apples that fell off that tree near the stone stairs of the first floor of her house. It meant the smells of her kitchen, smells of kasrod pickle in a clay jar.
Dalhousie always brought peace to my mind. There was this deafening silence there that was hard to find in Delhi. You could hear the winds passing through the trees. You could smell the whiffs of earthly smells that came from the fog that rose from the belly of the valley every morning. I could see a few terrace farms below nani’s house. The farms ended abruptly over a cliff. The valley below was a reserve forest full of lush green trees. I could see hills beyond the forest and serpentine miniature roads with toy buses plying on them. The hills covered the whole landscape till the horizon. There were times when I would get up in the morning and sit alone in the balcony of the upper floor. The place smelled of nature. Then sometimes fog would rise from the lake in the forest below and engulf the whole valley. Sometimes there would be clouds and they would turn the whole sky to various shades of deep blue. It was surreal to take in the smells of Earth and trees. I remember feeling as if I had tasted heaven. I remember taking deep breaths and wondering if my parents could leave me to stay with nani forever. I remember thinking that I could die happily sitting forever in that balcony. That is all I wanted from life.
As time passed, life became more and more busy and years passed between my subsequent trips to Dalhousie. There was always some important exam or hostel life or job in another city. Before I realized, I had not visited Dalhousie for ten years. Never a day passed in those ten years when I had not yearned for those mountains, for that smell of pines, for touching that cloud once again that visited nani’s house once. I felt guilty and frustrated at times. I saw nani grow old in pictures. She told mom that she missed me every time mom visited her. The yearning to see her and the mountains was so strong that I promised myself every year to visit her as soon as possible. I knew she won’t live very long. She was bedridden now. Her back was bent. Her skin was peeling off. I knew I had to go and meet her.
And then UK happened. The promise was locked away. I prayed to God to keep her alive till my return. She passed away three weeks before I came back.
I have visited numerous hill-stations in India. I have seen the highlands of Scotland. I have seen the Alps. And all of them remind me of my nani’s house. Whenever I am surrounded by mountains, I can just close my eyes, take a deep breath and transport myself back to Dalhousie. The smells of a creaking wooden floor of a house in the mountains brings a smile on my face. The smells of winds wafting through pines bring tears to my eyes. The sight of peaks leave an ache in my heart. Whenever a relative brings kasrod pickle from Dalhousie, I can smell my nani’s kitchen in it.
I haven’t been to Dalhousie after my nani’s death. I still have to summon enough courage to do that. I wish I had taken out time to meet her. I wish I had understood how ephemeral life is.
I wish I could go back and meet her once. And then sit on the balcony and smell the fog lifting from the lake.