Jun 8, 2015

How it All began (Part 1 of the Chail trip)

When I was in school, summer holidays meant Chandigarh. The whole family would gather at my Grandparents with nothing in mind but to spend the long summer days in a sort of lazy stupor, eating mangoes and litchi, watching movies and going to the lake in the evening.

Chandigarh also meant trips to the Hills. The hills that seemed so remote when we were in Delhi formed a constant backdrop for our lives in Chandigarh. We could see them from the balcony, their dark blue jagged outline rising sharply against the summer sky that was bleached almost white by the summer sun, or peeping through the mango and guava trees as we played in the Garden.

The trips were usually unplanned. Someone would complain about the heat and how boring everything was and then gaze morosely towards the hills. And just like that we would be off.

Sometimes we made a picnic out of it, leaving early in the morning, driving all day through the winding hill roads, stopping whenever we were hungry or felt like a dip in the streams that periodically ran along the road. Sometimes we were gone for days, staying in Dak Bunglows, ancient with creaking wooden floors, each with its own personal ghost story.

Invariably it was my mother who drove during these trips. She was passionate about driving. Even now it is very difficult for anyone else to get behind the wheel while she is in the car.

Chail was one of our favorite Hill destinations. Quiet and peaceful, it was not too far from Shimla but with none of the hullabullo and touristy crowds one associates with popular hill stations. The small town is surrounded by woods, deep and dark not unlike Robert Frost’s poem. It is one of the last stops in the ‘Hills’, for the climb after Chail gets very steep and you reach the mountains, snow clad and much less gentle that the rolling hills left behind.

Chail’s claim to fame is the Palace of Maharaja of Patiala that has been converted into a hotel by the government. This pretty little Palace is perched on top of the hill, the area surrounding it levelled to create a huge lawn the size of a football field. The forest comes up to almost the edge of the lawn so that you step off the manicured lawn and straight into the woods.

We used to hike up and down the numerous trails shaded by giant deodar and pine trees. The sky peeped through the thick leaves at intervals, but mostly you got the feeling that you were walking inside a green, airy and cool cave. The trees here were ancient, their barks dark and wrinkled, their branches thick as a man’s thigh.

At places, there would be a wide gap between the trees, a sheer fall that gave us a direct view of the valley below. We could see a patchwork of fields; the green and brown livened by the bright clothes of the women who worked in them.

Our hikes always ended at one of the numerous Chai-Pakora stalls that spring up everywhere in the hills. These small stalls dished out absolutely tasty, crunchy pakoras that we washed down with sweet milky tea.

Chail also meant fruit. Peach, Apple, Plums, Cherries and Apricots. Trees laden with them and the locals sitting right below those trees on small jute durries selling the fruit they had plucked just hours ago. It gave a whole new meaning to eating fresh.

Years passed. Trips to the hills became infrequent as more important things like college and then jobs replaced the simple pleasures of walking through woods or splashing in mountain streams.

Last month, as I battled the traffic on yet another dry, dusty and hot day that so typifies the Delhi Summer, I was seized with an overwhelming desire for silence, to hear nothing but the song of the birds and the whisper of the wind.

What we all needed I decided, was a visit to Chail. That would provide a perfect interlude in our busy lives.

Or so I thought.

To be continued …....

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