Sep 22, 2015

In Search of the Ever Elusive Peace (Part 2 of the Chail trip)

Lovely readers, please forgive my long absence from the blog. But I am back now and to make amends here’s part 2 of the Chail Trip.

To refresh your memories, please read Part 1 here.

I stomped down the stairs and almost threw my bag into the car. Then I plonked myself into the passenger seat and continued to sulk.
The reason for my grumpiness was that after hearing me wax eloquent about our childhood sojourn to the hills, my parents had for nostalgia’s sake agreed to take another trip to Chail.
All this should have made me happy. Except that my parents had decided that they were too old to drive in the hills and didn’t trust my city driving skills a wee bit. And so they had hired a driver. Here I was with visions of finally driving through the winding roads and now I would just have to relinquish the driver’s seat to someone else.

My mood improved considerably as we left the city behind. Our first stop was Solan. Nestled into the foothills, the Solan of my childhood was a picturesque little town with quaint houses that had sloping tin roofs painted either red or green. Solan was where the exotic hill fruits would start making an appearance - apples and peach and cherries and plums. Buying fruit there was a sacrosanct ritual for us. The locals would sit with the fruits from their trees spread before them, extolling us to look at how red their apples were and how juicy their plums. The women wore lovely silver nose rings and necklaces with beads and usually had red cheeked kids clinging to them. It all made a pretty picture.

The Solan of today was grotesquely different.

The pretty roofs had given way to ugly motels and restaurants clinging to the hillside, like a tottering pack of cards about to collapse any moment. The once green hill slopes had trash strewn all over. Deforestation was rampant and we could see bare rocky patches everywhere. Seen from afar Solan just looked like an ugly festering sore on the hillside.

We squeezed past trucks and buses spitting black oily fumes and hotels selling pizza and masala dosas (Oh what happened to the pakora sellers!). The friendly fruit sellers were replaced by big concrete shops, the owners doing business in a very brisk and unemotional manner.

Apparently, Solan had discovered tourism.

Soon after we came across our first mountain stream. The streams as we remembered them had such crystal clear water that we could see the colorful rocks underneath. The water flowing over the rocks made a lovely tinkling sound as if it was singing merrily to itself. The only sounds were that of the birds, the wind through the trees and an occasional horn of a passing car.

This time we were welcomed by a different kind of music. A few shacks selling snacks had sprung up haphazardly along the stream and one enterprising fellow had set up chairs and tables in the middle of the stream. People sat there knee deep in murky water, guzzling beer while Bollywood songs blared and small helper boys waded in with their orders of momos and kathi rolls.

It was as if a maniac had taken the pretty picture of my childhood memories and completely distorted it.

We drove on towards our hotel.

Our hotel was originally the Palace of Maharaja of Patiala, now converted into a hotel by the government. As we neared it, all of us were soothed with past memories of dimly lit, quiet halls with their magnificent paintings, the delicious food and above all the beautiful palace grounds with their border of pretty flowers and the forest just beyond with its promise of lovely walks in the deep and dark woods. It wasn’t peak tourist season and we hoped to have the palace almost to ourselves.

But as the car rounded the steep curve to the hotel we froze in shock. The lawn in front was chock-a-block with people. They lounged on the grass, trampled on the flower beds to pose among the flowers and kids played cricket on the lovely manicured lawn. The huge hall was swarming with tourists clicking pictures of everything, even sitting on the antique furniture and pretending to play the maharaja’s piano while the erstwhile maharaja seemed to look down disapprovingly from his portrait.

The Himachal tourism people, recognizing the immense potential of the palace had decided to throw it open to the general public and not just people who had reserved rooms there.

Another thing that we noticed was the number of monkeys. They were everywhere. They looked down at us disdainfully from the roof, the trees, even sat on the parked cars. There were always monkeys in the area but the cute little things we remembered were replaced by huge threatening louts bent upon stealing stuff. I saw a monkey quickly dash inside the open window of a parked car and snatch a pack of chips from an unsuspecting child.

As we were shown to our rooms, we were told to securely lock our windows before leaving the room unless we wanted our stuff to be plundered by the monkeys.

Once inside, we settled down on the comfy sofas facing the huge bay windows that overlooked the lawn. I opened the windows to let the cool breeze in, put my feet up on the ottoman and breathed a sigh of relief. “Peace finally” I thought, sipping the lovely kangra tea and biting into a crispy Pakora.

But our peace was shattered into a million pieces by a cacophony right under our window. I looked down to see a group of about twenty ladies with an army of servants carrying vast amount of food and other paraphernalia needed for a picnic. The ladies continued to hassle their servants about the proper placement of rugs and cushions under the trees while the monkeys watched curiously from the branches. Oblivious to their audience, the ladies settled down and proceeded to open one of the numerous food baskets. Immediately, the monkeys came swooping down and were off with the paranthas and sandwiches. The ladies rose as one to shriek loud admonishments to the monkeys in chaste Punjabi and yell at the servants to drive them away. Finally they philosophically decided that since they couldn’t eat outdoors a round of antakshree was just what was needed this afternoon. The noise their singing made had even the monkeys scampering away in alarm.

Upstairs in our room, nerves were getting frayed and tempers running rather short.

Desperate for some peace and quiet we all decided to go for a walk. After reminding each other to close and lock all windows, we bolted out of the room, secure in the knowledge that the other person must have checked the windows.

We went past the lustily singing aunties who had proceeded from singing Bollywood hits to the more raunchy Punjabi songs and escaped into the peaceful woods beyond the hotel. Soon we were all engrossed in various activities. I read, my mother took a walk walked under the pine trees and my dad snoozed.

Meanwhile, the monkeys had discovered our open windows.

To be continued......

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