By Pratishtha Dobhal
“How do you make fireflies of dust?”
— Just wake up to the rising sun.–
I had been waking up to a recurring dream, for over a month now—
A cool gust of wind knocks on the door. I shiver into wakefulness,
reluctant to step out of my warm cocoon.
I turn over and sink deeper into the bed.
I know the morning can wait.
But it doesn’t.
Five seconds later the door creaks open, filling my room with the first rays of the rising sun and a frosty smoke trail circling over my head. I stay transfixed looking at the halo of light. I blow into it imagining it to be a smoke ring that follows only my commands.
The halo has a mind of its own, as it swirls around me, almost touching my face, slithering towards the door, coaxing me out of the comfort of my warm bed.
I grab my grandmother’s shawl draped around an old chair and let the smoke take the lead. A carpet of light covered with old withered oak tree leaves cushions the world outside of the room. I can see nothing except the golden ground beneath my feet, and the meadow of clouds that walk alongside me.
I wonder whether I have risen or the sky has fallen.
In an unaffected world this dream had already come true.
Mine had, a long time ago.
It was in its aftermath that I thrived.
Up until this point my reveries were fractured realities, disjointed fantasies, and neurotic probabilities, never as precise as a long lost childhood memory.
After almost a month of waking up to the dream, I wanted to go back to the home that housed the dream – the room I used to sleep in as a child in the village.
Chasing a childhood memory is usually known to occur in moments of deep crisis, pain, trauma, or when one is seeking some form of Freudian delayed gratification, mine seemed like all of the above.
I wanted to go back. To re-live a buried memory… I wanted to feel how it felt trying to hold on to your bearings as you made your way past slippery pine leaves, I wanted to hear the familiar stories of growing up fishing that my father dotted the rest stops with, the joy you experienced when you found a leaf buried between trees on rare roots. I wanted to go back unaffected by the city life I was accustomed to. I wanted the whispering willows in the forest to guide me home.
Even though I knew that my temporary salvation was inter-twined with the memory of my past, I wanted to start connecting again—to find a place of origin for this enchanting fantasy—Revisit the source.
Organizing my trusted backpack with village revisit staples, I took some time off for myself in search of what had once been.
Getting to Gaon Nakot, in Tehri Garhwal as effectively as the locals do requires one to take the Uttarakhand Tourism buses that ply frequently from Inter State Bus Terminal in Delhi, ISBT. You can change from Rishikesh or Haridwar for a bus or ‘newspaper waali gaadi’/ ‘newspaper jeep’ enroute to Uttarkashi.
After a six hour bus ride to Rishikesh, squeezed with fellow travelers, I found the legend of bedu paka and the permanent right slant that drivers on Mahindra’s (gypsy) who fronted the vehicle on this end of the world developed. My squish buds were a young married couple coming back from a honeymoon.
One of the greatest joys of shared travel is the ridiculously fabulous conversations you have with complete strangers. However, this time round I had struck gold not just with a mere insight into fellow traveller’s life but a private moment I had the good fortune of being ‘unintentionally’ privy to 😐
The young boy by my side asked his girl if she was missing home, to which she smiled and said… “I am looking forward to having multiple homes”.
Both smiled and the girl slipped her hands into his, digging her jagged fingernails deeper into his palms, making more than a memory of it.
The Romantics— I and them…
Four hours later I was in District Chham.
To reach gaon Nakot I could either trek another five kilometres with my backpack, or take another jeep which would drop me some 500 odd metres away from my ancestral home. I took the jeep.
I told myself I was not cheating on my childhood memory; I was just making up for lost time.
Little victories through major denials…
The jeep dropped me off the yellow cornerstone of the village beyond—the walk up the unkempt jagged edges of the farm that was once lined with khumaani (apricots) was a reminder of the catastrophe I was walking into. This looked apocalyptic for a community that was once bustling with life.
Time had not been kind to Nakot.
Almost all her children had abandoned her, and she lay in the wasteland of her past life. What remained of her now was a weeping stretch of dereliction.
In the days that followed and the conversations I had with one of the old retired uncles at Nakot I learnt to feel the novelty of trying to bring life to what you once loved.
making the most of what you had.
Living in a 100 year old house in the village he was born in, ‘Army Uncle’, Mr Nautiyal, had finally found solace after thirty years of service. Even though Nautiyal uncle (Buddhaaji) and his wife were in their 80s, they could beat me to a 3 kilometre trek on any given day.
Sitting with Nautiyal uncle one late evening sipping on adrak ki chai I asked him if he missed the convenience of life in a city and living with his grandkids. Nautiyal uncle pulled a long and thoughtful puff on his hookah and smiled at me. He asked me where I would like to retire.
I said, “In the hills, by the river”.
I had my answer.
‘You see what you want to see’.
The average age of the people living in Nakot is 70. I didn’t come across anyone who seemed even suspiciously young.
The school uphill lay in a rubble of mud and stone. The entire length of the village was almost a kilometre long, and the expanse was dotted with empty houses. Yet, when the night came and all that seemed lost and in ruins lay hidden in the dark, the mountains breathed a sigh of relief.
I could feel the old familiar joy of coming here, to my part-home… another mother.
While I may not have lived the entirety of my life with her the threads of providence tied me to her.
Summer holidays meant a majority of them would be spent at Nakot, going up and down mountains to get to neighbors in far-flung villages, walking through the orchards of apricots and apples, plucking fresh produce.
Enchanted by the night we would stay indoors while Buddhiji (grandmother) would ask someone to light the lamps. The gurgling sound of the hookah and the burning embers that lit with each puff, became the sounds and sights after dusk.
When you looked across the house you could feel the vast expanse of the view from 6,000 feet above sea level. The mounds that rose and fell, the curves that hid a beating heart, spread themselves around you and I imagined I spoke silently with the flickering lights, playing my silly childhood games.
How much time had it taken?
Precisely three years for Nakot to become a living memory of a bygone time…
I guess it’s no one’s fault. It’s that absurdity they sometimes call ‘want’.
People left looking for a posse of possibilities. They didn’t want their children to walk 6 kms up and down for an education any longer, they wanted running water to save on the daily drudgery of spending hours for a convenience that shouldn’t be off limits when they had rivers running wild a few thousand feet below.
They didn’t want to spend all their time trying to make a dent on a way of life which they were accustomed to but couldn’t see changing as rapidly as their slick, city counterparts’.
As I make my way past empty houses, into the farms that are now filled with (junglee ghaas) weed, I start to simmer.
The once lush fields are filled with weed and a few smatterings of patches some families are using to grow legumes.
Over the course of the next few days, each time I made my way past the room I used to sleep in, I feel the pain of allowing time to take its toll on our ancestral home. Heavy monsoon showers the year before had wreaked havoc on the house and the roof had finally caved in. The house was finally giving up after waiting for its children to return.
Weighed down by the plight of what had become, I return disappointed, not being able to fully experience my tryst with time over a decade ago in this place beyond the pines.
Perhaps if I stoked the fire on the chuulah (wood fire stove), and held on to time, things could change. Could we undo?
Jugnu would come home to the little garden by dusk, empty houses would start bustling with life again, we’d all wake up to the rising sun one day.
I sighed a long sigh…
To be woken a few minutes later by the whizzing of a jugnu (firefly), flickering in its low light, resting on my shoulder, whispering into my ear with delightful intent…
This too shall pass.
Trust me, you could make this right,
You young and ideal mind.”