At eleven in the morning, the railway station is as quiet as it is beautiful. Not that you expect a quaint little place like this to be noisy. The town of Haldwani is quiet too, as if recovering from the heavy footfall of the summer vacations, which have recently ended. Soon we are in a taxi, driving towards the hills that beckon us from the horizon. Along the road I spot some familiar buildings: the dilapidated house with tall wooden windows; the old post office, freshly painted in white and red; the forest office at the corner – time indeed stands still in small towns. The familiarity and the peace gladden my heart, but the happiness is short-lived.
One of the reasons for me to have avoided the hills for past many years, is my discomfort with the curvaceous mountain drive. The very thought of it puts me into panic mode. Today is no different. Ten minutes into the drive, my head starts to spin and stomach starts to churn. I try to distract myself by looking at the lush green mountains and lovely little cottages, but the view only worsens my condition. Thankfully the drive to Nainital, where we are headed this morning, is short and we reach just before my system gives in.
The sickness vanishes at the sight of the white pillars and the long corridor of our guesthouse. I have, like many others, spent many a summer vacation in the town and have stayed at the same place every time. The guesthouse therefore, is like home, only that I am coming home after ten, long years. The little traces of fatigue that remain disappear as we stand in the balcony, sipping tea and looking at the sparkling water of the lake with 67 boats bobbing on it (yes, we counted them). By the time we finish tea, the sunshine has given way to fluffy clouds that flow from in front of our balcony and cover all that comes in their way.
Over the years that I have been visiting Nainital, I have built a rapport with the place, which is much beyond that of a tourist. The focus is never on boating or strolling at the mall, but to get a local flavour of the town, especially the food (we always eat home-made food that the caretaker cooks for us in the guesthouse) and bazaars (the markets of Tallital and Mallital, the two ends of the town), for it is in these little things that you find the real essence of a place, its culture, its people.
The bada bazaar at Mallital, on the northern end of the town, is where my husband and I walk to this afternoon. Climbing the steep slopes of the market, lined with tiny shops on the ground floor and tinier houses with pretty balconies on the upper floors, we pick up some small-town things: a pair of blue and white bathroom slippers; a packet of chalk and slates for girls; some freshly made savouries; and bal mithai – a chewy brown barfi covered in sugar balls. The misty afternoon transforms into a clear bright evening; we spend most of it standing in our balcony appreciating the large, bright full-moon that has risen from behind the hill and is hanging on a midnight-blue sky, between two tall deodar trees.
The morning comes in early bringing the clouds back into the town. The air this morning is not only pregnant with moisture, but also with the sounds of hymns from the church nearby, and the gongs of the famous naina devi temple, at the far end of the lake. Although popularized by the British in the nineteenth century as their summer retreat, Nainital is believed to be much older. Legend has it that while Shiva was carrying Sati’s charred body back to the Himalayas; her eyes had fallen off here, making it one of the 64 shakti peeths (sites where Sati’s burnt body parts and ornaments are supposed to have fallen). The town, the lake, and the temple borrow their names from the legend (naina, meaning eyes in Hindi).
On the lazy Sunday morning when most tourists are still asleep, we walk through the clouds into Narains, an old bookstore at the mall, where my husband gets talking to the proprietor. Among other things, the proprietor, a soft-spoken, middle-aged man, tells us how as a young boy, Jim Corbett, who was born and raised in Nainital, would regularly spend long hours at the shop. While we are still talking about Corbett, an elderly gentleman joins us; the octogenarian reveals how the legendary hunter and conversationalist taught him at Sherwood (a famous boarding school) and hosted his group of friends to breakfast whenever they landed at his doorstep after hiking in the hills. We spend the next few hours browsing through their rich collection of books and listening to many more stories. It is almost afternoon when we leave the store, which is now full of Sainik School boys who are out with their parents on what looks like a visiting Sunday.
At the mall, the tourists are up and about: a few newly-married couples, who cannot see much beyond each other; a large Punjabi family haggling with the boatman; young parents struggling with their toddler; a few groups of youngsters, laughing and back-slapping; some families at the games parlor. There are some locals too, making the most of their Sunday afternoon by indulging in an ice-cream; sitting by the lake on the low, wooden benches; sipping beer at the club; sailing their colourful yachts. They seem to be as happy with their Nainital as we are with ours.