Vikram Kapur looks at the many faces of Corbett’s Nainital.

I am on the Mall Road in Nainital, drinking in the view of the green, pear-shaped Nainital Lake, dotted with rowing boats and swan-shaped paddle boats. Throbbing in the bright sunshine, the lake looks just as good in 2012 as it does in the 1970 Bollywood blockbuster Kati Patang.

One of the first movies to be shot in Nainital, Kati Patang placed the hill station firmly on the tourist map. The tourists cramming into the city today, however, have nothing to do with that, according to R. Narain, a third generation bookshop owner on Mall Road. They are a result of the Maruti car which revolutionised the Indian automobile industry in the 1980s. “It brought in the day tripper from the plains,” he says. “Before that it was rich people with summer homes and parents with children in the boarding schools.”

Corbett's summer home

A table in Mr. Narain’s bookshop is covered with books by and about one of Nainital’s most famous sons —the hunter, author and wildlife conservationist Jim Corbett. “Is there anything of Corbett that still survives?” I ask him. He nods. “His summer home here is pretty much the way it was. Only the owner has put a boundary wall round it. And there are still some old timers that remember him.”

It is fitting, perhaps, that Corbett exists in today’s Nainital as a distant memory or between the covers of a book. He’d scarcely recognise the place today, and it is debatable whether he’d approve of what it has become. Certainly he’d take some time getting used to the fact that U.K. means Uttarakhand in these parts. What would he think of the Mall Road that is crammed with tourists, vendors and cars? Yes, cars. You would think at least they would stop the cars as they do in other hill stations. The road is little wider than an alley, and with the cars added to the human traffic there is barely room to stand, not to mention the incessant honking assailing the eardrums.

That said Nainital is not just about long-gone British hunters and plainspeople seeking to escape the summer heat. It is also home to Van Niwas, a branch of the Sri Aurobindo ashram. The ashram, which was established in 1966, sits high up in the hills round the city. The road, leading to it, is badly rutted. Yet the bumpy ride seems worth it, as we drive in through the gates. The thick foliage, the woods, the silence after the clamour of the city centre… All of it engenders a serene feeling of calm. I am taken aback to see children playing with a tennis ball.

Youth camps

Dr. Ramesh Bijlani, from the Delhi branch of the ashram who is conducting some of the study camps, tells me youth camps are very much a part of the summer schedule.

Sri Aurobindo was a firm believer in not neglecting the body, and the main focus of the youth camps is physical activity such as trekking and rock climbing. “Many children come with their parents who are attending the study camps,” Dr. Bijlani says.

The study camps are meant for adults and are far more spiritual in nature. Dr. Bijlani is a former medical doctor who taught on the faculty of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for nearly 30 years before taking voluntary retirement in 2005. He has written books on nutrition and yoga. He is conducting a special camp, meant for allopathic doctors, that focuses on the relationship between a healthy mind and a healthy body. Twenty doctors have registered. Over tea he explains why the resistance to the mind-body relationship is considerably greater in the Indian medical community as opposed to the West. “They are reluctant to accept anything that is not part of conventional allopathic training,” he says. “Furthermore, in India we still live in an age of convention where spirituality is connected with religion.”

The West went through the age of convention in the 16th century, before its renaissance that brought in the age of reason. I mull that over as I make my way back to the city centre where my hotel is located. As I approach the Nainital Lake, the muezzin’s prayer floats from the minarets of the Central Mosque behind me.

About 200 metres away from the Central Mosque are the Naini Devi Temple and the Gurudwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha. Less than a five-minute walk from the temple and gurudwara is the first Methodist Church in India. Even though these different places of worship are so close together, there is no history of communal strife. Not even during the Babri Mosque stir.

Religious tolerance. That is one convention that will serve India well in any age.

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