Notes from Nainital

My favourite memories of growing up in Nainital are the Sundays that I spent lying in the sunshine on the sloping tin roof of the house, tracing patterns in fluffy cotton clouds that changed from dragons to dandelions as I looked wonderstruck while my syllabus books lay on the side, routinely ignored. A tourist town, Nainital’s popularity rose even more since Rajesh Khanna sang to Asha Parekh on a boat ride across its lake while shooting for Kati Patang, and when my mother’s generation queued up in bell-bottoms outside the quaint Grand Hotel on the mall to get a glimpse of the superstar.

Bittersweet memories

As a resident who grew up in a place people usually spend their holidays, I’ve had a different equation with the town. It’s a mixed bag of bittersweet memories, be it the horrendous Himalayan monsoon during which we had to hike up the hill with a heavy schoolbag wading mini waterfalls in ‘gumboots’ and the dank smell of seeping water filling up the kitchen and bathroom, or the snowmen built with neighbouring kids among joyous shrieks and the sublime taste of ‘gur barf’, a typical local delicacy of jaggery and freshly fallen snow that still lingers in my mind.

While to many, Nainital today is an overcrowded, commercial ‘hill station’ that weekend revellers flock, to many it is home, the way it is to me. It has its pockets of paradise that few visitors would stumble upon. Opposite the mall road is ‘thandi sadak’ or cold road, the road that runs on the other side of the lake, where the sun barely shines and it remains cool, silent, and a gorgeous place to walk under a moss and fern-laden hilly stretch. After all these years, even in the busiest hours, the Municipal library on the lower mall remains a great place to escape to. And despite its location in the heart of the tourist centre, I’ve never seen a tourist walk through its aisles lined with musty classics, or read a newspaper in its reading room with a stately grandfather’s clock.

Stepping into the old colonial building teleports me to my teenage years, when I would often walk down to the town’s most famous Chinese resident, Mr. Listen’s shoe store, for measurements for a pair of handmade leather school shoes. A stone’s throw away is the Boat House club, where hunter turned conservationist Jim Corbett was denied entry even as a Britisher from a blue-collared, working family. The bastion of the elite, it is also where Nehru spent evenings playing bridge. When tourists request entrance into the club for a tipple, it’s pitiful that they do not know the history bequeathed to the building. The bandstand, where the INA played martial music in the 1960s and where I have faded photos of my brother and I sipping Gold Spot in the 80s, is today a place where people pose for a photograph with the Naini lake as the backdrop, and leave for a boating trip from. Most of these places are in Mallital, the upper end of the lake.

I, however, grew up in Tallital, the lower end of the lake and the ‘non-touristy’ part of town, where most of the schools the town is famous for are. A narrow bazaar was the lifeline of this area, marked by Sah Book depot, which came alive with students every February just before schools reopened. Other than that, the only other ‘crowd’ in the small market was at ‘lotey wala’, a jalebi vendor who locals know till date, and a newspaper stand where I patiently went every Sunday to get Saturday’s newspaper that would come all the way from Delhi. The news apps on my phone today ping now and then with the latest headlines, and I am not sure if my world will come crumbling down even if I know about the happenings a day later.

On a recent visit to Nainital, I saw the tourist crowds that offbeat travellers despise, disappearing into the maze of the Tibetan market with its colourful knick-knacks. I took a turn from there and climbed up towards Ayarpata or ‘sleepy hollow’, the hill with Gurney House where Corbett lived, and which connects to the schools higher up.

Liberal air

The oak forest is as I remember it, still home to over 500 species of birds, and the quiet brick lanes spiralling upwards have stories of a childhood I am privileged to have had. Not only was Nainital a scenic hill town with crisp Himalayan air, but also one with an anglicised, liberal atmosphere compared to a lot of small towns in the hills, a fact I didn’t realise till I grew up and travelled to other beautiful regions in the hills where sadly the air is thick with patriarchy and women still languish at the bottom of the household. Women in the hills are on a long road to empowerment, but Nainital gave me a slice of that liberty long before I truly knew its worth.

Born and brought up in the Himalayas, the writer is an adventurer who gets great joy in napping under the mountain sun, and in not being a blogger.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 11:24:11 AM |

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