I miss the Himalayas. It is now a full year since my overwhelming experience in Sikkim at the onset of winter, but I still remember my first glimpse of snow as if it was just yesterday. I want another glimpse of golden sunshine on pristine white mountaintops at dawn, to devour it voraciously with my eyes, because I know that a few hours later just rugged rock will be left behind, the snow having melted away in clear streams, joining the numerous clear rivulets that spring out of nowhere and cut across the winding mountain roads. I want to sit on one of the benches along the Mall Road in Gangtok, watching the mists whirl through the streets and draw a curtain across the face of the person sitting right next to me, to feel the damp on my ungloved hands, through my thin jacket and the soles of my shoes.
I remember Durgapur in winter. Cold Himalayan winds travel down from Siliguri in the Himalayan foothills, invigorating this solemn town in the plains with their crisp tang. Not everybody revels in the cold weather- arthritis worsens; our neighbour shuffles down the three shallow steps of her house to the garden to pick flowers (because the indispensable little maid has been set to work on more difficult tasks). As darkness falls, she sits on an old chair in her verandah, watching the sunset, a thick shawl wrapped over her cotton sari- she is lonely and friendless during the days her husband is away working in Calcutta. He visits occasionally, stirring the sleepy house out of its stupor and taking his wife to the market on his old scooter; on all other days, she sits quietly, waiting for conversation. She comes over sometimes to talk to my mother: the conversation has to be conducted mostly in sign language, because neither of them can speak the other’s tongue. She doesn’t know the “universal” language, English, and after thirty minutes of incomprehension, tea and Tamilian food, she goes back to her verandah and her television.
A night’s journey by bus from Durgapur takes you to the Himalayas. I want to be on that bus- to be jolted over the potholes and fall asleep out of sheer weariness. I want to open my eyes to a view of the Kanchenjunga; to know that, not too far away, Kim once walked with his llama. These are the hills where Ruskin Bond finds the characters who people his touching stories, and where monasteries steeped in mysticism still reverberate with the ancient guttural chants of Buddhist monks as schoolchildren walk up their steps, having gently set the long line of prayer wheels in motion. Everything seems pure and real; contact doesn’t strip the Himalayas of their capacity to awe, on the contrary they exude a strange magnetic quality that makes you want to believe in reincarnation and to imagine that you once knew them intimately. I know that, when I go back to the hills, they will overwhelm me as much as they did the first time. The Himalayas don’t change, and all these millennia on they still stand there, proud and spectacular, the only comforting entity in the upheavals of time.