The sun goes down in a fiery haze as the bus inches through the traffic into the hills. At this time of the year, the Western Ghats are plain and barren. The monsoon-nurtured green carpets are only a dim memory as the rocky surface of the ancient hills glows orange-gold, catching the last faint sunrays.
I have just started reading Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s magnificent story that demands the suspension of all belief, but still doesn’t sound entirely implausible. I want to believe in the idea of Shangri-La, and even as the plane in which Conway and party are travelling approaches the stunning snow-covered peaks of the Kunlun range, my imagination persists in thinking that the next turn in the road will unfurl some sort of mystery. From the book’s blurb, I am led to believe that a kind of mysterious paradise lies in wait for the lost travellers: so why shouldn’t I find my own haven, a garden wreathed in mist perhaps, or a stray mountain peak that winter forgot to disown and the tropical latitudes declined to appropriate? The twisting roads are crowded with vehicles of all shapes and sizes, but the knowledge that these hills have stood here since the beginning of time and are more permanent than any of us lends credence to my most fanciful imaginings.
But then comes a rude shock: I’m on a public bus, and I am destined to have beside me an over-enthusiastic middle-aged man who wants to know where I work, where I live, whether I can find a job for his “cousin sister”. He tears open a packet of Lays chips as we enter a dimly-lit tunnel and holds it out to me. I decline more icily than I mean to. He turns to the little TV mounted on the seat in front, watching first a Hindi soap-opera with heavily made-up women pouting, crying and snarling at one another, then a different drama in the form of politicians’ shenanigans. He hogs the arm-rest and fidgets around when his TV stops working. No Shangri-La, this.
Night falls and the loud mother, the excited child and the giggling teenager all go to sleep, as does the man in the seat next to mine. Nobody snores, thankfully, and I slip back into Hilton’s mysterious world. What is it about the inhospitable reaches of freezing mountain-tops that is so attractive? Perhaps it is the charm of extreme cold, the pull of the unknown for someone used to hot, humid weather. There is something more appealing, for instance, about a Buddhist monastery perched on a mountain slope than on an idyllic tropical island. Just like the idea of Vespers echoing in an Orthodox cathedral in cold Russia or camping on the windswept plains of Mongolia seems tantalising. Or this could be entirely subjective, I can’t really say.
I’d tell you more about Lost Horizon but I’m afraid I’ll spoil it for you if you want to read it. I must go now and see how it ends- I must know if it will disappoint or make me rejoice or leave me with mixed feelings, the last of which seems most likely. This is because I am much too inured to the charms of the physical (or illusory) world to readily accept a cloistered existence, comfortable though it may be, but enough in love with solitude to want my own corner in the mountains. Maybe I should attribute this confusion to the changes that have taken place in my life lately, and then I’ll know it isn’t such a bad thing after all. I haven’t changed entirely, after all. I still enjoy the touch of rain on my skin, listen to birds and talk to trees. Only, there is a new invigorating sensation underlying everything, and it is one of the most pleasant things that I have ever known.