| Tranquillity, thy name is Nainital
We started from Calcutta on May 6 on a really hot and humid noon. Whenever we plan a family outing, my father has problems getting leave. So when the train finally started rolling, we all sighed in relief. The next morning we arrived at Lucknow. This is one of the few railway stations in India having an accessible platform for the disabled. I visited the city twice before. The first visit was linked with my homeopathy treatment, when I was five years old, and I could walk and speak. My second visit was in 2000, as part of the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy team, when I went for a demonstration of my tongue-switch-aided communication.
In Lucknow, we were accommodated at the station retiring-room where I had to be physically lifted to the second floor. While we rested at noon, some members of our group of 18 went out for sight seeing. The connecting train for Kumaon was at 9 pm, and I found that it was a meter-gauge train. There was a terrible rush, and the train was infested with swarms of mosquitoes. I was sleeping on a lower berth and was scared to find one end of the middle birth broken. With each jolt it was almost touching my nose. I had a sleepless night.
We arrived at Tanakpur, the terminal railway station at the Indo-Nepal border. Our tour-bus waited outside the station. On my way towards the bus I noticed people staring at me curiously. My “sitting device” was tried out on my seat in the bus, but could not be fitted. So I had to travel without its aid, and that was very uncomfortable. However, there was an elderly couple in our group, the gentleman walking with the aid of hand crutches. He told me that since he heard that I was travelling with so much disability he got inspiration from me. I was happy to learn that.
Tanakpur is a small town on the bank of river Sarda. From here, tourists can take different trekking routes to the lower Himalayas. We crossed the Sarda. Our first destination was Lohaghat, where we arrived at about 2 pm. At Lohaghat, our tour coordinator set aside the room with the best view for me. From the room itself the pine forest with its beautiful flora and fauna could be enjoyed. We had our delayed lunch while bathing in the wonderful afternoon sunshine and chilly wind. In the evening, almost all the group members gathered in my room. We sat around chatting, exchanging our experiences of the Himalayas.
Lohaghat is a small hilly town and is the gateway to Mayaboti. Vivekananda visited Mayaboti during his walk while rediscovering India, prior to his famous Chicago lecture. My wheelchair negotiated the last few steps of the temple with much difficulty. I met a hermit there who had come all the way from Assam. He came to me and started blessing me. Soon I saw tears flowing down his cheeks. I met many hermits and sages in and out of the Himalayas and had their blessings, but never saw anyone in tears. When my father asked him the reason, he replied that he could see my suffering, and also the sacrifices my parents were making for me.
At noon after lunch we started for Mayaboti. As we drove the nine kilometres from Lohaghat to Mayaboti, I felt the dense pine forest welcoming me with the rustling of its leaves. First we visited the library and bookstall there. I have never seen, anywhere else in the Himalayas, a larger and more various collection of roses than I saw in Mayaboti’s garden. But for some reason not clear to me, photography is prohibited there.
Our next stop was Pithoragarh, a district headquarter much mentioned in Jim Corbett’s hunting stories. This is a very congested town as we found out during our post-lunch stroll. When we were strolling, one of the passers-by came and asked about my illness. He then very sincerely requested my parents to take me to the temple at the highest point of the town and pay homage to the deity there.
Next morning, I had a severe bout of diarrhoea, which in the normal course cripples me for a few days. But this time, to my surprise, I recovered by afternoon. We visited the temple — known as Chandak Temple — in the evening, the deity there is Lord Shiva. Early next morning we started for Chaukori, one of the highest tourist attractions, at an altitude of about 3,000 metres. For the first time, I saw tents with attached toilets and luxury baths. As the sky was overcast, at first we could see none of the snow peaks. But suddenly, we were charmed to find the gorgeous Nanda Devi almost at hand-shaking distance. That day we were to travel about 120 km. But our bus could travel only at a speed of 25 kms/hour. It was a narrow, hazardous route, full of hairpin bends and a gorge on one side.
In the afternoon, we reached Kausani. From here a 275 km stretch of snow-covered peaks and ranges can be viewed from an aerial distance of 80 kms. Next morning, we were ready by five to see the sun rise over the whole stretch of the peaks. We waited a long time, but nature was not willing to cooperate. While we were having our breakfast it started to rain. Then the dusty and misty atmosphere cleared and suddenly we were all spellbound to see a very long stretch of snow peaks bathed in the morning sun.
Our tour coordinator then came to me with a map in his hands and started identifying the different peaks: Nanda Ghunti, Kamat, Trishul, Nandadevi and so on. Nandadevi is a very sacred mountain to both Hindus and Buddhists. No climber is permitted to step on the actual summit, only a foot below it.
We stopped at Baijnath. This is the only temple to the goddess, Parvati. The environment here was beautiful. The stone-carved idol of Parvati was stolen from the temple in 1973 and was smuggled out of the country. Scotland Yard recovered it at Heathrow airport. On its way back to India, it was stolen again. This time it was recovered from a city in Egypt. Since then it is kept under tight security. I saw the deity from very close, and understood why it was stolen. It is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.
We arrived at Raneekhet at about 10 am. I have visited many hill towns of India, but Raneekhet is the cleanest of all. As we were visiting a temple, my father whispered, “Would you like to visit Dronagiri'” I had heard the name of Dronagiri in my childhood, as it is an important peak mentioned in the Mahabharata. This visit was not scheduled in our trip, so I was all the more excited. My father asked my carer about the availability of dandis (specially devised chairs for carrying old or disabled people uphill over rough terrain). He was not sure.
After we returned to our hotel, my carer knocked on our door with the driver of the other car, who told my father that carrying me to the top of Dronagiri from the last road point would not pose any problem. So, on the following morning, we started for Dronagiri while the rest of our team proceeded towards Nainital. It took about two hours to reach the last road point. There, to our surprise, as we got down from our car and I was seated on my wheel chair, we found that not a single dandi or help of any sort was available. We learnt that to reach the top we had to trek nearly a mile uphill, about 450 steps in the scorching sun. My parents started searching for a person who could carry me up. The driver felt very embarrassed, but I don’t know why I was confident that I would make it.
Suddenly a gentleman arrived and, upon hearing the problem, he walked up to me and said that I need not worry at all; if the deity of the temple so desired I would be taken up. He then collected two logs of pinewood, and tied them firmly under my wheelchair with ropes. His brother, our driver and my carer joined him, each carrying one end of the log on his shoulder. At last, I started moving uphill through the dense forest towards the temple.
After about an hour we reached the top. I was thrilled and excited. I was surprised to see my parents lagging behind, along with two other girls who were helping them to climb. Suddenly, the helpful gentleman sat down in front of me and started worshipping me with flowers and sacred water. Then my parents joined me and together we paid homage to the deity. We expressed our gratitude to those who had helped us. But they thanked us instead, as otherwise they would not have had the opportunity to visit such a holy site.
The following morning we went for a stroll around Naini Lake. The greenery around it made even the water appear green. Seeing boats in the lake, I was tempted to go boating. My last experience of boating had been about ten years ago in the Ganges-Padma along the Indo-Bangladesh border. There the boats were big and the rivers huge. Here, to accommodate me in a four-seater Nainital boat required quite a bit of skill. The boatman assuring my parents that they should not worry about me at all. But then, he was a bit tipsy.
In Nainital, I saw how a large lake alone could sustain the tourism industry of a place. I found lots of foreign tourists idling in the sunshine by the banks of the lake. Multi-cuisine restaurants attracted people in large numbers and the main road was crowded with swarms of tourists.
With a heavy heart I realized that our tour was coming to an end. We bade goodbye to Nainital after spending two days there and started for Lalkuan, the nearest railway station. On our way back, we visited all the lakes and once again boated on Bhim Tal. But my mind was so much at peace after visiting Dronagiri that all the later visits mattered little to me. We returned to Calcutta on May 20, back to the heat and humidity.
So the cycle was complete.