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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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A WINTER’S TALE

We have no winters of discontent up here. Sans louche and rambunctious Dilliwallahs and Haryanvis, Mussoorie becomes the Paradise we all retreated to and retired in, to die happily one day.

Ruskin Bond, dear fat monk, spends most of the day turning from one side to the other contemplating stories under his quilt and roaring expletives to send fans scurrying down the hillside every time they open his front door to let in a chilling draft from wintry icicles that hang from his eaves, that breezes into his cloister to freeze his Cherubic Extremities.

Steve Alter, our handsomest writer, chugs around the hill, diurnally, jogging to look as beautiful as his wife one day, waves a petite but dangerous magic wand (imported from the US of A) at monkeys that might attack or cows that might gore or un-padh tourists who mistake him for Ruskin or sometimes Tom his cousin, or what utterly shatters him, me.

What is, however, making our toes curl and our pheasants’ feathers ruffle, are a new bunch of flamboyant social proselytisers who have insidiously infiltrated the community of laid-back, impoverished, drug-addicted, non-earning, low-income and indolent creative wasters (like moi) who, from time immemorial have inhabited the Landour hillside. We’re hoping these new generations of super-achievers will eventually tire of the contemplative Himal and that the quiet that will inevitably descend upon them like an unholy ghost, when their belligerent noise switches off with age, will drive them to other conquests.

Finally, once the rowdy hooliganism that disgustingly ascends the hills for Christmas and the New Year and that would have, a couple of thousand years ago, created hell in the little manger and destabilised religion and redefined religiosity forever, is left contemplating the hair of the dog that had bitten them, the whisper of pines and the call of the pygmy owlet will always provide the sort of reassurance we fearful residents need.

Let me now fly, a little.

As I watch snowflakes swirl around me, I realise how I too am an aimless drifter that is happily blown westward sometimes, up and up in flurries, to heights I never dreamed of, over Christmas trees of good fortune, laden with presents, and how I then quietly float back down again, home, to the east, to melt into insignificance and then nothingness.

And yet in my brief existence, I was one of a kind, unique and created perfect. No one else was like me. That each one of us is created different and survives as a unique specimen of immaculate imperfections, mattered very little to me.

Orange flames licked the air around oak logs in my fire and cast flickering images that bounced off stone walls and made shadows dance wildly out of sync midst wooden rafters on the ceiling. A hundred-year-old cast iron stove with a raging fire in its belly had a riveted hand-beaten iron vessel, filled with water, sitting on top of it, shivering and trembling as the water inside it bubbled and boiled and soft clouds of steam rose in wafts to dampen the dry winter air.

My huge Bhotia, mischancedly born in the sweatlands of Corbett Park, asleep outside to guard against intruders and predators, glistened like a polar bear as snowflakes gently settled on her magnificent winter coat. I had lost three beautiful dogs to leopards, but none of them were as large or as nimble as sweet Cindy, the love of my life. Her hazel eyes opened a wink and gazed deep into my fatherly soul. An uncanny intimacy that meant we shared every secret, every moment we were together.

Time stood still. Or, did it? The book on my lap was Einstein’s Dreams. It had been written by Alan Lightman, who is now a close friend. A Doctor of theoretical physics from Caltech, Alan is a teacher at MIT. He teaches Astrophysics, Thermodynamics and, wait for this, “Creative Writing”.

When we first met Alan, I gifted him C.K. Raju’s fantastic book, The Eleven Pictures of Time, that challenged Stephen Hawking’s Judaeo-Christian theories. Raju had also received the Talesio-Galilei Academy of Science Award for pointing out a mistake made by Einstein and then correcting it. Alan, who hadn’t heard of Raju, was amazed and enthralled. I was thrilled to have brought about a meeting of intellects.

Alan’s book has been translated into over thirty languages. Imagine a snowflake drift timelessly into a timeless space where everything is in a permanent freeze, frozen forever. Every dream that Alan creates in the mind of a genius who distorted our simple concepts of time and space and left us dangling like Trishanku between realities and metaphysics, is a fascinating look at time in every possible dimension. In Landour, time acquires an expansive space whose limits stretch beyond human imagination and so the present is always a hallucination. Full of wonder and utterly awesome; humouring and unfathomable.

As the logs glowed, I placed some large chunks of dry coal and a few dung balls and patties over them. The heat now would radiate and spread. A thousand miles away, ashened Nagas were preparing for their holy dip in the cool waters that flowed forever south and then eastward, under the fog of mixed allegiance that enveloped the Ganga. Outside, a pristine crescent that had appeared unseen in the skies above Gangotri, now shone crisp on the western horizon, hovering above the magical Landour and Mussoorie winterline, till it merged with the engulfing darkness, and sank into yesterday.

Years ago, living in the quiet and peaceful tea plantations of Assam, my father had taught me not to burn newspapers in the fireplace because they sooted the chimneys. Decades have gone by and now, suddenly, after all these years, a numbing coldness spreads across our home as the daak edition of the papers arrive to tell us in the mountains all about what happened in the plains yesterday.

Cindy can’t understand the sadness and gloom that descends upon us. Unable to read any more of the same sadness of cruelty, inhumanity and callous injustices that perpetuate differences, divides and inequalities, day after day after day, I crumple each headline with a broken heart and cast it into the fire, consigning our present to flames that consume our deaths, and then quietly pray that our future is as amusing as Einstein might ever have dreamed. Hope is that thing with feathers that drifts, like the snowflake, into unlicensed dream worlds.

I remember the bird of hope that kept so many warm, in the chilliest lands and strangest seas and as I drip iced water into my Absynthe to create magical illusions within the Maya of a pointless existence, I recall how that little bird of feathers did never ask for a single crumb from me.

And as my little sister breathed her last on a distant island and her soul drifted back to a sometimes heartless and now heartbroken homeland, ‘I heard a Fly buzz’.

Pictures by Samhita Chakraborty