The summers of my childhood were defined by three things: books, mangoes and power cuts. Often the three would come together and I would eat through plates of raspuri and langda, while sprawled on the floor reading by the light of a kerosene lantern. I devoured entire series through the summers, graduating from Enid Blyton to Caroline Keene, but Ruskin Bond was my perennial favourite. As the mercury climbed, I would immerse myself in his stories of the hills and forests and the people who lived in them, almost feeling the cool mountain breeze against my sweaty skin.
On my first trip to Mussoorie last May, I craned my neck out of the car while driving up from Dehradun, to take in the verdant Garhwal hills I had read so much about. Summer had left the hills parched and the trees drooping, but human activity had also rendered large patches of the hillsides barren and brown. Mussoorie was as crowded as the Delhi metro during rush hour. The major attractions—Mall Road, Kempty Falls, Company Garden, Gunhill Point—were pretty, but crammed with tourists.
Looking for an escape from the madding crowds, my friend and I chanced upon a poster for Jabarkhet Nature Reserve at a café on Mall Road. It seemed relatively unknown; no taxi driver hawked it, and one even wondered why we wanted to go there. On a whim, we postponed our plans to visit Lal Tibba and took a taxi to the reserve.
Spread over 300 acres, Jabarkhet is Uttarakhand’s first private nature reserve. Until a few years ago, it was like many other forest patches in the Garhwals: subject to littering, animal grazing and felling of trees for firewood and timber. Since 2012, the owners of the reserve have worked with noted conservationist Sejal Worah to restore the area, removing nearly 500 kilograms of trash and appointing locals to assist in the conservation process.
A half-hour drive up the narrow, winding Tehri Road from Library Bus Stand brought us to the entrance of Jabarkhet. Due to the impromptu nature of our plans, we did not have a guide, but the ticket collector handed us field guides, detailing the eight trails and the flora and fauna we could hope to see along each. We chose the Leopard Trail, one of the longest, which would take us through most of the reserve’s major viewpoints.
The first thing that struck me was the silence, the pin-drop silence my schoolteachers had often demanded. Slowly I realised that it wasn’t complete silence, but the absence of the city’s white noise, the commotion of vehicles and people that I was used to. Alongside the crunch of our shoes on fallen leaves, I heard the screech of a magpie, the guttural cry of Himalayan griffon vulture, the occasional tok-tok of a woodpecker, and the whistling of the wind through the trees.
As we walked, I picked out some of the plants mentioned in the field guide: pinpricks of yellow kingol (barberry) flowers, lichen coating the lyonia trees, and the orange Himalayan raspberry peeping through a copse of ferns. After half an hour of walking, we emerged from the tree-lined forest trail to a hillside clearing. The hills stretched before us, carpeted with old-growth forests of deodar, oak, pine and maple. The rhododendrons were in bloom—streaks of red interspersed with myriad shades of green. We strained our eyes to see the snow-dusted peaks of the Himalayas, but they were hidden by misty shawls.
We took a narrow path higher into the hills to the “Lone Oak” at top of the trail, a clearing around an oak tree with some wooden benches—the sort of place where one might encounter a character from Bond’s stories. The bilberry-loving Binya from “Binya Passes By” perhaps, or any of the ghosts from A Season of Ghosts. Maybe even the writer himself on one of his mountain walks. We didn’t meet anyone, but were free to conjure up some of our own characters while we revelled in the picturesque solitude of the mountains.
On the way back, we took a detour through the Mushroom Trail. Walking through dense thickets, we kept an eye out for fungi and were rewarded with glimpses of puffball and inkcap mushrooms growing near tree roots. The trail opened out into wildflower meadows, near a small abandoned hut. A sea of daisies greeted us, spread like a white bridal veil over the grassy hillock. I sat on a log and daydreamed of being a Garhwali Heidi, of milking goats in the hut, scampering behind butterflies amidst the wildflowers, and waking up every morning to a view of the hills.
Later, back in Mussoorie, I stood in a queue to meet the man who had triggered my wanderlust with his tales of the hills. Ruskin Bond makes the trip from his cottage in Landour to Cambridge Bookstore in Mall Road every Saturday to autograph books. As he smiled at me with twinkling eyes, I was bubbling over with stories to tell him, especially of my recent walk in the Jabarkhet woods. Ultimately, I stuck to a simple thank you, for sharing his love of the hills through his stories, and a decision to write some of my own stories down instead.
Arundhati Hazra works a 9-to-9 job so that she can indulge in her three key vices - traveling, eating and buying lots of books. She'd like to go from aspiring writer to aspirational writer sometime soon.