The North Indian summer can be distinctly Wild Western. Blistering winds howl across parched plains and cracked earth. In the cities, tar melts on the roads, and the streets are clear of people. Most families who can, flee to the hills to escape the unrelenting sun. My family—my mother, sister and I—wanted to as well, but then, there’s the oddball: my father. He wanted to go tiger-spotting in Jim Corbett National Park.
We have long suspected that Father fancies himself an Indiana Jones of sorts. A few years ago, he managed to find himself a beat-up, 1972 model Land Rover, which he painstakingly restored. He calls it Pukaman—originally his nickname for my sister, it extended to the Land Rover by logical conclusion because, as he likes to joke, it’s part of her dowry. In fact he’s stencilled the name in a discreet corner in yellow.
Pukaman looks like a toy truck straight out of the animated show Bob the Builder. It’s big, boxy, and a pain to park, especially in malls with multi-level garages reached via tightly spiralled driveways. Yet my father insists on driving it everywhere. His moustache bristles with indecent pride every time someone in the Uttar Pradesh hinterland twists their neck to stare.
What self-respecting adventurer would squander the summer on idyllic picnics in lush, green hills when he could stalk wildlife under a blazing sun instead? We reached a compromise and decided to try our luck with the tiger before escaping to the hills. What we didn’t bargain for was taking Pukaman along.
“But, of course we will,” Father looked at us genuinely surprised, “It’s a 4×4, it’s perfect for the trip!” This was true, except for one tiny glitch—it didn’t have an air-conditioning unit. Nor was it likely to get one. Father had been fastidious about 100 per cent authentic restoration. He hadn’t replaced the ancient gas-guzzler of a petrol engine. Why would he deform a classic beauty by adding an unsightly appendage to protect his family from the heat?
Before we could protest, he had bundled us into Pukaman and we were speeding out of Lucknow and off into the waiting dark. Determined that we have fun, he kept trying to strike up cheerful conversation in the sullen silence, but soon the sky turned pink and it started to get warm. As Pukaman trundled along the open countryside, a speck of merry sky-blue with a double-roof painted off-white, our conversation slowly petered out. Hot and cranky, we took turns sticking our legs out of the back window. The sun beat down on the thin aluminium roof and shone through the Alpine windows that I suppose were originally designed to give an uninterrupted view of snowy peaks. Our T-shirts clung to our backs, dust was in our hair and we slumped, stuporous, in our seats. The bleached landscape passed before our glazed eyes; the little water we saw on the journey was typically algae-green and lapping against a wet buffalo.
Four hundred kilometres later, the sun was still high when we reached Ramnagar at the edge of the sanctuary. Ramnagar is an unpleasant town, overrun with tacky hotels and open-jeep safari operators hunting for tourists. The run-down government office where we had to obtain permits for Pukaman was crawling with agents, touts, and backpackers trying to ward them off. This put our suffering in perspective—at least we hadn’t crossed the seven seas to get instant-boiled. We shook our heads, feeling at once sorry for and superior to them. We collected our permits gratefully and had entered the gates of the sanctuary, when Pukaman suddenly spluttered, twitched, and died.
Nobody moved. The silence was broken by the call of a bird in the distance. Father turned the key in the ignition. The engine whimpered piteously and died again. And again. Stationary in the afternoon sun, Pukaman had turned into an oven and we were slowly being roasted inside.
Father got out to fiddle around under the hood, grinning at us reassuringly through his grease-streaked moustache drooping in the heat. After a tense twenty minutes, he returned and announced that Pukaman had suffered a mild heatstroke—the diaphragm of the fuel cap had dried up, cutting off fuel supply to the engine. “Nothing to worry about, it’s all fixed.”
We had gone some distance before mother gingerly asked him how he had managed to fix the problem. He replied matter-of-factly, “Oh, I wrapped a piece of wet cloth around the diaphragm.” After a moment of silence he added, “Remind me, won’t you? That cloth has to be kept wet.”
For the rest of the journey our nerves were taut and ears strained for any sound of trouble. At the hint of a hiccup Father would screech to a halt on the dizzying edge of a mountain road and leap out to administer a dose of water to Pukaman along with sweet nothings.
By the time we reached the campsite at Dhikala inside the sanctuary, the setting sun had stained the sky orange, igniting the long blades of grass and silhouetting the hills. The keeper told us that big cats are easier to spot when the heat drives them out to quench their thirst.
“Well, let’s just hope it gets hotter,” Father said cheerfully.
The next day, at the crack of dawn, we were shaken awake for an elephant safari. Champakali, our ride for the morning was only slightly less groggy-eyed than us and certainly crosser. She stomped though the jungle, uprooting plants and swaying her hips alarmingly while we sat on top, clutching each other. Father fidgeted with the controls of his binoculars and chatted with the mahout, swapping jungle tales.
We did manage to spot a scrawny, surly tigress. “She’s like Kareena Kapoor, size zero,” my mother chortled. Nobody complained, though. The sighting meant we could check out of the doleful Forest Guest House and race to the hazy purple hills in the distance.
Unhappily though, our ascent to the hills didn’t help matters much. Global warming was making its presence felt even at higher altitudes. Pukaman wound its clunky way around hairpin bends and Z-curves while Maruti Suzukis zipped past, honking at us impatiently. We crossed roaring rivers and mountain bridges; passed dhabas, dusty towns and 9,000-feet passes. My sister took charge of our provisions, glowering every time she had to reach back to extract food or water from the jumble of crates, sleeping bags, Father’s baseball bat (for emergencies), and the cans of petrol.
The hills were brown and bare, and worse, forest fires were raging all along the road to Chaukori. This remote outpost among once-verdant tea gardens, looked wilted and forlorn. It must have been a delightful retreat when the climate was cooler, which explained the absence of fans in the high-varnished, imitation English cottages in which we were staying, but now it was uncomfortably warm. We dozed off, with doors and windows flung open to catch a stray breeze, until our home-grown Indiana Jones heard of an abandoned bungalow that once belonged to a wealthy English planter, and sprang up to investigate, taking us in tow.
The red-brick house with a slanting tin roof, green trimming, and pretty, white shutters had faded in the sun. Father ducked under the barbed wire and, finding the ground floor shuttered and boarded, climbed to the first floor and vanished inside. We followed, testing rotting floorboards with our toes. Mother intoned Anaïs Nin, “Houses turn into corpses overnight when we cease to live and love in them.” Curiously, the rooms were intact, as if the owners had left in a hurry and forgotten to lock up. Through the thick layers of dust their abandoned life was laid bare: a chair sat on top of a table, a chest stood with all its drawers pulled out and a trapdoor leading down a flight of stairs was open. A framed photograph of a woman stood on a mantelpiece. It struck me that she had probably turned into a ghost. We quickly left the house and soon departed, gratefully, from Chaukori.
En route to Munsiyari, we saw tongues of flames licking the hillsides. We passed a family beating the fire inching towards their home—a stack of stones and tarpaulin—with wet sacks. Their faces were blackened and exhausted but they didn’t skip a beat in their assembly line drill, except to take the bottles of water we gave them. It was a sobering sight. The heat was prickly, tempers were running high, and the inside of the car was as brittle and combustible as the kindling outside. We needed a miracle to save our trip and suddenly it appeared, in the emerald green form of the Goriganga River that flows alongside the highway to Munsyari. It looked so tempting we decided to take a dip—our first unanimous family decision.
Father wriggled into his swimming trunks behind a bush—nobody else had thought to carry swimwear—and took the first plunge, headlong into the ice-cold water. We were slightly taken aback at his unabashed display of revelry as he did back-flips, dives and pirouettes, whooping each time he surfaced, his scanty white hair stuck to his scalp, and his face alight. It was hard to stay mad at him after that. He anchored a thick rope to a boulder on the riverbank and we took turns swimming into the middle of the swift current with it tied around our waists.
Until then, we had been chasing tigers, adventure, and a lost boyhood. Soon we would be chasing cooler climes. But in that moment we were chasing Father with blood-curdling war cries, to pounce on him and dunk him in the freezing water.
Munsiyari is a natural amphitheatre with the best seats to view the perennially snow-clad Panchachuli range. The heavy smog had clouded the peaks from view, but we were glad for the cold. The bracing air raised our spirits and in the final stop of our itinerary we finally decided to do a spot of sightseeing.
We drove to nearby Darkot, a cluster of century-old houses decorated with ornate, carved wooden doorways, famous for producing Angora rabbit wool and pashmina shawls. Bright red flowers in sawed plastic cans decorated the window sills. We visited Dinkep Sadan, a house where a 102-year-old granny sat at a loom, watching over a chatty two-year-old. In sharp contrast to the abandoned tea estate, this house though much smaller and basic was bustling with activity and still going strong.
That was also true of Dr. S.S. Pangtey’s residence in Munsiyari, which houses the Tribal Heritage Museum, this retired teacher’s eclectic collection of antique maps, pots and pans, books, swords, and tribal effects. “My sons are both in the Merchant Navy,” Pangtey said, looking at us from behind thick, pearly glasses and absently stroking a stuffed goat. “They keep calling me, but I can’t leave. This is my whole life.” When we took his leave, he handed us a souvenir given to all visitors to his private museum—pieces of flint, quartz and talc, lovingly packed in cellophane.
The next day we hiked up a stone pathway through the woods to Mehsar Kund. Our young guide scampered ahead of us like a mountain goat, stopping to look back at us huffing and puffing below. Set in a meadow of mossy green grass and babbling brooks, the kund is an ethereal pool with a huge log submerged in its clear green water. Legend has it that this was the home of a yaksha who eloped with a sarpanch’s daughter. In retribution, the villagers of Munsiyari drained his lake, at which he cursed them with a drought until they begged forgiveness. Plumbing issues sorted, the yaksha and his wife lived in their beautiful home for eternity. Even today, though it provides no actual shelter, the meadow is blessed with the glow of a well-loved, lived-in home. I spotted a telltale streamer fluttering in the breeze; every month, the villagers have a celebration here, making merry under a star-strewn sky.
On the way down, we took a break to rest at our guide’s deliciously whimsical house. She happily showed us her bedroom, plastered with photographs of every Bollywood actress imaginable (her young husband hadn’t thought to re-decorate). It was also smaller than the inside of Pukaman, the confinement of which we had been cribbing about for the length of the journey. The enforced intimacy had made us cranky, but it had also encouraged conversations we wouldn’t have had otherwise, taught us our strengths and weaknesses, made us stick together and work as a team. Somehow we had grown closer.
Home, I realised, is not created by splendid buildings or made beautiful by stylish decor; it doesn’t need creature comforts, in fact, sometimes it doesn’t even need walls. These are components for making a house. The myriad homes we had visited had shown us that the raw material for a home is less tangible, infinitely fragile and yet so powerful. The old cliché is true: Home really is where the heart is. Our own home for the past so many days had been crowded, cramped, old and wheezy but it had also been warm and loving. We had started off bickering, but a few bumps, shakes and a 2,000-kilometre road trip later, we had settled into a cheerful camaraderie. On the journey back the prospect of the heat didn’t seem so daunting: Our spirits were soaring too high to be wilted, even by the north Indian summer.
Appeared in the March 2015 issue as “The Chronicles of Pukaman”.