Someone said that a manual of happiness must start with a resolution of death as its first chapter. As the year ends, I think it is the time to write the manual of the entity that we call “happiness”.
Year after year, on the New Year eves, I used to sit quietly, guiltily, near a bonfire in hills reflecting over the year that has been and making up half-hearted resolutions for the coming one. The first time we had these magic surreal nights, we sat cross-legged facing the fire like devout Brahmins. Pankaj, our real estate friend was the bartender for the day. He made stiff, badly measured drinks, and was our unanimous choice for the New Year Eves. The friends and Tau Ji (our Uncle) formed the core group of new age fire worshippers. The fireplace had a very detailed hierarchy! Being the master of the house, Tau Ji occupied one side of the fireplace and then it was the other side that was up for contention! The person sitting on the other side of the fire was like the chief “fire officer”, alpha pyrometry artist! The job entailed deep knowledge of pine smoke aroma, burn rate of oak, rhododendron, birch, dry twigs, spread, ember distribution and such. This was the position of honour! The lesser mortals were content to put up their feet near the fire and lie on the oversized cushions, nursing their drinks and memories of the nearly bygone year.
The conversation and silences were very well understood and more conventional, the better. Sartre, Camus and Jiddu were liberally quoted and simple words like “love you” were said on face without flinching! Many a times, I saw the fire leaping into my friends eyes, the silent one, whose hands shook during day and steadied only after the first “old monk”! How lovely to see the leap of fire in my friends eyes. Many a times, I caught my wife’s swelling tears of joy as we sat around the fire and our Tau Ji. The tears welling up, for heart can only hold so much of joy. I reached for another sip of the copper coloured light. Pankaj served another round.
Year after year, we did the purification rites in the little cottage overlooking Garud valley, just where the shadows of Trishul and Nanda Devi play in daytime, just near the place where our Peter Camerzind looked down into the valley. Where I played the Bach Minuet on my recorder, as he stole those kisses!!
Tau ji was a self-proclaimed “progressive farmer” and took special pride in introducing strawberries and other high value cash crops in the area. His story shall be told someday, but you’d lend me your attention for a while, dear reader for matters of “death and happiness”, won’t you? A fire was lit some eight years ago, when we did a hundred mile journey from Haldwani, up through to Almora and reached our little cottage in the hills, some thirty miles further up. We saw the snow covered peaks sweeping the entire panorama, flooded in moonlight! We forgot our tiresome journey and the fire was lit...
Abheek quotes Li Po talking of Tau Ji, when I caught him other day with the pavlovian, “what are you doing for the New Year”:
“My friend lives high on East Mountain.
His nature is to love the hills and gorges.
In green spring he sleeps in empty woodland,
Still there when the noon sun brightens.
Pine-tree winds to dust his hair.
Rock-filled streams to cleanse his senses.
Free of all sound and stress,
Resting on a wedge of cloud and mist
Tau Ji died in my arms....as Abheek struggled with the oxygen cylinder...There were the the devout fire worshippers in attendance, no one cried. Tau Ji loved life and died struggling to live, to breathe, to hold on to us! He died alive, clutching to very last breathe.. Pankaj disappeared into the pine grove, Abheek dug a deep hole to bury Tauji’s dentures, specs and his collection of Playboy! Deepa and I organized the house for relatives... We sat quietly with his body towards the dusk and his best friend remarked: can we have a drink?
A baritone..”Bhai Lal Singh, bar kholne ka samay ho gaya hai” (May the drinks for the evening be served)..reverberated somewhere deep within me...as tears welled up...
A mezzo-piano march..
One reached the new cottage by carefully stepping down those seventy-two steps into a bare garden with two tea bushes on the right and an inviting long lobby in the front. That day we kept Tauji’s body on the floor, in the lobby, as somber villagers came to offer their condolences. Balwant Singh ji, Tauji best friend in Kausani is a former soldier with a wrinkled sun burnt face and very dignified manner. He was busy offering tea to visitors and barely looked at the body. The fire worshippers were huddled in a corner, as the house had been thrown open to the whole world with its soul lay bare on the floor of the lobby. The house was dead and so was the fire.
It was a damp cold day as we took our Tauji up the steps to the main road; we marched through those eighteen measures of “Ram-nam-sat-hai”, in common time. The body was laid on top of a truck, Abheek and I clamoured up to the roof and sat holding the body from swinging from side-to-side as the truck wound its way on the serpentine road to Bageshwar. We held onto our lives and the body between us. It drizzled and we were wet to the bone, the scent of burning pinecones and the sights of abundantly green fields held us in its tight embrace. We didn’t cry. We were drained of all feeling, of pain, in one go. We had been humbled into numbness as very respectful hill folks did a “Namaste” to the body, whichever village we passed through, in sympathy, and fear of their own mortality.
Bageshwar is a confluence of Saryu and Gomti rivers and is a tranquil place where Kumaoni folks cremate their dead. The funeral pyre was set very efficiently by the villagers accompanying us. I was entrusted with carrying Tauji around the pyre a couple of times and then placing him on the pyre. He seemed so heavy that day or I was drained. A setting sun, two rivers merging into a hushed gurgling stream, and four of the fire worshippers were in attendance. Balwant Singh ji made sure that his friend’s body was properly consecrated to flames. At one point, he set the head in the right position to burn properly, the head of his best friend, with a six feet pole. I asked Abheek to remove the “Disneyland 2000” jersey, which Deepa had brought for Tauji from US and threw it into flames. I was done.
We reached the house, our former home, quite late by hill standards. The five of us, and Balwant Singh ji.
Morning saw the relatives pouring in, there wasn’t a “Will” to be found, He had not anticipated dying at such an early age. Within hours, we saw the whole house ransacked of its goods, even underwear weren’t spared, and they were duly distributed among the contenders. In a few hours Tauji was made a un-person! He often spoke of setting up a trust for “progressive farmers” like him and primary education in Garud, but we had nothing left in ourselves to defend his wishes.
In a day we were disfranchised.
His wife came some six months later to visit us from London. A very petite woman, we recognized each other very easily at the airport, as I wore a unique “fluorescent tiger” T-Shirt and she had a six-foot gorgeous friend with her. A few days later, I accompanied her to the cottage with those two tea bushes and we quietly cried sitting down in the lobby, facing a morning sun over Trishul and Nanda Devi.
We walked up towards the Dak Bunglow and reached Tauji’s old cottage, the cottage, which, as per Abheek, has the best view of mountains, better than anywhere else in entire world. We heard kids reading their lessons aloud, inside the main hall; seems there was a school operating from the premises. Two young girls, apparently teachers, stepped out and said Namaste.. I requested permission for us to step into the cottage and we went to the main hall, where we had spend so many new-year eves, marriage anniversaries, Holi, Deepawali holidays. The fireplace was cold and drippy kohl coloured on the sides. I turned to students and said Namaste, and told them a story of two city birds eloping to a cottage like this, or this very cottage.
The butterflies would not fly away as we sat in the garden, the sparrows do not fly away alarmed, in the garden of that cottage. Often, I saw him under the lime tree, there, with sparrows on his chair’s armrest, playing hopscotch on his legs and he would keep looking towards the walnut tree.
The city birds discovered their first nest and invited other city birds too and they kept on feeding on the early worms in the garden, hopped on the rocks over there and sang songs all day. One day the little city birds saw the huge just bald eagle and flew up towards the garden behind that peak...Which one’s that???
Kids shouted in chorus: “Trishul, aapko Itna Bhi nahi malooom?”
( “Trishul, You don’t know that?”)
I couldn’t finish the story, the stories do not finish in real life..they feed other stories, the world is organic, alive, fertile, feeds on its own elements and regenerates on its own death....
One fine day a sapling looks up, vulnerable and green, hairy and soft as it tosses it’s head in the morning sun.
We look out of our tent into the lake
a neat four-by-four picture postcard
a place for some tired city birds to come to
this very place over yonder, besides the stream
as swallows make a nest in my lime tree.Amen.