Travelling in the Rain
The deluge that is drowning Mumbai, but failing to damp its spirits, sent me back down the memory lane.
It feels wonderful to sit on the balcony and watch the rains lashing the trees, with accompanying sound effects of the whistling wind, getting pleasantly drenched in the spray, a forced holiday as the roads are impassable, and a cheering mug in hand. High spirited Mumbaikars are making most of the unforeseen holiday by gathering in Marine Drive and other spots by the sea, ignoring danger warnings, to get drenched in the waves. The mind’s eye started a series of flashbacks, of the pleasures and pains of being caught in the rain, away from the cosy shelter of home.
It was in the 80s, my wife and I were backpacking across South India. Having lived in the North, and having travelled and trekked in the Himalayas, we discounted the idea of cold in the Southern climes, and carried no warm clothing in order to travel light. Thus we went up to Kodaikanal in light Tshirts and shorts, our usual travel wear.
We had heard of a Tibetian dhaba for good economical food and congenial atmosphere, and walked down there for dinner. It was raining, and unexpectedly chilly, and the shack was warm, the owner friendly, and food delicious. After a week of vegetarian south Indian food, the momos, thukpa and chang was heaven-sent, and we blessed our informant. These were the days before the net, social media and smart phones, word of mouth being the only source of information.
The rain soon turned into a downpour, and the locals predicted that it would go on all night. To add to the fun, the lights went off. The concerned owner called our hotel, but was informed that no taxis were available. Efforts by the helpful locals and the owner also failed to unearth any conveyance, the town being an early sleeper, and the rains and power cut had forced all taxi operators indoors. Walking to the hotel in pitch dark and pouring rain was not possible, even with the loans of umbrellas, torches and directions offered. Apologetically, the locals left for their homes. The owner wanted to shut shop, but couldn’t turn us out, so offered us some shawls to ward off the chill, and more hot soup and chang. The only other occupant was an ageing European, evidently one of the regulars, who had had quite a few and was sleeping it off. We were told that he had wandered into town and never left, having settled down in a cottage in the forest. Anyway, he woke up, mumbled something and left. The owner, apologetically offered us the benches and some newspapers to spend the night, and proceeded to lock up. We were shivering and cursing our luck, when a loud honking startled us. Peering out, we saw a lifeline in the shape of a massive battered old imported car, headlights blazing, and our previously somnolent co guest at the wheels, beckoning to us. The beaming host explained that having seen our predicament, he had woken up some unfortunate taxi owner, borrowed his wheels, and was offering us a lift to our hotel.
We gratefully jumped in, and after what seemed an interminable ride through the pitch dark night, howling winds and thundering rain, we reached our hotel, and his insistent honking got them to open the gates and let us in. He merely nodded to our profuse thanks. Throughout, we had hardly exchanged any words with our Good Samaritan saviour.
The next flashback is of Chail. We were staying in the palace, or rather, in some huts on the premises, in this Palace in the middle of the forest, atop a hill overlooking Shimla in Himachal, built by the Maharaja as a love nest for his English paramour, who eloped with him from the British summer capital. It was the nineties, and we had a child. We were enjoying a lazy vacation in this isolated peaceful retreat, high in the Himalayas.
One day, we planned a short one day trek, to the neighbouring hilltop, eight kilometres away, to visit the shrine of an ancient tribal Goddess favoured by the local herdsmen. We left the car in the Palace, and little one in tow, packed lunch in backpack, we walked through the pristine forests. Enjoying the pleasant sunshine on the hilltop meadow, I was trying to catch a nap, when a cold water droplet rudely woke me up. We noticed that ominous black clouds were boiling in, and being heralded by menacing thunder rolls and lighting flashes. The Goddesses tiny shack providing little shelter, we decided to hurry back, trusting the shelter of the pine forest. Kiddo on my shoulder, we started off at a brisk trot. Luckily, or so we thought, it was downhill all the way. Within a quarter hour, the deluge caught up with us, and we cursed our idiocy in not driving up at least till the dirt track. The path became muddy and slippery, and we were soaked to the bones, shivering in the cold, stumbling down in zero visibility. The frequent lightning kept us from seeking shelter under the pines. After what seemed like ages, a hut loomed out of the mist. We had reached the tiny hamlet. We huddled into its solitary teashop, where some villagers were seeking shelter, and were immediately welcomed in by the concerned locals. We were given blankets, placed by the fireside, and plied with hot tea. We were also offered dry clothes, and soon our baby was swaddled in colourful Himachali attire. A boy was despatched to the Palace to get a car, and eventually, we returned to our snug cottage, expressing heartfelt gratitude to our saviours.
The third memory is of the Terai, in North Bengal, bordering Bhutan, at the forest rest house of Jhalong. The rest house was a wooden cottage on stilts, to keep away wild animals and floodwater, and situated right by a waterfall, whose roar drowned everything and made conversation difficult. The chowkidar cooked our evening meal and left for the village before dusk, leaving us alone in the forest with no means of communication. The dim lighting was provided by solar lamps. Our kids, two by now, were demanding ghost stories to go with the atmosphere. When suddenly, an uproar started, drowning out the roar of the waterfall. It was as if a bucket had been overturned on top of us, and it crashed on our tin roof. Simultaneously, the wind started screeching and wailing. Branches were falling with crashing sounds, and as if on cue, the light conked out. The whole cottage rattled, and it felt as if the roof is about to blow off. In the pitch dark, sudden lightning flashes were the only light, blue, bright and frightening. The roof steadily leaked in a dozen places. My rum induced bravado vanished. A better setting for a ghost story couldn’t be created, but no one was in a mood for it now. We sat huddled together, and at some point, dozed off.
Next morning dawned bright and crisp, with sunlight glinting off snow peaks, and the forest looking green and washed, the sky a sparkling blue. The forest guard was back, bringing up tea and eggs, enquiring after our night. It was just another monsoon night in those foothills.
These are wonderful memories now, but I think that nowadays I would rather enjoy the rains snug from my balcony.
Travelling in the Rain