It was while I was living in England, in the jostle and drizzle of London, that I remembered the Himalayas at their most vivid. I had grown up amongst those great blue and brown mountains; they had nourished my blood; and though I was separated from them by thousands of miles of ocean, plain and desert, I could not rid them from my system. It was always the same with mountains. Once you have lived with them for any length of time, you belong to them. There is no escape.
And so, in London in March, the fog became a mountain mist, and the boom of traffic became the boom of the Ganges emerging from the foothills.
I remembered a little mountain path which led my restless feet into a cool, sweet forest of oak and rhododendron, and then on to the windswept crest of a naked hilltop. The hill was called Clouds End. It commanded a view of the plains on one side, and of the snow peaks on the other. Little silver rivers twisted across the valley below, where the rice fields formed a patchwork of emerald green. And on the hill itself, the wind made a hoo-hoo-hoo in the branches of the tall deodars where it found itself trapped.
During the rains, clouds enveloped the valley but left the hill alone, an island in the sky. Wild sorrel grew amongst the rocks, and there were many flowers—convolvulous, clover, wild begonia, dandelion—sprinkling the hillside.
On a spur of the hill stood the ruins of an old brewery. The roof had long since disappeared, and the rains had beaten the stone floors smooth and yellow. Some enterprising Englishman had spent a lifetime here making beer for his thirsty compatriots in the plains. Now, moss and ferns and maidenhair grew from the walls. In a hollow beneath a flight of worn stone steps, a wildcat had made its home. It was a beautiful grey creature, black-striped, with pale green eyes. Sometimes it watched me from the steps or the wall, but it never came near.
No one lived on the hill, except occasionally a coal burner in a temporary grass-thatched hut. But villagers used the path, grazing their sheep and cattle on the grassy slopes. Each cow or sheep had a bell suspended from its neck, to let the boy know of its whereabouts. The boy could then lie in the sun and eat wild strawberries without fear of losing his animals.
I remembered some of the shepherd boys and girls.
There was a boy who played a flute. Its rough, sweet, straightforward notes travelled clearly across the mountain air. He would greet me with a nod of his head, without taking the flute from his lips. There was a girl who was nearly always cutting grass for fodder. She wore heavy bangles on her feet, and long silver earrings. She did not speak much either, but she always had a wide grin on her face when she met me on the path. She used to sing to herself, or to the sheep, to the grass, or to the sickle in her hand.
And there was the boy who used to carry milk into town (a distance of about five miles), who would often fall into step with me, to hold a long conversation. He had never been away from the hills, or in a large city. He had never been on a train. I told him about the cities; and he told me about his village; how they make bread from maize, how fish were to be caught in the mountain streams, how the bears came to steal his father’s pumpkins. Whenever the pumpkins were ripe, he told me, the bears would come and carry them off.
These things I remembered—these, and the smell of pine needles, the silver of oak leaves and the red of maple, the call of the Himalayan cuckoo, and the mist, like a wet facecloth, pressing against the hills.
Odd, how some little incident, some snatch of conversation, comes back to one again and again, in the most unlikely places. Standing in the aisle of a crowded tube train on a Monday morning, my nose tucked into the back page of someone else’s newspaper, I suddenly had a vision of a bear making off with a ripe pumpkin.
A bear and a pumpkin—and there, between Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road stations, all the smells and sounds of the Himalayas came rushing back to me.
Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger