PWD Guest House, Barot, Himachal Pradesh
I squinted as my eyes popped open, one chilly May morning, back in 1996. I turned around to wake up my sister, then hopped out of bed to go irritate my parents. I couldn't help it. I was six.
They brushed me away and thus snubbed, I slipped on my chappals and bounded outside into the fresh air.
The above picture can never do justice to the Barot of my memories, simply because this picture is not my own but a more recent one. The PWD guest house then, was set a short trek away from the town, a steep climbing path up the road, which led to the crest of the hill. When one climbed atop, a clearing would come into view, with the green-wooden slatted cottage sitting plumb in the middle, against the backdrop of a mountainside dotted with leeches and daisies. In front, was a single tree, whose solid branches I remember trying to climb on and off many times.
It was pristine, I remember everything as if it were yesterday. Me wheeling my sister around the house in a wheelbarrow, us playing catch-n-catch around Dad's freshly washed, unrolled turban drying on a huge span of grass, my mother giving us a good tel-maalish before splashing us with ice-cold, mountain spring water. I don't remember the bedrooms much, but the bathrooms were scarily fascinating. Every rare bug on your green window sill, next to exposed metal pipes, which in turn only added to your fear of the deathly cold water, as you shivered in anticipation, on a plastic stool too cold for your backside.
I remember trying to climb up the mountainside of daisies and leeches, running races with my sister, and at the end, collapsing in a heap and sticking my foot into the ground, trying to heap mud over it to build little castles, and giving them the finishing touch by sticking daisies in them. I remember trying to draw my foot out carefully without letting it collapse, and then grimacing when it did.
Many times, the whole family would bundle down the path to the town, which intrigued me because it had things other mountainous towns from my knowledge then, didn't. Like a fish farm. Or the river-sized trough of gushing water over a turbine. Only upon googling now did find out that it was a state Hydel power project on the Uhl river, and the fish farms were derived and operating on the fish from the reservoir. What I remember from then is a dread in my heart, standing on a bridge over the river-sized trough, watching at the falling water, and trying to imagine what would happen if someone fell over. What if that someone was a family member? I closed my eyes and wished back my thoughts as I ran across the bridge to where the rest of them were, my father leaning down to explain to me the concept of turbines and electricity generation. Whatever my understanding then, I remember thinking, 'Great, falling in the water is not good enough, now we get to die of shock too.'
The fish farms were a different story altogether. Rows upon rows of water channels, with silver glinting in it everywhere you looked. I would bend over and try to touch, but a quick look from my mother would stop me. The black water, the man with the long cleaning brush, the glint of silver in the water and my mother's look. Memories work in strange ways.
Often, we would plan a trek up and out from the guest house, crossing streams and cooking next to the river, with cowdung as fuel and a few pots, pans and matchsticks. The rice was sticky, and the curry being cooked watery and spicy, but it felt good to eat, probably because it seemed to have come out of nowhere, in the wild. I'm struggling to recall whether the curry had fish in it or not, and I can't be sure, but I'm being completely honest here.
I know we went down to the small market set across the hydel project and the fish farms, but I can't really remember anything of it. Packets full of bread and eggs, maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Sometimes, the days would be spent soaking up the sun, sitting under the single tree in the yard, as our mother tried coaching us about our pending homework and my sister messed around with her alphabets. My dad stretched out on the ground, sleeping with abandon, a small part of the whites of his eyes showing, giving me and my sister reason to snigger.
Oh, Barot. I can't not think back to simpler times without my eyes misting over. When life was easy, vacation periods coincided, when we were innocent, stupid, and shamelessly happy.
I wrote this whole monologue in one go, and I know what flowed from my fingertips were not words, but carefully stashed away memories, of a small insignificant place long ago... of a paradise lost.
Barot, Himachal Pradesh
Fish Farms, Barot