As I look back upon the defining events of my past, like the rest of them, my home in the hills also seems to have happened serendipitously. Or if you believe in destiny, then, by providence. All I know for sure is that there was no anticipation, let alone conscious planning, involved in any of them – career, marriage, or children et al. From as far back as I can remember, I had always felt a special, inexplicable connection with the mountains, the Himalayas in particular. Yet the notion of a home in the hills was in the realm of fantasy, in the same league as becoming an internationally renowned rock musician or a bestselling author of science fiction novels.
The latter two were not to be. But to my astonishment, I ended up realising at least one of my childhood fantasies. The instant that I stumbled upon this little patch of land in what was then a largely unknown village called Satauli, I was besotted. Satauli lies in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, part of the Nainital district, but a good two hours away from the town. In the quickest life-changing decision that I have ever taken, I decided to buy it, even though I did not have the means at the time. The Fool on the Hill, was not just a nod to The Beatles, my biggest obsession, but seemed an apt name for this act of folly, especially when viewed from a practical standpoint. That was sixteen years ago, and from where I first stood on the land, overwhelmed by a sensation akin to déjà vu, the skyline comprised the majestic panorama of the central Himalayan range, with Trishul and Nanda Devi directly facing me.
As I waited to be able to afford the bandwidth and the funds to build my house, I would visit often, mainly to reassure myself that I was not making the biggest mistake of my life. But whenever I came, I would be immediately under its spell, awed and mesmerised. And at nightfall, a wondrous silence would ensue, punctuated only by the periodic hoot of an owl. And when the moon was at its most resplendent, the valley would be bathed in a magical pale light. It was then that I knew for certain that I had found my way home.
While I was not the first non-local inhabitant to set up home here, there weren’t too many others before me. In fact, when I began my periodic visits in 2009, there was just one other house in my line of sight. I could hardly ever hear a human voice filtering in. I loved the solitude and the opportunity it gave me to decompress from the sensory assault and battery of living in Delhi. Friends would visit, some along with me, others in my absence. And quite frankly, while I savoured the me-time, I was not averse to sharing my piece of paradise with other like-minded and like hearted people who enjoyed the beauty of the mountains as much as I did. I welcomed many friends and acquaintances who followed in my wake and indeed even encouraged them to set up home nearby. Gradually, houses started coming up around me. I knew a few of the folks from earlier but many were strangers. Not being amongst the most sociable people on the planet, I didn’t go out of my way to get familiar, but was nonetheless glad to exchange greetings and pleasantries while walking aimlessly or at the local grocery store, which was unexpectedly well stocked with everything that city folks might need amidst the largely rural setting. I was a glad for it and jokingly referred to it as the local Wal-Mart.
A sad fact of life. While nature is wonderfully impartial, the same is not true for humans in general, who seem to live their lives as though they are somehow apart from nature. In time, my beliefs about the innocence of rural folks, especially hill-dwellers, also lay in ruins. I discovered that greed and selfishness were not just urban malaises, but very much a modern pan-Indian epidemic and a fact of everyday life. A particularly cruel reminder of this was when I discovered that the water that I was entitled to and was being charged for was being diverted elsewhere by the local lineman for bribes. And thanks to him and the thoroughly compromised government machinery, I received no water from the Uttarakhand water department during the last several years, despite religiously paying the inflated water bills that would come with unfailing regularity. The amount that I paid for the water that was charged to my connection certainly would have run into several hundreds of thousands of rupees in the last few years. Every complaint to the authorities was stonewalled. That’s when it dawned on me that everything runs here, like everywhere else in India, on the back of shameless venality. I shouldn’t have been surprised, yet I was. Life carried on, and despite this inconvenience, between my subliminal foresight of having planned for water-harvesting and the occasional generosity of the rain gods, I could mostly manage without having to resort to tankers run by the local water mafia.
Then a few years ago, news began to filter in about some massive construction projects being planned in the area – large residential complexes for the rich and famous. These were of unprecedented magnitude for this rural area, involving high stakes and big money. Initially I dismissed them as rumours, circulated by the clinically paranoid. Alas, that illusion was shattered by the sounds of construction and the daily noisy movement of trucks and pick-up vehicles ferrying construction material to the site. Being acutely aware of the hypocrisy of resenting this development, having been at least partly instrumental in paving the way for it, I felt that I had no right to protest.
This view changed as I realised that the phenomenon was significantly different from the way most of us early movers adapted to living in the hills. The obvious charm for us lay in being able to spend idyllic lives amidst nature, and existing in symbiotic harmony with it. It was not merely about relocation, and certainly not about trying to replant our urban roots in a more salubrious setting. That is clearly no longer the case as the moneyed from the cities for whom these dwellings are being constructed – massive gated complexes with manicured gardens and farmhouse landscapes – seem to be interested only in bragging rights, or at best, living out their urban lifestyles in cooler climes. The incongruity of it or the irony of the fact that it defeats the entire purpose of moving to the hills has obviously eluded them. Nor can they foresee that they are participating in an unmitigated disaster. Perhaps they can see, and just don’t care. In the meantime, the developers are rolling downhill laughing all the way to the bank.
When I came to know of an illegal borewell that was drilled near my house in collusion with the gullible and the crooked of the village, deep into an already rapidly depleting water-table, so that the new wealthy residents could be promised unlimited water to indulge in profligacy, it was a clear signal that being a mute spectator to this unfolding environmental catastrophe was no longer an option. Perhaps this was the much-needed wake-up call to prevent the cherished dream from turning into a nightmare while we remained sleeping.