A house on a hill and a soldier 

It came to him again. It always did when the soldier was close to the hills and he saw the distant snow-capped Himalayan ranges. Sometimes the snow glistened in the bright sunlight and sometimes the hills were shrouded in cloud and mist. The rising sun washed the hills in streaks of pink and purple and orange. He remembered that scene as a boy growing up in that little village. He remembered the hush of the darkening evenings when his mother called him. He would clamber up the wooden steps into the small warm wooden room to be fed by his mother or sometimes his aunt? The house on the little hill would become a dark silhouette till the lamps were lit and the small windows closed. He couldn’t quite recall but memories still stirred in him and an old longing to visit the house where he was born returned. Nagroli was calling again.

We were the soldier’s friends from the deep South who had come for a holiday to Landsdowne with Brigadier saab and his charming wife. The mountains and the snow on them were fantasies to us as the sea is to those living here. The cold mountain air, the tall birches and cedars, the bursts of bright red rhododendrons, the kites and eagles wheeling far above were wondrous sights. This small military station had come up during the Raj and retained its quaint houses and the splendid “Officers’ Mess” and museum. But we were not to know of Nagroli till the soldiers wife whispered to me..” Ask him about Nagroli! We’re not too far from there . He has been talking about his home in the hills and how he hasn’t been back for six decades or more. “Maybe you can persuade him?” “ What! “ I exclaimed in excitement. How can we not go…he’s been all over India and the world but hasn’t found the time to visit his old home?”I marched up to him and demanded an explanation. He winced. He wasn’t sure of how to get there. He wasn’t sure if he would be welcomed. His father, also soldier when the Raj was still going strong, had moved out of his home and lands to make a living in the towns and cantonments in the plains. He’d taken his family, leaving everything to his brother and his family. There had been little or no contact since then and he didn’t know if the house was still there. So he had suppressed his curiosity, was overcome with apprehension. But, to travel in those hills looking for Nagroli was for us a challenge and a rising excitement made us bully him to make journey. A much-decorated war veteran who had stood up to the fiercest of foes had to give in!

The journey by road through the pahadi region filled us with awe …such empty loveliness, with bare hills and winding rivers in the valleys below. Tiny towns on riverbanks with temple bells ringing and crowded markets….simple hill houses and rosy cheeked children  waved to us as we climbed higher and higher . We speculated about the reception we would receive! It was better to make an offering of sweets and fruits. They were chosen from the few shops we came across and wrapped in colourful paper. We were ready! Messages had been sent across thanks to mobiles and somebody would meet us near the village and takes us to the house. But we still asked the few people we came across..Nagroli??? Nagroli? asked the driver and we were pointed in some direction. Just as we were wondering if we’d get there at all , a short man darted from the side of the road . The soldier got out and asked ..Nagroli?? The man grinned and  the two embraced as he introduced himself. He pointed to the other side of the road. We had to walk the rest of the way. Not far said the man descending nimbly down a stony pathway and helping us down. A pahadi does this everyday, their only way of travelling between houses . But we were silly city folk who needed help at every stage ! Laughing our way all through we slipped and stumbled till suddenly we saw the wooden house ! The soldier stood for a minute taking it in. It was still there!

A small wizened woman in a saree came forward to meet us. She greeted the soldier as if he were a long-lost friend. Voices were raised in joyous greeting as the brigadier and his wife were warmly embraced and led to the house. We stood looking around at the hills and the quiet beauty of the place. Small patches of what looked like vegetables and greens suggested a self-sustaining community. A young woman, the bahu, was introduced and she shyly asked about all of us. Her two children were away at school and couldn’t meet us. The old lady held the soldier s arm and said sternly that a meal was a must. The sight of a pot on a coal fire outside was too tempting to refuse. We climbed the short steep steps to the wooden rooms above. A few chairs had been arranged for us. The walls had old fading family photos in frames and a lively conversation ensued in pahadi as persons were pointed out. We were never left out as translations were simultaneous! Through the single window one caught sight of the Misty hills and a few other hill houses. “And in this very room did your mother give birth to you” said the old lady with a laugh. The soldier was overwhelmed.. it was no longer a dream. Nor was the typical pahadi meal that was brought up, fresh and steaming.. potatoes, a dhal made with home grown saag, rotis and rice. The homecoming was complete. 

We walked into the other rooms and were struck by how the house had survived. The rooms were not bright but they were functional.. to keep the family warm and to store the few possessions they had. Life was hard. The man who met us earlier did not have a proper job. If he left to go down to the “big” towns his family would be left alone. And so the conversation continued as they told their stories to each other. Invitations to come down to their home were made by the brigadier and his wife and help was promised. It was this moment that the soldier had imagined but with apprehension! Now he felt at peace.. his people, his home had been reclaimed through this unexpected journey. But he had to wait for over six decades! 

Ms. Aruna Chidambi

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