Our house, like most middle class North Indian homes, had a faded, framed painting – An idyllic picture of a timber house with a shingled roof, and a garden running around it, every plant and tree blooming in the most beautiful colours of spring. The house itself sat on the side of a hill, and if you looked at it from a 10 years old child’s eyes, you could almost hear the blazing log fire in the old fireplace somewhere inside. That’s how I imagined Nainital before I ever saw it. Full of picture perfect homes, each with a fire burning inside, to keep its rosy-cheeked, cheerful inhabitants warm and smiling, as they sat at the dining table, passing around a large bowl of soup, laughing and sharing stories. But that wasn’t how my first experience of this town turned out to be.
We drove down to Nainital, from my hometown Agra, not knowing that we had landed in between an intense strike of petrol pump operators. No sooner had we managed to park our car in a rare spot near Mall road, the vacation spirit had died. Parents were worried about procuring enough petrol to somehow reach Kathgodam, where the petrol pumps were still working, brother was hatching schemes with a local friend to somehow get petrol from the black market, and I just wanted to climb up to Tiffin Top. On our way to China Peak, Dad’s horse threw a tantrum, almost throwing him off. Mom twisted her ankle. I burned my mouth eating Maggi that was too hot. It was less of a vacation, and more a documentation of all that could go wrong with one.
So, obviously, I had to go back.
Old Stories And Older Mountains
We left our Ranikhet accommodation a little before noon, and drove for several hours, the road never straight, often dusty, and mostly trafficless. The weather wouldn’t settle on one mood, and walked us through an entire show-and-tell of windy, sunny, light rains, sunny again, and dark and gloomy by the time Nainital arrived. The events within the car were no less spectacular. The driver we had chosen turned out to be an encyclopedia of local lore, heavily spiced with exaggerations and glorifications not necessarily related to any facts. Served just as mountain stories should be told.
The hills are speckled with the legends of the mythologized figures who have passed through them: G. W. Traill, who became the first European to have discovered Nainital, but chose to keep it a secret; the incorrigible and greedy P. Barron, who made his poor guide carry a heavy stone on his head, till the tortured chap agreed to reveal Nainital’s location; Shivani, the prolific and fiery writer who made it her life’s work to tell the most fascinating stories of Kumaon and Garhwal; Neem Karoli Baba, whose half eaten apple inspired Steve Jobs (It didn’t. Baba died before Jobs could meet him) and the legend of Goddess Parvathi’s eyes falling and forming the Nainital Lake. It seems like stories are the very foundation on which most temples and structures of Uttarakhand are built. If you don’t have a tall tale to go with it, the building just won’t be significant. No monument is obscure, and no ceremony is random.
Lego Homes And Luscious Sunsets
It’s hill after hill, full almost right up to the top with jumbles of single and double storied homes, piled up perilously close, with no regard to the fact that a couple of centuries ago, a loud yawn from the Earth had all but destroyed this town. But to an onlooker, Nainital looks beautiful. Clusters of candy coloured, Lego-like buildings, silently standing around, some new, some old, like cliques of students in a High School Rom-Com. While the district is known for its few remaining and many lost lakes, the town itself is a playground for unpredictable weather, with a generous sprinkle of silken sunrises and luscious sunsets in red and gold.
Nainital still holds many remnants of its colonial past. Buildings, hotels and schools made by the British who’d run here to escape the summer heat of the plains. And a lot of them remain, adding a unique character to the town. The deep, lunar-shaped Nainital Lake is again the subject of many stories, as old as the lake is deep. Built during the British rule, the Mall Road is the stage for pretty much all the tourist action, with prime hotels, banks, showrooms, stores, restaurants and cafes. Some days, it’s so full of tourists, you can barely walk. When we reached the town, the looming rain-clouds had ensured that it was pretty much empty.
Royal Hotel To the Rescue
The accommodation I had booked online was a no-go, with monkeys greeting us at the gate, and a desolate, run-down building with a rusted sign announcing that it is a hotel. Maybe in another Universe. A hurried scramble brought us back across the Mall Road to one of the back lanes, where we hurriedly drove into the first hotel we saw, and discovered the old relic that is the Royal Hotel in Nainital. There was an empty room waiting, and we booked it just as it started raining heavily. Our driver promised to return the next day, and take us out on a tour across the lakes. For now, there was nothing to do except unpack, wear something warmer than we were dressed in, and order some green tea.
I stood in the corridor of the old hotel, looking at the roofs of the houses around it, wondering how they were keeping warm today. I imagined a large table, with a family seated around it, passing around bowls of hot soup, and talking about what families talk about. And as the cold air set in, I thought I heard a fire crackling away in a fireplace.