Warning: Long post
I recently completed eleven years of marriage and found myself on a trip down memory lane–to the place where my husband and I first set up our home, in a nondescript sleepy town nestled deep in the picturesque hills of Kumaon in district Pithoragarh,Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand).
The town was eight hours by road from the nearest railway station at Haldwani, which in turn was 24 hours by train from my home city.
I arrived in this town on a chilly late-winter evening, covered from head to toe in heavy woollens , shivering and staring in absolute awe at the faraway snowclad peaks glowing in the setting sun.
The town itself had a population of no more than about 2000 people but boasted of a bank branch, a post office and a decent(by local standards) market. By virtue of these, its streets bustled with people from neighbouring villages and hamlets during the day. By nightfall, however, the same streets wore an eerily deserted look, with not a soul in sight
Our house was rather sparsely furnished(no tiles in the kitchen/bathroom, basic cement floors) but it was newly built, spacious and also offered a great view. Best of all, it received plenty of sunlight too and there is a premium on sunlight in hilly areas, as I soon discovered. We got down to the exhausting but very enjoyable business of setting up a house from scratch–making it look cozy, lived in, comfortable and inviting. We made a day-trip to Pithoragarh, which was two hours away, to shop for furniture, curtains and knick-knacks. The end-results of our attempts at interior-decorating pleased both of us no end.
Soon enough, though, we became aware of the rather limited range of food-items, particularly vegetables and fruits, available in the market. Only a very few vegetables were ever available, and most of them looked stale, dehydrated and unappealing. The lone veggie- vendor in the town got his stock only once a week, so he took care to bring only those veggies which did not spoil easily and kept selling them throughout the week . Poor storage and long-distance transportation ensured that they looked barely edible even when they had just arrived.
Apart from potatoes and onions which were available throughout the year, we got cauliflowers, cabbages and tomatoes in winters. Cauliflowers were actually apologies for cauliflowers, being rarely, if ever, white–more often than not they were yellow with specks of brown . In summers it was just gourds and bitter-gourds.
Once in a while shrivelled capsicums and dessicated carrots and radishes, and miserable looking lady’s fingers also made an appearance. No brinjals, beans, spinach or any other greens. No fruits, except bananas and occasionally guavas.
Now, I’d never been terribly fond of vegetables. They always seemed to form a pocket in my throat and my mom had a tough time making me finish them at mealtimes. And here I was now, craving fresh fruits and vegetables, dreaming about them really, like my life depended on them.
Whether it was a case of merely wanting what one cannot have or whether I had actually been nursing a secret liking for them all this while– or whether I was having withdrawal symptoms on suddenly being deprived of something I was used to having– I will never know. I think it was a combination of all three.
In any case it was not just fruits and vegetables. We also did not get decent sliced bread–the locals apparently only bought the bread baked in a local bakery and, well, it looked so ghastly I never had the heart to give it a try. We didn’t get paneer or butter either because the the shops there did not have refrigerators. Deciding what to cook for lunch or dinner was a harrowing chore. My limited cooking skills were severely tested when faced with such a dearth of ingredients.
It was only after four months that we were able to make a much looked-forward-to trip to our home-towns. We set out early one morning on one of those Tata Sumo jeeps that ply on the hills (the ones that went to Haldwani only left early in the morning ) and corkscrewed our way to the plains for the next eight hours. I was sick and exhausted by the time we reached Haldwani , where we had to wait another five hours to board our train and then spend the next 24 hrs in the train. Phew! In retrospect I am amazed that we made three such trips in the one year we were there.
Pardon my rambling. Okay, so my mom ( and my mom-in-law) fed us loads of fruits and veggie dishes on our trips, and I gorged on them like there was no tomorrow. “I feel like a prisoner on parole”, I told my mother. I was only half joking.
Our town did not have a single allopathic doctor–there was a Primary Health Centre in the town all right and a doctor was supposed to be present on all week days but nobody in the town had ever had the privilege of setting eyes on him. There was not even a single medical store. The locals , in any case, patronised the home-grown ayurvedic quacks, so nobody complained much.
I very carefully maintained a stock of analgesics, anti-pyretics, anti-allergics, OTC drugs for upset tummies, antiseptic liquids and creams, Burnol, Iodex, Vicks and God knows what else. I knew I didn’t have the luxury of walking into a drugstore and buying whatever I needed whenever I wanted.
It was early days yet for the mobile-phone revolution in India, and the networks had yet to come to the hills. A landline connection took many months to materialize. So once every week we walked almost a mile to the solitary public telephone booth to talk to family and friends. It took several redials for a call to get across, and the connection echoed with your own voice, which was disconcerting. The booth -owner shut shop at sundown, which meant you couldn’t make a late night call even in an emergency.
I relied mostly on good ol’ fashioned letters to stay in touch with family and friends. Much like the ladies in those Victorian-era novels, I sat down to write letters after breakfast every day. I still have with me every single one of all those letters received over there somewhere in the house–each one of them had brought me so much joy. I also regularly received mailed parcels containing books and gifts from family members.
Fortunately, my van-vaas lasted only fourteen months, after which we were restored to civilisation. But those fourteen months taught me invaluable life-lessons.
I came to have some idea what it feels like to be deprived of comforts you have been used to.
I feel, really feel, for people who live in those far-flung areas–they live in such difficult conditions and don’t even realize it because they’ve never known any other way of life.
And of course I learnt to appreciate the little things which make so much difference to the quality of our lives–things we often take for granted.
I now have the option of having the best quality fruits /veggies delivered to my doorstep, in the dead of the night if need be. My friends and family are just a call away–and no walking a mile to the pay-phone– at any hour of the day, and so is our doctor. There’s a medical store a stone’s throw away. There are restaurants to go to when I feel like eating out. I can take a flight to my home-city any time I want.
I am thankful for these small and not-so-small mercies–because I remember a time in my life when I could only dream about them.