Shadows of memories from the land of Sand and Snow
Two magnificent yet obscure churches and some well-observed nuances of life
Today I want to tell you a story of two different girls - one whose innocent smile is trapped in time within the snow-clad landscape of Landour, and another one whose empathy still lingers on the backwaters of Divar Island. Separated by distance and time both taught me the power of experiences. It is also a story of hope and freedom, loss and separation, and of the eventuality of life.
Have you ever wondered how time warps around itself and creates this weird dimension where similar things happen to you twice? Have you ever visited a place and thought, I have been in this mood and this situation before? Have you met a new person and thought that maybe you knew them from another place and time? Have you ever seen something for the first time and felt a surge of nostalgia? A pull so strong as if you have caught the fleeting time by its arms. At the risk of sounding crazy, I will narrate a set of two very different real-life incidents where I experienced the same inexplicable pangs of nostalgia twice in two very different locations beside two very different people. Both times the pangs were directly associated with a premonition of an inevitable future.
The glistening snow spoke eloquently in silent tongues of dread and wonder of the elusive nature of life. It reflected the impermanence of everything and the futility of holding on to either happiness and pain.
I still remember the January of 2014 - my last winter in the city of Dehradun. It was around the second week when the snow started to blanket the Himalayan foothills. The white snow at the peaks floated like ghosts in the dark winter night. The mountain dreamed peacefully in the lullaby of city lights. From the terrace of my hostel roof, the hills look like a necklace embedded with a thousand little diamonds.
“Those hills are Mussoorie”, my friend told me one night looking into the darkness. “Let’s go there to celebrate our last trip and seal our goodbyes”.
“Yes” I echoed “Let’s go”
To date, I never regretted having said that - Mussoorie in winter is unequivocally one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my entire life. The glistening snow spoke eloquently in silent tongues of dread and wonder of the elusive nature of life. It reflected the impermanence of everything and the futility of holding on to either happiness and pain. Life is mercurial, it changes from one form to another like the snow turning into water. We traveled from the city of Dehradun to Mussoorie in a creaky old and overcrowded state bus. The five of us packed ourselves beside each other and slept throughout the spiral journey up the hills, partly because it was breaking dawn and partly because we were feeling motion sickness.
We drove past the edgy pine and deodar trees staring out of the misty forest - reaching out to tell the centuries-old stories of changing times. Amongst us was Suruchi, a friend’s sister, who came down from Delhi to exclusively be on this trip with us. Suruchi was nothing but a human version of Winnie-the-Pooh. Cuddly, clumsy, and round are some perfect adjectives for her. She wore heeled boots while trekking up on the snow and slipped and fell every 10 minutes because the sun was high and the snow was melting by the afternoon. After she tripped on the snow for the gazillionth time, I stepped up and offered to hold her hand until the very end of the trek.
“You will walk with me till Lal Tibba?”, she asked looking at me with her big glossy eyes. I could see she was tired of falling.
“Yes I will”, I replied with a reassuring smile. That was the only conversation I ever had with Suruchi.
To reach the highest peak, we had to trek through Landour - a serene and sparse cantonment town in Mussoorie. Most villas in Landour were either privately owned or heritage sites. Frozen in time since the early 19th century stood the enchanting St Paul’s Cathedral, at the crescent of the road extending till the peak. I remember standing in front of the arch gateway for an eternity in the melting snow, staring at the ghostly structure. I felt a deep pang of nostalgia and my knees went weak as if I was afraid of something, not in a ‘frightened’ way but more of a ‘morbid’ way. I felt wonder and emptiness in the pit of my stomach. After all these years I cannot say why - it could have been the tiredness, it could have been the joy of beholding something so hidden and obscure. Or was it a premonition? Maybe. I have always been a sensitive and intuitive child. That day too not everyone could see what I saw. Centuries of histories and stories dancing in the shadows of the pine forest that embraced the chapel - I heard the forests bowing down to whisper its secrets.
At the chapel's door, there was a 150-year-old prayer book. It was scribbled with thousands of prayers written in illegible handwriting. Some of them must have been written in gratitude and some in helplessness. I don’t remember what I wrote and hence I don’t know if my prayer did come true. The church hallway was dimly lit in the lights pouring through the colorful tints of kaleidoscopic glass mosaic on the windows. Everyone sat down for prayer. I remember the last time I watched her closely, Suruchi was praying with folded hands and bowed head like a chubby cherub. What did she pray for I don’t know, did her prayers come true I don’t know.
I heard from her sister in January 2020 that she was supposed to go to the UK on a work visa, that she was very happy and content with life. And then on a fairly bright Sunday morning of August 2020, I received a call. Suruchi has passed away. No one found out the reason. The doctors said it was an unnatural death. She went suddenly and left us behind to speculate on the shock and pain of her death. How flaky can existence be? Like the snow I first saw in Mussoorie, Suruchi is preserved in my memory even if her physical form has melted away. She will be alive on that day in St Paul’s Cathedral, sitting upright with folded hands and praying.
I kept blaming myself for her death. I kept thinking of the prayer book of St Paul’s and all the prayers I could have written in there - asking for that sweet child’s longevity. Would that have changed her violent fate? Who knows, maybe it would have.
These places with their million memories and histories embellished in their morbid forms have the propensity to deeply impact human consciousness. They are like time capsules demanding to be opened.
In another timeline, in November 2018, I went to Goa on a holiday with my friend Raashika. Short, bright, and quizzical - Raashika is the exact opposite of Suruchi. Her high-spirited enthusiasm kept me on my foot ever since I met her.
Divar Island was located in Piedade, Goa, and is separated from the mainland by the backwaters. On the trek to the far North Island, up the hills stands an 18th-century baroque architecture of Our Lady of Piety. In the burning heat of midday Goa, the white chapel stood silent and humble. Beside it was a strange-looking cemetery with graves on the walled enclosure. The church was close, there was not a single soul around us. No place for prayers. The same angst and dread that I felt four years ago in Landour, rose in me yet again. I sat down breathing heavily. My gut was churning with the weight of an eerie nostalgia. Raas quietly held my hand and walked me down to the bus stand which was supposed to take us back to the ferry to the mainland.
These places with their million memories and histories embellished in their morbid forms have the propensity to deeply impact human consciousness. They are like time capsules demanding to be opened. Raas understood the discomfort I felt with old architecture in general. For once someone held some space for the inexplicable feelings that arose in me. I was grateful for her kindness. I prayed for her from the other side of the closed door to the sleeping god. This time I wrote no prayers for myself but I prayed for my friend. I prayed for her wishes to come true and for her to experience inner freedom.
Fast forward to today, Raashika will be leaving for Germany to get her education and to build herself a life in Europe. Do all prayers end in separation? I don’t know but at least this separation has a promise of reunion. As the sand from the Divar mangroves, life in its multitudes is golden, bright, beautiful, and effervescent. But don’t try to cling to it. The more you try to hold on to it, the more it slips away from you.
The sand and the snow, two beautiful girls, the loss and the separation, all the prayers that went unheard and some that were heard from behind the closed doors - taught me how to live outside the box of limitations of who we think we are and what we think we are capable of doing. These journeys taught me the invaluable life lessons that come through traveling and the innumerable memories it leaves behind.
For now, I will let those memories rest in the lap of time and thank them for teaching me the immense power of letting go.
Next week I will be bringing you stories from the world of the Sufi Dervishes. We will soon go skinny dipping in a soulful sea of dance, music, and prayers alongside our beloved Sufi saint Rumi and his many disciples keeping the traditions alive even today. Stay tuned!
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