At 3 when I visited my paternal village, it was the first time I ever saw fire. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I did not pay attention to the gas stove at home. My first ever memory of the village is asking my grandpa what was it inside the earthen stove. He told me it was fire. I was so excited. I sat close to him at “his spot” next to the fire, shared only by some random cat that would find its way in.
That was the first of my vacations with my grandparents, cousins and a very large distantly related family. Technically, I was related to the whole village in some way or the other! The village is located at the altitude of 2500 metres in the Himalayas. The panorama is awe-inspiring with high towering inaccessible forested peaks in the front. I have never seen anything like this in my entire life. At 3, it obviously impacted me in a way that I may never fully comprehend.
The culture at these heights is so different from what we see in the rest of the north of India. People dress different; speak differently (with a seemingly melodious tone) and cook differently even from the capital city that I was born in. The wooden houses had roofs made of stone and teeny-tiny kitchens to conserve heat. People ate meat (“yuk…!” was my first response) and prayed to local deities with their own set of myths and legends. It was like Disneyworld, only bigger, better and much more fun. Let me explain how.
Winters in the mountains of Himachal have to be the best time for a child of my age, for me it was when I was 10. After school exams, our parents would drop my brother and me in the village for a whole 3 months! Our cousins were also there so we always had favourable company. Apart from that the village was full of children our age (also distantly related). We would wake up at 7 every morning, have some milk (yuk…again) and wait for our turn to take a bath, then came early lunch and then came… fun.
We were like unhindered, unsupervised relatives of Tarzan and ran around in all directions all day. Us along with our friends, we had practically zero worry or consideration of time. We had so many things to play: makeshift dramas, climbing the tress, playing cricket or gulli-danda (Rural Indian version of baseball, I think), making mud damns in the rain, etc. Trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We would come back for tea, though. Yes, we were allowed to drink tea in the village… amazing. We would leave to play again only to return in the evening for dinner.
Let me explain how we looked when we returned home: like feral kids lost for 5 days in the forest. We had absolutely no concern for our skin. Playing all day in the sun and dry mud did no favours for our skin. Our feet, hands and face looked baked and cracked. Obviously we first had to wash our feet before we came into the kitchen and ate. All this activity in the day made us so tired that after dinner; we were the easiest children to deal with in the world. We slept early, maybe at 7:30 every evening!
Winter was also the time when my grandma’s humungous cow would give birth to a calf. This meant… milk, lots of it. Although I have no particular affinity for milk, I didn’t mind its products. Here’s why.
With so much milk at our disposal, my grandma could make a lot (and I mean, a lot) of butter from it. She had to use an electric milk churner and after half an hour we could see the silky smooth, freshly churned butter in the middle of the bowl. All the kids used to get small samples to taste. The butter tasted better than the most gelatos that I have tasted. Needles to say, this was the best part of the day. The rest of the butter was used for making clarified butter called ghee in India. That I didn’t care a lot about but all the adults used to liked it. The leftover buttermilk is called lassi, the real deal; the best part of my entire childhood. So you can sympathise with me when I feel angry with people in Europe promoting mango puree in yoghurt as Indian Mango Lassi. For me it’s practically blasphemous to even label it as Lassi, although it tastes nice.
Then came hoards of snow and we all would huddle around the fire in the kitchen like penguins and old people would tell stories of witches always with a moral in the end. We would eat the icicles from the roof and make snowmen. I would always get sick and was always colder than other kids. What’s up with that? The villages would isolate from the world, sometimes without electricity and I would feel like living on an island, which I did not always like.
I could only visit the village once during autumn but autumn in the village was completely different from winter. There was lots of rain, lots of grass and lots of weird and huge insects all over the place. And there were apples, apricots, peaches, nectarines, almonds, cherries…. did I say almonds, yes I did. I loved it. I remember climbing my friends’ almond trees and eating loads of fresh almonds from the trees like big pests, which we probably were. Apple aroma would fill the fields and intoxicated the senses a bit.
That is probably the last time I remember having so much of unadulterated fun. I simply cannot equate the thrill and adventure that we had with my cousins and friends in the village with anything else. My friends at school could not wait to grow up and have no more homework, but I never wanted to grow up. I knew things would never be the same and its true.
Even today, if I could, I would visit that time of my life in a heartbeat. I miss it.