Uniformed staff have given way to a middle-aged woman in salwar kameez and cardigan, with a name tag around her neck, talking on the phone to her son who has or has not yet eaten breakfast. The aeroplane, when it arrives two hours late, turns out to be equally a creature of some decades ago, a small ATR plane with 70-odd seats and doors that fold down to form its short staircase to the ground. On the flight, a group of middle-aged women on holiday repeatedly ask the air hostess if the plane is safe, if it is pressurised, if it can fly.
The setting is strangely apropos for the beginning of a trip to a home I left 27 years ago. It is snowing in Manali, the year’s first snowfall, and as we circle the airport, waiting for clear weather and the signal to land, I press my forehead to the window. Soon, barren hills give way to lush valley. I can see a frothing river—my frothing river. A sudden runway adjacent to the riverbank, a bumpy landing, ears popping from the change in pressure, and I am home.
“Home” is a funny word for a place to which you have never belonged—not in any of the traditional ways of belonging, not by birth or marriage or ancestry. But something has carried four generations of my family in and out of the state of Himachal Pradesh, some calling that I have inherited, some way in which we have always belonged to these mountains.
At Partition, my maternal great-grandparents moved to Shimla while it was capital of Indian Punjab; one great-grandfather as vice-chancellor of Panjab University, another at the department of agriculture. My grandparents met in a rare co-ed college there, and long after they moved to Delhi, the mountains continued to be central to their lives.
My mother went to school in Shimla, and then, during a family holiday to Manali at the age of 15, she fell in love with the little town of apple orchards, tall deodars and gushing river. In the early 1970s, she made many solitary trips there for her architecture dissertation; after college, she married my father and moved back, first to Shimla and then, when my brother and I were toddlers, to Manali.
My parents were building Riverbanks, a hotel at Chaudhan Meel (which literally translates to “14 kilometres”, because this spot on the national highway is marked only by its distance from Manali). We lived in Manali during the first stage of the hotel’s construction, and at Chaudhan Meel for a year or so once there were rooms to live in. But time is not chronological for a young child; for me, I spent a lifetime in Manali— a childhood of games and ghost stories, of river and apple orchards, of snowball fights and all-night tandoor, an idyllic childhood, frozen against the sharp contrast of the Delhi we moved to a few months short of my seventh birthday.
On the one hand, I can draw exact floor plans of the house we lived in, recognise the bend in the highway leading up to it, show you which way my brother’s bed faced and which way mine. On the other hand, I look at photographs from my fifth birthday party and ask my mother “Who are these children? Did I know them, or did they just stop by for cake?”
There is, however, one group of friends I remember well—a group of local children, the daughter of a migrant worker, twin boys whose parents had a field of corn near Riverbanks, a few others who lived in a shanty uphill. Together, we would set off on day-long treks to the other side of the mountain, pluck fruit from nearby orchards, drink the water that villagers offered us and scamper home in the evenings.
Contrary to popular opinion, construction sites are a great place for children to play. We spent hours playing in the mounds of sand brought for mixing concrete. We ground bricks against river rock and used the fine red dust to create rangolis. There were always empty jute sacks close at hand that you could use to cover a hole you dug in the sand, sprinkle some more sand lightly to camouflage it, and then invite someone out to play, knowing they would fall right in but not get seriously hurt.
Another favourite was a game that someone had christened “Guppu”. It was a little like Uno, but instead of cards, you used matchbox covers; every time you won a hand, those matchboxes would be yours to take home. We hoarded matchbox covers, particularly the rarer ones. On still other days, we played gilli-danda in a nearby field, or rolled tyres down the road, or bathed in the small stream where I first discovered tadpoles.
We were never bored: There was always something to do, some game to invent, some place to be. It was the childhood that stories are made of.
Much of the land in the Kullu Valley belongs to devis and devtas—the local goddesses and gods. Villagers lease land for cultivation from the devta, paying rent in offerings of grain. My parents had unknowingly bought land that belonged to a god known as Jamlu Devta, and the locals warned them against building on it: terrible fates were said to have befallen everyone who tried making money from devta bhoomi (“god’s land”).
My parents, city people, began construction anyway, but every time they erected a stone wall for the toolshed, they would come back the next day to find the wall fallen over—not broken, but merely horizontal, as if it had been pushed by a giant hand.
Finally, completely spooked, my mother climbed the mountain to go have a chat with Jamlu Devta himself in the village of Badagram. There is no temple at the devta-sthal, just a small community centre and a slab of stone dotted with tilak—the stone on which the god legendarily sat and looked out at the land on both sides of the river Beas that is under his care. My mother went, fell in love with the spot in the pine forests, and began to visit it regularly.
My parents, though, ran out of money before completing the hotel, and in 1992, they sold the still-under-construction hotel to a large company. We moved to Delhi. A couple of years later, Riverbanks was up and running, a five-star hotel now on whose walls my mother had once drawn fish in wet cement. We were offered a holiday in their first summer, a wonderful five days of river and sunshine during which Saif Ali Khan and Kajol were shooting a Bollywood song there and my 11-year-old brother got to beat Khan at table tennis.
A few months later, in October 1995, the Beas flooded devastatingly, swallowing the hotel, the highway, the shanties uphill. The highway was rebuilt over months, but the river only ever receded partially, and the land on which my childhood home stood remains a riverbed, not a brick in sight to suggest that anything ever stood there. Still, we were very lucky. There was no loss of life in the flood, and the hotel was being run by a large company that could absorb the loss. For us, it had been our home— we would have lost everything.
For many years, there was a board in the middle of the river where Riverbanks had once stood, a declaration of ownership, a warning that trespassers would be prosecuted. The board is gone now. Jamlu Devta has taken his land back for good.
All of this is on my mind as I visit the devta-sthal on this trip. The locals don’t usually tell tourists where the spot lies, saying that outsiders pollute it with their leather shoes and menstruating women. I am struck by the irony of banning leather and blood around a devta who regularly demands animal sacrifice, but I keep my city-bred nonsense to myself. I am genuinely fond of this devta, like a grandparent whose ideas I may not always agree with but with whom I share a deep affection and respect anyway. He took good care of my family; I will leave behind my shoes if it pleases him.
While planning my trip back to Manali for this story, I make a list of the places I want to visit—my old school, the first house, a bookshop run by my kindergarten teacher, the hospital where we were taken from the school for vaccinations.
When I reach Manali, my plans change. I walk accidentally pass my school, and my heart sinks: The school has grown to many times its size, there is now a gate keeping visitors out, and the tree under which I used to eat tiffin every day is gone. The apple orchards through which I had walked to school have given way to hotels and cars. The Manali I mapped out in my notebook is long gone, layered with a newer, dirtier, richer town.
I search for my old playmates and am told that some relocated to other places after the flood, one eloped into another district, one died of an illness, another in a village brawl. There is no more Riverbanks at Chaudhan Meel, and even the little remaining patch of riverside land I had learned, over the years, to embrace in its stead was washed away in this year’s less catastrophic but still landscape-altering floods. There are no family ties here, no people I can call my own. All of those Manalis have eroded, disappeared.
And yet, every so often, the past catches me unaware.
It shows up when Vandana, the daughter of one of my father’s few remaining friends here, drives me to the left bank of the Beas to show me a bird’s-eye view of her village, pointing out her house with its red roof—a dot from where we are sitting, but a meaningful dot—and I find myself humming “little boxes, little boxes, little boxes on the hilltop, and they are made out of ticky-tacky and they all look the same”, the Pete Seeger song my father used to sing from our balcony, pointing to the mountain opposite.
It shows up when I am trying to remember which crop grew on the top of the mountain we scaled on our treks, and I find myself opening my arms into a T, walking on tiptoe, one foot in front of the other, remembering the fear of wet shoes if one missed a step, and realise it had to be paddy.
The past catches up to me when I am in the taxi to my hotel and find myself drawing with a finger on misted windows, just as I did on long drives to school in the snow.
It catches up with me when my hotel manager knocks on my door to ask “Aap Rao sahib ki beti hain?” (“Are you Mr Rao’s daughter?”) He remembers me from when my father would stop by for tea at his old workplace; the next day he asks me “Aap apne gaon gayi thi kal? Ab toh vahaan kuch nahin.” (“Did you go to your village yesterday? There’s nothing there now.”) and I am strangely touched by the way our 30-years-ago little piece of land has turned into a village, a place where I belonged, still belong, in the eyes of this man who remembers my five-year-old self belonging completely to that earth.
Anyone who has spent their childhood in Himachal has grown up amid an effortless blurring of the supernatural and the everyday, the spiritual and the practical. I grew up knowing to avoid the parts of the river where the current ran strong and the parts where the chudails (a type of female demon) bathed; both were dangerous. I grew up with stories of a ghost who walks around with a red light on his head, and who will leave you alone if you pee in a circle and sit inside it (which was very convenient for the boys!). I grew up in a valley where all the local gods convene for Dusshera, coming down in palanquins from the mountains for a big party before they retire for the winters.
The gods in the Kullu Valley aren’t just spiritual figureheads but an important part of local administrative machinery, settling disputes and resolving conflicts. They choose a medium to speak through—a person, usually a man, who becomes possessed at the moment of being chosen, and from that point on can channel the devta.
People will take their troubles to this medium when they need the devta’s intervention, and he will also be the one through whom the devta expresses a wish, like a desire to go travelling to meet a devta in another village. The people will do what the devta asks, but sometimes they will also fight with them, warn them against greed, bargain down the number of goats the devta wants sacrificed.
The devtas, in turn, will protect their people, but also sometimes sulk or make ridiculous demands, like being carried up and down a particular hill for hours. It is a living, loving, relationship, constantly negotiated, a perfect backdrop for life in a treacherous landscape where nothing can be taken completely for granted.
So, when I plan this trip back to Manali, Hadimba’s temple seems like a logical starting point. A rakshasi-goddess, mother of the legendary warrior Bhima’s son, Hadimba is among the most important deities of the valley, and some of my earliest memories are of going up the mountain from our house to the temple, through deodar forests rumoured to be from the time of the Mahabharata, scrunching through the temple’s intricately carved wooden door into its cave-like inner sanctum, weathered stone under bare feet.
This time, I drive there with Vandana. On the way, I ply her with questions. I learn that Hadimba always shares her palanquin with the mythological sage Manu Rishi: Even as she is the valley’s most important goddess, she is after all also a demon, and Manu keeps her in check.
We reach Hadimba’s temple, and I am dismayed by the crowd of tourists. “This is November,” I keep muttering. “Why are all these people here in November?” We get into line. My crankiness increases when I see that the cave-like inner sanctum is now cordoned off. The priest rushes us through our darshan—he needs the line to keep moving—so we take our prasad outdoors, rolling our eyes at the selfie sticks being sold outside the temple. As we plan the rest of our afternoon, I am faintly aware of a sinking in my stomach, a sense that this place too is no longer mine, no longer familiar.
Just then, we hear the dhol nagada, a traditional percussion instrument that often accompanies devta processions. Hadimba doesn’t usually go out after Dusshera—some say she retires to heaven during the winter months—so there is momentary confusion, but as the rath, or chariot, approaches, it is clear that Hadimba has indeed decided to pay a visit.
Her rath, at first glance, reminds me of a bride, draped in red and gold brocade, covered in garlands of marigold. There are three rows of three faces each on top, silver masks with gentle smiles: Manu Rishi. Underneath, flanked by gold, a bronze coloured visage of a woman with darker skin and more indigenous features: Hadimba, simultaneously goddess and demon.
Vandana pulls me into the circle gathering in front of the temple. Hadimba goes round us twice to give us her blessings, then asks the rath-bearers to take her on her way. I ask Vandana if we can follow, but she tells me they are off to some other place now; their work with us is done.
I am surprised by the deep sense of well being I suddenly feel, a warmth and a holding. I cannot shake the conviction that Hadimba came to meet me—that she recognised the child who loved visiting her before the tourist throngs found her, and she decided to stop in to see me, to say “I know.” Everyone to whom I tell the story tells me how auspicious it is—“Bas, aapki yatra safal ho gayi” (“That’s it, your journey has been successful”). I was never a devotee, but my big-city self recognises this surprise visit by a mountain goddess as a “welcome home” gift.
Over the next two days, I avoid Mall Road, the part of Manali that most reads me as a tourist. Instead, I walk through the endless deodar forests. When I tire, I sit by the Beas, find corners where I can hear it roar. Amid the forest and the water, the devis and devtas, I am still home.