On the morning of 24th January we woke to white: it must have snowed steadily through the night for the trees to be so laden and for our surroundings to acquire such a hushed stillness. From our windows we could see that every range between us and the Trishul and Nanda Devi had changed colour. It was the first snow of the season, and the first sign of any moisture in months.
Two days later, walking in the forest, I came upon a rhododendron scarlet with flowers. At the foot of the tree was a hollow with snow still ankle-deep, as were many sheltered parts of the forest that saw little sun through the day. To find rhododendron in flower in deep winter is as strange in these hills as sighting a peacock. Soon, reports began to appear about the early flowering of the Rhododendron arboretum all over the western Himalaya. It appeared that my tree-in-a-hurry was not the only one to bloom ahead of time, rising temperatures meant that trees were flowering prematurely in many places.
The first blossoming of the buransh, as rhododendron is called in the Kumaon, is followed by one of the more picturesque festivals of the hills, Phooldeyi. Children appear in the morning bearing steel plates with peach, plum, and buransh blossoms that they scatter on doorsteps, in the hope of a little pocket money. It is a festival that marks spring by saying, “Winter’s over”.
In rural areas the flutterings of climate change are swiftly apparent. Someone points out it has been a year since we saw the raven, which used to be a common sight. The pushy grey pigeon of the plains has been making determined moves to oust our whistling thrushes from their nooks and the thrushes are too elegant, too understated, too musical to win crude power games. From our windows, through December, we could see that as days passed without winter rain, the sides of the high peaks darkened: what we were looking at was not ice but black rock. There was a scattering of white only at the very tops of the peaks.
For most people in the plains, the hills come alive in summer. Many who live here – those who are not hoteliers or taxi-drivers – dread its arrival. Winter is a time of icy cold and utter calm, of walks through empty forests, trees laden with oranges -- and water in our taps. The bliss ends in summer, when pleasure-seekers thunder uphill in their four-wheel drives to hotels that will suck all the water out from the town systems to feed their flushes and showers.
Summer is for water wars. Not only is there less water to go around, it is an open secret that the hotels make offers to waterworks employees that they cannot refuse – and soon after, our supply dries up. Days can pass without water and every conversation begins with the words “Paani aya?” Around communal taps you can see a queue of assorted water-gathering vessels from plastic jerrycans to buckets and pitchers that are stand-ins for their human owners. The bucket queue, though inert, pulses with potential for wrecking the peace. Buckets that have somehow acquired life and gone up or down the queue illegally can ignite blood-feuds.
In Capetown, as they approach Day Zero when municipal water supplies cease and people are limited to 25 litres of water a day, the South African cabinet is drawing up plans to deploy police at the water collection points. This dystopian scenario does not seem too far-fetched in Indian hill stations. Squabbles and intrigues over water conjure up more conspiracy theories than bank frauds.
The spindly, alcoholic waterworks clerk charged with turning taps on and off becomes the most sought after man in town. Once, having searched for him fruitlessly for more than a week, I spotted his familiar bald head just below the dip in a slope and rushed towards him with a grovelling “Namaste” only to find that I had interrupted him at a critical point in his al fresco ablutions. We did not have water in our taps for several days after that.
Other than news of water, the bush network remains alive through the summer for news of fires. After a winter as dry as this one has been, the hills crackle like heaps of kindling waiting for one carelessly tossed match or cigarette -- or for arsonists involved in timber smuggling, as some allege.
Bush fires in California and Australia are fought aerially, with water and fire retardant sprayed from helicopters. Here the fires have to be beaten out and fire-lines created to prevent their spread. There are evenings when we stay up hypnotized by the slow approach of necklaces of flames that creep closer and closer. The air is dense with the smell of smoke. For the firefighters raking firelines across the slopes it is even harder to breathe than it is for us. Most terrifying of all is to see ridges covered with chir pine burst into flame. And down in the burning valleys around us, there are wild animals with no escape routes.
Ironically, one of the prized features of hill holidays for well-off metropolitan tourists is the “bonfire dinner”. Most hotels offer it as the cherry on the package tour cake, so that at the height of summer when the snow peaks -- or whatever remains of them – are hidden in a dust haze, people gather around blazing bonfires and sing and drink their stress away. Owls hoot and foxes call unheard as the antakshari competitions hit their high notes. It is unusual to find tourists in the hills who come here to walk or climb or birdwatch. Instead, we are often stopped by cars that pull up next to us, after which a window slides down and someone demands: “Yahaan Place-to-See Kya hai?”
Since Ranikhet is resolutely lacking in “Place-to-Sees”, the administration cleared away a substantial stretch of mixed oak and kaphal forest some years ago and created an artificial lake complete with duck-prowed boats and a nylon rope-bridge for “adventure tourism”. If Nainital and Bhimtal have famous lakes, could Ranikhet afford to be left behind – even if there were no water in the taps? This pond of brown, largely stagnant water is now featured in tourist brochures as “Rani Jheel”. Park benches circle it and signs lead the way to it, including one on a road above the lake that points to the “First View of Rani Jheel”.
And so the buses and 4X4s come and go, leaving trails of Lays and Bingo. I recently read about a Swedish way of exercising called Plogging, which simply involves picking up the trash while jogging. We have been doing this for years. Once a week every summer, when we walk, we leave home with large bin bags and carry on for as long as our energies last and our bags have space, picking up trash dumped by picnickers. I now have an intimate sense of the consumption patterns of metropolitan Indians. They love eating, specially junk that comes in foil packets; they love drinking alcohol, especially super-strong beer and Old Monk rum. They consume quantities of gutka. And they drink bottled water.