Sickness, frustration, a geographically diminished existence — it recently occurred to me that I had experienced something like this before.
I’d arrived in Delhi in mid-September 2010, as the monsoon was giving way to the clearer skies of fall. I had been on the move for nine months, first busing my way through the Middle East, then down Africa’s Great Rift Valley. I was trying to carve out a living as a writer, and I was in a hurry, probably too much so.
As such, I wasn’t too perturbed when an unfamiliar debilitation overtook me as I boarded a train to Kathgodam and India’s mountainous north. It was only when I reached the Khali Estate, a rambling colonial-era hotel in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand state, that I realised it had portended something more serious. The next morning, on the day I was supposed to embark on a week-long trek around the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, I could scarcely lift myself out of bed.
The walk wasn’t happening, that much was clear.
The nearest town was Almora, a picturesque hill station strewn along a ridge. On its main drag, I found a doctor sitting on a stool outside a pharmacy. He looked me over, humming happily to himself, then dispatched me to a threadbare clinic, where a blood test revealed typhoid. Back at the pharmacy, the grinning doctor said, “It is nothing for you to worry about, so long as you rest, rest, REST!” Each rest rose in octave and emphasis, to drive the point home.
He gave me a blister pack of antibiotics — “four of these a day” — and told me I should eat only bland food: rice, bread and, curiously, radishes.
“There is nothing better for the stomach when you have typhoid,” he said. Ten years later, an online search to try to verify this claim throws up a reference to radishes on a list of “food to be avoided when you have typhoid,” suggesting this may have been a dubious prescription all his own.
I returned to the Khali Estate forlorn. The owner’s mild-mannered son, Himanshu Pande, said I could stay for as long as it took to convalesce, free of charge. The estate’s cottages weren’t too busy. Besides, I wasn’t going to cost much in food. There was a radish patch out back.
The days stretched out ahead of me. A period that I had anticipated to be one of forward progress and discovery now threatened monotony and stasis. The Internet was down; I had run out of books. I wondered what I would do with myself, unaccustomed as I had become to being immobile. But the choice between forsaking an adventure and forfeiting my physical well-being was no choice at all. So I settled in and began the work of not losing my mind.
Mostly, I looked at things. The Khali Estate was founded in 1874 by Gen Sir Henry Ramsay, then the colonial commissioner of Kumaon province.
Later research revealed that he was a model administrator, one of those benign figures whose paternalism lent legitimacy to Britain’s self-image of empire as altruistic endeavor, obscuring the extractive project that was its true raison d’etre. One thing I could say with certainty was that he had an eye for geographical situation.
Looking north, through the branches of deodar pine forest, the hills beyond Khali were a green bowl. But above them, disembodied in the haze, hovered the Garhwal Himalayas, part of the central Himalayan mountains, which serrate the borderlands of northern India before crashing into Nepal’s yet higher massifs immediately to the east. Several of India’s most famous mountains, including Shivling, Trishul and Nanda Devi, were identifiable through the window of my round-walled cottage.
Over the coming days, it would be hard to exaggerate how much distraction I sought in this panorama. Using my camera zoom as a makeshift telescope, I found that it was possible to scrutinise the mountains for hours without acknowledging the tedium of the situation in which I found myself. In the early mornings, the sharp light rendered them blue and spectral. Reddish dusks made them brood with menace. In the afternoon, when the lowering sun muted its glare off the snow, I would study the cracks and crevices, picking routes up the vertical pitches and icebound ridgelines, even though such feats were far beyond my capacities as a climber, even in months when I didn’t have typhoid.
For the first few days, I reconciled myself to this lonely vigil, as waves of nausea and a crushing lethargy left me bed-bound. As the illness crescendoed, I didn’t leave my room at all, the solitude punctuated only by the whispered interjections of genteel attendants, who tiptoed in with trays of rice, radishes and tea.
Before long, the enervation lifted. Determined to reawaken my atrophied muscles, I began to undertake a circuit of the estate’s resting places: a flagstone terrace strewn with wicker chairs, a hammock tied between two tree trunks. As my strength improved, I took short forays into the pine forest, its loam springy with fallen needles, which smothered an adjacent hillside.
Among the estate’s staff I found fast friends. I whiled away countless hours in idle conversation with Himanshu and his colleague Dinesh, talking about life in rural Uttarakhand, and about a much-heralded community tourism project, Village Ways, which they had established in the Binsar Sanctuary’s villages. Sometimes we would be joined by Himanshu’s father, MD, an otherwise saintly and ephemeral presence, always tending flowers. Another of the estate’s factotums, Madan Sah, was the unofficial custodian of Khali’s history. He revealed a roster of past guests and owners that read like a Who’s Who of India’s extraordinary century. For a spell in the 1930s, Mohandas Gandhi oversaw an ashram here, until the independence movement lured him back to lower ground. Subsequent owners included the Nehru family, the political dynasty of Jawaharlal, India’s first prime minister. Not until it was acquired by the Pande family was the estate transformed into a heritage hotel.
Now, the estate’s main house, a large red-roofed bungalow encircled by a sandstone colonnade, was left open as a kind of living museum. Inside, the mélange of colonial and traditional Indian aesthetics had been carefully preserved. The drawing room had moss-green sofas arranged around a cedarwood fireplace; tribal rugs decorated a floor of seasoned pine. And in one wing, in a musty room lined with cabinets, the most magnificent discovery: a library.
Most of its books were antique tomes of limited diversion. But in among these was a comprehensive back catalogue of the Himalayan Journal, the annual magazine of the Himalayan Club, founded in 1929. And so my own adventures into the Garhwal became vicarious.
I pored through Khali’s fraying copies. In the 1930s, the Garhwal Himalayas had been the arena for some of the greatest exploits in mountaineering history. At the time, Nepal, with Everest and its colossal neighbours, was off limits to foreigners. Instead, it was in the Garhwal that European alpinists — “cragsmen” in the British idiom of the time — got to grips with the Himalayan proposition. In this era, two Englishmen stand preeminent. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman were an unlikely pair — Shipton lithe and romantic, Tilman stocky and taciturn. But together they attacked the region’s peaks and passes with a purism that would inspire climbers for generations. In the Journal’s 1979 edition, I found a reprint of Tilman’s chronicle of their finest caper. In 1934, the two men spent four months surveying the Garhwal’s trackless upper reaches. Their journey exposed hidden dimensions to the snowy contours I had been mooning over through my bedroom window.
What appeared from Khali’s vantage to be a depthless rampart was in fact a citadel fit for the gods: two concentric circles of 20,000-foot peaks, with the tallest and most sacred, Nanda Devi, a twin-peaked mountain of uncommon beauty, erupting from its centre. For 50 years, the glacial basin at Nanda Devi’s foot had defied every effort to reach it, until that summer, when Shipton and Tilman shinnied along the formidable box canyon of the Rishi Gorge. When they emerged into the inner sanctum, confronted by what Tilman describes as “an appalling cirque of reddish-brown cliff draped with ice-fluting,” they had taken nine days to cover four miles.
Soon enough, my frustration ebbed. In that green chasm between Khali and the mountains were the foothills that I had originally come here to explore. But I no longer resented my lost opportunity, feeling grateful instead for the chance it had afforded to arrest my breakneck motion. I suppose the typhoid had precipitated my first proper taste of “slow travel.” The result had been an intimate engagement with my immediate surroundings, and that was okay.
When I leaf through the timeline of that restless year, much of it comes back in a haze of boxes ticked and stories filed. But Khali broke the continuum; the two weeks I spent there are recalled with halcyon clarity. I can still picture the estate’s management and functionaries lining up to send me off and wish me well, and myself, shaking all their hands, fighting back tears.
Thinking of the episode now, in this cruel and travel-less coronavirus year, I can’t help wondering whether one aspect of modernity it might encourage us to dismantle is our culture of fidgety experientialism, of our absolute allergy to boredom. That, at least, was the lesson I took from the last time I languished in a similar quietude: Take stock. Take a breath. The world will still be there tomorrow.