Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
Man of the Mountain
I came upon the splendid idea of giving myself a nickname after our second trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Our older daughter had moved to Colorado from New York. Our biannual trips switched from the glass and stone of the Big Apple to the heights and natural wonders of the Colorado Rockies. I have a long love and hate history with the mountains from an early age.
At age eight I had travelled with my parents to the dizzying but glamorous heights of the Kashmir Valley in the Himalayas. One weekend we moved out of the valley town of Srinagar to the snowbound camping grounds of Gulmarg, famous for its remote tent hotels. Motorable road tapered off about five miles before the campsite. From then it was travel by foot, horseback, donkey ride or palanquin for the ladies, like my mother. The locals managing our travels had arranged for a horse for our father, and donkeys for my brother and I. I don’t remember all the details, but somewhere along the trek we stopped to give the men a break and I took off on the horse. Race off like Zorro on Silver. I tore away through the fresh snow. Not for long. The horse veered towards a line of trees. I got entangled with some branches, jerked off the horse, and fell with a dull thud on the snow. The handlers gave chase on another horse and caught up with my runaway mare. Pretty soon I was helped on to a donkey and walked to where the rest of the party was resting. My parents were overjoyed to have me back in one whole piece. The rest of the way I rode my donkey an arm’s distance from my mother’s palanquin. At night when Dad tucked me into bed he gave a spoonful of medicinal brandy to tide me over the tribulations of the day.
My first outing to the Rockies in Colorado was in the coming awake of Spring in April. Sprague Lake was still frozen stiff and the ice brightly reflected the blue spruce and green pines climbing steadily up the high ridges. Gurgling pure mountain springs trickled down the rock lined cold riverbeds. Elks were slowly making their way down from the tundras to the fresh blooms in the meadows. Blue smoke spiralled out of the chimneys of the bed and breakfast cabins laced with the smell of bacon and eggs. Round the bend and beyond were sheer mountains rising out of the low lying clouds. From breaks in the clouds columns of sunlight shimmered down to the snow covered peaks. Several tunes played in my head, filled with love and adoration for mighty nature. I followed a line of geese weaving their way north. The red earth trek climbed up a ridge and tumbled down the next descent. I reached for a cracker and box of juice in my knapsack, selected a flat rock to rest upon and stared down the descending valley all the way to the undulating Moraine Park where new born elks were trying out the tasty sagebrush whose aromatic smell tantalized their warm, wet snouts.
The summer of 1967 found us again in the lush mountains of Darjeeling and Kurseong in West Bengal, India. The summers were our longest break from the boarding school in Sahibganj, at the foothills of the Rajmahal Range, Bihar, India. That summer we chose a tea estate near the Tista River, Kurseong for our summer break. The Tista is a silver line between the rising, rolling hills of Kurseong. Tea bushes in long terraces climb up both sides of the Tista. Our serene tea estate cottage sat on a big flat ledge looking down the valley to the silver line of the river. Our days were spent climbing up and down the valley, taking swigs of coffee from our flasks and devouring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Mother stayed back in the cottage knitting a new sweater. Dad, my brother and I found a local restaurant for a spot of lunch which was the distinctive bowl of momo soup and hot tea. One evening we were invited for dinner to the tea estate manager’s residence. It was a short walk up from our cottage. When we left it was still daylight but the shadows of night falls fast once the sun disappears behind the high peaks. On our way back Mother lost her stepping on some loose gravel. The evening dew caused Mother to slip and fall. She managed to limp back to the safety of the cottage for the night. She downed some pain abating pills but we heard her pine all night. Next day at the local hospital an X-ray revealed a small crack at the ankle joint where her foot had twisted. She spend the rest of the vacation in a cast her damaged foot resting on a stool. The rest of us tried to make the best of the remaining stay, but along with Mother’s broken ankle our spirits were broken too.
The next time we were in the Rockies it was Labor Day in September. We had driven up to Fort Collins from Chicago to move in our younger daughter for school and work. After the hard work was done it was time for a couple of days in Estes Park surrounded by the high peaks of the Rockies. We also took a drive up the Trail Ridge Road all the way up to 12,000 feet where the Tundra starts, the land above the trees. The tall pines and slim aspens receded and gave away to the tiny, dwarf shrubs, plants and moss of the tundras. At a location marked specially for cars to pull off the road, we stopped and walked a designated path amongst the tundras. Tread carefully read the sign. Loosening the soil would cause it to blow away which took years to recover. The air was thin and cold. The mountains climbed steadily up to the snow covered peaks. At a lookout point we could see the peaks climbing over each other’s shoulders. At this vantage point one side fell sharply way all the way down to Moraine Valley. This time the elks were making their way steadily up the mountains to the vegetation of the tundras for the winter. Their thick fur had begun to fill out for the long winter ahead. There was not much hope for shelter up here from the snow and wind. But their strong hooves provided a firm grip as they burrowed under the snow for the nutritious moss. I still recall every minute of that amazing afternoon in the tundras. On the drive back I packed away the memories into tiny parcels to one day pen down the wonderful experiences.
Hiking up the Rajmahal Range was one of our favorite weekend activities while in school. Our destination was the Moti Jharna a cascading waterfalls after a gradual uphill climb of seven kilometers. To reach the top of the waterfalls we climbed some fifty or sixty feet up a rock face laid like a stairway to heaven. The rocks were wet and slippery from the sprays of the tumbling waterfalls. From the top you could look down at several splash pools at the very bottom of the falls. Most trips went smoothly, climbing to the top, swimming in the pools, gathering wood for the fire to cook lunch, a sumptuous meal of hot rice and spicy chicken curry late afternoon, and the trek back to school in the cool of the evening, and a cup of hot chocolate on return. Then the one out of the ordinary incident that sways my relationship with mountains between love and hate. I was sitting on some rocks to the side of the splash pools when a loud rumble alerted us to a rock fall. Before I could stand up and run away from the path of danger, a huge boulder landed on a rock behind me, bounced up and clear above my head, and splashed into the pool. Other than myself all around other students and adults stood now in a sudden spellbound silence. No one could quite belief that I had been spared a pounding. After a minute everybody recovered slowly from the shock and began to gather around to exchange hugs. The group of boys who had started the rock fall safely made their way down. We settled down to our usual lunch of rice and chicken curry but this time the peels of laughter and other voices of joy were subdued. Earlier than usual we gathered our belongings, cleared up the site and began the trek back to school. Once back the hot cup of chocolate was very comforting.
We will return to the Rockies often, each time adding to our growing treasure of experiences and the ever enlarging album of pictures. The memories of sights, sound, and smells safely tucked away in various compartments of our brain cells. On one visit we sighted many Indian Paintbrushes, a flower of the wild Rockies, that grows in the shape of a paint brush with an amazing red tint on their leaves. Growing alongside the yellow Alpine Sunflowers they look like a moment captured forever on a Monet canvas.