Binsar Forest, 30 kms from Almora in the Kumaon Himalayas of Uttarakhand has called me to return again and again for three decades now. My steps have retraced paths there irregularly without a pattern. Kumaon has been my declared ‘home’ longer than that. Three years ago I returned to finally grow roots in the land of Nanda Devi, protected by Trishul. Anything I say about these places are inevitably tinged with the bias of a lover. Not one who is blinded by a new infatuation, but one who has pledged lifetimes here.
Living three hours away from Binsar, at the edge of another forest, I still find myself back in the forests of Binsar. We first came here more than three decades earlier, at twilight, without a torch, on a motorbike, and stumbled over roots of trees to walk the 2 kms to where our hosts lived. Now, very close to that, my feet find their way to Binsar Forest Retreat, where I have been before it was renovated. The place has been transformed with care and a rare aesthetics, so it has lost nothing of the charm of being in the forest, and added the energy of warmth and hospitality and home, different from any commercial establishment.
I must hasten to say that Preetam and Pallavi and young Aahna have been friends since the day I first met them on the way to Binsar, when they decided to change their lifestyle from IT in Bangalore to the harsh winters of the Himalayas, where there is no electricity, no city comforts and company, and a sheer effort trying to make things work. Rajesh, their partner in business, is an old hand at making vacation retreats in remote places. Rajesh is also an old friend. It would not be fair to speak of Binsar Forest Retreat, without clarifying that I am not a detached observer, neither of this property, nor of the people who are running it, and certainly not of the backdrop they have chosen.
Yet, let me speak of the winds that howl here, of the insects that call, of the leopard and civet and boars whose space one shares here. The sunsets are glorious, the forest paths magical, and the views of the Himalayas can only be called darshan. I am mesmerized by the rhododendrons in bloom in April, I am fascinated by the sounds of the forest in the monsoons, I am awestruck by the Himalayas in winter. The forests of Binsar take me within minutes to many distant spaces of living, time travels backwards and I am a child once again, and I have lost all the conditioning of the living between. I can follow butterflies as they flit from flower to flower, hide in the shade of a giant deodar while tracing its gnarled roots. I can walk in these forests tirelessly until I notice the long late afternoon shadows and the evening cold chills my bones as my pace quickens to return to the shelter of human comforts.
One is always ravenously hungry – perhaps it is the long walks, the crisp mountain air, the aroma of cooking that invites me as I return to the Retreat. Every meal I have eaten here is one I look forward to eating again. And the conversations around the fireplace have a timeless quality, as
though they do not belong in worldly spaces, and so will remain hanging somewhere, and the winds will carry their melody like the chimes of a bell, but only where oaks whisper to each other. And the night jar calls.
I hear the voices of many who once lived here, of some who passed through as they walked and rode horses between the shelters of night. Each has its own story to tell, and many have I heard over the years in Kumaon. It always surprises me that there is so much invisible life here, and it seems that those who once lived here return to enjoy these spaces again and again through those who live now, in a tapestry of many colours. And that makes this a very special space – of silence filled with joyous living, of memories without co-ordinates, of the wordless call of nature that I do not have the power to ignore.
Sleeping at night is to a world without dreams, and waking is to the first light of dawn and a continuation of yesterday’s dream. Let me live it once again. And once more.