That is the one word which is used most often, by local hill people, to describe living in the hills. The knitters, the shopkeepers, the help, the taxi drivers, the people at the checkpoint…conversations about living would invariably lead to this word.
I would smile indulgently and feel that it was a case of “Seeing the glass half empty, when it was half full”, a case of “Taking the good things for granted”, and other such negative case scenarios. How hard was it to take a few delays in one’s stride, a few instances of slow service and quick amnesia towards orders?
And then, Monday morning saw me planning a trip to Almora to deposit a cheque in a bank which had decided not to honour Ranikhet with a local branch. Its all of 38 kms to Almora, through winding hill roads, pine forests and a couple of stray villages.
Almora is an untidy collection of urban buildings and houses, tumbling haphazardly over the slopes of 6 hills. Indiscriminate construction, rapid modernisation and the population explosion have made Almora city into a dry and hot place, with bare pine forests, and no trees in the city proper. Roads are narrow and crowded, and though parking buildings and areas have been made, the heart of the city is not for the faint hearted.
Fainting ( well, almost) at the thought of trying to drive the car through those roads and alleys ( and not finding parking space), I decided to go by public transport, like the locals.
Left home at 10 am and waited for 30 minutes in a parked Sumo for other passengers, who seemed to be driving past in other taxis. No bus anywhere in sight–its the wedding season and buses are for singing parties, not commuters.
Jumped into the back seat of a passing taxi and felt like a tinned sardine amidst snoring sardines, all the way till Almora. Frequent loud phone calls came and went, but I could still knit in my little corner.
Reached Almora and had a mad time at the bank. The cheque had not been signed correctly and was refused. Ah well, that was nothing to do with the hills, so I made a graceful exit.
Trekked all over the winding lanes of the Almora main market, searching for a button shop. A tailor sent me down a 20 inch alley, “52 steps”, which existed between the walls of two houses. The stone walls were old and highly polished by people brushing past each other, and little alcoves had tiny shops for garments, hair salons and tailors. Every time someone would come the opposite way and I would duck into one of the shops to avoid being squashed.
I found the button shop. The owner took one look at me and shooed me out ” I only keep buttons which ladies want”. But, ” Bhaisaheb, I a woman too?!”…”Not your type of ladies, I have the stuff for shiny ladies who want pretty beads. You are looking for smart and understated buttons”. How did he guess?! He directed me to my type of shop, Taj Buttons, at the other end of the market.
Taj Buttons turned out to the size of my floor carpet…stacked to the ceiling with plastic and paper boxes, cosmetics and shiny things, manned by a trio of men and an obliging help who either climbed into the loft, or jumped ( over the customers) from one side to the other.The shop was full of women buying clips, beads, buttons, bottles and whatever else, while the men remained cool and calm and collected cash. In between the women and the madness, I found the buttons I was looking for and hastened back to the taxi stand.
Settled down, on the front seat, to wait for other passengers in parked taxi at 1350 hours. My knitting continued and the time passed. After a long 100 minutes and 7 collected passengers, the driver directs us to jump into another cab, since he has to go with a wedding party.
Mad scramble happens, I loose my coveted front seat, and am back to being squashed in the back seat of the Sumo. This time, knitting would not happen. There was no place to keep my knees or my elbows from being squashed and waiting for One and An Half Hour had taken away all my good humour or zest for the hills. I could only dream up ways to torture that driver who mercilessly dumped me after that long wait.
We bounced and bashed and bumped our way back to Ranikhet. By the time the taxi stopped in front of our apartments, at 1620 hours, I could just about hobble my way up the stairs, with every muscle in my back and limbs protesting violently.
Three hours and more, for 38 kms.
Seven hours of a day spent in buying buttons and giving myself a nerve wracking and body tiring experience. Let us not talk about the dark, dire thoughts and that feeling of being totally crushed by uncaring drivers of public transport.
Its all very good to be mobile with one’s own car and driver and scented environment.But this is what constitutes a normal day in the life of the average hill dweller. Pushed and thrown around, stuffed and silenced by louder and stronger people and no one respecting their time or requirements.
I now have deeper empathy for the word “Tough”. I know what that word refers to. And I am not going to even think about negativity, when someone at the market , or the road, talks about life being “tough in the hills”.
I now also have a completed cap which was knitted and completed before the day ended. Made out of the little bits of leftover yarn from this project, it will always remind me of that word, “Tough”.