I have a tale to tell of that bungalow

Since I have started talking about food already, I must mention how much I loved what they served us at the Ashok Vatika. From the ginger tea and boiled eggs along with the wonderful homebaked biscuits that they offered us as refreshments after our journey, to the buffet dinner and breakfast spread. Everything was brilliant. Not a very wide variety but the food tasted really good. The bhaturas were like we make at home. A bit tangy but not spongy like the Haldiram variety. The leavening being only from the curd fermenting through the night with no yeast or added soda at all. The best bit though was seeing six varieties of locally sourced jam! We liked strawberry best of all. Oh and the meals are served in the dining room within the bungalow so it is all very homey.

After finishing up we decided to walk around and explore the area, with an eye to seeing the remaining Ramgarh bungalows. The Ramgarh bungalows, I should mention, are six separate bungalows – or bungalow clusters in the same general neighbourhood. I had wanted to stay at the Vista Villa which has three rooms so we would have had the whole place to ourselves. But someone else had taken a room there so assuring us that no one would be staying in the fourth room of the Ashok Vatika, they had given us that bungalow. Given the homeliness of the place, I would strongly recommend planning for this if you are travelling as a group.

Three hundred metres downhill from the Ashok Vatika is the Writers’ bungalow and we decided to go there first. One of the people on the staff kindly came along to show us the way.

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The Writers’ Bungalow is a stone cottage all over ivy. It is so named because Rabindranath Tagore stayed there while scouting for a place to build his World University somewhere close. To anyone who has been to this part of the world, the choice of location is hardly surprising. Corbett (and really you must not be annoyed by the number of Corbett references this post has. It is only going to get worse and the title ought to have tipped you off!) has this to say about Muktesar:

People who have lived at Muktesar claim that it
is the most beautiful spot in Kumaon, and that
its climate has no equal.

And Ramgarh is a mere stone’s throw away!

Unfortunately, it was not to be. His sister was ill at the time and died in the house he had moved to after his six month stay at the Writers’ Bungalow. With sad memories and a heavy heart, he left Ramgarh never to return.

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That house has decayed and I believe returned to the jungle but the Writers Bungalow survives and this story adds a delicious touch of the historical. Like the fact of Nehru having stayed at the Ashok Vatika when in hiding from the British. I must say I always had a sort of idea of our freedom fighters enduring severe deprivations during such periods. Although of course the Ashok Vatika is perfect as a hideout. Last place they would look and all!

And while on the subject of the Muktesar man eater, Corbett had stayed in Ramgarh while on her trail. The Dak Bungalow he stayed at has been renovated and is in fact the main bungalow in the cluster, now called ‘The Old Bungalow’.

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We were so charmed with the entire property that we asked the manager Shailendra if there were more such heritage bungalows thereabouts. His answer was disappointing. It seems that most people in the neighbourhood, far from valuing the beauty of these old structures, demolish them and use the doors and windows as firewood. Neemrana has at times got in ahead and picked up some of them. For instance, these windows, which are now part of the library at the old bungalow.

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I have my own theory about all that burning though. Hillfolk are notoriously superstitious! In ‘The Temple Tiger’ Corbett tells the story of his helper Bala Singh who simply lay down and died when he believed the spirit that had entered him wanted to return. My own family, for all their years spent in the plains, are not proof against this.

On the very first night at the Ashok Vatika, beauty and charm notwithstanding, my mother in law expressed her disinclination to sleep in the little ante room adjoining the main bedroom where my younger brother in law and his family were to sleep. When everyone suggested that he sleep there instead, he, together with his oldest brother promptly moved the bed in. Simply put, he was scared to sleep all by himself!

For our part, my husband slept in the ante room while the kids had a grand time kicking me through the night. But on our second morning, there was a subdued sort of silence around the breakfast table.

My oldest brother in law had not had a good night’s sleep. He and his family had a room, instead of a suite, since their two small children co-sleep. All night (in that crowded bed) he had not been able to shake off the feeling of someone else sitting on the bed too. He had wanted to shout and ask it to leave but the words would not come out and in terror he woke up – to see nothing of course! While he was in the bathroom he thought he heard a child cry but returning to his room and inquiring of his sleeping wife whether one of the children had cried, he was informed otherwise. Thinking that it might have been my other brother in law’s son in the next room, he went back to sleep. This time undisturbed. On being informed the next morning that his nephew had not cried, all terror returned and they were loath to spend one more night in the place.

I should mention that after having had to sleep without a quilt all of the first night on account of my boys’ kicking it away, I had elected to sleep in the ante room all by myself. And our room was at the other end of the bungalow away from the other two rooms and with the unoccupied room in between. I had the best night’s sleep unmolested by spirits or crying children. However, I was intrigued enough to google a bit.

For the sake of the reputation of the Ramgarh bungalows let me state here and now that not a SINGLE person who has stayed there and written a TripAdvisor review has mentioned any sort of spooky occurrence. Also, my own experience. But Jim Corbett himself has had other worldly encounters during his wanderings on these hills. The shout he heard from the deserted village of Thak, the Talla Des lights and of course the night he spent in the bungalow while hunting the Champawat man eater of which his biographer has this to say:

“Quite what happened was something about which Jim was forever reticent. That he had a night-long brush with the supernatural is without doubt for…”

If it had been anyone but Corbett, I would have dismissed the story with scorn. But this is Jim Corbett we are talking of. A man who has lived his life in the jungles and hunted man eaters till the age of 63. He is no coward and between disbelieving him and wondering a little bit whether there might be something to this sort of thing, I would lean unwillingly to the latter. Oh and based on my researches, the bungalow where Corbett had this experience is The Abbey at Lohaghat. A notorious enough place even without that story to buffer up its reputation. Although I cannot imagine what that tehsildar was about asking Corbett to move to that bungalow and then spend the night there all alone. Was it a practical joke, or a test to see if the place was scary only to those who knew it was supposed to be? More importantly, what did Corbett say to the man the next day?

But coming back to more earthly matters, we went from the library at the Old Bungalow to the jam manufacturing unit. I call it that because it can hardly be called a factory. It is simply a small room where preservative free jam is made using local fruits. I went overboard buying for friends and family. However, we were left with only two small jars by the time we were done gifting. Both were excellent.

Having exhausted the entertainment potential of the immediate neighbourhood, I was content to do nothing for the rest of the day. But everyone else had other plans and we set off to explore Muktesar and the surrounding areas. It was a beautiful drive and we also explored some of the trekking paths to better admire the rhododendron trees in bloom and pick up pine cones. It was not the right time of the year for rhododendron squash, or as it is known locally,  Burans ka sharbat, but there was some back in the fridge at Ghaziabad. By the side of the roads, little Kumaoni children were selling bunches of the Burans flowers which I bought simply because the children looked so rosy cheeked and adorable.

All this took up much time and by the time we decided on lunch we found to our dismay that most eateries had closed down. This is a small and non-touristy place after all! After much driving around, we chanced upon the Alankar restaurant who agreed to feed us.

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The Alankar restaurant is a home run enterprise attached to a small shop selling essentials. The kitchen looked neat and hygenic even though they had a pet cat and small boy – about my older one’s age – running around the place. While we waited for our meal to be prepared, the owner’s son engaged my husband and the children in a game of football. It wasn’t all kindness – he was clearly glad to get out of attending his tuition, but as I watched him, my respect for hill children went up several notches. Not only because he was exceptionally athletic and a brilliant sportsman. That is after all the natural outcome of a life lived outdoors, in fresh air and with a lot of exercise. But because when the ball was kicked too hard, as inevitably happens, where our kids only have to go into a bush or negotiate with the neighbourhood aunty, this child had to race down a ravine and beat the ball at it! I need hardly mention that our civic minded tourists ensure that the whole place is littered with broken bottles.

Many years ago, Corbett had concluded a story set in this very region by feeling thankful for having made a small patch of earth safer for a brave little girl to walk on. I saw something of the same spirit and wished I could make this small patch cleaner for such a brave little boy to play on!

Moving on, the food at the Alankar was delicious even though we couldn’t have any of the pahadi items on the menu since they require advance notice. I’ll give a shout out to this place and you might need to hurry since their chef’s ears perked up hearing we were from Bangalore and he asked us many questions about employment opportunities!

Ramgarh is a great place for star spotting which is what we did at night. With some care and the assistance of Google we were able to spot a number of constellations.  I also kept an eye out for leopards since one had been reported in the area last year and it is as well to be careful.

Ramgarh is a great place to walk and trek. After breakfast the next day, we headed off up the hill to explore. My family may be scared of ghosts and spirits but when it comes to walking up a steep hill, they are second to none! I found it very hard to keep up at first. But I am a Heidi at heart! Look how far up I got! That circled thing in the distance is the Ashok Vatika. And the drop in the next picture, if you can figure it out from the trees, is to show you how steep a walk up it was over slippery ground covered with dead leaves.

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I was rewarded for my efforts by sightings of a number of amazing looking birds that flew faster than I could click. I later identified the bird in this picture below as the Blue Himalayan Magpie. If there had to be only one bird I could click on these hills, I am glad it was this one. Corbett  lovers might remember how the chatterings of this bird gave the ageing Corbett whatever little sleep he got while waiting up on a tree for the Thak man-eater.

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We had to leave soon after. I went away with memories of one of the best holidays ever! I usually want to stay back in places I holiday in but Ramgarh was something else entirely. Not only because it put faces to so many names I had read about in the course of my Corbett studies. Maybe because it connected me and my children to my husband’s side of the story. One that is more likely to be lost for being so remote and so local at the same time. And perhaps because it gave my children the  sort of simple holiday with their cousins I remember from my own school days.

There is also one more compelling reason for me to love Ramgarh. Have you heard the joke about the new diet where you eat everything and pray for a miracle? Ramgarh is a bit like that. After all my hoggings of bhaturas and parathas, I returned home to discover I had dropped a dress size!

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A lazy day in Nainital

 

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A good night’s rest makes such a difference to perspective. The night before, all I could think of was how crowded and unattractive Nainital was – even without the tourists it is a wobbly child’s lego city of three storey houses crowded together in space designed for a tenth of them. And how the Ayar jungle camp was a dingy little hole inconveniently located on unmotorable road. But with the morning, I saw that 4 kilometres above the unbelievable bustle, Nainital had bothered to let alone a densely wooded jungle with an abundance of flora and fauna. In the summers, it was cold and all clean, fresh air and birdsong. In the winters (as per the staff and the pictures) it was snowed in and tigers and leopards still called on the tops of the hills. The cottages I had been so dissatisfied with were found to be eco friendly constructions, made without driving in a single nail. The uphill walks that had left me so frustrated the night before had resulted in me getting a good night’s sleep and feeling fresh and fit the next morning. They had some adventure activities too on the agenda. The kids and dads had a grand time scrambling about looking for caves. Except for the indiscriminate use of plastic in the cafeteria, all,  as far as I was concerned, was forgiven.

The place really was not as much a family hotel as a camp for adventurous young people. With bonfire, frisbee, rock climbing and I think late night drinking. That sort of place.

But also untouched and beautiful.

After checking out, we planned to visit the Kilbury bird sanctuary. Unfortunately the road was chock-a-block with cars coming in both directions, cars parked on one side of the road and people taking selfies. After going for a few kilometres we gave up and returned to Nainital. From what I saw on these hills later in the trip, I’m sure the loss was all mine!

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The last time I had visited Nainital had been as a six year old with my parents. We had travelled by bus and roamed around in rickshaws. We had also gone boating and fed the ducks. I wanted the kids to experience some of that so we headed for the lake.

Nainital boats are quite shallow and don’t look as safe as those in Ooty or Yercaud. We were given lifejackets but friends of mine told me that they had not got any. The ducks too were all on the shore and not swimming in the lake and asking to be fed as I remembered. But the tourists were leaving and the abandoned waters were a joy.

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My son was thirsty after the boat ride and while looking for a place I could get water, I saw a small store selling organic produce and squashes. Figuring that a place that sold squashes would also stock water, I went in. But here I was wrong. They did not in fact sell water but were nice enough to give my son some from their own supplies. I browsed the place as a return of courtesy and was pleased to see some nice preservative free jams and also ‘Bhat’.

A break here for digression.  My husband’s family are hillfolk. I had heard that term often enough in Corbett’s books but it was not till I met my husband that I realized what a literal translation that was. The people of Kumaon and Garhwal are referred to in Hindi as ‘pahadis’ – the hill people. And have a culture very distinct from what most of us from the south of the Vindhyas recognize as North Indian. Anyway, ‘Bhat’ or black soya bean is not freely available or used in cooking anywhere but in the hilly parts of Northern India. It also happens to be my husband’s favorite food. I thought I would post a link to a recipe but none of the ones I found online is quite how my mom in law taught me to prepare this. This recipe comes closest. Maybe once I am done with the rest of my Kumaon stories, I will put up my own family recipes of bhat ki churdkani and dubka. Anyway, aside over!

By the time we were done with lunch, Nainital had been fully cleansed of the tourist influx. Sitting on benches on Mall road, we took in the sun, lazed and ate ice creams. No one seemed in much of a hurry to get to Ramgarh which was next on our list.

By the time we finally reached, it was almost 5:30 and getting cold. But on arrival at the  Ramgarh bungalows, all exhaustion vanished on seeing the lovely Ashok Vatika which is where we were to stay. A colonial bungalow perched on top of a hillock all  by itself and surrounded by orchards.

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Neemrana have refurbished it but let the old charm be.

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The view from my room looked something like this:

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We were charmed. The children began climbing trees and generally rampaging around. We were content to walk around the estate. I saw an abundance of flowers. I saw a plum bush and imagined Jim Corbett as a child hiding in one to get a bird when a tiger walked out and looked at him with the ‘Kid, what are you about’ look in his eye. I saw the bushes described by my in laws as ‘sisaund’ which were known for the terrible rashes they gave people and figured they were the nettles that had bothered Corbett during his hunts. I saw the birds and the hills and was at peace. This was what I had come for. Finally, like a pilgrim finding Mecca, I was in Corbett land!

 

Nainital – Corbett country

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I am not actually certain that I was handed a book of Jim Corbett’s animal stories together with my weaning food but it must have been close. For the longest time I have read, re-read and loved his exciting and unbelievably empathetic stories of nature, animals and the people of Kumaon. As we drove to Nainital I was thrilling from within as names like Kanda, Champawat, Talla Desh looped around in my head. But once we entered the mall road we stopped up short in shock.

In a manner of speaking. Not that we had much choice. Because it was a long weekend and by the look of it, all Delhi had decided to drop by. And we had to stop since no one was moving anyway.

A bit about the topography of Nainital to explain why this had happened. Nainital is a hill station built by the British to get away from the torrid summers of our plains. Being a hill station, there is more of winding road than flat land here. The one big public car park on ‘the flat’ was full to the brim. As such, most of the cars were standing stock still on Mall road as a few lucky ones up ahead dropped out, either on to the flat – in the rare event of someone leaving to park elsewhere – or onto other smaller roads leading to resorts and hotels. All in all it took us about 3 hours to get past that 2 kilometre stretch and the kids were getting very grumpy. I noticed the sign that said ‘Gurney House’ as we drove to our hotel but stopping and looking was out of the question.

We were headed for the Ayar jungle camp for no other reason than that the place we were spending the rest of our stay at was full that day and we could not find any other place acceptable to all. And now we knew why! Anyway, the turn off the main road to Ayar jungle camp was sharp and steep and frankly scary. As was the rest of the way. Two cars could not pass on the road and if you have not backed-up downhill with a car full of kids and no boundary or protection to your left, just a steep drop, you cannot appreciate my feelings at the time. By the time we reached, my only thought was to never leave till we had to check out. My mother in law was shaken and stirred and in an angry and blaming sort of mood. My sister in law who had chosen the place got the worst of it from her and I must with shame admit that I too was inclined to gang up.

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Disappointment was now surging through me in waves. This was not what I had come for. True, it was our fault for not having checked how crowded Nainital would be before planning this trip but this was not at all what I had had in mind! The one place I wanted to visit could not be visited because of the crowds. And what I had got for my efforts was a dingy looking jungle camp where we had to trek for miles uphill in the middle of scary looking jungles just to get to our rooms! Which were tiny log cabins with very basic bathrooms. For which we had to count ourselves lucky – the people in tents had to share!

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Trudging back to the main area after a wash up, we found tea and snacks waiting for us. We were not in an accommodating sort of mood but once a few cups of ginger tea and a plateful of hot pakoras each were in us, we all felt like new people. My mother in law going so far as to suggest a shopping expedition to the famous Tibetan market. Since I was still opposed to getting into a vehicle, a way out was found. There was a footpath that cut through the hill face and would get us to the flat in 15 minutes time. The catch was that it was almost certainly too steep for us to manage on the uphill route back. So deciding to hire a cab to get back, on the assumption that the local cabbies were likely to be more comfortable on these roads than we were, we decided to go for it. The walk was most pleasant and passed through a wooded but inhabited area. We made the acquaintance of a number of local hill dogs. While they were friendly enough in daylight, we were informed that after nightfall they morphed into fearsome guard dogs who took their duties very seriously and any strangers wandering that stretch at night did so fully at their own risk. If we had had any lingering plans of returning as we had come, they were speedily discarded on hearing this.

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Reaching the flat, we walked almost immediately into the most bewildering alley that was the Tibetan market. To all the world, Tibet is a nation of monasteries, peace and the Dalai Lama. To the street shopping population of  India, Tibet is sweet deals on fashion forward winterwear. The matchbox sized shops were packed to overflowing with jackets, sweaters, caps, overcoats and oddly enough lacy lingerie! I have spoken before of my reluctance to jump into holiday shopping so turning a blind eye to the tempting bargains, I dropped into the Naina Devi temple to fold my hands and thank the Goddess for keeping my family and me safe and prayed for  her blessings. Not all temples are alike and most famous temples have by now lost the feeling of peace which is what most of us entering places of worship are seeking. Not so Naina Devi. Even with the teeming crowds and tongues wagging away in languages from every part of India to distract, I was able to say my prayer and sit for a minute in silence before I could no longer ignore my kids clamouring for me to pick them up so they could ring the temple bell.

Back on the flat, we saw ‘The Hard Rock Restaurant’ below. The Goddess had clearly heard me and was wanting me to get over the sulks and laugh a bit!

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The actual break at Haldwani

Continuing from before, since we don’t stay at Ghaziabad  for weeks like we used to, we decided to go out somewhere else for a change and give all the kids a chance to bond. The plan was to go somewhere close to Nainital – since it is summer in Delhi and around and deadly hot – and rusticate. And since that stretch of road is home to many dhabas, also to eat a lot.

The problem with this plan quickly became apparent to us. That particular stretch of road is also home to many of my husband’s relatives and we came to realize that it was simply not possible to not offend someone by not stopping and visiting. However, since visiting everyone would have given us maybe five minutes in Nainital before we had to rush back home, we needed to carefully plan. So our first stop was at Haldwani.

Haldwani is a place I heard of first when I read about Sher Singh Bahadur and his little brother. Although in this link they call it Laldwani. Anyway. Haldwani is at the foothills of the Himalayas and for the last few years had been home to Asha Di, my husband’s cousin. While her husband was posted in the wilds of Uttarakhand, she sensibly opted to stay back in civilisation. However, she had recently caved in and was moving out to join him. If we wanted to meet her, it had to be now.

My brother who has often stopped at Haldwani en route to the hills has spoken favourably of the Hotel Devashish and the good Italian food to be had at Pots and Stones. Of course neither could be on our agenda.

Reaching Asha Di’s house, a pleasant surprise was in store for us. Since she was living alone, I had expected a small and functional sort of place. Her house though was a villa  in a niceish part of town, right behind Pots and Stones in fact, and with a view of the Himalayas from her terrace! She didn’t have plants on the terrace as I would surely have done but I mentally added Haldwani to my list of places I have holidayed in but want to live in.

While we stretched our legs after the long drive, Asha Di and her busy little helpers were preparing a mini feast for us. Her nephew who had dropped by to help her pack had been co-opted into the dinner plan and was cooking chicken curry. Her helper Parvati was preparing palak paneer and soft buttered rotis for the vegetarians in the group. A former paying guest who had dropped in to say goodbye was immediately handed a task. She herself had made makhaane ki kheer, my husband’s favourite dessert. Keeping up a constant stream of chatter, she cooked, co-ordinated and garnished even as she extracted family gossip and news. I have never thought of blogs as places to report much conversation. And Asha Di’s ranges from the confidence and mutual understanding that marks her interactions with Parvati to the bawdiness that signals her closeness to her aunt – my mother in law – which bit made me wonder uneasily if Mr. Darcy would think her vulgar. But laughter is the mainstay of her chitchat and she reminds me constantly of my own beloved Kappu chitti.

What is it about these women that makes them so different from us? What is it that makes everyone want to be with them and help them and when they have one person they can visit, choose to visit them? For one, they never say my driver, or my cook like those people are not people but functions in life. They have that rare quality of seeing people simply as people. And in return they are rewarded by the gift of humanity.

Kappu chitti used to come to Bangalore and cook for ALL my friends. When a friend was passing by her hometown on his honeymoon she INSISTED on hosting him and his wife. And when I’d take her shopping she would chat with all the store attendants who in turn ensured she never had to stand in line. And on the way home she would chat with the autodriver and know his life history by the time she got home. No wonder everyone loved her. And everyone loves Asha Di.

Anyway she stuffed more of her delicious home cooked food into us at breakfast and then  sent us off on our way. Nainital is not too far from Haldwani and her house was practically at the foothills. But with all the food in us, we wended our way slowly and lazily to Nainital – Corbett country.

A break at Haldwani

We usually holiday with my side of the family.

This is not the confession of a bullying wife. It has just somehow happened that way. When we go tripping, it is with friends or my family, and when we want to go home we go to Ghaziabad where my husband’s family lives. I will write a post one day about life in Ghaziabad when my father in law was still alive. Patriarchal is such a four letter word these days it is almost embarrassing to admit how much I enjoyed being part of that setup. Of course the fact that it always came with an end date must have had something to do with it but visits to Ghaziabad in those days were islands of  serenity in my normally hectic life. For one thing, he was diabetic and had strictly enforced meal times. And then in a joint family, especially with a stern patriarch at the helm, work is distributed very evenly. The men go out to work. The elderly women – namely my mother in law – do the light work, dusting and praying. Cleaning is left to the hired help and the daughters-in-law cook a meal each.

I, in my role of city bred daughter in law was never trusted with serious cooking and bagged breakfast and dinner time roti making. Once breakfast was done and tiffins packed off for work, the lunch preparations would begin. I would invariably be asked to collect herbs for the chutneys from the little kitchen garden walled in by Ashoka trees, which activity exactly suited my agenda. The rice would be soaked at 12:40 so as to be put on the stove at 1:10 and be done by 1:20 and be just right at 1:30 for my father in law to eat after his one roti with subzi. A little buttermilk with herbs and garlic would round the whole thing off. After a quick tidying up, everyone at home would go to sleep. Not just the kids – everyone would nap! Waking up in time to make ginger tea, we would all then go for a walk, or take the kids to the park, return, eat, watch TV and sleep. Then wake up the next day and do it all over again.

Of course, every once so often we would treat ourselves with a visit to the chaat shop pushing our way through the throngs to score a plate of gol gappas or have the crispy tikkis soaked in hot imli chutney. And then there would be the seriously embarrassing trips to the local stores with my mother in law where she would pick out underwear for the family and streeeeeetch the elastic to make sure it was good quality before she decided to buy. But it was all made up for by the visits to the local bangle market – a narrow lane with tiny hole in the wall shops stacked to the roof with coloured glass bangles. How it works is, you take your saree or suit and by some miraculous internal process they pick out just the bangles to go with them from the millions in the store and make up sets and all! I do know they are just cheap tinsel but there is something about the bustle and the glitter and the bling – and that little bangle case may never be opened when I’m actually looking for something to wear but it is really the prettiest, daintiest, most feminine thing in my closet and the guilty pleasure of my heart.

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What do you know, I did write that post after all!

Anyway, this is not about that. My father in law is no more, and the joint family has split up. People have moved to be closer to work, and everyone stays up as late as they want to and eat out whenever they feel like and the kitchen garden is sadly neglected. Naturally, no one has the time to sentimentalize over all this. A practical part of me is forced to admit that all the change was probably for the best. But our trips to Ghaziabad are no longer as long or as lazy as they once were. And my island of serenity is lost forever.