From Lahore to Kasauli, with love
The life at the hill station sighs to a standstill as the evening deepens into a quieter darkness.
A picturesque hill station, a celebration of the written word, stimulating talks, and exhilarating company. All special on their own, and together they became that one splendid phenomenon known as the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival, Kasauli, India. The three literary festivals I've attended in Lahore, I was like a child going to Disney World on a full-day pass, high on rides and sugar!
Books are my wonderland, my first and everlasting love, and there is nothing that holds more fascination for me than the unread pages of the book in my hand. Ergo when I received the invitation to my first-ever literary festival after the publication of my first-ever book - Leaves of Lahore (Har-Anand Publications) - my response was an immediate yes. Of course! The tiny details of the festival being held across border, and the very limited time to get a visa seemed insignificant as I dreamed about being in a beautiful setting to celebrate the glory of words. Indeed, books make me all mushy, and considerably cheesy.
Crossing the border with a wonderful woman - my new buddy who helped me with my visa issue, and throughout my journey to Kasauli -- was uneventful. Except for the friendly faces of the BSF, customs and immigration personnel, overcrowded departure area - contrary to the perception quite a large number of regular Pakistanis visit India for myriad social, business and religious reasons - and an endless wait at the baggage scanner, the experience was routine passage into a different country.
Punctuating the tedium were the three adorable Labradors of the BSF and customs staff. As the waiting seemed interminable in the customs area, and I was feeling the first pangs of missing my own adorable Pearl, my baby - nah, not my child but my fabulous Jack Russell- patting the subdued Dozer calmed my sleep-deprived mind. As the lovely Lab lay on my feet, an amused Indian immigration staff-member commented: "I've never seen him behave this way with a Pakistani traveller." Ah, dogs are the first ones to recognise those who mean well. Right?
The stopover in Amritsar at my new buddy's old friend's place was for a home-cooked lunch, of biryani that tasted even better than it smelled, and vegetables and chicken cooked in that uniquely Indian style that I'd fumble to describe equipped with my non-existent cooking capability. The host was a wonderful Sikh businessman who has many friends across the border, and graciousness more pronounced than the similarities between Lahori and Amritsari hospitality. En route to Lahore after the festival, we spent two nights at his house, eating, shopping, socialising with his cousins and friends, and as I talked to him, it felt like being with an old friend. Here's to new friends, and new bonds!
The drive to Kasauli was quite interesting for a very simple reason. Other than the absence of motorway that connects most of the big and small cities and towns in Pakistan, the journey on the single-lane road, turning moodily into a two-lane highway once in a while, clustered with all kinds of vehicles, felt uncannily like travelling through Pakistan.
Passing through small towns, by-passing bigger ones like Chandigarh, as the sun changed its colours, darkness enveloping the quiet landscape, the air began to change subtly as the car began its upward journey. Himachal Pradesh. The name evokes images of quaint towns from stories of yore, opening their arms to welcome first-time visitors into their mountainous beauty, balmy green, roadside food-stalls, carts of fruit-sellers, and children and monkeys of all sizes. The last two have a tendency to stand right at the edge of the road, looking nonchalant about crazy motorists, making you yell.hey, watch out!
As the road unfolded in its twisty, curvy, upward precarious narrowness, tiny villages moved alongside the car, simply serene in their green, glorious splendour. It was like passing through Murree during the drive to the very lovely Nathia Gali in Pakistan. The life at the hill station sighs to a standstill as the evening deepens into a quieter darkness. As I looked forward to the next three days of books, words and people, here it was. Kasauli. Like a gorgeous postcard.silent, serene, sleeping.
The author is a Lahore-based columnist