Memorable hill walk and talk during spring : The Tribune India

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Memorable hill walk and talk during spring

Anecdotes of hiking and shikar in woods abound. Dating back more than a century, one story has a touch of racism and misogyny, but it’s hard to forget

Memorable hill walk and talk during spring

The magnificent rhododendrons splash the hills with vibrant reds. istock

Raaja Bhasin

After an indifferent and moody winter, spring seems to be here and let’s wait for what it has to say. Will this be a false spring or is there some truth in the warmth? Will it be as fickle and feckless as our politicians and unexpectedly change track? Will the cold swing back with icy rain and sleet? Can we finally shed our loads of heavy clothing and stop hovering around the closest heat source?

For the moment, let us celebrate this time given to us. The sunshine is warm and gentle and fresh shoots are poking their way out of the soil. The hot blast of summer is still a short while away. Bergenia, whose tiny leaves of today will become the ‘elephant ears’ of the monsoon, have started flowering, as have the magnificent rhododendrons that are splashing the hills with vibrant reds. The dandelion flowers are out and are providing the first nectar of the season to the bees and butterflies. I’ve seen the first wild strawberry, all ripe under the deodars, and we can leave this little morsel for a bird or insect — the most common of the edible berries are raspberries, which have started forming. There was a rhyme we learnt as children about wild fruit and it went something like this:

White and yellow

Will kill a fellow;

Purple or blue

Good for you;

Red, could be good

Or could leave you dead.

And a fair disclaimer: this doesn’t mean you should chomp away whatever is purple and blue on a hillside.

From childhood, I have loved walking the Himachal hills. Much of this walking has been done alone or with a companion who did not prattle endlessly — someone who could try to listen to the trill of the thrush or the chittering of a tiny brightly covered minivet. Or if I had missed this, could quietly tap me on the shoulder and point it out. In silence, one could give an ear to the breeze blowing through the pines and cedars, or hear the rustle of leaves as one’s foot brushed over them. Though today, with the wisdom of supposed development all around, and piles of rubbish to traverse before one can reach an area as it once was, it requires a fair amount of effort and planning.

Old anecdotes of hiking and shikar in these woods abound. While it has a touch of racism and misogyny, one story dates back more than a century and comes from the famed chronicler of Shimla, Edward Buck. In his classic, ‘Simla Past and Present’, he recounted that on the north face of the Shali hill that faces Shimla, he was hunting for pheasants. With him was a Punjab civilian officer, RA Mant, and they were accompanied by 30 beaters who were flushing game from the bushes. The beaters startled a barking deer, kakar, the Indian muntjac. As the animal went tearing down the hill, Buck was able to take two shots at it and was sure he had a hit. The beaters and their dogs went looking for the kakar and in the distance, Buck and Mant could hear shouting and considerable barking from the dogs. A little later, the men came up with the deer.

Their headman, Prem Singh, went up to Buck and solemnly said: “Sahib, you have shot a woman.” “Nonsense,” said Buck, “I have only shot a kakar.”

“Sahib, you have most surely also shot a woman and her husband is bringing her here,” was Prem Singh’s immediate reply. He had barely finished the sentence when a man came leading a woman by the hand. It seemed she had been working in a field out of sight, when the stray shots had hit her.

On reaching Buck, the man said: “Sahib, you’ve shot my wife, she is now no further good to me, and she is yours.”

Taking a look at the woman, Buck replied: “Your wife is quite all right and I don’t require her.”

The husband pointed to one pellet that had barely broken the skin on one thigh and to another just above the right breast. He said: “She is badly wounded and will certainly die, and I have no further use of her.”

Buck reached for his penknife and in moments, both the shots fell to the ground without a wince from the lady. He told the man that his own wife was a large and ferocious woman who had already killed two women whom he had taken home, and this third one did not stand a chance. But nothing he tried seemed to work.

Buck turned to his beater and told him to have a quiet word with them and see how much it would cost to settle the affair. In five minutes, Prem Singh was back with them and told Buck: “Your honour, this matter will cost you three rupees.” Edward Buck pretended to be outraged at the amount, as he handed over the coins — adding one rupee more for the wife.

It seemed the matter was over, but when Buck told the men to move on, they did not budge. Prem Singh came back with a message from the aggrieved husband: “The husband says that if you would like to have another shot at his wife for another three rupees, you are welcome to do so.”

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