Gate 42C of Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport takes you back in time. As you descend the two storeys from the other gates, you move from plush carpeting to linoleum floors, out of the silent airport to gates where flights are announced on speakers and yelled out by staff members.
Uniformed staff have given way to a middle-aged woman in salwar kameez and cardigan, with a name tag around her neck, talking on the phone to her son who has or has not yet eaten breakfast. The aeroplane, when it arrives two hours late, turns out to be equally a creature of some decades ago, a small ATR plane with 70-odd seats and doors that fold down to form its short staircase to the ground. On the flight, a group of middle-aged women on holiday repeatedly ask the air hostess if the plane is safe, if it is pressurised, if it can fly.
The setting is strangely apropos for the beginning of a trip to a home I left 27 years ago. It is snowing in Manali, the year’s first snowfall, and as we circle the airport, waiting for clear weather and the signal to land, I press my forehead to the window. Soon, barren hills give way to lush valley. I can see a frothing river—my frothing river. A sudden runway adjacent to the riverbank, a bumpy landing, ears popping from the change in pressure, and I am home.
“Home” is a funny word for a place to which you have never belonged—not in any of the traditional ways of belonging, not by birth or marriage or ancestry. But something has carried four generations of my family in and out of the state of Himachal Pradesh, some calling that I have inherited, some way in which we have always belonged to these mountains.
At Partition, my maternal great-grandparents moved to Shimla while it was capital of Indian Punjab; one great-grandfather as vice-chancellor of Panjab University, another at the department of agriculture. My grandparents met in a rare co-ed college there, and long after they moved to Delhi, the mountains continued to be central to their lives.
My mother went to school in Shimla, and then, during a family holiday to Manali at the age of 15, she fell in love with the little town of apple orchards, tall deodars and gushing river. In the early 1970s, she made many solitary trips there for her architecture dissertation; after college, she married my father and moved back, first to Shimla and then, when my brother and I were toddlers, to Manali.
My parents were building Riverbanks, a hotel at Chaudhan Meel (which literally translates to “14 kilometres”, because this spot on the national highway is marked only by its distance from Manali).