High up in the foot hills of the Himalayas, perched atop winding roads and steeped residential hill dwellings is the town of Shimla where my grandfather had rented out an apartment in a building owned by the Cecil Hotel many moons ago.
This apartment was our home away from home (Chandigarh), for many years during the school summer holidays. From the mall walks to the horse-back riding that would make our day – my siblings and I having picked out our favorite ones by name – to even catching glimpses of the relentless monkeys trying to steal bananas from our kitchen, it was a sort of hall pass to heaven for us.
My parents soon befriended a retired army Colonel who resided in the neighboring apartment. He came up to Shimla often and stayed here with his German Shepherd, Buddy. Needless to say, Buddy found himself some enthusiastic company in three eager, inherently dog-loving children next door and every morning the front garden would come alive with us chasing him while Buddy would show off his perfect training while playing Catch.
The magnanimous Cecil hotel loomed large across the road from us. Our building was annexed to it through a cavernous underground tunnel. Having read enough Enid Blyton adventure novels, the prospect of venturing through this forbidden tunnel was the epitome of temptation as far as a curious thirteen-year old was concerned.
One day there emerged from the stairs going down towards the tunnel, a young girl, about my age clutching a raggedy doll with all her might, accompanied by her guardian. It was love at first smile.
Soon I found myself having surreptitiously ventured down the stairs and into her home which was located in the basement, just a stone’s throw away from the end of the stairwell.
Henceforth, we were inseparable. The parents, now in the know, had sanctioned supervised visits and our friendship blossomed. I do not remember her name but I will never forget the image and often, the whiff of memory of the time, the place and that grinning raggedy doll.
The adventure of the tunnel was soon forgotten and the days began to fill with the newly acquired “buddies”. Both Buddy the dog and the girl with the raggedy doll became our friends in the hills, just as the Colonel become a friend and confidante for my parents.
And then one day our affair with the hills came to a halt and before we knew it, so did our childhood.
Eighteen years later, I am filled with pangs of nostalgia not only for the cool winds, the mall road walks and the horse -back riding that is now so etched in my childhood memories.
I am also reminiscent of those brief friendships with strangers that remain a large part of these treasured memories of adventures up the hills that feel like they occurred in another lifetime.
Sometimes it is strangers that make a difference to our lives without even knowing it. Sometimes it is those close to us who become strangers before we even realize it.
Perhaps a trip up the hills once in a while can reaffirm our belief in life and its people while we breathe in a different kind of mountain air.