My aunt and uncle and I are eight hours away from the heavy gray blotch where Delhi hides. We’re one thousand and three hundred meters up, high enough to see through the plains, the silver river winding like a question mark through, low enough that thick forests surround our upward drive.
I’ve spent three days in the nation’s capital since flying in from Singapore. Most of that time was hiding in a jacket, feeling out-of-place in the cold weather and pollution. There’s no denying parts of Delhi can be lovely: the colonial city, Lutyen’s Delhi, in the evenings, tree-lined golden boulevards. Still: I am glad to be out of the metropolis, in a car in the Himalayan foothills with my aunt reminding me of things to have packed because it doesn’t matter if I’m eighteen, my uncle intently recalculating routes for the hundredth time. The best kinds of love.
We turn off the road onto a dirt track. A jeep is waiting for us there to take us to Tanhau, a homestay up here, started by a couple wanting a refuge from Delhi. There are three rooms in the property, sprawling over a hillside, and two are empty: the place is ours. As soon as we arrive I wander off: one of the four dogs on property shows me the hole in the barbed wire fence, and we clamber through. This area of the hills faces water problems, and so the ground is all golden grass, tough shining blades. Further down the forest folds out down the slopes, and where those end, the plains unroll into a horizon smeared by fog. The rest of the world becomes a map, distances shrunk by our height. The city toy-like: unreal.
I stop to talk with two women gathering grass for their cows. The villages here, I later learn, are emptying slowly; the terraces slicing the hills into neat rectangles are overgrown—only old people remain in the clusters of houses, their children all left for brighter futures in the cities. They can’t quite understand my accented Hindi, so I repeat myself several times, add hand gestures. I learn these women have a small shop by the road, selling samosas and pakoras, but competition is growing as tourist numbers increase. Otherwise: “Every day is with the grass. Day in, day out.” I nod but like my broken Hindi, I can’t understand this, not really, and say I have to get back. In the room, I’m told not to wander off on my own, this is northern India, I’m a single girl, and these are things I forget: that the hills aren’t always mine to inhabit.
The poverty of this area is, in part, due to the isolation that has left it so magnificent. It’s a good four kilometers of only-four-wheel-drive-navigable dirt track from tarmac road, though Chaithali, the owner of Tanhau, testifies to a successful journey by an enterprising Tata Nano. Even still, the hillside by the track is used as a collective trash can by the residents that remain; the small stream where all washing and gossip happens swirls eddies of plastic. Spotted forktails hop around it. At the end of the day, sad as it is to say, this is India, and humans have staked their claim with their rubbish here.
But, still, it’s not far to leave that behind. Both mornings, Harry, the naturalist but also driver, grocery-shopper, and various odd-jobs-man, takes me birding. The first day we clamber up to a saddle point between two hills, navigating a dense grove of trees where no one seems to venture. A bright color on the ground is just a fallen flower. At the top, on the peaks on either side, the mountain goats come out as we watch. A pair spends half-an-hour peering at us in comical silhouette over a ridge. Why have you come? Why have you come?
When we come back, I attempt yoga on the porch while my aunt knits and my uncle fiddles with a transistor radio till slow Hindi songs fill the morning. Later, we go on a drive in Corbett National Park and miss tiger, to my uncle’s dismay. But as in every national park, it’s not the tiger but being where the tiger was. We find instead late afternoon sunlight stringing gold necklaces along branches. The sharp adrenaline of a barking deer’s alarm call. A sambar deer freezes by a riverbed and we pass breathless seconds with it and the pale white rocks rounded by monsoon deluges. Everything stills. Even the grass barely whispering.
And coming back, night has vanished the forest, and a shapeless thing disappearing off the side of the road might have been a leopard and might have not. The stars are less clear than they normally are, but that’s because the moon is full, and the city lights in the distance trace the outlines of the hills around.
The next morning Harry takes me for a second birding hike. This time we go beyond the village, past goats straining at their ropes, up along a ridge where he says yellow-throated martens come. The sunrise comes as a surprise as we climb up, a sudden sharp light.
There aren’t any martens, but instead on one side is the roof of the world. The Greater Himalayas on the right horizon: a jagged white line half-misted, rock stretching thousands of meters into the sky thousands of meters from here. Microcosmic from where we stand. Just vast enough to hold. On the left side, Corbett forests unwind lazily into the plains, just beginning to glow with sun. The river is emerging from nighttime fog. I look out, and I can almost see the roads we climbed, the people, the villages, and I have six weeks in India unfurling before me, and the country is a platter at my feet. As if it can belong to me. As if I can belong to it.