Life's simple pleasures

notes from the hills

Life's simple pleasures

Live close to nature and your spirit will not be easily broken, for you learn something of patience and resilience. You will not grow restless, and you will never feel lonely.

My relationship with the natural world has sustained and inspired me over the years. It is a relationship that has grown stronger and more meaningful ever since I came to live in the hills half a century ago.

“Is Nature your religion?” someone asked me recently. It would be presumptuous to say so. Nature doesn’t promise you anything — an afterlife, rewards for good behaviour, protection from enemies, wealth, happiness, progeny, all the things that humans desire and pray for. No, Nature does not promise these things. Nature is a reward in itself. It is there, to be appreciated, to be understood, to be lived and loved. And in its way it gives us everything— the bounty and goodness of the earth, the sea, the sky. Food, water, the air we breathe. All the things we take for granted.

And sometimes, when we take it too much for granted, or misuse its generosity, Nature turns against us and unleashes forces that overwhelm us — earthquake, tidal wave, typhoon, flood, drought. But then it settles down again and resumes its generous ways.
For it is all about renewal — seasons and the weather, sunlight and darkness, the urgency of growth, the fertility of the seed and the egg. Governments rise and fall, machines rust away, great buildings crumble, but mountains still stand, rivers flow to the sea, and the earth is clothed with grass and verdure.

Slow down, and listen. There are sounds that are good to hear.
At night, rain drumming on the corrugated tin roof. It helps one to lie awake; at the same time, it doesn’t keep one from sleeping. And it is a good sound to read by — the rain outside, the quiet within.

And early in the morning, when the rain has stopped, there are other sounds — a crow shaking the raindrops from his feathers and cawing rather disconsolately, but not sadly. Babblers and bulbuls bustling in and out of bushes and long grass in search of worms and insects. The sweet ascending trill of the Himalayan whistling thrush. Dogs rushing through damp undergrowth.

Some of the best sounds are made by water. The water of a mountain stream, always in a hurry, bubbling over rocks and chattering, “I’m late, I’m late!” like the White Rabbit, tumbling over itself in its anxiety to reach the bottom of the hill. The sound of the sea, especially when it is far away — or when you hear it by putting a seashell to your ear.
Or the sound of a child drinking thirstily, the water running down her chin and throat.

Bullock-cart wheels creaking over rough country roads. The clip-clop of a tonga, and the tinkle of its bell.

Bells in the hills: A school bell ringing, and children’s voices drifting through an open window. A temple bell heard faintly from across the valley. Heavy silver ankle bells on the feet of sturdy hill women. Sheep bells heard high up on the mountainside.
The sweet and solitary music of a flute at dusk.

A faraway voice on the shortwave radio, rising and fading through static.

There are memories that we fear and run away from all our lives. But we also find solace in memory, often in unexpected ways, as unbidden images return from our past.

When I was living in London as a young man in the 1950s, I was homesick and miserable, separated by a thousand miles of ocean, plain and desert from my beloved Himalayas. And then one morning the depressing London fog became a mountain mist, and the sound of traffic became the hoohoo-hoo of the wind in the branches of tall deodar trees.

I remembered a little mountain path from my boyhood which led my restless feet into a cool forest of oak and rhododendron, and then on to the windswept crest of a naked hilltop. The hill was called Cloud’s End. It commanded a view of the plains on one side, and of the snow peaks on the other. Little silver rivers twisted across the valley below, where the rice fields formed a patchwork of emerald green.

During the rains, clouds enveloped the valley but left the hill alone, an island in the sky. Wild sorrel grew among the rocks, and there were many flowers — convolvulus, clover, wild begonia, dandelion — sprinkling the hillside.

On the spur of the hill stood the ruins of an old brewery. The roof had long since disappeared and the rain had beaten the stone floors smooth and yellow. Some enterprising Englishman had spent a lifetime here making beer for his thirsty compatriots down in the plains. Now, moss and ferns grew from the walls. In a hollow beneath a flight of worn steps, a wildcat had made its home. It was a beautiful grey creature, black-striped, with pale green eyes. Sometimes it watched me from the steps or the wall, but it never came near.

No one lived on the hill, except occasionally a coal burner in a temporary grass-thatched hut. But villagers used the path, grazing their sheep and cattle on the grassy slopes. Each cow or sheep had a bell suspended from its neck, to let the shepherd boy know of its whereabouts. The boy could then lie in the sun and eat wild strawberries without fear of losing his animals.

I remembered some of the shepherd boys and girls.
There was a boy who played a flute. Its rough, sweet, straightforward notes travelled clearly across the mountain air. He would greet me with a nod of his head, without taking the flute from his lips. There was a girl who was nearly always cutting grass for fodder. She wore heavy bangles on her feet, and long silver earrings. She did not speak much either, but she always had a wide grin on her face when she met me on the path. She used to sing to herself, or to the sheep, or to the grass, or to the sickle in her hand.

And there was a boy who carried milk into town (a distance of about five miles), who would often fall into step with me. He had never been away from the hills. He had never been in a train. I told him about the cities (and why my hair wasn’t black), and he told me about his village; how they made rotis from maize, how fish were to be caught in the mountain streams, how bears came to steal his father’s pumpkins.

These things I remembered, crossing the street to a busy London tube station — these, and the smell of pine needles, the silver of oak leaves, the call of the Himalayan cuckoo, and the mist, like a wet facecloth. And as I stood in a crowded tube train between Goodge Street and Tottenham Court, my nose tucked into the back page of someone else’s newspaper, I had a vision of a bear making off with a ripe pumpkin, and I had crossed a thousand miles of ocean, plain and desert and reached home.

Money often costs too much.— Ralph Waldo EmersonIf you owe nothing, you are rich. Money doesn’t make people happy.But neither does poverty.The secret, then, is to have as much as you need — or maybe a little more, and then share what you have.

“I enjoy life,” said Seneca, “because I am ready to leave it.” If we can disencumber ourselves of nine-tenths of our worldly goods, it should not be difficult to leave the rest behind.

Love is as mysterious as happiness — no telling when it may visit us; when it will look in at the door and walk on, or come in and decide to stay. I won’t even hazard to say that love is always fleeting, a bird on the wing. I have known couples who grew old together and seemed reasonably happy.

There are few comforts greater than the touch of a loving hand when your hopes have been dashed. Of course things don’t turn out that way for all of us. When I was young, I fell in love with someone, someone fell in love with me, and both loves were unrequited. But life carried on.

Nothing really ends happily ever after, but if you come to terms with your own isolation, then, paradoxically, it becomes immediately possible to find a friend. And friendship is also love.

For as long as I can remember, I have been happiest taking a path — any old path will do — and following it until it leads me to a forest glade or village or stream: or hilltop, or a face I long to see. But for some years now, I can rarely do this, and never on my own. Age demands the surrender of many pleasures (though they are replaced by other, less intense, more enduring ones).

So I turn to my diaries and notebooks to relive the days when I tramped all over my patch of the hills, sometimes sleeping at a roadside teashop or a village school.
Here’s something I wrote of a winter afternoon some twenty years ago:

I have been cooped up in my room for several days, while outside it has rained and hailed and snowed and the wind has been blowing icily from all directions. It seems ages since I took a long walk. Fed up with it all, I pull up my overcoat, bang the door shut and set off up the hillside.

1 keep to the main road, but because of the heavy show there are no vehicles on it. Even as I walk, flurries of snow strike my face, and collect on my coat and head. Up at the top of the hill, the deodars are clothed in a mantle of white. It is fairyland: everything still and silent. The only movement is the circling of an eagle over the trees. I walk for an hour and pass only one person, the milkman on his way back to his village. His cans are crowned with snow. He looks a little high. He shakes my hand, gives me a tipsy salute, a tipsy grin and walks on, tipsily singing a Garhwali love song.

I come home exhilarated and immediately sit down beside the old stove to write. I find some lines of Stevenson’s which seem appropriate:

And this shall be for music when no one else is near, The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear! That only I remember, that only you admire, Of the broad road that stretches, and the roadside fire.

He speaks directly to me, across the mists of time: R L Stevenson, prince of essayists. There is none like him today. We hurry, hurry in a heat of hope — and who has time for roadside fires, except, perhaps, those who must work on the roads in all weathers?

Whenever I walk into the hills, I come across gangs of road workers breaking stones, cutting into the rocky hillsides, building retaining walls. I am not against more roads — especially in the hills, where the people have remained impoverished largely because of the inaccessibility of the villages. Besides, a new road is one more road for me to explore, and in the interests of progress I am prepared to put up with the dust raised by the occasional bus. And if it becomes too dusty, 1 can always leave the main road. There is no dearth of paths leading off into the valleys.

On one such diversionary walk, I reached a village where I was given a drink of curds and a meal of rice and beans. That is another of the attractions of tramping to nowhere in particular — the finding of somewhere in particular; the striking up of friendships; the discovery of new springs and waterfalls, rare flowers, strange birds.

And old familiars. Returning to Mussoorie from Rajpur around midnight, I saw a leopard leap over a parapet wall, then her three cubs scurrying into the bushes. I had thought I’d seen my last leopard some years ago. But there they were — a family of survivors.

“What’s this?” asked Rakesh when he was a small boy, touching a huge horseshoe that stood on my desk. “It’s a horseshoe,” I said, “I keep it for luck.” 

And then I tell him about Miss Bean, the old English lady who had grown up in Mussoorie, and who lived in Maplewood Cottage when I came to live there in 1963. The little cottage stood on its own on the edge of a maple and oak forest.

Miss Bean was in her eighties then, the “last surviving Bean” as she described herself. Her parents, brother and sister were all buried in the Camel’s Back Road cemetery. She received a tiny pension and lived in a small room full of bric-a-brac, bits of furniture rescued from her old home, and paintings done by her late mother. I was on my own then, living on sardines, baked beans, and other tinned stuff. Sometimes I shared my simple meals with her.

She told me stories of Mussoorie’s early days — the balls and fancy dress parties at the Hackmans and Savoy hotels; the scandals that erupted from time to time; houses that were said to be haunted; friends who had gone away or gone to their maker; her father’s military exploits.

I had noticed the big horseshoe on her mantelpiece, and asked her how she came by it. “My father brought it over from England,” she said. “It was supposed to bring us luck. But the good luck ran out long ago... You can have it, if you like it.” And she presented me with the horseshoe.

It has been with me for many years, going unnoticed most of the time, except when a visitor notices it and comments on its size.

Miss Bean passed away in her sleep, when I was still at Maplewood. Prem came to work for me soon after that and later brought his wife and three-month-old Rakesh from the village to live with us. They became my family. That was forty-three years ago.

Beena, Rakesh’s wife, asked me one day, “Did it really bring you good luck?”
“We make our own luck,” I said. “But the horseshoe has been with us all these years, and it always reminds me of its former owner, a little old lady who didn’t have much luck, but who enjoyed living, and stood alone, without complaining. It’s courage, not luck, that takes us through to the end of the road.”

Miss Bean had the courage to stand alone. And she lives on through that old horseshoe on my desk.

(Excerpts from ‘A Book of Simple Living’ by Ruskin Bond, published by Speaking Tiger)

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