Sometimes I wonder where all the time in my day disappears. My days are spent chasing reclusive artists for interviews and lunch meetings; my nights are spent making batches of eco-friendly washing powder and natural lip balms (my other calling!). I am always sleep deprived. Outside, there’s always something going on-construction, the hurried panic of an ambulance stuck in a traffic jam, the traffic, dinner guests at the door…it’s not the life I signed up for when I chose to live in Bangalore. And yet, having grown up in Dehradun, a small town in the hills, I am not sure I want to give up the conveniences here for that. Just as I was wishing I could step away briefly, regroup and return, came a call for an arts retreat called Shop Art/ Art Shop from Gunehar, in hilly Himachal.

I dashed off a mail, more as a reaction to my own stress. So, perhaps it was a good thing because in return came the invitation to spend the next six months ‘living and working in a rural setup in a pristine little Himalayan village’. The catch of course was that I had to brave the winter months and there was less than a week to decide, pack and be off!

Having spent the last 10 years of my life in metropolitan cities, I had all sorts of questions, most of which turned into shopping lists. There was the winter to equip myself for which meant a snow jacket and thermals. There was my own obsession with chemical-free skincare and hence cream and oil supplies to last me a couple of months. And so on.

Leaving Bangalore, I flew to Gaggal airport, just off Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. From here, I found a cab to drive me to my destination, Gunehar village, two hours away. The cab driver, a Gunehar local, who goes by the name ‘Kashmir’ took a few minutes to figure out if I was open to a chat and then there was no stopping him. It began with how unhappy he was about his controversial name and proceeded to narrate news and stories from the village. He was also the perfect tour guide stopping at every place he deemed important, from the Tashijong monastery, the Baijnath temple and even the agriculture university at Palampur. He talked about the upcoming elections in Kangra and how everybody in the district was busy campaigning for their nominees. There were more women candidates than men, he said, making sure that I had duly noted the presence of women campaigners along the way.

It was darker and colder as we neared Gunehar. I was greeted by Frank, curator of the festival and owner of the 4tables café. My travel fatigue caught up with me and I hit the sack.

Escape to Bir
On my first morning at Gunehar, I woke up to the views of the glorious Dhauladhar range complete with snow-capped mountains on a floor of lush paddy fields. I knew I could make my peace with life here.

Gunehar lies at a precarious spot in the valley. Close to the paragliding sites of Bir and Billing, it’s the last connect between the foothills and the mountain interiors. It’s also where the motorable road comes to an end and everything beyond is only accessible on foot. Gunehar is also an important spot enroute the famous Bada Bhangal trek. Along with Bir, it is also the home to the partly nomadic Bada Bhangalis whose villages are inaccessible during winter because of the heavy snow and glaciers.

I had been pre-warned that Gunehar is a remote village and a 2 km walk to Bir was necessary to acquire even basic supplies. A quick tour of the village revealed this was no exaggeration. The small market square has several shops but most of them are permanently shut. Those that are open stock a motley collection of things–some dals, packaged snacks, notebooks, soaps, peanuts, socks and suchlike. Bread is hard to come by and onions and potatoes are the only vegetables in sight. Clearly, I’ve been ignorant about village life.

bir 1

But it hasn’t prevented me from settling down into a routine here. I am also slowly losing sense of days; every day in the village is new and in some ways also the same. You can tell it’s Sunday because the school buses that otherwise honk up and down the roads twice a day aren’t heard.

What else can I tell you about Gunehar? It’s amazingly un-modern. Televisions are omnipresent but hardly used. Every house has a verandah and it’s everyone’s favorite place in the house. Days are spent sitting here and catching up on village matters. People even bring their household chores outside, whether chopping greens for lunch or the man of the house having a shave…on a walk, you can see these transparent lives. All these chores are interrupted delightfully by passersby stopping for a chat or a cup of tea. This banter is not limited to the locals. Despite having been here only for a month, I am called for tea often and by nearly everyone I talk to, including the village grocer. People here go out of their way to help. I once stopped to ask a fruitseller about a taxi and he disappeared only to return with one! Strangers will help you with your bags, or keep you company as you trudge up lonely mountain roads.

The house I live in is on the first floor of a two-floor building. It’s big enough for me, with a makeshift kitchen inside. The real kitchen is actually outside on a mezzanine floor, quite hard to use on these cold evenings. My landlord, Mani Ram, lives below. He seems to be a rather important person here in Gunehar. And always busy. He’s either carefully weeding of the vegetable patch that provides him with everything from homegrown coriander to spring onions to turmeric, or sewing garments on a freshly oiled sewing machine parked on the verandah. On occasion, I have seen him giving a neighbour a shave and once, brandishing a broom to rid a child off the evil eye. Like the others here, Mani Ram too loves his verandah, greeting and chatting with everybody who passes by. He is also extremely generous with invitations of tea. If I don’t return by sundown, I see him pacing up and down the verandah, looking quite worried. I have often been surprised by a bowl of curry or shelled walnuts (saved from the season in September) waiting for me at my outdoor coffee table. I could get used to a landlord like him!

Oh, and I am no longer startled out of bed to the bleating of mountain goats getting ready to graze. I have learnt to enjoy their presence. I stop to watch them sometimes-fascinating creatures, brisk and sure-footed, climbing entire buildings in a jiffy. I’ve seen quite a few old women walking with one on a leash, a replacement for a guide dog, I presume. Cows are aplenty too and the villagers are primarily farmers and shepherds. The rains are playing truant this year and the people worry about failing wheat crops. All neighbourhood conversations somehow begin and end with the weather.

My day begins with a hearty breakfast of milk from the neighbour’s cow, and sunshine-yellow eggs with hearty greetings accompanying them with offers of tea thrown in for good measure. Like my co-residents, I now emerge out to eat my meals, on the terrace. Fresh mountain air and the green vistas are filling me up with instant energy. A post-breakfast walk to the village stream interrupted with village chatter leaves me happy and fulfilled.

Bir 3

Having exhausted my city supplies (cheese, muesli, jam), I’m now off to the Tibetan colony at Chougan, a mere 7-8 kms away from Gunehar. I am told Chougan is also where the paragliders land after taking off from Billing.

I’ll stop here. Kashmir’s arrived to drive me to Chougan and I’m excited about my morning’s shopping plans. More soon.

Photographs by Frank Schlichtmann, founder, 4tables and Shop Art/ Art Shop

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  1. Such an inspiring column. Made me stop and appreciate how my life has twisted and turned -only to finally arrive at a peaceful and enriching enjoyment of retirement with a husband of 50 years.

  2. Thanks a lot Joyce. It is lovely to receive such comments. And hope you continue to have an immensely joyful and peaceful retired life.

  3. Very well written. I smelt the place, felt the weather and saw the beauty through your writing. It took me back in time. Waiting for your next one…

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