This is a story of the summer of 1991 when I was about 11 years old and was visiting Nani and Nanu at their then home. To understand the story it is important to understand the layout of the place and listen to Elvis Presley.
The house was on a plateau on a hill that was surrounded by tall majestic mountains covered with pine forests. The moment you crested the hill you were met with this huge flat plain, with an ancient banyan tree and the village common playing field on the right-hand side and a lightening-struck old banyan tree and the road towards Nani’s place on the left. The plateau fell away beyond the playing field and started descending on the road towards the village, so that you pretty much felt on top of the world. Nani’s house faced their landlord’s bigger home across a courtyard that had a traditional Tulsi plant in the centre of it. The landlords were an old couple who had married sons and lots of grandchildren, all of whom visited them every summer. The path that led to Nani’s place passed on by the side of the house through a forest of these huge hydrangea bushes and crossed a stream on stepping stones to move across the fields and towards the village. The stream flowed right behind my grandparent’s home and was covered by a natural tunnel made up of the overhanging and interlaced canopies of some wild shrubs that grew on both banks. The tunnel was illuminated with filtered sunlight falling into the stream and the many boulders that peppered it. The woods around the house were filled with white long-tailed fly-catchers that just zoomed around all day long. The woods completely enclosed the two houses giving them a feeling of being cut-off from the outside world.
In the field, just beyond the eastern boundary of the property, was an old banyan tree that had been struck by lightening many years ago. According to the landlord’s youngest grandson, who was 14 and did not appreciate little pudgy girls following him all around, it had been full of a dizzying variety of snakes and weird insects when it ruptured, which in turn fueled my 11-year-old imagination with all kinds of stories related to portals to another world and curses and lost princesses. The landlord also had a 10-feet-long king cobra skin adorning his drawing room that had been found on the playing field on the village common a long time ago. This was the source of another set of folklore, also told to me by my reluctant playmate, about a pair of king cobras that had lived in the village for centuries together. I was of course not so stupid as to believe that it was the same pair throughout the centuries but I did corroborate the story of their present existence from the man who delivered the milk in the village and found it to be true. My 11-year-old Bollywood-aided imagination then furiously wove a tale of real-life itchadhari Naag and Nagin in my own backyard. It was all very exciting. There was also a huge Gaddi dog that roamed around the village and was said to tear apart anyone who came across his path. And there was a family of long, black geckos that lived on the footbridge at the bottom of the hill that I just found creepy and nobody else minded.
One mid-morning, I was tooling around the stream where the grandson was working on a kite and trying his best to ignore my annoying presence while all the adults had filtered off to town or the village for some work or other. It was eerily quiet and strangely peaceful. The grandson finally decided that kite-making was not his forte and got up to walk back for a mid-morning siesta and, of course, I also got out of the stream to follow him. And then we both froze. In the small gap between the hydrangea bushes and the side of the house stood this huge 10-feet-tall hairy, black, Gaddi dog. Okay, I exaggerate, not 10 feet but it was definitely bigger than an average-sized dog and I was puny. And it had a reputation to live up to. It stood and stared at us. It didn’t growl – it didn’t need to. We were in its path. My hero seemed just as stricken as I was. Then he took a step back. So did I. The dog just looked at us. We stepped into the stream. I assumed we would make a break for the house on the other side of the stream, although we didn’t know them. Instead, genius pushed me into the tunnel into ankle-length water and we started walking backwards through the stream. ‘Why are we wading in the stream?’, I whispered. ‘He can’t smell us in the water and so he can’t follow us!’ came the stern reply. Anyway, when boy-wonder decided we were far enough away, which was about 10 feet from the mouth of the tunnel, we sat down on a boulder in the middle of the stream – in full view of the stepping stones across the stream. . I told you I was never that stupid. The dog had seen us disappear into the tunnel and I didn’t think he would need to sniff us out. In other circumstances, I guess this would have been a terribly romantic scenario – but I was too young and too scared of being eaten alive and I guess so was he. A few moments later, we heard movement on the path and then the werewolf – sorry, huge dog – stepped into the stream to jump across. We watched with bated breath as he moved along the stones with his slow majestic gait. And then he stopped – right in the middle of the stream. With all four feet balanced perfectly on the stones, he turned his head and looked straight at us! I think our bated breath became choke-holds across our throats. For a few moments, all the werewolf-attack illustrations I had seen in the fantasy horror books I had ever read flashed across my mind. And then that noble animal turned and loped away.
After that afternoon, I stopped following the grandson around. He wasn’t so much of a hero anymore. He was just a boy. I still loved the summer. I scared myself with stories about the burnt tree and the pair of snakes and the gecko family and thought I was in an Enid Blyton novel when I sat and stared at the white birds diving for the dragonflies or waded in the tunnel in the stream.
The blue-pink hydrangea bush always reminds me of that house with the tunnel and the incident with the dog and that warm beautiful summer.
The bird of paradise picture is from http://flyingbeautieshimachal.blogspot.in/ and the canopy is from Pinterest.