By Anoopa Anand
When life-changing incidents occur in early childhood, the trouble is remembering it as an adult. Pardon the childlike perspective, but I’m going to tell you how my romance with walking started.
I was eight, my family was holidaying in Kashmir, and I was in a big bad sulk. The child-me had fallen in love with Dal Lake. More importantly, the child-me had made friends with an old man, the oarsman who just happened to be around the day I first met the lake. I don’t know why I remember calling him ‘Chacha’ – he was more grandfatherly than avuncular – but Chacha he was. On that first boat ride, Chacha had found a fascinating way of engaging child-me: he’d dip his hand into the water, pull out miscellaneous flotsam, and make up fascinating stories for me. At the end of Day 1 on Dal Lake, I had a fairly bizarre collection of articles with their “stories” attached to my brain. A scrap of red cloth, which was the blood of the mountains. An old tattered feather, belonging to the bird that had tried to help the bleeding mountain. A string of flowers, the mountains dying gift to her friend the bird. Something else that was leathery like dead animal skin, which Chacha couldn’t explain. He said he’d tell me the next time I went. Now, all my energy was focused on going back to Dal Lake to find out the story of the leathery bit, and my parents insisted on going to a temple instead. A temple instead of a story? Child-me was angry. Curious-child-me was driven to tears.
So I left. Grabbing the small window of opportunity whilst my parents were preparing a day bag and my sister was mesmerised by a dog playing outside the balcony, I packed my own little day bag – a tiny yellow backpack containing a packet of biscuits and all of Chacha’s gifts – and slipped out of the hotel room. I was going to walk as far as my legs would take me and get away from the horrors of Real Life. With big warm tears rolling down my melodramatic face, I went very far that day. Hours and hours of wandering around unknown places, seeing beautiful things, being fascinated with a little black bird that followed me about and sang all the way. Getting hungry, eating a few of my precious biscuits, wandering further, discovering a pond with inexplicable things growing in it.
In Real Life, I was missing for 40 minutes and had only made it as far as the garden in the hotel premises. The pond was the unkempt hotel swimming pool with a twig and bits of dead insects in it. I learnt a lot about myself that day. I learnt I was a born rebel, that my imagination was better than anything reality had to offer, and that I saw the most beautiful version of the world when I wandered alone.
As a traveller, telling you this is the best piece of information I can offer you: Walk. Everywhere. There’s something about a place that you only get to see when you sink your feet into it. The earth is different everywhere and I never feel that way when I’m in a vehicle. You could blindfold me and make me walk on the cobbled streets of Mumbai, and I’d know it. In Nepal, I remember a 13-year- old me thinking that the ground beneath my feet reminded me a lot of Chacha: friendly, wrinkled and full of ancient stories. I suspect you could blindfold me and take me back to that nameless hotel in Kashmir, and I’d recognize the dent in the pathway where the bird first sang to me.
As for me, the blood of the hills, the remnants of the bird that tried to save the hill, and the gift of flowers from the mountain to the bird are long gone, as is the unexplained leathery scrap. I hate to think about it, but I suspect Chacha is gone too. As long as I’m walking all over the world and making up new stories, none of the old ones will die.
Anoopa Anand is an editor, writer and animal welfare worker based in Bangalore, India. When she isn’t yearning to find her feet on different shores, she likes to work in animal shelters, read fiction, and do crosswords in auto rickshaws.
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