Much as the idea of a weekend getaway pleases the heart, the mind takes the longest time to grant the heart's plea. Why blame the mind too; it's preoccupied with Monday meeting agendas, pending files, unanswered emails, and other quotidian hang-ups from which there is no respite. Oftentimes, an almost finalised weekend-trip plan fails to see the light of day because since when have emergencies landed at our doorstep with prior notice? Fortunately, this time, my friend's unflinching resolve combined with my rather flaky one has seen us through all hassles and we board the morning Shatabdi from New Delhi to Kathgodam in Uttarakhand. We congratulate ourselves for crossing the first lap. Considering our history of ditching each other at the penultimate moment, this is a feat.
Bags of chestnuts scattered on the floor, the breathtaking view of the mountains, the oak forests, the birds singing away to glory, the clattering of the monkeys: Jilling is a poet's favourite verse.
The first time I heard the name, I found it wonderfully musical. When wind chimes hit each other in a soft breeze, is the sound called "jilling," I wondered. A night before our train ride, while reading some reviews, I stumbled upon Jug Suraiya's piece on Jilling. He is a story weaver and I was both inspired and eager to discover the place.
Ramlalji: Guide to paradise
From Kathgodam station, after a one-and-half-hour's drive, we reach Matial (a village just before Padampuri). Jilling Estate, nestled in the Kumaon hills, is a 45-minute to one-hour trek from Matial. Ramlalji is waiting for us at Matial. He is the man who has been ferrying tourists from Matial to Jilling for almost four decades (36 years to be precise). His gentle smile is unadulterated, he doesn't frown an inch when you burden his fragile shoulders with luggage; he has a calm voice and when he finds you panting during the uphill walk, he entertains you with stories—some do not have happy endings and others have no endings at all. He is mourning the loss of his favourite horses to a chronic disease. Inadequate medical assistance caused their untimely death. We change the topic and tell him how travel bloggers and writers sing praises of the "iconic" Ramlal in their reviews of Jilling Estate. A benign smile escapes his lips. He gently tells us to quicken our pace for he fears a downpour. And when it rains, the ground beneath becomes slippery and leeches come out to feed on your blood. It's an uneven terrain, some lanes are too narrow to accommodate even two people, and God bless you if a horse decides to cross your path! Suddenly, the clouds turn dark—will Ramlalji's fears come true? Would we have to halt our journey? Before I forget, I must tell you, ten minutes into the journey, a grand sight of a cabbage garden greets you. The luscious green leaves spread like open arms, inviting you for an embrace.
Yes, it does start drizzling and Ramlalji makes a quick call. Shortly after, someone comes climbing down, holding an umbrella. Are we close to our cottage or did this man sprint, I have no clue. I had underestimated the intensity of the climb; add to that, I was not in the right footwear. Halfway through, my confidence level starts dipping; will I be able to make it, will I surrender and disappoint my friend? Suddenly, I remember the concluding lines in Jug Suraiya's review: Jilling...is a gift. And as a gift, you can't just go there and claim it; you have to wait till it's given to you, when you've earned it. This, my friend's unrelenting passion and Ramlalji's encouragement infuse me with renewed strength.
Who let the dogs out?
With sleepy steps but rejuvenated spirit, we reach Steve Lall's cottage. Everything is fine until I hear barks and see a dog approach the unknown guests. Well, I am petrified of dogs, my friend isn't. In fact, she loves them. The Lalls have an army of dogs. Since it's a bad idea to run, scream or jump, I decide to turn into a piece of furniture whenever the furry friends came sniffing at me. My friend enjoys my misery. No, she doesn't. She develops an instant liking for one of the dogs, her name is Lila. "She is the spoilt baby," we are told. The oldest one is Muchie, the daughter is Kali, the granddaughters are named Titali and Choti (Brownie). Then, there is Dhannu too. Phew!
What's in a name?
Bags of chestnuts scattered on the floor, the breathtaking view of the mountains (if you're lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the mighty Nanda Devi), the oak forests, the birds singing away to glory, the clattering of the monkeys: Jilling is a poet's favourite verse.
Nandini Lall, daughter of Steve Lall (the owner)—ex-fighter pilot-turned-tea-planter-turned-nature-lover—and co-owner of Jilling Estate, welcomes us with a warm smile and steaming cups of chai. We ask her how this place got its name and she explains, "We have been trying to find out for many years now... there is a place called Silang Gadhera which is full of Silang trees. In the old map my father had found, the name (was) Jilang. Jilling seems a 'corruption' of Jilang and Silang. When the British settled here, they started saying Jilling. The whole estate was called Jilling Estate and was owned by the Stiffles family who came here in the early 1900s...they planted temperate fruits like apples, peaches, plums, apricots, pears, sweet chestnuts and tea. The Stiffles sold a part of their estate in 1932 and the rest by 1947. A small portion was left and sold by early '80s. My grandmother bought her portion in 1965. Her name was Hope Violet Lall. And ever since, we are here looking after the estate and the forest."
A biker's home
We are introduced to Harish Bhaiya, who guides us to our cottage, our little haven for the next two days. Little birdhouses adorn the entrance and adjacent to the door is perched a huge wooden parrot, which could be mistaken for a real one. Does nature too need a dash of the unnatural and the inanimate? The interior is tastefully done. The framed photos of Enfield, Harley Davidson and Yamaha decorating the walls offer a slice of Steve's life: an ardent biker who found solace in the lap of nature.
It is well past 3. It starts raining like there is no tomorrow. It is growing dark; evening is preparing for the night but the rains are unstoppable. Gods must be crazy!
To the ridge: Say hi to Uncle Klaus
The sun is smiling at us through the trees, the unblemished sky, and the windows; the soft rays fall on the blankets we had wrapped ourselves in during the night.
Harish Bhaiya is at the door with a jug of tea and biscuits. "When did it stop raining?" We ask him. This is usual, he says, "Abhi toh achi dhoop nikli hai." Indeed, it is a glorious morning. The breakfast is nothing less than a royal treat. A lavish spread of home-cooked food is soul-satisfying! Our next destination is the ridge, a half-hour walk from our cottage. The Estate has a total of four cottages and none of these are situated next to each other. Each cottage rests on a separate hill; the higher you go, the closer to nature you are. On our way to The Ridge, a certain Uncle Klaus waves at us from the balcony of his cottage. He stays in Germany and comes to Jilling every year to spend a few months amidst nature. He is a good friend of Steve's and loves to soak in the sunrise each day. He appears a little miffed though. Why? "Oh, the rains, I couldn't see the sunrise. Why don't you take a sunflower for your room?"
It's difficult to describe the feeling once you make it to the edge of the ridge. You are floating among the clouds. The greens and the blues merge. Through the prism of the mountains, the little houses, the zig-zag roads, marketplaces and everything else appear like a painter's canvas in progress.
Parvati: The Goddess of the hills
Twilight and we stop by at the Lalls' cottage. We land ourselves the good fortune of meeting Parvati, Steve's wife and the queen of the hills in Jilling. She is a feisty, no holds barred woman, an absolute bundle of joy. She is busy working in the cowshed. Two of the bulls have gone missing and she is worried but laughing unremittingly at the thought of misplacing her two disobedient bulls. She gives us a tour of the gardens and the stables around. A Kumaoni beauty, it doesn't take us much time to realise why Steve fell head over heels for Parvati. In the evening, when all of us sit in front of the television to watch Ben Fogle's documentary on the Estate featuring Steve and his family, the shyness on Parvati's ageless face and the twinkle in her eyes on seeing her husband on screen is priceless. She is brimming with stories, stories that leave you in splits. If you ever meet her, ask her about the man who was proposed to by a woman after months of telephone conversations. The only glitch: the woman who had proposed marriage turned out to be a man!
Nandini has made me a fine glass of rum with mint leaves. My friend settles down with beer. There's a little bonfire in the room and we relish bhuna bhutta. The night is losing its youth, the dogs have gone to sleep; another round of songs and laughter and we retire to bed as well.
A smile and a tear
Goodbye is a tough act. It intends to be a noble exercise but ends up leaving you with a lump in your throat. Our bags are packed, Ramlalji is here to motivate us again and Parvati takes a promise from us: "Come here, again." We shall return, we tell her. We missed meeting Steve, the man himself, but as a blessing in disguise, we give ourselves an excuse to visit Jilling again, and soon.
The climb down is a cakewalk. Familiar scenes crowd us. The Buddha's smile is intact on Ramlalji's serene face. The way he plucks two big lemons from one tree and sneaks them in our bags is like watching a magician's best-performed trick.
All good things come to an end. A long awaited trip with a friend happened. And yes, we "earned" it. Also, the bulls had returned.
Where: Jilling Estate,
Above Matial Village, P.O. Padampuri, District Nainital, Uttarakhand 263136
For more details, visit: http://jilling.net/