The Nicest Place I've Known
We reached out to our favourite authors and artists to tell us the nicest place they have known—a city, town, village or spot, anywhere in the world. Here are four
Anita Nair loves being at Dedhgrahat, Himachal Pradesh
Six hours from Delhi is a little mud road at Dedhgrahat, near Kandaghat town in Himachal Pradesh. Down this road is Long View, my friend Aarushi’s home and my go-to place when I need a holiday from myself. Long View, with its trees and dogs, spectacular views and slow internet, is what I dream of on particularly stressful days.
Our days here begin late and end late. The cold has a way of seeping into the bones so you need a fire lit every night and an electric blanket to snuggle into. A place where you breakfast at noon and dine at midnight.
But what makes Long View the nicest place in the world for me is the mountain near Parotha. We would walk along the highway and from the side of the road begin the climb. There is no real path except what is used by the Gurjars [nomadic pastoral communities in northern India] as they take their cattle grazing, and sometimes mules, to bring down firewood. Each time as I take that first long step up the thickly wooded mountainside, I tell myself that I will not think of the degree of difficulty.
As a mountaineer, I am a walking disaster: I have a dead left leg from a herniated disc; my poor vision has completely destroyed my spatial awareness. But what I do have is an absence of fear and Aarushi alongside. She climbs as though she were going up a gently curving staircase. Every time I need help, she offers a hand. And then there are the dogs Ranga and Jimmi, who wait for me every time I falter.
Long View is at 4,500 feet. The first viewpoint is at 5,100 feet. It is all pine trees and from there the deodars begin. I like to sit on the lip of a cliff with the dogs and gaze at the road far below. A four-lane highway is being carved in the mountainsides and the slopes are turning raw and denuded in the name of progress. But at this height, everything seems distant and removed.
Once atop, I lie down on the grass with my head down the slope so I am almost upside down ... Bird sounds, blue skies and the tops of trees dancing in the stiff wind … and within me a peace. Nothing can ever measure up to this moment of self-awareness.
As the sun begins to set and darkness falls with long shadows, I stand up reluctantly. A fire, tea, hot samosas and jalebis await us at Long View. But first we have to get there.
There is a way to climbing down a mountain path. A bending of the knees so the centre of gravity is closer to the ground and a sideways placement of feet so you have better grip and control over the momentum that can send you hurtling down. If the climb up is exciting, the climb down is exhilarating, and exactly the kind of adrenaline fix I need to rouse myself from the dreamland that the mountain cold and the stillness had lulled me into.
There are other mountain paths I have climbed. In fact, climbs that are probably steeper and higher. But nothing gives me the satisfaction of the mountain at Parotha or the joyful calm of Long View.
Anita Nair is the author of several best-selling and critically acclaimed novels. Her latest novel is Eating Wasps. She is also an intrepid and mostly solitary traveller.
Sarnath Banerjee walks in Panchsheel Park, Delhi
There is no one nice place for me but let me tell you about one route in Delhi that I like to take walks on. It begins at Panchsheel Enclave, where I used to live, in the sleepy part of the neighbourhood, which is at a distance from the market. It’s a transparent place, in the sense that you can see people go about their lives in their balconies and verandas. I would walk to Panchsheel Park, full of dark corners. You can get lost there if you are unaccompanied.
The forest has its set of eccentrics. There’s a man who walks as if his being was made of breeze—when he walks his entire body shakes, his arms flail about and he walks really fast. I’ve been seeing him for 15 years now; he used to be a fat man at one point of time. There are other regulars. We recognize each other but never interact.
I then walk through the ruins of Siri Fort. They’re unknown and well maintained. There’s a makeshift cemetery there, too. Crossing all this, I reach Shahpur Jat village, where several of my friends have their studios. During my walks, I’ve come to the conclusion that you could make and launch a rocket in its entirety with all the material and technology available in Shahpur Jat. From creating an engine to its fuel, to silk-screening the rocket’s name on it, all of it can be done using only the village’s resources.
All this walking is not aimless, though. I generally devise my walks around food. So my first stop is the chai stall next to the SBI ATM in Shahpur Jat. I always order an omelette with sweet bun and a chai there.
I then walk to Gulmohar Park. There’s a club in the neighbourhood with basketball courts. If there are kids playing, I join them. From there, it’s Neeti Bagh, Yusuf Sarai and then to the Uphaar Cinema complex. The cinema theatre burnt down in 1997. Nothing much happens there but people can be seen hanging about. The scene looks like actors rehearsing for a play that will probably never materialize.
Then I go to Green Park market, where I take my second snack break at Evergreen Sweet House—half a plate of chhole bhature and jalebi. I then wander into the ruins of the Deer Park, which I suspect is turning more into a sand park than the grass park it used to be. For some reason, I get my most interesting ideas here, especially by the lake. Once I’ve reached Safdarjung Development Area market, I have another cup of tea and take an autorickshaw back home.
Though I make food the main purpose of my walks, bumping into friends is a bonus. Some of my oldest friends live along this route and, fortunately, the informality of the housing colonies of south Delhi allows me to pop into their homes whenever I feel like it. I dread the high-rises of Gurgaon, where you need appointments and permissions to meet people.
Delhi used to be a great city to walk around in, but now, because of the severe pollution I have to put ‘face knickers’ on. It doesn’t deter me, though; I walk all the time, whether it’s summer or winter. I fight so many of my inner battles while walking, especially in Panchsheel Park. Although I generally walk alone because I seem to lose friends due to my brisk walking, sometimes I am accompanied by friends. And sometimes, by the end of the walk we’ve resolved things and found each other again, differently.
—As told to Blessy Augustine
Sarnath Banerjee is a graphic novelist and co-founder of the comic publishing company Phantomville. He now lives in Berlin, Germany. When he visits Delhi, he stays in Chittaranjan Park.
Sumana Roy fondly remembers Nathuahat, West Bengal
The nicest places are abstractions, like the word ‘nice’ itself. So it prompts us to remember places we know only as abstractions—the mother’s womb, where we did not need to go to office, or clean up after eating; the heart of the one we love, where we want to be kept—the only place where we are happy to be alone; a memory where life’s coarseness has been smoothened by time, to which we long to return as if it were water, capable of entering us and washing over us, cleaning inside and outside. I think it is a mixture of these that come together as expectation when we think of what ‘the nicest place’ might be.
I hesitate to write of the year which houses my memory of the place I have in mind. 1984. I am still innocent. I am 10. I don’t know Orwell; I don’t know Operation Bluestar. My father is the RDO in a village in northern Bengal. The three of us—my mother, brother and I—sit on a bus that takes us to Gairkata, through Jalpaiguri city, Dhupguri, through places whose names seem infinitely more interesting than those in my Frank School Atlas, but whose names I know I will forget before I meet my father. I’m too young to know that it is the destiny of certain places and people to be forgotten. I can sense intuitively that my memory will store these places but not their names, just as it’ll remember the names of places from my school atlas but forget their history and geography. My brother and I are excited to see our father turn into a radio—that is how we hear ‘RDO’. It’s a disappointment for us, therefore, when we reach the village to discover that he is his bank’s rural development officer.
The name of the village is Nathuahat. We stay in my father’s rented single-room house. It is a house only in shape. My brother and I are happy—it is the first time we will stay in a house that resembles the houses we’ve so long sketched in our drawing books. Everything else is outside the house: the kitchen and bathroom, eating and talking. Behind it are bamboo groves where ghosts live. We avoid running into them by not drinking water after sundown. We swallow spit after dinner.
There is no electricity though there are bulbs and electric wiring. These are adornments, a doll’s-house mimicry of civilization. We eat by the light of kerosene lamps, ‘dimlight’ and ‘hurricane’. Our shadows swallow more things than our mouths, including flies on walls. Nripen-kaku (uncle), who counts currency notes in the bank, takes us fishing in ponds. We return with hen and duck eggs, gifts from villagers who treat us with the kindness reserved for harmless aliens in science fiction. My mother cooks everything with kalo jeera (black cumin seed) and green chillies—the best food she will cook in her life.
And then a month passes, as if it were a seasonal plant.
I think of Nathuahat often. It is where dew fell on my head for the first time.
Sumana Roy has authored How I Became a Tree. Her latest is a work of fiction, Missing: A Novel. She lives in Siliguri, West Bengal.
Shafqat Amanat Ali, memories of Rome, Italy
I fell in love with the first European country I visited along the Mediterranean coast almost 25 years ago: Italy, with its resplendent architecture, syncretic cuisine and age-old heritage. I was there for a music festival, where I participated with Ustad Fateh Ali Khan sahib and got to meet other musicians from all over the world. I was excited about it being my first international trip and everything that I was experiencing and seeing for the first time or learning about travelling outside the borders of my country. But I also had the pressure of performing with Khan sahib on my first international stage, which made me nervous. Khan sahib left after the concert, but I decided to stay back and that’s when I actually started relaxing and looking forward to my vacation.
The Italians are extremely warm and welcoming, just like their city. A friend I had made during the festival, who lived in Rome, offered to share his room, which gave me a chance to live like a local and explore the city in a way unlike a tourist. We covered the city on foot, using public transport only when our legs gave way. When you travel as a musician, you don’t really get to experience the life and soul of a city because you have a sightseeing itinerary planned with a robotically programmed guide. But travelling with my friend helped me discover the real Rome and its true spirit. There was something new to see and marvel at every day. I also experienced the hospitality of the Italians, which was very much like what we are used to back home in Pakistan. The room I stayed in was being shared by five other boys. Despite the fact that they were clearly cramped, they were generous enough to give me space and made sure I was comfortable. All the boys were working as helpers or support staff in different jobs. This culture of earning a living and staying in shared quarters was new to me and opened me up to a range of possibilities.
If you love art the way I do, you will love Rome. Every nook and corner has a masterpiece—sculptures and paintings adorn buildings, statuesque installations of creatures on rooftops with their feet dangling down the length of the facade. I was mesmerized. I hadn’t seen anything like this in my life. The amazing craftsmanship made it lifelike. This is a city steeped in history. Breathtaking monuments and edifices stand on almost every crossroad and roundabout; the modern-day city is wrapped in ancient history. The Colosseum is out of this world: Standing in its premises is like getting a glimpse into ancient Italy. It feels like a film playing in front of your eyes.
I threw a lira in the Trevi fountain. It is believed that if you throw a coin into this fountain and it’s found, you come back to Italy. It’s true: I did, and I look forward to going back and being spellbound again in the city of my dreams. I feel like I am connected to this place in a way that I am unable to explain.
—As told to Mannu Kohli