About one hour after we leave Dehradun’s checkpost behind, I notice something missing. No matter which direction one looks in, there isn’t a single mask to be spotted. Women, children, policemen, shopkeepers – in fact nobody – I see is wearing one. Masks of all shapes, sizes and hues that are so ubiquitous in the towns and cities, lying on roadsides like discarded banana peels, are suddenly a thing of the past.
I stare in shock at the vehicle just ahead of us: 20-odd young men packed like sardines, elbows nudging, almost atop each other. The group is chatting and laughing uproariously, as one would in so free a situation. Social distancing? I feel a pang of envy and indignation. What on earth is going on? We’ve been huddled indoors for months, fear lurking in every corner and here’s this devil-may-care lot, not a crease line of worry on their happy faces. It feels like we are in some kind of a sci-fi film, a distorted reality of sorts. Humankind may be in the same storm but in radically different boats, I think to myself.
After a four-hour bumpy ride – a portion of which is on dirt tracks and navigated in a rickety Bolero kind of vehicle driven by a local, we reach Deoban’s forest rest house, equipped with full camping gear as we expect to pitch up tents and lots of ration as we have been instructed to carry by the district forest officer in charge. “There’s nothing available there and you have no shops nearby, so please carry anything you want to consume” is his clear instruction when we seek permission to camp or stay in God’s own forest, Deoban.
When I get a chance, I ask the driver about the pandemic. Did he know there was something like this afoot? Had he heard of the Coronavirus, Covid-19? Did he know anyone infected? He says he knows something has been on – a viral that was deadlier than most – but nobody he knew had contracted it. Not in his village or any nearby location. So it remained a thing on television screens for a majority of them. Not real enough to lose sleep over. It was more the hit their livelihoods had taken due to a complete halt of tourists in the area, although everyone he knew had got by somehow. Now, tourists were back in record numbers and they were trying to cope with the influx. His brother and he had just opened a new hotel in the area that was now doing brisk business as an overnight halt for campers and hikers. As we exit the vehicle, I hastily tuck my mask into my jeans pocket. None of our small group of four was wearing one, even carrying one seemed a bit incongruous.
To say that Deoban – and in particular the spot where the forest rest house stands – is breathtaking sounds cliche, almost silly. The structure itself is at the top of the hill, staring into a rich green meadow before it, gently sloping. The meadow is divided into sections by tall deodar trees that seem bunched together in small groups – almost like they were engaged in a deep conversation. There’s a flat piece of ground surrounded by an oval circle of trees and you have to play hide and seek to spot the outline of two tents amidst the leafy green. The best spot to camp has been bagged already, I notice. The meadow has a line of high and some snow covered peaks behind it visible every time the clouds permit, which is not often. To the right of the property is one of those stunning spots with a large boulder to perch oneself on and watch a sliver of the setting orange sun light up the sky and get sucked into the trees as the evening approaches. These spots often feel like you have reached one particular end of the world. The golden light allows us to click a few perfect picture postcard-like shots. I spot two foxes in the vicinity, darting around.
But the forest rest house of Deoban doesn’t just face paradise, it is engulfed in it. Deodar trees with sunlight sneaking in through the branches, the swishing sounds of leaves, soft green grass that the cows can’t seem to get a fill of, butterflies with vivid colours fluttering everywhere, moths buzzing, all the usual forest sounds, pandemic notwithstanding. It all seems eerily normal. On Day 2, as my fellow travellers head out for a hike, I stay behind with my yoga mat, a beer can, my homemade curry patta and heeng peanuts, my book and a Bose speaker and iPod. Three hours of unfiltered bliss.
I find Daulat Ram, the sprightly and hard working 30-32-year-old caretaker working as temporary staff for a monthly wage of Rs 7,000, even more oblivious to the world outside than our lorry driver. He doesn’t have a television or radio set – although electricity is less erratic than one would expect – so his information is even scantier. He had been pleasantly surprised by the lull in tourists in April and May and had learnt why on a visit to his village. Again, the crisis seemed too distant to constitute a real worry. Fear of encounters with wild animals remained a far greater threat.
Both evenings, Daulat Ram shares some of his previously gathered wood and lights bonfires for us with the expertise only locals can muster. Wood is the one thing in abundant supply. Logs the size of a small Maruti are strewn everywhere and to return his favour we gather a few and bring them back for him on walks we take. He’s delighted at the gesture. He tells me we don’t behave like Indians and we should come back. He holds forth for a while on how hard his life is, happy to speak openly to an unexpected listening ear. He also turns out to be a better cook than we anticipated. He churns out basic simple fare for us, excelling with dal, and a unique flavoured rajma, the second a matter of pride for all Uttarakhandis. All his vegetables have a rustic effortless touch.
After three days of mask-less-ness – the last day involves a 9-kilometre hike down to the roadhead and our car through pristine woods that make one want to hug trees and run pointlessly like in an olden-day Bollywood film – following which the world seems a saner place, we drive back on a Sunday. The drive back seems longer, dustier, less inspiring. As we enter the outskirts of Doon, I spot a mask. The pandemic and its unrelenting grip on humankind is intact, the closer to home one gets.