An early start into the lush Himalayan forest gave dappled light and dancing beams upon the leaves. Passing through and beyond the local forest village we were reminded of the relativity of the tranquility by sounds of frequent trucks passing along the road in Do Gaon below, itself a small one street town yet a sign of India’s rapacious ‘development’ even in these once-remote areas.
Chai’s were made hasty as our meeting with the Brigadier beckoned. Within a few minutes raised arms had brought a hitch and the open-back truck was eagerly boarded.
Warm morning air and sharp corners ensured an invigorating start to the day. Lower foothills rolling away into higher peaks graced both sides of the winding road as our driver attempted every overtake possible, accompanied by the characteristic horn use.
The absence of observed regulations in these lands and readiness of people to accept much higher levels of risk cannot fail to excite on occasions someone travelling from Europe. When it reaches a crescendo, the experience of travel on India’s road and rail network can quickly become an exemplary form of highly organised chaos, one which can cope with incredible strain and population pressure yet still maintain continuous operation.
The quiet town of Bhimtal sits perched above a large lake and exudes a relaxed feel with its houses placed leisurely on the slopes. Finding the driveway set back from the road with gates suitably inscribed with title and retired status of Brigadier Pant we made our way up to find a quiet garden scene with helpers planting and their children playing on the lawn overlooking the lake below. Greeted by his wife Kum Kum, tea was quickly offered and a suitably accommodating patio lounger found.
An interesting and probing conversation with her followed, characteristic it seems of so many here in the Indian subcontinent. Displayed is a supple association with global, domestic and general goings on. From economics and youth employment to the environment, farming and our global future, and all coupled with this knowing twinkle in the eye, a compassionate humility, in some way informed by an underlying recognition of the triviality and relative insignificance of so much to which we ascribe value in our modern times.
This, I have later decided, is in part the result of growing up in an environment in which one is exposed on a regular basis to human struggles of all kinds, a reality of existence which we in the western world have so shielded ourselves from, a reality that reaches us through news broadcasts rather than first-hand experience. And in part also the result of a sense of a spiritual underpinning to the life of many here in India of all different religions. Spirituality is present and displayed here in ways we have long forgotten in most of Europe, there is a huge shared bond between Hindus for instance, which exists as a result of sharing in, and having insight into, an ancient religious knowledge, and this at times inevitably translates across into informing worldviews on temporal, as well as spiritual, affairs.
Smoking on a gold flake, a cheap local cigarette, a little distanced removed from the sensibilities of Kum Kum I see the Brigadier striding up the driveway. Looking at least a decade under his ripe age of seventy-three he dons his characteristic up-curling mustache and baggy joggers. A brief shouted exchange and embrace is followed by a jovial scolding concerning the unwise habit of poison-inhalation.
Unpredictable internet, chai, thali and chasing macaques later, we sit once more with the Brigadier in the fading Himalayan light. He has this certain presence in which one feels secure and light of heart. A deep humour coupled with great kindness, he was a man many respected. Born to Brahmin parents towards the last years of the British Empire in India; he had seen a great deal of change. A nationalist, as you’d expect from one who’d given so much time to the armed forces, yet not in a combative way, just an assured confidence and pride in his nation.
Vegetarian by birth and lifelong believer and practitioner of Ayurvedic homeopathy, his journey into farming and plant cultivation seemed natural. He had a huge wealth of knowledge on crop and plant varieties both in relation to food and medicine. This Indian- specific knowledge was then also coupled with an international perspective from his time spent abroad on projects such as the San Francisco Garden Project. This was the context to which people from all over the world were now able to come with purpose to this little known area of the Himalayan foothills to join an idea of immense relevance and value to the present day. As I sat there I thought that this project which I also had come to be a part of now was an example of inspired thinking and organic development imbued with a grace only afforded to things pure in heart.
Moving to depart in the blackness with newly-acquired seedlings held under arms, Mr Malik and I bid our farewells and headed off into the Bhimtal night, confident that the Brigadier’s blessings would protect us from the leopards which stalk our forest path home.