Last weekend my mother and I took my niece up to Sitla Estate in Kumaon. The overnight Ranikhet Express train to Kathgodam leaves from Old Delhi Railway Station, which, for those of you who haven’t been in a while, is still monstrously crowded and smelly. Four-year-old Tara lives in Boston, where the last germ was hacked to death in the middle of the last century (though now with swine flu all bets are off), so the station was a bit of a shock to her.
“This is not good!” she shouted as I dragged her up the stairs holding her hand in a death grip. I couldn’t actually see her in a sea of people and swinging luggage. It’s not good, I agreed, but we’ll soon be in our compartment. I thought she followed up with ‘Ooo!’ but it turned out she was yelling “My shoe!” I recovered it halfway down the staircase. Her little head was buffeted this way and that, and while she bravely soldiered on without complaint, she was pretty shell-shocked by the time we picked our way through the human wreckage on the platform to wait for our train.
“Is it morning, afternoon or night?” she asked, wiping her brow. I thought she was messing with me. I pointed at the sky and asked her what she thought. “That’s not the sky, we have to go outside to see the sky,” she said. I realised that train stations in Boston are probably enclosed. Her face was wonderstruck at the idea of an open-air station, and grew even more so when she saw the little sink and the ladder to the upper bunk in our first class coupe.
This was to be not only her first experience with Indian Railways but also her first trip without either her mother or her father, and I was worried that she might get cranky, but when I told her it was time to sleep, she ground her fists vigorously against her eyes saying that this was the way to get sleepy right away, stuck her thumb in her mouth, and immediately fell asleep.
She was delighted with the “curly streets” that wound through the mountains the next morning; with the “hairy hills”; with the bunnies in the hutch; with the pancakes and honey breakfast that our host Vikram gave her; and most of all with Vikram himself, who had an answer to anything she came up with. One evening at dinner she declared that she couldn’t eat her pasta because it was sick. Sick? we asked. It’s not feeling well at all, she said firmly. My mother and I just stared at her, but she had met her match in Vikram, who nodded gravely, marched off and returned with a plastic syringe, with which he administered a few injections to the ailing pasta. Now that it was all better could she eat, he asked? “Yeah!” she shouted, outmanoeuvred, and gobbled the lot.
She spent a lot of time on imaginary phone calls, telling imaginary people that Sitla was “the most beautifulest place in the world” with “giantic mountains”, and that she was “never ever ever leaving”. Her long-standing fear of dogs disappeared around the estate’s two beautiful German shepherds. She made fast friends with a wriggly five-year-old fellow guest, and the two of them spent hours on end discussing Sita and Ravana, and playing Ludo and Snakes & Ladders without any dice, as well as a version of chess in which you impale a hollow plastic chessman on all of your digits and then make scary claws at each other.
She was, in other words, happy as a clam. I realised that I just wanted her to love it the way I do, and was thrilled that she did. I can’t say what would have happened if it had all gone the other way.
I might have had to throw her off a giantic hillside.