Standing on the city’s main road in Nainital, now in India’s newly created state of Uttarakhand, I looked up the high hill. “Those blocks you see over there are part of Birla Vidya Mandir, the famous educational institution you want to go to,” the local resident told me.
“Yes I can see those matchbox like structures that constitute the school”, I assured him. He had a laugh at the school blocks being likened to matchboxes. The description amply indicated that the school was located at a considerable height, according to him, about 2,000 feet high.
That was what a couple of local men standing near us vouched for in that summer of late 1960s when my wife and I had gone to Nainital to spend some time in the cool environs of the hill station. I had visited the city earlier also but had not gone beyond the lowly foothills and shopping centres. But for my wife, it was her first visit to any hill station so she was naturally more excited than me. My joys got a fillip because unlike in our conservative city I walked with my wife hand-in-hand or hands around the waists, in the markets and on the Flat, the well-known promenade where tourists gather to revel and soak in the ambience. Of special interest used to be photo-ops with cameramen roaming with loads of local attires and artificial accessories. Female tourists would wear these and take the photographs back home as a souvenir. Young men posed for photographs with cut outs of their favourite film stars.
For me, the main attraction was boating in the renowned Nainital lake which had its own unique charm. I used the oars to propel the little colourful boat while my wife sat opposite, giggling because that was her first such experience in the vast lake.
We completed the day’s sightseeing and endless shopping sessions purchasing knick-knacks as mementos for everybody back home. Then came the arduous task of going up to the Birla school to spend some time with my maternal uncle, who was a teacher and hostel warden over there.
Once again, I looked up the high hill, sighed and exclaimed, “Oh my God, how will we reach there?” However, my uncle, who was with me and other locals, bolstered our spirits saying that climbing that much was child’s play. Even if it was an exaggeration, he said, “It won’t be difficult at all. My son makes two trips from here to the school every day.”
I would tell them that it was okay with hill folk but for people from the plains like us, it was an uphill task in the real sense of the term.
“You are not scaling Mount Everest,” chuckled another local resident. “It is not as high as a young couple like you should worry about. After all, hundreds of students are staying in hostels over there who come down every now and then.” The soft-spoken gentleman tried to put us to shame.
I also felt that climbing may not be as difficult as I was imagining it to be. In the heart of my heart, I knew that my worries were rooted in my first experience in scaling some hill. It was a kind of acrophobia — a fear of climbing hills.
Despite coaxing and cajoling, I was still not very much inclined to go up. The steep view of the hills was deterring me. Finally, I agreed to go to keep the word I had given to my uncle. However, I turned around the suggestion that I ride a pony in view of an earlier bad experience with a mischievous horse. But surely I hired a pony for my wife for whom that was again a first-ever experience. Even though the horseman conducted her ride by holding the reins all the time, that pony, too, gave several breathless and anxious moments by walking on the edge of the road towards gorges. It refused to walk along the hill. The horseman repeatedly advised me to calm down saying that it was the animal’s tendency to walk that way. “Don’t worry, sir, the pony will carry her safely,” he reassured.
Those were the days when we did not bother much about rising or falling blood pressure as we did in later years. Even if it was rising, it could not have been measured and nothing could have been done. Our young age overcame the phobia.
Yet at short intervals, I perspired even in that cool atmosphere. I would pause for a while for rest. A local old man passing by me looked at me, gave a wry smile and advised me to inhale deeply six times whenever I felt tired and I would be okay. I followed the advice and I was really back to normalcy. In about an hour’s time, we reached our destination. While I was still gasping for breath, my wife was helped in dismounting the pony by the horseman. The porter had arrived much earlier carrying our luggage tied to his forehead. We stayed there for a few days but vowed not to come to such a high place again.
My phobia continues to rule my mind even today and I have never gone there again.