‘Kya betch rahe ho?’ asks a young woman. Next to her stands an older woman. They are filling up their pots at a water fountain. It must seem strange to them to see me with a backpack but not shouting out my wares.
‘Kuch nahi,’ I tell them. ‘Mein ghoomne aaya hoon.’
The woman break into suppressed giggles as I wander away. I have come far from Nainital’s famous lake and the tourists spots that surround it. I want to see real Nainital. I have climbed down a long way. I have passed neighbourhoods that are little more than shanty towns. The day is hot and it is only a constant breeze that keeps me cool.
I continue to wander the slopes of these hills. Pretty lilies in pinks and whites dot the fringes of my paths. Prickly agaves twist and throw their fronds into the afternoon air. The hills around are splendid but the harsh afternoon light does not flatter them. I suspent the mood would be a lot better and justly subdued at twilight.
Back in town I step into Cafe de Nainital for a lunch of vegetarian biryani. The place of such a Continental name suggests upclass and tourism. The place is posh with a wonderful view of the lake. I finish my meal and head to the lake for a few quiet minutes. The lake is fairly clean but a look at the garbage floating at the margins: one desires more. People take to boating on the lake. Such a passive pursuit does not appeal to me. Boating is one of those things to be enjoyed only in right company, not alone. The lake is perhaps the size of Bangalore’s Ulsoor Lake. Its setting among the hills gives it a more pleasing character.
‘Other than the lake, is there anything to see in Nainital?’ I ask a photographer loitering around for business. The man is middle-aged. He has tried to hide his age by colouring his white hairs. He is dressed in clean formals with a pair of leather shows to complete the look. An old SLR camera hangs like a bulky tribal necklace of obsolete technology. Such photographers make a dying breed and it is difficult not to feel sorry for them. Death by technology, that’s what it really is.
‘You can visit the temple,’ he points to the far side of the lake. ‘There is a Tibetan market there. There is also a zoo in town.’
It’s a pleasant walk along the lake’s edge. Colourful flowers hang in wicker baskets on poles. Nainital is a crowded place and popular with tourists. The traffic is continuous but well-managed when compared to the madness of Patna, Kanpur or Bangalore. I suspect Nainital was once a place hidden among the hills with its jewel lake. Then the British discovered it and made it a popular tourist destination. As in every other hill station or places of desired seclusion, the crowds came in and with them brought the madness of the plains. Visitors do not understand that they have to pack only clothes and essentials, not their rudeness, impatience, lack of civic sense and I-own-the-road attitude. So in time, I surmise, Nainital lost its appeal. Today I see that it is on the rebound but only just. The old charm and quietness is forever lost.
I find the Tibetan market uninteresting. At the Naina Devi Temple, I am lazy to removes my boots. So I skip the temple and walk across an open field. I notice a gurudwara. On the other side of the field is a spectacular mosque. I just wonder why it isn’t more famous. It is a large mosque on many levels. A high pistaq frames a doorway. Behind that is a dome. To the left of the building is a tall minaret. Repetitive arches and clean lines lend the building a certain grace. A line of pinnacles adorn the structure at terrace level.
As I get closer to the mosque I see why it isn’t more famous. It is a plain building with a decorated facade. The facade creates the illusion of a large mosque. It is cleverly done and quite effective from a distance. I had first seen a similar and much smaller facade in Gaya, Bihar.
I return to the bus stand. There is a bus ready to depart for Kathgodam. I’ve been in Nainital for only a few hours. I think that’s all one needs to see Nainital. There is the lake. Everything else is crass tourism.