The lockdown has apparently crippled many people’s social lives. I am not one for going out every week, so I am not someone who sorely misses dining out or partying. But once in a while, yes, I do miss doing the simple things: reading a newspaper or taking a walk in the park or simply having my favourite street food one fine evening.
Instead for me, this searing summer heat is far more crippling. I cannot escape it, except in the mind. Therefore, often in the past few days, I have vaguely dreamt of being back in the mountains. No, I am not one who feels an inner calling to the mountains or anything of the sort that seems to be afflicting a lot of people. But yes, whenever someone asks me where I prefer to travel: beaches or mountains? I promptly answer: mountains.
So, off late, I have been thinking about why this promptness and why I have this deep love for the mountains. It is not like I am the best of hikers that I can go climbing up any mountain. After a bit of introspection I found my answer: it was because of a lovely book I read when I was 10 years old: Heidi by Johanna Spyri.
It was also the first complete novel I ever read! Before that I used to read short stories, Champak, Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha, and the abridged versions of full length novels. One fine day, however, I think I realized that I need to ‘grow up,’ (how innocent that thought was then!) by reading a complete novel and not these shortened versions!
I was thrilled to have come across a copy of Heidi at a book fair. I still have that copy with me. I found it when reorganizing my book cupboard last year.
What has also stayed with me till today is Heidi’s rollicking fun in the mountains and the insurmountable problems she faces. I feel a close connection to her to the extent that whenever I reread the book, I feel I am reading about a friend. While for many children, Alice from Alice in Wonderland was the gateway to more reading, for me it was Heidi’s adventures that created an insatiable appetite for reading.
The novel starts with Heidi, an orphan, being sent by her aunt, Dete to live with her paternal grandfather in the Swiss mountains. Her aunt had got a new job in Frankfurt and was unable to take Heidi with her. Heidi’s grandfather lived away from the nearest village in a small house among the tall mountains. He was known for being tough and gruff. Most villagers were afraid of him and did not understand how he would live with a 5-year-old child.
Slowly, Heidi’s cheerfulness and innocence melted his heart. She soon also became friends with Peter, the goatherd, who lived nearby with his blind grandmother. Heidi began to cherish her new surroundings, rejoicing in her bed of hay in the hay loft that gave her a beautiful view of the valley; the fresh goat’s milk her grandfather gave her every morning or her leisurely trips to the pastures with Peter.
The simple meals she had of bread, cheese, and milk are so vividly etched in my mind that my mouth still waters when thinking or reading about it.
The descriptions of Heidi’s simple yet full life created an idyllic image of the Swiss Alps in my mind. It was not a Bollywood movie of the 90s that made me long to go to Switzerland, but rather this five-year-old child’s daily life with her grandfather.
Another personal connection to the novel was also developed because I could see my own maternal grandfather in Heidi’s. While mine did not live in the mountains, he was stern and strict yet loving and caring in his own little ways.
I also tried to inculcate the same wonder that Heidi had for nature. I did not grow up in the mountains but I always used to, and still do, marvel at small delights found in nature whether it is the red blooms of the gulmohar, the smell of the mango blossoms, eating jamun from the tree or birds chirping in the morning or taking a dip in the water dish. I love taking pleasure from the minutest of nature’s wonders.
The writer, Johanna Spyri, captured the spirit and soul of a child in Heidi. We may think that children have nothing to worry about or nothing that they truly understand but Heidi was able to discern the human in her grandfather much better than all the villagers who shied away from him. Her sheer delight and appreciation for all the birds and plants around her make her a far better observer than any adult.
Heidi’s deep love for the mountains and the attachment to her grandfather was what she sorely missed when she was taken to Frankfurt to be a companion for the invalid child, Clara. Heidi’s change in behavior because of being away from the mountains is described in great detail such that it lends to a good psychological understanding of the effects of a cruel separation on a child.
Thus, as we find ourselves slowly unraveling from the lockdown, knowing still that travelling and hiking the mountains will remain a distant dream for some time, I think we could all pick up Heidi and take a visual and literary trip to the fresh, invigorating environs of the Swiss Alps and also learn a thing or two about appreciating nature’s beauty.
Do not dismiss it as a children’s novel, but view it as one where you can take two trips: one to the mountains and one back to your own childhood when things were much simpler and easier.
The book is easily available in different formats on Project Gutenberg!
Happy reading! Happy Wanderlusting through books!