Heidi in the Alps

Wanderlust: Lockdown Hiking in the Alps With Heidi

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!

 

AazadiMeraBrand Book Cover

For Indian Women, ‘to be allowed to be, or not allowed to be’ is the Question

The history of travel-writing in Hindi is short. Rahul Sankrityayan being the most prominent name in this genre followed by a very few. However, what is both surprising and disappointing is that one cannot spot even a single woman writer marking such journeys. Anuradha Beniwal breaks this unimposed pattern and writes about her journey of solo travelling in Europe in her first book Azaadi Mera Brand.

Inspired by an Italian friend from her college days, she sheds all the stereotypical brands attached to an Indian girl and discovers Azaadi – Freedom to be her favorite brand. She starts her journey not from any city but from her home by questioning what stops a girl, a woman in travelling solo- is it a self inhibition or the judgments of being a good or bad girl by the society? She quotes Shakespeare- “to be, or not to be: that is the question” and is quick to answer herself that the question changes in reference to India. In India, the question (especially for girls) is “to be allowed to be, or not allowed to be.” She also mentions that a huge amount of savings is not a precondition for being a vagabond and shares hilarious instances of how she raised the money all by herself for the trip. Answering many such questions, this free spirit sets on a solo journey for Europe starting from London (where she currently resides) travelling to the cities of Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague among other which I leave unnamed here as the way she discovers them without following a strict itinerary because the thrill of travelling without knowing what is next is unmatchable.

She begins with Paris. Roaming around the lanes learning a few French words to interact with the people, she says – “the best way to explore a city is by walking, you not only interact with people but the art and architecture of the place too.” She vividly paints the pictures of her adventures of meeting new people, going through various museums, trying quirky cuisines and partying with random people. She also shares interesting anecdotes of Indians she came across living in those cities.

She hitchhikes from one city to another sharing cabs and wonders would it be ever so safe and possible in her own country? While she holds your hands and takes you along to Europe with her words, she is candid about the cultural contrasts with respect to the Indian mindset. On her entire journey, Anuradha does not book a hotel but lodges in the home-stays. All the stays have peculiar stories from staying alone in a room without lock to staying with two young boys who have a little message for the guest “Come the way as you are”- hung upside down on the door. Though, not all the stays were as welcoming. Well, there comes no travelling without hurdles. You lose your camera, your mobile discharges when you need it the most, taking the wrong lane and the horrific out of all, you miss the scheduled bus by a few seconds.

Anuradha, a former National Indian chess player, now settled in London is outspoken of all that is going in her mind throughout the journey which makes the book even more authentic. It is not just a diary of wanderlust but of courage of letting oneself free and vulnerable. Coming from a small village of Haryana, Anuradha describes her book as the travel memoir of a wanderer ‘Haryanvi Chori’. In the last chapter of the book, she addresses to all the girls of her country to shed all the inhibitions and shackles they think they are bound by and set out on the journey they want to take.

Published in 2016 by Rajkamal Prakashan, the book is first in the series of ‘Yayavari-Aawargi’ (Vagabondage). The book attracted a lot of appreciation and earned author the ‘Srijnatmak Gadya Samman’. Anuradha is the youngest writer to win the award. Available on Amazon Kindle, this travelogue is the perfect read for all the Hindi lovers to shoo away the monotonicity in the time of lockdown and wander freely in the lanes of Europe.

Sunil Mishra’s Transit Lounge

A lot of us who are bitten by the bug of wanderlust, often envy those who are privileged to travel across the skies, as a part of their job. So, it goes without saying how green I was with envy when I read the blurb of Sunil Mishra’s ‘Transit Lounge’. It reads, – “An Indian’s account of travelling to thirty countries across six continents”. The envy turns into a smile as he explains how International travel from India has drastically changed in the last 20 years.

Sunil begins the book with a disclaimer that the book is a “non-expert’s account of capturing the world-view from personal experiences of travelling” and that his observations could be “partial, in pockets and non-exhaustive”. I think it was very thoughtful of him to mention that because as Roman Payne says “Depending on the city and on the traveller, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.”

Sunil is an IT professional and has been travelling on business to various parts of the world. While some of his travels have been short stays, there are places he had revisited, some even multiple times over many years. So, while some accounts have limited information owing to the short stay, there are others that let you peek into these cities through various times and understand how they have changed. When you are a traveller, few of the first things that help make an impression of the place and its people are the airports, the taxis, the taxi drivers, the roads, the rails, the traffic on these and finally, the hospitality at the place of your stay. Sunil invariably talks about most of these in all his travel accounts giving you a taste of these places.

It is interesting to learn how some countries have evolved rather too quickly, while some have conveniently remained stagnant in their glorious past and some have shattered beyond recognition thanks to political turmoil and extremism. Sunil also talks about the various stereotyping that exists, how the dominant media paints an incorrect picture of the other parts of the world and how travel has made him see them all in a different light. You will also find the author constantly comparing the place that he is visiting with the state-of-affairs back at home, in India. He also records the appalling disparity in the standards of living among various countries.

The book is a mixed bag of travel tales. While few stories will introduce you to the culture or historical significance of the place, some of his stories will surely help you prepare for international travels especially to those countries with stringent and difficult immigration processes. There are stories that warn you of the fraudulent elements and there are stories that reassure you that the world is a better place than you thought. You might even get to relive the anxiety of your first travel and all those times when things went wrong with your travel plan and also those times when you got lucky.

The language of the book is free-flowing. It is an interesting and light-hearted read. While I empathize with the author’s trouble in getting a publisher, I feel the book could have used another round of editing. For a travelogue, the book is lacking in photographs, but then you must remember that some writers give you better stories than any picture will ever give you. That is true for this book as well. Also add to it, the fact that some of these stories are from before the mobile camera/DSLR era. In the words of Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” The learnings that Sunil talks about, at the end of his book proves how true those words are. After finishing the book, I am left with just one question – When is Sunil planning to cover the seventh continent?