Autumn, or the fall in Canada is my favourite time of the year. It is a wondrous sight to watch nature at play as trees come alive in a riot of colours, each emblazoned by and reflective of the unique moods and hues of light from the rising of the sun until it sets. It is like an artist continuing to paint the same landscape, utilizing a different palette of colours each time. Equally remarkable are the accompanying sounds at this time of the year, like the honking of geese flying overhead in regimented patterns as they head out to warmer climes and the rustle of crisp leaves being blown around the street by a cool, gusty wind.
“Patjhar” (literally, the shedding of leaves) or the autumn season starts in northern India around end-October, soon after the summer monsoons. High in the hills, leaves do change colour and beautifully transform the landscape. Late rains in autumn produce the crisp mountain air redolent of damp earth and pine needles. At dusk fog starts to roll up in thick waves from the depths of deep valleys, bringing with it wafting flavours of aromatic fresh tobacco from a distant “hookah” (hubble-bubble) mixed with the acrid but not unpleasant smoke from the dried cow dung cakes fuelled cooking fires burning in the hearth of huts lining the hill slopes. In those simple times now buried in the past, I would strain to catch the lyrics of some popular song playing on a transistor radio; the sound traveling far because of the clear mountain air. Occasionally, one could catch strains of some wistful folk tune on a flute. Close by, there would be the gentle tinkling of a bell tied around the neck of a cow or a goat, as it prepared to settle for the night.
Sometime during the1960s my family acquired our first car (a Fiat, which was later renamed a Premier Padmini) and decided to travel to Kulu and Manali. My parents and I were joined by an older cousin, his wife and a son who was a few years younger than me. My cousin’s friend owned several orchards across the valley and an advance message requesting accommodation for us had earlier been sent to him. When we finally arrived after a long journey just as dusk was falling, our host was very surprised to see us. Apparently, our message had never reached him. This was a time when there were no smartphones or internet and one had to either send a “telegram” or book a “trunk call” on a landline and hope to be able to communicate with the party at the other end. While very pleased to see us, our host was most apologetic as he had rented his place to a party of “foreigners” who were occupying the house at the time. He graciously arranged to have the outhouse opened and cleaned up for our use. We were provided mattresses to spread on the packed-earth floor and blankets to ward off the bitter cold in the drafty, unheated single room. There was no electricity and we had a couple of kerosene-fueled lamps to provide the light. The toilet was outside, around the back of the outhouse and we were cautioned to exercise care if using the facility at night as bears and mountain lions were regularly spotted higher up on the hill! We stayed there for a week and were able to move in to the more comfortable accommodation in the main house after a couple of nights. It was a real adventure to cook meals on an open-hearth fire and wash ourselves from icy cold water collected from a mountain spring close by.
On our return journey home, late autumn rains had caused landslides. Driving on the single lane road was a treacherous, hair-raising experience. A vertical wall of rock and loose earth rose on one end of the road, while on the other side there was no guardrail to protect a vehicle from plunging several thousand feet into the Beas river. The untarred road had turned into a pool of wet sludge and the car wheels would spin out of control, or get stuck in the thick mud that had fallen off the mountain side. I still recall our shrieks as at one time, a wheel spun over the precipice even as my father tried desperately to maneuver the car back on to the road. Luckily for us there was a gang of road-repairmen close by who rushed to our assistance and managed to haul us back to safety.
The fall also strikes a sombre mood in me. It is time to introspect on yet another life-cycle drawing to a close, signalling the temporary hunkering down by the flora and fauna as instinct cautions them to start preparing for survival through the approaching winter. Author Shana Chartier has beautifully written, “If only humans could die like the autumn leaves, with a splash of beauty and the promise of another season.” If only.
Nudging towards my autumn years, I am content to enjoy the fall spectacle unfolding in my neighbourhood while kids roll around in piles of freshly raked leaves.
A favorite poetess Parveen Shakir reminds me:
“vagarna fasl-e-gul kī qadr kyā thī
baḌī hikmat hai vābastā ḳhizāñ se”
[What would be the value/importance of spring
But (if not) for the strong wisdom associated with autumn/old age]