A dysfunctional family finds harmony and plenty of nostalgia in the hilly forests of Ramgarh, Uttarakhand. By Shikha Tripathi
Making a gable roof, over my eyes with my hand, I peer into the distance. My father is tracing the faint outline of hills in the distance, announcing their names. Nodding and sipping our crisp ginger tea on the little terrace verandah of our cottage, my mother and I follow his index finger. We might be tired from our journey to Ramgarh—perched in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region—but our fall down the rabbit hole of nostalgia is dizzyingly fast.
Four decades ago, my father—then a young and sprightly forest officer—traversed most of this region in rickety green jeeps, on his bulky Royal Enfield, and on foot where neither could go. In the early days of his career, he facilitated multiple plantations that transformed the pine-infested Kumaon hills, converted bare land patches into forest nurseries, and sealed many friendships with families at remote outposts. Oblivious to his work, my mother was attending college barely 40 kilometres away in Nainital, where I would eventually take birth and grow up. Ramgarh is where she brought me and my brother for a break when we were kids, she tells me as she takes in the cottage-dotted hillside that was once pure wilderness.
Perched high above Ramgarh town on the Gagar ridge is our elfin cottage, The White Peaks. It offers a great vantage point for the surrounds: Talla Ramgarh, or lower Ramgarh, spread out below, a winding forest trail that connects the hamlet to this ridge, and, true to the homestead’s name, pallid peaks of the Kumaon Himalayas that rise like lightly whipped foam in a sea of blue on a clear morning. In the distance stands Tagore hilltop, believed to have been the poet’s haunt on his hill visits and popular today with tourists for a day trip. They pair it with a visit to writer and activist Mahadevi Verma’s home-turned-museum. We choose to hike up to Jhandidhar the following morning, a gradual incline through oak and rhododendron forests starting right outside the cottage and going all the way to a small hilltop temple with a 360° view.
Living in the foothills of Nainital, my parents are reasonably fit for their age, and in under an hour, we cover the nearly two-kilometre uphill hike. From the top, we can see the radar station and Cheena Peak of Nainital, seemingly close as the crow flies, and places we last visited together as a family—before the pandemic brought us together again. First eagerly, then grudgingly, we finally seem to have found our bearings on this trip.
While the road from Nainital to Gagar would have taken us less than a couple of hours, we took a longer route to make pit stops at Chaanfi for a cup of tea with a family who had taken my father under their wing when he was a new officer and then at Chaukhuta near Mukteshwar where he worked in the 1970s and stumbled upon a confident young insurance agent, who had turned out to be his childhood playmate. We continued further to Mukteshwar, to the exact spots that feature in faded photos of my mother—then a youthful teacher on a staff picnic with a radiant smile and a dreamy twinkle in her eyes. We don’t talk about how many of those dreams have come true, but walking around Chauli ki Jali and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) brings back the twinkle and the beaming smile, even if for a fleeting moment.
Back at The White Peaks, we request Mohan, the cook and caretaker, for yet another round of chai like true pahadis. Kali, the resident mutt, saunters over for some biscuits and petting in exchange for furry comfort. There is little about our family trips that we have agreed upon over the years, with the hiccups of my mother’s reluctance, my father’s eccentric routine, and my erratic work schedule, all playing spoilsport. But, here and now, we appear to have reached an unspoken accord. There is something about this place—not a hotel or a homestay but something halfway—that makes us feel at ease. Perhaps it is the energy bequeathed by Abhijit and Aparupa Ganguly to their summer home built with stone, seasoned wood, and an old love for the hills. The petite house has a living and dining space that a compact wooden staircase connects to the upper floor, which holds two cosy bedrooms. I tell my mother about Madhubani paintings framed and hung outside her room, and she tells me about the Kantha work on my room’s window curtains. With candle stands, couches, and colourful throw pillows, there is a little bit of everything that you’d associate with the idea of home, framed perfectly like the photos of the Gangulys on the mantelpiece.
Evening calls for another long walk, and we go towards the Kulethi forest this time. Away from the popular trails—not that there are too many people here anyway in these times—the long and slow walk is without much talk. We come back with a happy recollection of memories from Bhimtal, spotted in the valley below at the end of the trail, and a four-legged friend we make en route. Mohan’s delectable meal of rajma and seviyan kheer awaits us as we bid goodbye to ‘Jimmy’, our new-found forest friend whom we named in honour of Jim Corbett.
In the evening, my father surprisingly agrees to turn off the news. I, too, set my usual sunset companions, book and phone, aside. My mother pulls out a photo atlas from the small but fine collection of books neatly stacked in a pile underneath the console table. Huddled over the glossy volume, we begin our imagined travels. Easter Island, Antarctica, the highlands of Africa—we traverse them all. In the morning, I will sit and moodily sketch the white peaks in the distance, while my parents will wonder out loud if they will ever get to return here. But for now, we joyously live our unlived lives, poring over the world on a table and tracing epic journeys with our fingers.
Ramgarh is located 40 kilometres away from Kathgodam, the nearest railhead. It is an eight-hour drive from Delhi. The White Peaks is on the Gagar ridge, which overlooks Ramgarh and is around three kilometres from the town centre. There is a gentle, winding, motorable road that connects the two. A slightly shorter and steeper (but lovely) walking route cuts through the forest.
The White Peaks is a pet-friendly property with two cosy bedrooms. It is surrounded by silver oak woods on three sides and offers 180° views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks. Book the entire cottage for INR 5,000 per person per night (all-inclusive)