The fishing personality is patient. And passionate. He can wait days, weeks if need be, to catch a fish. Stay focused, not on the fish but on the pursuit, the thrill of the pursuit. He should be willing to experiment. No matter how experienced he is, he has to be open to new ideas, because fish can make you dance. And he must have luck, loads of it. These are the words of Hoshiar Singh, my fly fishing instructor, a glorious storyteller and all-round mountain cat.
By this index, I am fishing personality type A. Minutes into my first lesson, I am deeply smitten by the beauteous looping motions by which fly fishers cast a line to bait fish. I have confessed already, in that flush of first love, that it doesn’t matter if I don’t catch a fish. I have come in search of the fisherman’s groove: that enjoyment of solitude and stillness, that fluidity of motion, that sharpness of mind and body you need to reel in a big hoary fish. My inexperience means superb experimentation. Every line I cast is an accident of sorts. Yet, a couple of hours into the lesson, I reel in a gleaming golden mahseer, a tiny one, but a mahseer nevertheless, that holy grail of sport fishing in India. The mahseer is India’s most prized catch for the fishing enthusiast, a wily, smartass, river fish that can grow up to 50 kg in size and is so hard to catch it is considered mystical.
“You, madam, are very, very lucky. Never in my life have I seen someone catch a mahseer on their first time. You, madam, have the destiny of one in a million,” says Singh. Clearly, I score high on that last count: luck. Even if my catch is only 200 gm.
A gang of black-faced langurs, far better behaved than the monkeys who raid my Delhi apartment, roll down an assortment of boulders from the mountains, perhaps in celebration of my catch. A band of barking deer call out in endorsement. A gaggle of appreciative birds sing out a tiny stanza. The Ramganga, a brisk mountain river, feels cool and sweet around my toes. I do feel lucky.
And then there is Hoshiar Singh, a performing artist teaching me how to fish. As I sip water from a bottle cooled in a nook of the jade river and watch him, a dancer on the slippery rocks, I feel a thrill of desire. One day, I might move like that, in such clean, graceful movements that I set off pangs of envy among the people who have assembled in my mind to watch (bosses mostly, high school rivals and beautiful people, you know).
But that day is still far. As I stumble up the stony mountain path back to the camp site, I ask unashamedly for help and two men graciously offer their hands. I take both. Located inside Jim Corbett National Park, the Himalayan Outback camp in Bandhran village near Marchulla is that kind of place. The kind where life in a forest is meant to feel like life in a forest. There is no electricity, water is scarce, the paths are unpaved, and the car has to be left down below. Just about everything looks untamed. Pythons, wild boar and all sorts of wild things can pass through the camp. A couple of days ago, a tigress was spotted sitting near the dining hall. The dogs barked continually till she left. Perhaps she was in a good mood.
There’s no guarantee that nothing will happen—the staff is candid about this. “We are in their space here,” says Shyam Gurung, a manager at the camp. But sensible precautions are routinely taken, a fire is lit at night when guests are present, and so far, there has been no accident. Besides, it gives me a delicious shiver to think a tiger sat a few feet away from where I am, having chai-biskoot and gossiping with Singh.
The staff is telepathic. After four hours of fishing lessons and negotiating stony, precarious paths, I am hungry ahead of schedule. Lunch is still two hours away, at one pm, but there is a tray waiting for us: cups of chai, Bourbon biscuits and a salver of fruit. Minutes later, tall glasses of nimbu paani arrive, chic with fragrant strands of lemon grass in them. I am sated, I think I could write poetry. Instead, I find my mind turning to lunch.
That’s the thing about holidays, the appetite. Besides, the afternoons are hot here, leaving little to do—maybe a dip in the river, a snooze. But I swam the day before, for a few minutes, in the Ramganga. I decide to explore the kitchen instead; there is research to be done. Last night, there appeared, after a dinner of rice, chicken curry and dal, a flawless carrot cake—soft, moist, perfectly sweet and not too carroty, thank God. The chef has to be met.
The kitchen is a beige tent lined with cupboards. But there is no refrigerator or oven. There are ice boxes for drinks and meat. They get groceries from the nearest market every three or four days. The cakes and pies and breads materialise out of a small aluminium vessel that functions as an oven when placed over a gas burner. Gajju, or Gajendra Singh Rawat, is a small, neat man with a shy smile. He flashes one of these at some grated cheese when I ask where he learnt to cook. He grew up in the mountains of Uttarakhand and has no formal culinary qualification. He picked up his skills working in kitchens, he says, addressing a tomatoey sauce on a burner.
Lunch is spaghetti with red sauce, pizza and baked vegetables. I’ve eaten better pasta, but the pizza, not too cheesy and with a crisp thin crust, is super. It goes well with the stories of the American guests. There is a big group of them here, friends of friends and neighbours and old colleagues, fishing enthusiasts all. They talk of catching swordfish in Guatemala and going down rapids in Montana to rescue boats they forgot to anchor. We eat together here, and laugh a lot, often at jokes I don’t get.
Evenings in Marchulla are the loveliest time of day. You could sit in the common dining room with pakodas and sandwiches, listen to the river burble, watch goats climb mountains with ease. Chat about the fish you caught (or didn’t), the bird that hooted gently all night. Or you could sit outside your cottage, book in hand, plied with endless cups of tea. Try and discern among 15 different sorts of birdsong. Watch dusk fall over the mountains. Listen to the forest settle down for the night. I came close to writing poetry, I composed elfin text messages to smartass friends who went quiet for a few days.
Later, they light kerosene lanterns along the camp and set up a fire. It keeps wild animals away. Like cavemen, we gather around. The camp also organises hikes and treks in the mountains, and safaris into the forest. One bunch went up to a village up the hills and distracted a class, to happy effect, in a two-room school.
So many stories, to hear and tell: the leopard spotted in the gloaming; the wild elephant with a tusk-and-a-half who kept appearing at the river one day; the bark of the Bheem tree that makes better shampoo than beer. One night, I watch the moon rise—a cheerful silver ball that leaps over the inky mountains with unsuspected alacrity. Electric moon. That’s what I remember on my drive home, before we hit the bad-tempered traffic of Uttar Pradesh and snarls of New Delhi, that electric moon which will fortify me.