Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.

Anashakti Ashram

Gandhi changed Indian politics. He mobilized India between the non-cooperation movement, which ended in 1924 with his arrest, and the Salt March in 1930. In the five years between, he toured the country, constantly meeting and talking to ordinary people. Passing through Kausani in 1929, he decided to take a two week break. The place where he stayed is at the top of a low hill near the center of the town, and has come to be known as Anashakti Ashram.

Where did this name come from? I found that during these weeks he wrote his commentary on the Bhagwat Gita’s philosophy of judging the need for an action by its morality rather than consequence. The article is called Anashakti Yoga. He wanted to make this the core of his political method, satyagraha. He tried to live by it, and he died by it. In any case, the ashram is a quiet and beautiful place. Small panels of hand-carved woodwork decorate the otherwise simple pinewood buildings.

The day was overcast. The clouds and smoke from forest fires filtered out the sunlight. A brisk wind made the hilltop rather colder than the bazaar below. We walked around, but there was no feel of the political morality of the mahatma in the air. The main hall had a permanent exhibit of Gandhi’s life and work. We’d seen it before, but we wandered through it again, looking at pictures of people and meetings that influenced the early course of independent India’s history. They are familiar images.

Off at one end were the ashram offices. I decided not to peek in. The door to this block had an old-fashioned red post box. Was it in use? Once the next collection time used to be posted in that little window at the bottom. There was no time on it. The lock looked like it was in use. So perhaps the letters are collected on a regular schedule which the staff knows. The lack of visitors made the ashram a rather boring place, we thought, as we left. Gandhi strikes you as a man of action, not one who would shut himself away in a secluded ashram.