Ordinarily, Parvada would be nowhere on my list of places to visit — it would never make the cut. Everything in this rollercoaster of a year though has been a revelation, and smaller has emerged better, so it’s the inconspicuous places that now grab my attention. Despite living in Kumaon, I was clueless about the hamlet’s existence in the shadow of its celebrated neighbour Mukteshwar. For the few tourists who have ‘discovered’ it in recent times, there is another reason apart from its offbeat status that is attractive: not a single COVID-19 case has been reported here so far.
On the drive up the winding stretch from Bhimtal, past Bhowali and Ramgarh, my stomach turns queasy with the effects of hill driving. It’s not the narrow turns that stir my insides, but a thin film of smoke that seeps into my nose, curls inside my nasal passage, and settles resolutely in my throat like an illegal squatter. Kumaon is burning once again, and the smell of dying trees begging for help has never been more recognisable. The pandemic of forest fires that plagues Uttarakhand nearly every year is back, and this time with unprecedented force. There has been no rain this spring, not enough snow this past winter, and little of the attention this issue deserves.
Ten kilometres before Mukteshwar, a discreet right turn leads to Parvada, where after days of traversing Kumaon, I’ve been able to breathe smoke-free air. The single stretch of unmetalled road continues through the village that sits on either side; Kumaoni homes interspersed with small orchards and farming patches, one general store for daily needs, a small dairy, and a staple village temple down in the valley dotted with a mix of spruce and rhododendron, and local wild berry trees, kaphal and hisalu.
I walk down to the village temple and stop to chat with two young girls doing their history homework while watching over their goats, and then for a longer conversation with Leela. The lady is bent over a row of peas, plucking and tossing them into a basket. It’s not for sale, she clarifies. Nothing is, she adds, pointing wryly to the tiny budding fruit on the plum trees that has replaced the blossoms but refuses to grow for lack of rain and cool temperatures.
Parvada, like most of the hills, has been swept into the fold of changing climate, with annual forest fires being the bonus byproduct. “But at least we can grow our food,” smiles Leela. I smile back shakily, then turn around to walk back to my homestay.
There are barely any options to stay here, but I’m fortunate to be at Sanjay and Vasudha’s cosy place, Parvada Bungalows, their home that they set up a few years ago, away from the flurry of Mukteshwar. I make a pit-stop at my little studio cottage to toss in my bag, and walk up the gravel path towards the main building, Wild Fig, named after the tree that grows right in front of it. Food is the highlight here; local Kumaoni thalis are supplemented with ragi halwa steeped in ghee and jaggery, and dinner can be an eclectic treat with quiches and parathas. It is surprisingly good, much as the hospitality here.
We walk around the place past the yoga room and the orchards, which are home to more than 500 apple trees. Hanging by the window of a little room near the main gate are products of a knitting initiative for the village women spearheaded by Vasudha, the bright colours in direct contrast to the parched landscape outside. I step out for another wander, bypassing a gaggle of girls ferrying water jars from the local handpump. I cannot help but wonder where the missing-in-action men are. From ploughing fields to herding animals, and from carrying firewood and water to knitting colourful dreams, the women of the hills give me a glimpse of resilience much like a peek of their shy smiles. As evening sets over Parvada, I finally spot the mob of men, bent over a pack of cards, slurping chai and bidis. My unease rises so I break away, but just then, the first drops of the long-awaited summer rain fall on my face, cooling the embers of my glowing heart and a burning Kumaon.
Born and brought up in the Himalayas, the writer is an adventurer who derives great joy from napping under the mountain sun.