The highlight of this past year for me was a trip with wife and three kids (from Washington DC), parents (from Calcutta) and brother (from Baroda) to Mount Abu. It served the purpose of showing my kids and wife one of the best little towns in the universe; of spending a few days with my parents and brother in the town where we'd last been a family before I left for college; for me to wallow in nostalgia for the next few years to come; and also to remind me of the old saw about how much things change while they stay the same.
Although there was nobody in SMS that remembered me or, indeed, paid us much attention; the very stones seem to be saying hello to me! There are new buildings here and there, but there still stands the old gymnasium where I attended my very first classes and where I gave my last ISC exams. In fact, the gym actually had a few kids playing basketball (which is one game I don't remember ever playing in my life there). The science labs have moved out of Bro. Kelly's aerie atop the Old Building. Remember the menagerie he had on the front verandah?. Most of the surrounding landscape is “out of bounds” (remember that phrase? and the caning one got for violating their limits?) because of the new damn dam; and the boys squeeze their playing into every little available square foot of space. But the teachers' quarters, the dorms and the “new” chapel (in 1972, it was new) are exactly as I'd left them! The kids still wear yellow, green, red and blue on the playing field. And they are still the teams of Saints Francis, Patrick, John and Joseph (see I remember!!). Although he was out of Abu at the time of our visit, I hear Brother Forey is still gracing the premises.
One change is that the bogs didn't seem to smell quite as much; although, to tell you the truth, I didn't dare go too near — my memory of them were not conducive to walking there with my kids!
Town is much the same and so very different.
The hotels and lodges are uncountable!! There is even a Hiltone and a Sheratone! No, I did not mis-spell those words. I guess the thinking is that if you had an accent and you told your friends that you'd stayed in the Sheratone, they would think you were rich! Or maybe the thinking is that if you had that accent, you wouldn't know the difference.
And a myriad hostels have sprouted — for kids who study in the numerous schools in Mount Abu. So, although a kid could be a day-scholar ("daisy") in SMS, he is really a boarder since he lives away from home. Each such hostel employs tutors for the evenings after school, chaperones to play with each age group and other staff to clean and cook and serve. It is quite a lucrative industry. Some families, too, have given up unused rooms and are making a very decent income on the side.
And the schools! How many were there in our time? St Mary's and Sophia, Nirmala and the Govt Boys and Girls' schools? Well, now there are some two dozen more. Even Mr and Mrs. Edwin started one — St. Michael's. (A sad postscript: Mr. And Mrs. Edwin died in a car crash near Mehsana in August).
What with the hotels, hostels, schools and, of course, new homes, there was so much unplanned building going on over so short a time that now you can't buy land anywhere near Mt. Abu! There is serious breakdown of the infrastructure — roads are unrepaired; there are power failures in the middle of the night; we even lost water supply in the middle of one day.
The tourist season is all-year round, except a day or two in winter when only forty buses come to Abu (I exaggerate. But only slightly).
The road from Abu Road to Mount Abu is twice as wide now. But the experience was only marginally better. I again found myself praying that the busdriver wasn't drunk and that people with vertigo would not want to vacation in hillstations or, at the very least, would puke all over some other bus. I was proudly told by a guy who knows where I work that the widening was done with World Bank funds. Like it was my personal doing. I didn't disabuse him of the idea, though.
Nakki Lake is more touristy and better kept and lit up, but the pattern of the hedges and trees has stayed as when I used to frequent the main park there. But now they have a restaurant built like a concrete boat in the lake, with a 10-metre gangplank. Toad Rock still looks like a turtle (okay, Stephen, it's a tortoise!) The area around the Post Office is the same except that a statue of some sort has sprouted in the middle of the crossroad and the old ramshackle Post Office fell down and a new one had to be built in its place. The old 'de Silva' house looks exactly like Stephen left it in 1972. They haven't even repaired the tar road that went up from the ever-closed gate to the house.
Dilwara was the same grand picturesque fantastic wonder except that one can't take one's camera in there. Seems too many honeymooners were bespoiling the sanctity and sobriety of the temples — after all that is what they are, although one forgets — by posing for smoochy if not downright filmy and lurid photographs!
The old Ajmer Palace still stands majestically on its mountaintop (I have fond, although completely unspecific memories of that place — a really weird and unsettling feeling). It is now a boarding school. I was told that it underwent a stint as a hotel but was too far from town! Yeah, but who minds walking in Abu, I'd like to know? Go to Udaipur if you don't like exercise, I always say.
Once more I climbed the 368 steps to Addhar/Arbuda Devi. Just like I used to leave my parents behind in my headlong run-pant-and-stop rush up and down those steps, my children left me behind. Even the monkeys were there to mock me as I laboured upward — grandchildren of the ones I used to throw stones at? The carwandaas on the rounded blue-black stone hills hadn't changed, still sold when ripe but tastier, really, when sour.
Once more I went to Guru Shikhar but instead of the daylong hike of my childhood, now there is a road that took not only our jeep but also many buses and some cows who attacked us for our roasted corn that I had salivated for all these years.
Once more we sat on a verandah and watched the mists roll in and envelope us. Mists that are almost warm perhaps only in Abu.
Once more I stood in the bazaar and almost felt like a little boy again, wishing I was holding in my hand the few rupees that I would exchange for a handful of crisp new notebooks for the next schoolyear to come. But no, this time I would spend tens of rupees to buy a bagful of bottles of spring water.
The CPTC is no more there, nor is its succesor the NPA. Now white-banyaned, khaki-shorted BSF trainees trot, in formation, down Abu's roads. The Polo grounds still host myriads of little Pele and Bradman wannabes but no more do those magnificient NPA horses parade themselves there.
However, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. There are two “Sunset Points” now but there still isn't a single movie theatre in Mount Abu!!