And that took me back..... In 1991, she and I and two others had spent a month travelling in India, mostly to spend a week at a friend's wedding. We had also travelled north, getting as far as Manali, in the foothills of the Himalayas, but unable to travel further with our limited clothing, as snow was threatening to close the roads. Such trips had not been part of our original plan, but some of our intended destinations had proved to be too difficult (conflict in Kashmir, shootings in Varanasi), and we had to rethink, fast. This northern excursion to the hills remains for me one of the most enjoyable experiences of the whole month, and one of the most challenging.
We had prided ourselves on travelling as authentically as possible - we laugh at our earnest past selves now - and that meant local transport and hotels, unshielded by the comfortable cushion of organised tourist trips. That meant we were fully exposed, as we booked trains and hotels, to the legacy of Victorian colonial bureaucracy and the sometimes astonishing efficiency that was camouflaged by apparent and overwhelming chaos. We also acquired a degree of fatalism that we were to need each time we braved the mountainous northern roads in rickety buses, and a respect for our bodies' ability to withstand physical discomfort and to sleep sitting up, whilst being thrown violently in all directions.
Before Manali, we had spent a few days in Shimla, after a long, jolting, nightmarish journey from Delhi in a particularly decrepit bus, and we returned there to recover from a rigorous few days, unspeakable bedding, and streaming colds. Whilst in Shimla, with stunning views from our hotel room, we found that it was Diwali. We wandered Shimla's steeply winding streets, enjoying the festive atmosphere, the excited children, the hundreds of tiny lights set out everywhere, and later we lay in bed listening to fireworks resounding fiercely, echoing across the valley like artillery fire.
We returned to Delhi by train, first taking the Shimla-Kalka narrow-gauge train, greatly relieved not to be careering down steep crumbling roads by car, horn blaring, all of us sweaty-palmed with fright and thankful that we had written our wills before we left home. Instead, we were able to sit in the carriage doorways as the little blue and cream train chugged along, our feet dangling out, marvelling at the views, the wondrous feat of engineering, the zig-zagging line, which meant that at times we could see parallel to us, and just feet away, the next stretch of track we would be on in a few moments.
On slower sections, passengers hopped on and off, clinging precariously to the outside of the carriage, and presumably omitting to pay a fare.
And there were familiar sights: cows and cricketers, rail tracks posing no impediment.
The final stage of our return journey to Delhi was by express train, a soulless experience after the charm and beauty of the little narrow-gauge. We were to go on to Agra, then to Lucknow for the wedding, and later to tour Rajasthan by car, all vivid and unforgettable experiences, but Diwali in Shimla forms part of the most memorable section of our journey. Our local fireworks tonight are tame affairs, pale and uninteresting in comparison to the thrilling crackle and whizzing of those in a small hill town thousands of miles away, where every day was an adventure.