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Notes from Mahesh Khan

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The best view comes after the hardest climb, and the best forest rest houses after the toughest roads. This is the modified adage I give to my cousin at the wheel who cannot comprehend why I am always leading people on the worst roads. But there is truth in the statement, applicable to no better place than Mahesh Khan.

Despite growing up in Nainital in a family of forest officers, I never visited the Mahesh Khan forest reserve until this monsoon, about 20 odd kilometres from the lake town. The last four-kilometre mark at the reserve entry takes you off smooth tarmac and delivers you onto the signature bumpy forest road that heralds the beginning of paradise. There is no one at the check post when we arrive; I hop off the car to peer into the tiny shelter where I expect a forest guard to be cocooned, but it’s empty. The dying embers of a fire, however, indicate there’s someone around definitely, and within a few moments, a man does come running out of nowhere. He checks our permit, raises the barricade with one hand and waves us through with the other, as we slip into a wonderland, preserved marvellously by the forest department.

Photo: Shikha Tripathi
 

Constant rain has made little furrows in the loose soil, cutting through the narrow path with dense coniferous forest on either side. Pine dissolves into oak, and a thick bamboo undergrowth sways in the strong wind while we navigate mini streams that appear every monsoon in the hills like old-time regulars. A lone jay perched on a rock takes flight, startled by a vehicle’s intrusion after weeks of unbridled freedom. Moving ahead steadily but careful to avoid the valley on the right, we inch closer towards the forest rest house, the only place for outsiders to stay in this reserve.

Architectural history

Forest rest houses or FRHs are a story as worthy of conserving as the forests they are born in, for most of these buildings preserve a natural and architectural history of sorts. In a substantially impaired bureaucratic system, here is one that has endured. Not much has changed about these basic structures that were originally built for forest officers to stay in while they inspected forests, or the way they are run for that matter. In a world of privatisation, these are relics from a forgotten era. So when we arrive at the rather premium log huts, I’m surprised; forest rest houses are not supposed to be this flattering. It’s then that I learn from the caretaker Ramesh that this is a new addition built in recent years, and that the original bungalow is a short hike up. Before Ramesh can finish orienting us with the place, Jackson and Roman have shown up, their wagging a mix of curiosity and caution. The duo guard the place, says Ramesh, but can be easily bought with a snack. Hope you’ve got your dinner, he asks, in keeping with the protocol of FRHs where meals are not available. I nod a yes, and we are shown into the unexpected luxury of our bamboo cottages, complete with wooden furniture and a private porch. A lone bulb lights the room rather poorly, but when at a forest rest house, who is there to spend time indoors anyway? The porch becomes our haven and the evening is spent cradled in its shelter. I sink into wordless awe of the silent forest that sits draped in a translucent cloak of mist like a solemn princess. Come morning, I shall set out into this mystical blur to find out more.

Photo: Shikha Tripathi

Photo: Shikha Tripathi
 

Little is known about the Mahesh Khan forest reserve, including why it has an intriguing name. An uphill trail leads to the original bungalow, and I follow closely in Jackson’s muddy paws. Searing through the forest as sunbeams break through the screen of fog particles, we emerge into a clearing at the top. Standing tall is the original dak bungalow built over a hundred years ago in 1911. I meet no one on the premises just as on the trail, and can hear the echo of my whistle across the open foyer. A small metal plaque commemorates the inaugural of the atmospheric building, which is in a pretty decent condition. A short walk further up is Tagore Top, supposedly visited by Rabindranath Tagore when he was writing the Gitanjali. I’ve come across multiple Tagore points in the hills that the legendary poet is believed to have traversed a century ago, and perhaps this too was another spot.

Perfect solitude

Photo: Shikha Tripathi

Photo: Shikha Tripathi
 

A sharp bark snaps me out, but it can’t be Jackson; he has long retreated. A repeat in short, regular intervals confirms it’s the alarm call of a barking deer, prey for the leopards this forest is home to. It’s time to walk back, but not without a detour and pit-stop at a little machan I discovered on the previous evening’s saunter. I tread lightly on the rickety wooden stairs that creak under my moderate weight, and take in the half-visible valley, the velvety silence, and the spruce trees springing out of the claggy, Dickensian setting. Somewhere I am at peace, relieved that should I return to this setting someday, I shall find everything as is. I am assured it will remain protected, and hopeful I’ll unearth the story behind a forest called Mahesh Khan.

Born and brought up in the Himalayas, the writer is an adventurer who derives great joy from napping under the mountain sun.

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