Himachal Calling: In Search of a Diminishing Identity

Growing up, I always thought my father was a practical and stoic man.

Since he is a scientist, one could argue that it came along with the job description. So whenever someone from Himachal Pradesh joined his workplace, his extreme excitement would baffle me. He would announce it to my mother and me, and this would usually be followed by visits to this person’s home to meet the family.

Even if there was an immense age gap and no other links to bind us, a unique friendship would eventually ensue.

Much to my surprise, I discovered a few years ago that there was a WhatsApp group of people from Himachal as well.

My parents live in a tiny city on the outskirts of Uttar Pradesh. They moved there from Himachal when they were young and newly married as my father had got a job. I was born in the city and spent 18 years there.

For my parents, Himachal was the place where they grew up, realised their ambitions, fell in love and got married – arguably the best years of their lives.

For me, however, it was just a distant place I had some pleasant memories of. It was somewhere I spent a few days in the summer every few years.

No wonder then, that I always felt indifferent towards their desire to reconnect with the place. I would quip about all ‘these Himachali people’ banding together far from home. I laughed when everyone from the group said they wanted to meet me.

I involuntarily accompanied my parents to a get-together where everyone was talking animatedly, asking each other which region they’re from. I plugged in my earphones and listened to Pearl Jam as my parents chattered about it in the car for half an hour afterwards.

Five years ago, when I shifted to Noida, something in my outlook began to change.

It began with an appreciation of Himachali food. Tired of the staple daal-roti in the college canteen, I would ask my mother to cook kulth and khatta whenever I visited home. I started relishing those unique flavours – a combination of spicy and tangy – that would overwhelm my tastebuds in a good way.

When I was 18, I visited my mother’s hometown, which is just a bunch of houses in the middle of the idyllic Kangra valley. What I had always found underwhelming in my past visits started to seem charming. I was aware that I was romanticising a life that was in reality quite difficult: there’s a struggle for water, limited resources, lack of proper transport and a lot more obstacles to encounter.

Also read: Dehradun to Delhi: Memories of My Hometown

However, I was too absorbed by the scenic dirt roads and mango orchards. I would ask my Nani about the past, look at black and white pictures of my mother from when she was younger and take my young cousins for walks.

In my ripped jeans, with kohl-rimmed eyes and dark lipstick, I attended a few dhams (celebrations) where I ate with a spoon I had brought along with me while most people raised their eyebrows.

Another visit when I was 20 gave me more perspective.

I began to engage my relatives in conversations about politics. I no longer glamorised small town life, but tried to understand it actively. Out of deference to customs, I wore kurtis on most days. I would observe and listen carefully, whenever they talked in the medley of languages they termed ‘desi’, which is a mixture of Punjabi and Pahari.

On a trip to Chamba, I bought two jars of chukh (a paste made by simmering red or green chillies with local spices) for myself and relished them for months afterwards.

Back in Noida, I felt a longing for this place that I had never grown up in, but wanted to learn more about. I started making phone calls to Nani and Mami. I talked more about the culture and the cuisine. I searched for the food everywhere, but could not find it. I would often talk about how the culture of the state was fading slowly. I could not fully understand why that made me sad, but it did. I would also talk about how the state had a lot more to offer than just tourism.

In Delhi, I often passed by Himachal Bhawan. I talked about it excitedly to people I deemed important at that point in time, and wanted to take them there, to share something I cared about. One day, I finally went in but it was filled with signs advertising cheap jeans, footwear and so on. Annoyed, I asked a worker whether there was anything from Himachal there. He pointed to a tiny gift shop that was closed at the time.

The commercialisation of the Bhawan seemed ironic, like a metaphor for the state itself and I laughed at my disappointment.

Before leaving, however, I ran into someone else who told me there was Himachali food at the canteen. Seeing my excitement, he asked me where I was from , to which I replied Kangra. The place was impeccable and the food was good, but it lacked that flavour. It seemed like a watered down version, modified for the taste buds of people who were not used to the cuisine.

Nevertheless, it gave me a semblance of home.

That night, in my apartment, I talked to my mother about her life. I looked up recipes of khatta on the internet.

I would often wonder why the Indian diaspora always felt a desire to learn about their home country, how kids who had Indian parents wanted to discover their roots, or people from specific regions always talked in their native language.

I might not entirely comprehend it, but I think I can strongly relate to it now.

I am looking forward to my next visit to Himachal this summer.

Arushi Handa is currently pursuing her Masters in Biotechnology and aims to have a future in journalism.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty