Papa had picked me up from my boarding school in Mussoorie, for summer vacations. We reached Dehradun and were moving towards the station when he called out to the taxi driver, ‘bhai, market ki taraf le lo’.

‘Market ki taraf?’ I wondered.

We followed a fixed routine every year when traveling back home. Papa would pick me up from class, take a taxi to Dehradun station and wait for eight hours for our train. Though the wait sounds long, it never felt so, not to me.

On the 2nd of June, from 2 pm onwards, the station would start filling-up with the students of Oak Grove School and by evening, it was overflowing with them. Around 7 pm, we would go out for dinner at a restaurant close by and have Butter Paneer with Naan. Once, I remember, I wanted Papa to try Chowmein. He is usually very particular about food and prefers to eat what he is familiar with, but he had agreed to my insisting. Oh! and how he hated it. Never again did he taste anything new suggested by me.

On our way to the market, I asked Papa about this sudden change in our routine. He smiled and said it was a surprise. Usually, we were the ones surprising him, my siblings and I, with our greeting cards or tricks. A surprise from him was unexpected.

The surprise was a brand new dress.

‘Why the sudden need for a dress?’ I thought.

‘You have outgrown most of yours,’ he said when I asked.

‘But, why NOW?’ I grumbled.

He just smiled.

I was confused but I was happy too.

‘A new dress,’ I thought, ‘why bother myself with questions.’

Next morning, when we reached home, the drawing room was packed with bags. Mummy, Nana, Mama, all three came to greet me. Even Mama’s friend from my grandparents’ town, Faizabad, who we had met just a couple of times, was here.

I ran to Mummy.

‘Yeh kya ho raha hai?’ I whispered, ‘why is everyone here? Papa bought me a dress too. Why?’ I blurted out the questions in my head.

‘Surprise hai’, she said and smiled.

‘Vaishno Devi ja rahe hain hum didi, woh bhi aaj hi raat ko. Yahi hai surprise,’ cried Charu and Lucky in unison.

Aha! my younger siblings too had got new dresses.

Vaishno Devi, is an important temple dedicated to the Goddess and is one of the most visited Hindu pilgrimage destinations in India. Papa had this trip on his mind for the past few years. We had first visited the temple when I was 10 months old, for my Mundan ceremony, a ritual where the child’s head is shaved for the first time.

Finally, my mind was at rest, I slept peacefully in the train to Jammu.

Here, people rented out their places. It was a cheaper option, I guess, unlike Mussoorie, where we had to stay in hotels when my parents visited.

Mummy was unpacking and she realized that she had forgotten to pack Lucky’s clothes.

I was rolling on the floor laughing, but Lucky was in deep meditation.

‘Papa, ab toh meri poori nayi shopping karni padegi,’ she suggested innocently in concern. But within, I knew she was dancing.

What else would a six-year-old feel?

With her new clothes, she felt like a princess and made sure we treated her like one.

The next day, early in the morning, we left for Katra, the foothills, where the climb for Vaishno Devi began. We were fresh and excited for the journey.

Lucky was to travel with Nana on the pony and the rest of us on foot with walking sticks.

It was a 10 kilometre walk and we were going to halt halfway for a couple of hours, at the Ardhkuwari Cave. Legend says, this is the place where the Goddess stayed and meditated for nine months because she was being chased by Bhairavnath. When the demon entered the cave, the Goddess had beheaded him in the form of Mahakali.

It was a small cave with a smaller exit. I had heard, if you do not have a clean heart, you would get stuck at the exit. I felt that other people too had heard the same story, for they were calling out to the Goddess loudly.

All our hearts were clean.

Post the cave visit, we had lunch. I do not recall about what, but I had an argument with Mummy when we started to climb again. I took Charu by the hand, stamped my feet and paced ahead. I stopped only when I was almost 100 meters ahead of everyone.

I convinced him that we did not need to walk with the others for it will only slow us down. He was always ready for adventures, so he agreed.

We started running, walking, jumping, laughing and talking all the way up, but soon we were tired. We slowed down but everytime we saw a familiar face behind, we ran. This continued for quite a while till I noticed a few staircases that were under construction. I saw that the stairs connected the long roads, hence cutting them short. It was a steep climb but would surely save time.

We decided to use this route instead.

Since the staircases were still being built, most of them did not have railings. We had climbed many and using this shortcut, we were now at a considerable distance, maybe a couple of kilometres ahead of everyone.

At present, we were climbing a horrifying, soaring construction, with no support on either side. Halfway through it, Charu decided that he had followed me enough and needed to go back to Mummy. I knew he was scared, I was too, but not ready to accept it. I held his hand, tried to excite him for the stunt, and convince him that he was safe, but to no avail. He had made up his mind to go back and persuaded me to join him instead. I was not ready to give up, so I continued my journey alone.

I wondered how he would make his way back to our family but since there was just one road leading to the temple, I was sure he would find them.

I had covered quite a distance and could hear the temple bells now. As I moved further, the sound of the bells grew louder. I knew I was close to the main temple. Almost ten, I was old enough to realise that it would be overcrowded up there, and locating my family would be close to impossible. I had not seen them for a long time and suspected that they were worried.

I panicked.

Every kilometre or so, there were tin sheds for people to sit and relax. I saw a shed a few steps away. I decided that I would wait there for everyone and rushed towards it, when I felt someone’s hand on my shoulders. Excited and guilty, I thought it was Papa and turned.

But it wasn’t him, or my uncle, or his friend, or Mummy, or anyone I knew.

A complete stranger.

For a few seconds, I was in shock, assuming I was going to be kidnapped. He asked me a question but it took me sometime to figure out what.

‘Aapke Mummy Papa kahaan hain, beta?’ I could finally hear him.

‘Bas thoda hi peeche hain uncle,’ I answered confidently.

I had seen enough movies to assure myself of his next move. He would lift me up on his shoulders and run.

Slowly, I moved to the side of the road and held on to the railings.

He may have understood my fear or maybe not, but he smiled. He bent on his knee a little and holding my hand, he said, ‘chalo saath mein wait kar lete hain sabka, akele kho jaogi. Upar bahut bheed hai.’

I knew he was right, and his smile had some warmth that put me a little at ease. We sat together and he asked me if I wanted to eat something. The vendors sitting there were selling chana, kulfi, and chat. I was tempted but decided to stay safe. The stranger might have a pouch of powder that he could mix in my food. That could possibly be his plan.

I politely refused.

There was no way to keep track of time but it had been long before I saw Papa walking towards me. I ran and hugged him, giving him no time to know that it was me. I am sure he was angry and I knew I was wrong to run away from them this way. I could sense that he was worried and Mummy might have been too. I was ready to face the punishment, for I deserved it. But, he hugged me back.

The stranger gave some words of advise and I could hear Papa thanking him. I kept hugging on to Papa or else I would have to face him and I couldn’t gather the courage to meet his eyes or answer his questions. He seemed to have understood for he did not pull me away, neither did he interrogate me.

After a little wait, everyone joined us. They were concerned and excited. I wanted to escape them, so I ran to Charu.

I had made up my mind to behave the entire trip. Till now, no one had said anything to me and I did not want to give them a reason to.

On reaching the top, we met Nana and Lucky. We got to know that Lucky had dropped her sandals in a trench and wanted the pony to go all the way down to get it. Of course, her request was not given any attention and now she was bitterly complaining about it.

We freshened up in a common bath, separate for men and women. We were told that the water used in the bath came from Ban Ganga, a holy river in Katra.

The darshan of the main temple did not take long. It was crowded, but you could not wait in front of the idols for more than a few seconds, so the queue moved quickly.

We stayed the night. There were mattresses available on rent. We got ours and spread them on the side of the road as the other pilgrims and tourists. There was a tin shed on top but the rest was open. We were used to sleeping in the Aangan during summers, our courtyard, so this felt the same, just cooler and more fun.

Coming back to Jammu, we visited many other temples. The rest of the trip is mostly a blur but I remember being busy, behaving myself.

Going back home to Tundla turned out to be another adventure.

On reaching the station at 10 pm, we got to know that our train was delayed indefinitely. With Papa working for the Railways, we understood that ‘indefinitely’ meant not less than 12 hours, if not more.

The elders decided that there was no use hunting for a place to stay, so we were to pass the night at the platform itself. Mummy took out bed sheets from our bags, she told me that she always carried them for emergencies like these. Our bags were kept at the center while the sheets were spread around, to sit and relax.

Papa, Mamu and his friend got us some snacks from a nearby stall.

Charu, Lucky, and I huddled together. For us, it meant that the fun was not yet over. Three of us had a Choco Bar for the first time, a trendy ice cream back then. It remained our favorite for years.

A bite of it still brings back memories of our Vaishno Devi trip.

– Priyanka Pandey (2005)


This piece was first posted by Priyanka Pandey on her blog. It was shared with us by her on February 10, 2021 via a post on the Oak Grove School Mussoorie Facebook Group.

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