We jumped away from the camera lying on the ground like it was a pinwheel firecracker we’d just lit. Sure, this was shooting stars too, but we were getting out of the way because the focus was on the sky, where the real pyrotechnics were going on. Clouds had been hanging low all day, like messy nests of spun sugar that dissolved and disappeared as you walked through them, only to shadow you from behind again. But they were now letting up a little, making holes in the sky large enough for us to notice and point, “Look! Stars!”
That’s my favourite part of any holiday that takes me away from the city. A clear sky with a changing canvas, clouds that aren’t actually homicidal billows of smog, and stars you don’t have to squint really hard to find because they’re… everywhere. Making the palace of the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal our home for the weekend in the foothills of the Himalayas at Ananda Spa, my companion (to whom I shall henceforth refer as DSSLR because “companion” is weird, and real names are boring) and I had also really lucked out with the weather. It vacillated between being gorgeously sunny (which is when we’d rush into the pool), and just overcast enough for a cool breeze without the melancholy (perfect for long walks). Every now and then it’d drizzle, but in quick, almost orchestrated spurts, and only when it was a necessary backdrop — during a meal by the window in the restaurant, for instance, or while sipping drinks on our en suite valley-view balcony back in the room.
And it was quiet. Very, very quiet. Of this, we had been warned as soon as we’d settled into the waiting car at the airport. "You must have travelled a lot, all over the place," our driver said to us as he pulled up and around the hill, going gentle on the curves as the BRO road signs suggested. "But the peace you're about to experience at Ananda," he continued, "you won't find anywhere else." I was having a hard time taking his word for it then because the drive was making me dizzy. But then came the clincher, "There are no children there, you see?!" Ah.
I was starting to believe that that’s what really makes all the difference. We were told that the hotel was sold out that weekend, but you couldn’t hear a thing. If it weren’t for the odd couple walking past us in what I started referring to as the “Ananda uniform” — a white kurta-pyjama situation, which I’ll come back to shortly — you’d think they were straight up lying. This kind of peace is ideal for a spa resort where people check in for a week or more of detoxifying, meditating, yoga; I’m just personally not comfortable with the idea of being the loudest person in an entire estate. Which probably explains my tendency to always choose a beach over the hills when it’s up to me — though I have to admit that once I’m dragged up there, there’s something unbeatably calming about the stillness of the mountains and the sound of a river flowing through its folds.
Not that you can hear it here. Or even really see it. Ananda is only a quick drive up from Rishikesh and Haridwar, but the Ganges coolly keeps its distance. The weekend we were there, it was especially difficult to spot because the clouds were always at eye-level, blocking most things from clear view. “You should be able to feel a cloud somehow,” DSSLR suddenly said, standing on the balcony, drink in hand, perfectly still, as tumbles of mist rushed in through the rails, but in no way making their presence felt. “Maybe it wets your skin as it passes by, or you feel an especially cool breeze, or… something.” He’d spent the afternoon walking around the property — from the fully restored Viceregal Palace, which houses a vintage library, old school billiard tables, and the tea room, past the amphitheatre, jogging trail, and golf course; up the Music Pavillion, and around the swimming pool, before plodding back to our room again.
At Ananda, they take their wellness seriously. Which is great if you’ve dropped in specifically for a detox programme, and stressful if you’re already thinking about a chilled gin and tonic on your valley-view balcony.
Meanwhile, I’d checked into the spa for a never-ending aromatherapy massage that was probably great because I fell asleep about 45 seconds into it. I’d also met an Ayurvedic doctor who wanted the lowdown on my life so he could work out my doshas. For those who aren’t already familiar with this, according to Ayurveda, we each have a mix of three mind and body principles (doshas) — vata (wind), pitta (fire), kapha (earth) — derived from the five elements, because of which we are who we are, mentally and physically. Even if this had nothing to do with Captain Planet, it came as no surprise to me that I was largely pitta, with a little vata thrown in for balance.
I got three immediate tips: “No alcohol, okay? Do away with spicy foods. Avoid meat.” At Ananda, they take their wellness seriously. Which is great if you’ve dropped in specifically for a detox programme, and stressful if you’re already thinking about a chilled gin and tonic on your valley-view balcony.
Rushing past peacocks and peahens (either there are a lot of them here, or the same couple teleports across the property at warp speed) on my way back to the room, my own footsteps were the only thing you could hear besides the distant chirping of birds. I wasn't the only one to be taken by this. Back in the room, I found — after a fair amount of looking — DSSLR fast asleep under a dozen white pillows, tucked tightly (is there any other way in a hotel bed?) in place by the comforter. The rooms at this hotel aren’t particularly lavish, but that bed I could lie in forever.
"Lunch?" I asked, to no response.
"HELLOOO. LUNCH?" I tried, louder this time.
"Unnnfffphh," came a reluctant noise from deep under the covers.
What was I doing? I wasn't even hungry, I realised, and quickly surrendered to a sleep coma myself.
Two hours later, the phone was stuck to my face and someone was telling me I was going to be late for my meeting with the Visiting Master healer Toby Maguire at the spa, the reason I’d been invited to Ananda in the first place.
Looking for my diary in which I thought I might want to take notes while talking to him, I realised that our bags were still unpacked.
We didn’t actually need anything we had decided to lug along with us, despite being told not to carry too much. “The hotel will provide you with everything you need." I thought they were just being cute, I hadn't realised they meant it literally. Already hanging in the closet area when we first got to our room was the only wardrobe we'd be needing all weekend: two identical sets of white cotton kurta pyjamas, which they prefer guests to wear through their stay. It hadn’t actually ever crossed my mind before, but it suddenly struck me: what a relief it is to not have to think about what to wear every day on holiday.
I was suspicious of Toby Maguire. Not because he didn’t turn out to be Spider-Man, but because what was an English bloke doing as a Master Guru in a place that was already basically Yoga Central? He had his own unique superpowers, he claimed. One of them, I discovered over the course of our conversation, was hypnotherapy — something I’ve always been fascinated by, but only ever from a distance. On the one hand, I don’t really consider hypnotherapy to be an actual thing; on the other, I’m nervous about handing over the reins of my mind to a complete stranger in case it does work. I quizzed him in five dozen different ways. Friendly and forgiving, he answered them all, then offered: “Why don’t you try it for yourself?” After reassuring me that he was only going to put me in a deeper state of relaxation by making subtle suggestions to my subconscious; that it wasn’t voodoo, and nobody was going to have to later throw me into a fire pit to exorcise me (oh, please. These are fair concerns for someone who watches a lot of movies), I agreed to a session the next day.
While we were taking a rain-drenched walk around the places he’d seen the day before, I asked DSSLR what he thought of it. He laughed, as he is wont to do every time I bring up this kind of thing with him (Believers of Science cannot also be Believers of Mumbo Jumbo, I’ve come to realise), and pointed instead to the stairs going up to an open pavilion with Mughal patterns painted on the ceiling, where we sat a while till the rain turned back into a drizzle and it was time for dinner.
The next morning, I didn’t actually have a choice about getting a perfectly round omelette in bed because DSSLR was all set for a buffet breakfast. The food in general at Ananda is regular fare for lunch and dinner, with only the odd exceptional item on the menu, but it’s hard to fault them for their breakfast spread. A wonderfully healthy mix of fruits and flakes, nuts and cheese, detox juices and almond milks, chunky breads and delicate pastry, besides a whole other menu of hot bites… you can’t help but start your day right. The problem with wanting to try almost everything on offer, however, is that when you get to the swimming pool later, it’s hard to stay afloat. Sunbeds and vintage surfing magazines in the shade of trees, with peacocks preening in front of you and dragonflies overhead — it’s more than an acceptable Plan B.
An hour later, I was at least three shades darker, and on my way for my hypnotherapy session with Toby. After a detailed conversation of seemingly casual questions, he decided that my biggest current problem is not being able to sleep. He was right — I haven’t slept properly in over two years. By which I mean I can only fall asleep once the sun is out, and even then only in unsteady pockets of three hours at a time. “Let’s fix that for you, shall we?” he said with the air of a magician about to saw his assistant in half as a final trick. Making me lie down on a massage table with my eyes closed, he settled into a chair and started telling me to relax my forehead, eyebrows, nose, cheeks…till I started laughing and sat upright. Mustering all the patience he’s built up in the 20 years of his spiritual journey, he told me to laugh if I had to, but without sitting up again, or opening my eyes. An hour later, when I woke up again, I didn’t feel any different, it obviously hadn’t worked, but that was a great little nap. “Oh, you went under,” he assured me, not needing me to agree with him, which was great, because I didn’t. I thanked him anyway, and went back to the pool to drag DSSLR out so we could get ready for the airport.
Only time will tell whether it’s actually the hypnotherapy that (really) worked, or the fact that my body was turned to butter with all the massages I was being indulged with over three days; maybe it was the stillness and fresh air of the area, or even just that DSSLR would start to yawn uncontrollably by 10 p.m. every night. The bottom line is that I haven’t been able to stay awake beyond 2 a.m. since I returned two weeks ago, and I have slept right through the night without waking up once. As if I’m going to question that. Whatever did it, whoever’s responsible, for that I am only incredibly grateful.