Through the glens and glades of the relatively remote Soan valley of the Punjab, I have found still thriving in secluded corners a world where a stranger from the cities could, hiking through the leafy cool of the woods, breathe air that lends vigor to the lungs and the senses, pick figs and berries to nibble on, and stumble on bubbling freshwater springs to drink from. And one such spring on a slope near the lake is where my journey ends and I see the familiar face of my friend. I knew him briefly in the city before he invited me to his home which was this hill by the Kabakki lake.

Far away from any inn or resthouse, here hospitality is not a business but the way of life – an unpretentious traveler with a readiness to mingle could easily find himself eager hosts here. With their large families, it matters little to the people here if there is one more mouth to feed for a few days – especially since the food is not bought for, but either caught from the lake (1) or hunted from the woods. You would sleep under the starry sky and wake up to a breakfast of eggs or bird-meat, with bread fried with ghee, to wash down with a refreshing glass of a buttermilk drink. With little possessions to speak of, people here live without any fear of robbers or theives, who wouldn’t dare disturb them anyway for during the day, they would be deterred by the presence of the dozen or so members of the family all up and about, and during the night, by the wild animals and snakes. Their land not only gave them food and water, but also protection. It was thrilling to discover this life of harmony.

This was a self-contained world in more than just material terms. Socially, people here are individuals, each with a past stretches back through ancestral time and with a place in a grand unfolding tapestry of family sagas that are all part of the collective living memory. Spiritually, their devotion and reverence is rooted in their home, with spirits of ancestral saints or their jinn-disciples still walking amid them, especially in sacred places located in caves and creeks. Culturally, their narratives of adventure and miracle celebrated in storytelling and song bind them all, woman and man, child and adult, especially when revived during times of joy and sorrow, which are always shared. Social taboos are strong, but no stronger than the kindred feeling that leads to an attitude of acceptance, if not outright than tacit – a kind of begrudged benevolence – towards all.

In all of the strangeness, there was an even stranger feeling of recognition, of something dimly remembered. I realize that all those dream who have dreamed of a world stripped of its supercifical excesses to its bare minimmum where community and harmony with nature prevails, will feel exactly as I have felt here by the Kabakki lake in the Soan Valley. I leave here feeling that this is home – a feeling anyone who dreams will recognize.

(1) Note: This article recalls an experience of around a decade ago, when the locals had not been banned from fishing. Now, it is done by a for-profit business with endorsement from the local government.

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