“When I was younger, a little older than you are now, I was working as a cartographer for the Indian Government, charting maps for The Survey of India. This was just before the war with China when Pandit Nehru sent all the scientists he could find to map the terrain and gain more knowledge of the more remote areas of Indian territory. I was on an expedition to a very distant corner of Ladakh. It was the purest wilderness you could think of, just rock and ice everywhere, no living things, not even plants or shrubs. There were strong blizzards blowing and we had to live on one meal and a few sips of water every day to conserve our limited resources. It was terribly tough and I felt like the ordeal would never end. One morning, we ventured to a high pass and after we went over it, we could see some flags flying in the distance. Our binoculars weren’t as powerful as the ones you get today. So we walked deep down into the valley. When we got closer, we could hear a cacophony of gongs and drums beating in the distance. After we had walked about 2 kilometers, we saw a group of about a 100 people running towards us. We got really scared as we had no weapons to protect ourselves and we thought who knew what savages lived in these parts. But all of us were taken aback when they began kneeling down before us. Some of them touched our hands and faces like we were alien beings. Then they started draping us in colourful robes and headdresses decked with the choicest turquoise stones. It was all tremendously strange and we asked a linguist who was well-versed in Tibetan dialects to talk to them and find out what was going on. After a prolonged discussion, the linguist told us that those people had never seen anyone from outside their world before and they believed that we were the Gods their ancestors spoke of.”
The old man took a deep breath after finishing his story and waited patiently for my reaction. There was no way to confirm the veracity of a story like that, I thought, and who gave a hoot anyway when it held my attention so splendidly. I told him that it was an incredible story and that I envied the adventurous life he had led. Pride engulfed his face as it wrinkled into a delighted smile. He said, “You wouldn’t believe what we were capable of in those times. I always tell my grandchildren that they may be 50 years younger than me but I am a lot fitter than they are. You youngsters get no exercise, always watching TV and bending to your computers.”
We were sitting in the uber-cheap canteen of the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun. I had come here to see the Greco-Roman architecture of the building here and get a bit of a peaceful break from the city. But, by far, the most interesting experience while wandering around its colonial corridors was the company of the old man.
We had met purely by chance, sharing tables during lunch-time when the people working at the Institute had occupied all the other tables. He had come to FRI to meet an ex-colleague of his and was grabbing lunch before heading back home. Now, because he had someone who listened to his crackpot theories and improbable tales with interest, he delayed his departure. The old man had the habit of asking a lot of profound questions and answering them himself without waiting for a response from me. The superiority of the people of his time over the ones running the show currently was a recurring theme in his diatribes. “There was a cricketer named Gary Sobers during my time. You may not know him because you’re too young. He could win matches with both the bat and ball. How many cricketers can do that today?” I wanted to say “many” and that a lot of people my age knew who Gary Sobers was but I let him revel in his fantastic theories. “Nobody”, he continued, “because none of you are fit! It takes years and years of discipline and dedication to accomplish great feats.”
His most animated rhetoric was reserved for the political class. “Look at Advani and Manmohan Singh. Both will be 80 years old soon but see how hard they’re able to work. Does any politician in their 40s work even half as hard as they do? No, because they can’t. They get exhausted just sitting in their air-conditioned rooms, staring at mobile phones and getting fat on public money. Your generation’s favorite politicos like Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati are useless. Look at the way you people talk. You don’t even know how to talk these days.”
I got a ride back into the city in his car and to repay the favour, I had to listen silently to a volley of advice in matters as diverse as nutrition, exercise, mental discipline, physiology, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, China, the military etc. When we reached Paltan Bazaar at the center of Dehdradun, he asked me if I wanted to come to his house so we could continue these monologues over a few drinks. I politely refused and got off at the Clock Tower nearby. As I was leaving, he held my hand tightly and said, “Life seems very long, my son. But it isn’t. I hope you remember some of the things I told you.” I assured him that I would never forget the time I hung out with him and went on my way.
I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of good quality bookshops in a city as small as Dehradun. Two of them, The Green Book Shop and The English Book Depot, were my favourites. The Green Book Shop was run by Natraj Publishers and the owner, Mr. Upendra Arora, when he saw me cluelessly browsing the mounds of books lying everywhere, gauged my taste and recommended books I would otherwise have not even looked at. I wasn’t a big fan of Ruskin Bond but he knew the man and encouraged me to read his Himalayan diary “Rain in the Mountains”. He wanted me to read the book, if not for the kind of literary finesse I was looking for, to get a sense of the Uttarakhand landscape I would be traveling through. And if I liked it and I was still in the region, I could get it signed over a cup of tea with the author himself, he said with a wink and a smile, because Mr. Bond had a habit of coming down to Doon for a few days in April. He cautioned me against knocking at the door of the author’s Mussoorie house because the old man could do without people treating him as a tourist attraction.
Even though I traveled on a tight budget, the one luxury I did afford myself was books. They were my primary source of entertainment in the first 2 years of my travels when I went without a smartphone, a laptop or a kindle. At The Green Book Shop, I picked up everything that Mr. Arora put me onto, like Glorious Garhwal, a collection of short stories by Ganesh Saili, Red and Trotter-Nama, novels by Allan Sealy, Seven Sacred Rivers by Bill Aitken and Once Upon a Time in the Doon, a collection edited by Ruskin Bond which contained essays and short stories about Dehradun by authors as diverse as Ram Guha, Allan Sealy, Ganesh Saili, Bikram Grewal and – he couldn’t suppress the pride in his voice when he pointed this out – Mr. Upendra Arora himself.
I could get a sense of how close-knit the city was while browsing through the shelves at The English Book Depot. The lady at the counter appeared to function as a listening post to people streaming into the shop. A young girl wanted advice on how to handle the approaches of a boy who was stalking her, an aged South Indian man gave her an excruciatingly detailed account of the back pain that was troubling him, a schoolboy wished to know how he could go about getting the grace marks he needed to pass an exam, two well-to-do ladies whispered about an extra-marital affair one of the women they knew were having and she listening to all of them patiently, providing a helpful tip here, a witty repartee there.
Despite these frequent non-literary distractions, she was alert to the demands of the people who were in the shop to buy books. She told me that all the books in her shop were hand-picked by herself and the people who worked there. The collection had a strong bent towards non-fiction and had a healthy collection of Penguin Classics. She was very helpful in suggesting a few non-esoteric books on Indian history like Diana Eck’s Banaras – City of Light, Michael Wood’s Chidambaram, Sudhir Kakar’s Ascetic of Desire and Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, all of which I enjoyed poring over in the days ahead.
When I had taken the train from Ujjain to Dehradun, I thought I would stick around for a night and hop onto a bus to Mussoorie the next day. Dehradun, I was told, was like any other ordinary town, hectic, busy and with not a lot to do. But I enjoyed Dehradun considerably more than I thought I would and that’s thanks largely to JD, Aunty, some of its denizens, the bookshops, the Tibetans. In the end, I was there for a week. It was the first place that taught me that a town is only as interesting as you allow it to be.