A few denizens of Dehradun

10398976_115838981962_2105038_n“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.

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Dehradun

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I was woken up at 7 in the morning with loud knocks on the door by the man at the reception. “Saab aaye hain aapse milne (A gentleman has come to see you)”, he said with a huff and left. I didn’t know anyone in Dehradun let alone “saabs”, so I thought it must be a misunderstanding and went back to sleep. After two minutes, he banged the door again and said angrily, “Kaha naa saab aaye hain? Chaliye jaldi. (Did I not tell you a gentleman was here for you? Come quickly!)” This was annoying and highly perplexing.

When I went downstairs, the man who was waiting for me (let’s call him JD) greeted me warmly and scolded me for staying in a cheap hotel when I could be living with him. He was a close family friend but since I was habitually anti-social when it came to family, I hadn’t seen him in a long time and had absolutely no idea that he lived in Dehradun. Apparently, my mother, in a state of panic after reading the e-mail about my lost phone, had called him up and asked him to take me home. I had a rather strict “no meeting friends or family on the road” rule but after 3 weeks of bad hotels, toxic food and exhausted wanderings, I wasn’t unhappy to go live in a sheltered environment for a while.

He was extremely polite, humble and mild-mannered for someone who was a high-ranking officer in the Indian Navy. But I could get a sense of his stature when a bike, in an attempt to overtake his car near a signal, grazed the bumper at the back. The biker couldn’t dodge the signal, so when he stopped, JD got out and censured him viciously. He was not a big man and was a lot smaller than the man who was riding the bike but with his fierce eyes and booming voice, he intimidated him into apologizing for his careless driving. “Fucking bastards,” he said after returning to the car, “these people think they own the world.”

Mr. and Mrs. JD (whom I shall henceforth call Aunty) treated me with extreme kindness and warmth. Their son was away on Merchant Navy duty and their daughter was studying in college and they gave me all the attention they could. Aunty put up with my idiosyncrasies like throwing stuff around all over the house, waking up at noon, not taking showers for days, mixing up clothes in the washing machines, carrying dirty shoes into the bedroom, forgetting to switch off fans and geysers etc. with a great degree of tolerance. Living with them, I realized how much I missed a close family setting despite the freedom and excitement of the traveling life.

The house was in the National Hydrographic Office campus on Rajpur Road, as serene and peaceful as the rest of Dehradun was noisy and chaotic. JP gave me an idea of the degree to which the city had changed over the years. Three decades ago, when he was here as a junior officer, he had to walk the 3 kms to Central Dehradun every day in pitch black darkness during the night. There was nothing but thick forests on the way on both sides of the road. It’s a scene unimaginable today with shopping centers, restaurants, residential buildings, street lights lined up all along Rajpur Road with not a hint of greenery to be seen anywhere. Development work, it seems, went into overdrive after the city was declared as the capital of the newly formed state of Uttarakhand in the year 2000.

Dehradun was a smallish city, so public transport was restricted to 8-seater rickshaws aka vikrams that plied on fixed routes. It was an uncomfortable yet cheap way to get to some of the tourist areas on the outskirts of the city. On one of these trips, I heard two young boys in their 20s talk about how difficult life was for them in Dehradun. “These bloody Tibetans get everything on a platter,” said one of them with rage plastered on his face, “and they are not even from India. They have never been to college but they get shops, markets, jobs, momo restaurants, everything, while we Indian people get nothing.” They were Economics graduates from the Doon University but had been waiting for a job to come by for over 6 months.

“They don’t have a country anymore,” I said, “and they had to build a life out of nothing when they came here. At least you have a family that supports you and a place you can call home.”

“If they didn’t have anything, they shouldn’t have come here. They should have learnt to live under China,” the other boy said. “They are a very crafty people, only wanting to make money. They already have a lot of things for free, so why are they so obsessed with money? People think they can get cheap clothes at the Tibetan Market but that’s not true. They always sell at a profit.”

The angrier boy then cut in saying, “Why are you taking their side anyway? They are not our people. You should be supporting young people like us.”

Realizing that this was an intensely emotive issue at least among the two boys sitting in front of me, I chose to end the discussion by nodding my head in agreement and staying quiet the rest of the way.

All this talk of Tibet made me hungry for momos and since the Tibetan market was very close to the rickshaw stand, the last stop on this journey, I promptly went into the first momo shop I could find after getting off. It was a little shed with a makeshift tin roof, dirty floors and cobwebbed ceilings. The woman seated next to the momo steamer evinced little interest in selling momos but after she was lazily poked in the back with a leg by another woman taking a nap on the bench reserved for customers, she moodily went about the arduous process of taking orders. She had only three options, veg, chicken and mutton. Since I was very hungry and momos tend to be terribly light, I ordered one of each.

The momos weren’t as juicy as I would have liked but they sated my hunger. While eating, I talked to the woman who turned out to be friendlier than first impressions suggested. I told her about the conversation I had with the two young boys in the rickshaw and she said, yes, the perception the boys had was very real and every once in a while some of these boys would come up to Tibetan-run shops and abuse them out of frustration. But these instances of verbal violence were a minority, she said, and most of the people in the city were friendly and they let them do business in peace.

Her family was originally from Amdo, the region where the present Dalai Lama came from. After continued repression in the 1980’s, her father crossed over into Nepal with her mother. She was born in the Tibetan colony around Pokhara and when she was five years old, the family moved again to India where the prospects appeared to be much brighter. They now lived in Clement Town, a large Tibetan settlement with a big monastery and she urged me to visit it whenever I had the time. It was the only worthwhile thing to do around Dehradun, she said. People accused Tibetans of being rude while selling goods in the markets but according to her, they didn’t realize that people like her father who ran the shops had neither the training nor the aptitude for the business. They were pastoral nomads and had been so for over a thousand years. Many of the people running the shops were old men and women who had never transacted business and had been uprooted from their landscapes and livelihoods and thrown into a world where they didn’t feel they belonged. She broke into tears at this point and said that she’d never desired to see the land her ancestors came from but her father, even after spending over 20 years abroad, kept longing to go back and wouldn’t stop pissing her off with his nostalgia.

The Mindrolling monastery in Clement Town was the first Tibetan monastery I ever went to and I was completely overawed by the setting, the atmosphere, the scale, the repeated drone of “Om Mani Padme Om” humming in the air and the colourful, macabre, spellbinding wall paintings filling the rooms. Surrounded by Mahakal with his crown of skulls, Hayagriva with the neck of a horse, Yamantaka signaling doom and death and graphic depictions of gruesome punishments meted out by wrathful deities, it felt odd and surreal to feel so peaceful and tranquil around that space. In the evening, the deep bass of Tibetan woodwinds signaled the culmination of evening prayers and a cacophony of arcane chants rumbled through the prayer hall. I, for one, was happy that the culture, however uprooted it may have been from its origins, was alive and kicking here in India.

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On the Ujjaini Express to Dehradun

“Kya lagta hai aapko? Kiski sarkaar banegi?” (What do you think? Who’s going to form the government?)

“Bas Baburam ki kheti. Aur kya?”

A round of laughter went about but I didn’t get the joke. So, like a little boy who had overheard someone saying a bad word and goes on to ask his mother what the word meant, I asked the people sitting around me what “Baburam ki Kheti” meant. Another round of laughter, louder than the one before, went around. After it subsided, a woman said, “Unka kehne ka matlab hai ki Kaangress ki sarkar waapas aayegi aur desh ki haalat aur kharaab hogi.” (He meant to say that the Congress party will form the government again and the country will be ruined even more.) The 2009 Assembly Elections were due to begin in 3 weeks and everyone in the country I was traveling through seemed to have an idea of where that was headed.

The man who made the sarcastic remark was a Forest Department official (let’s call him FD) on a holiday with his family of a wife and two rowdy children. The man who posed the question was HS, an old gentleman from Ujjain and the woman who answered my clueless query was his wife, PS, both retired bank managers on a pilgrimage to Haridwar. FD, HS, the wives, family and I were sitting in the 2nd class sleeper coach of the Ujjaini Express on its way to Dehradun and having spent over 20 hours with each other doing the obligatory socializing attempts on Indian Railways like exchanging food, playing cards, buying rounds of chai etc, we were at ease in each other’s company. Even the kids, who had taken over the entire coach with their shouting, screaming and running around, had become somewhat tolerable.

The other people were two ticketless men who were allowed to tag along by FD on account of his governmental clout. They were on a short hop from Meerut to Saharanpur and had been repaying the free ride with some sycophantic conversation with FD, agreeing with every political insight he had to offer and laughing at every joke he made. If he said the country was going to hell because both the national parties were being led by people pushing 80, he had nailed it. Did they know that corrupt babus are the reason the country is in dumps? No, they didn’t and they were grateful for his cutting political commentary. It was selfless people like him that made the country work, they said.

I had enjoyed the train ride till these two idiots came in and their fawning was getting on my nerves. So I excused myself and went to spend some time sitting by the door. I thought, now that I was away from people, I would put in a call to my parents to tell them where I was going. The phone wasn’t in my pant pockets, so I went back to my seat to get it out of my daypack.

I couldn’t find it in my daypack either. I began to panic and looked under the seats, the bedsheets, the pillows, turned over other people’s luggage, searched the next row of berths thinking it might have fallen down and slid away in the direction the train was moving. No luck. I came back to my seat and put my hands on my head as if I was about to weep.

Then FD, who watching my entire activity with muted enthusiasm, asked me which phone I was carrying. The Nokia 1100, I said. “Ah”, he said dismissively, “No one would steal that. You must have lost it somewhere. You’re very irresponsible.”

His two sycophantic buddies nodded their heads in agreement and said,” Yes, yes, very irresponsible.”

My head was fuming with rage and I said, “Shut up, the two of you! Or I’ll complain to the TC that you’re traveling ticketlessly. Haven’t you people ever lost a phone?”

One of the men laughed, pointed at his friend and said, “Haha, he has. But it was a very expensive phone.”

FD, who seemed considerably amused at my anger then cut in saying, “Yes, I can understand people stealing expensive phones. But if they’re stealing a cheap phone like yours then they may have something else in mind.”

I was highly perturbed by this observation and said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Maybe they’re after your sim and not your phone. It can be used for any number of criminal activities.”

This sent me into a tizzy and I ran to row after row of people in the compartment asking if they had seen a cheap Nokia phone. No one had but since they were all bored of sitting in the train for so long, some of them were happy to have something to do and began searching for the phone with me. They pulled out luggages, crouched below the seats, rudely interrogated the pantry and cleaning staff, consoled me by making bad jokes, offered me comfort food etc. I hadn’t attracted such a lot of attention ever in my life.

In a couple of hours, when all our attempts to find the phone were in vain, an elderly bihari gentleman came up with an idea that I hadn’t thought of in my excitement. His cunning plan was to use his phone to call my phone to detect it. This idea made me feel really stupid and the people around me just gaped at me in astonishment and began scolding me for having wasted their time. They thought I had already done the first obvious thing anybody would do after losing a phone. Any sympathy I had earned disappeared in a wave of derision.

When I called my number from the old man’s phone, I could hear the ring tone but couldn’t hear it ringing. Some of the other people who were helping me find it looked under the seats to see if they could hear something or see a screen flashing but to no avail. It was all very puzzling. Surely if someone had stolen my phone, they would have switched it off to make it more difficult for the owners to find it? FD put on his detective hat and surmised that this was proof that the people who had stolen my phone were already using my sim for their nefarious activities. In his opinion, I should immediately get my sim cancelled and generously offered his phone for the purpose.

But none of us knew what the Vodafone helpline number was and I hadn’t committed the phone numbers of my friends and family to memory. FD shook his head to indicate that I was nothing but a hopeless failure.

Everybody got off the train at Haridwar, leaving me to agonize over my lost phone in solitude for the rest of the journey. I understand that railway tracks through wildlife areas aren’t a good thing for wild animals but in those moments of mental agony, the thickly forested stretch between Haridwar and Dehradun, cheered me up. I could spot kingfishers, drongos, peacocks, spotted deer and wild boar in the evening light from the window of the train and the empty compartment made me feel like I was getting exclusive access to these scenes.

After reaching Dehradun, I checked in to Hotel Meedo close to the train station. The receptionist needed my mobile no. to give me a room and I gave him my number and that should have been the end of the story but no, in an act of immense stupidity, just as he was about to hand me the keys to my room, I had to narrate the entire sordid saga of losing my phone on the Ujjaini Express in an attempt to socialize. The receptionist crinkled his brows in suspicion and asked me why I had given him a number that wouldn’t work and why he shouldn’t take me to a police station for blatantly lying and not reporting a lost sim card? I had to plead forgiveness innumerable times to convince him not to take any drastic steps. He asked me to hand over my PAN Card and pay a 1000 rupee deposit as surety to prove that I wasn’t a criminal on the run or something nefarious like that.

Next up was a long ordeal in search of a cyber café to alert my parents of my lost phone and to get them to cancel my sim card as soon as they could. It wasn’t easy to find a cyber café in Dehradun and when I did find a couple of them, they refused to let me use a computer without an ID Proof and a working mobile number. Finally, after over an hour of walking, I found one on Rajpur Road that allowed me to use a machine for 10 minutes for double the hourly rate.

After sending a quick email to my parents telling them to get my sim card cancelled as soon as possible, I came back to my room to relax after the stress of the long, hectic train journey and the exertions thereafter. A hot shower was in order. So I opened up my rucksack and rummaged through the layers of dirty clothes to get to some of the cleaner ones deep within. While taking out the clothes, I heard the deep thud of metal hitting the floor. It was the phone I thought I had lost and it was lodged in a pocket of the short pants I had been wearing before boarding the train. In all the panic and excitement, I forgot the fact that I hadn’t used my phone for over two days and the reason I couldn’t hear it ring was because of a habit (that I have to this day) of keeping it on silent mode.

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