Sunday, January 03, 2010

A hill station that's flat

After the hill-surrounded, green-valley-overlooking Songtsen Library, Dehradun town was horrible. A lucky conversation with my friend in town gave me the local name for the iconic clock tower, which was where I was headed. When I got off the bus, I was told it was round the corner. I unerringly went around the wrong corner, but decided to keep walking anyway to see where I would fetch up, and Dirk-Gently-style, ended up where I most needed to be – in front of a Barista. I hailed the sight of it with immense relief, exhausted by the blaring traffic (noticeably chaotic even to someone from Bangalore), open drains, ugly buildings and non-existent footpaths. In more than an hour of walking, I hadn't taken my camera out once.

The day before I left, my sister-in-law had warned me that Dehradun was entirely flat, saving me the added trauma of having to find out the hard way that the nip in the air was all there was to remind you that you were at the feet of some the greatest mountain ranges in the world. I had kept telling people that Dehradun would be like Ooty, doing the charming Nilgiri town a major disservice in the process.

Once, this place must have been like all the other colonial hill stations. The guidebooks and columnists are trying to pretend it still is, just like people keep calling Whitefield a picturesque suburb of Bangalore when all that's left of it is a cottage or three that hasn't yet been sold to a developer. (Important lesson learnt: If you want to know about a place, never ask someone who went to school there: the good old alma mater nostalgia cancels out all sense of perspective)

There's a cantonment area somewhere, which must have been nice, as all of them are. There must also have been Anglo-Indian and affluent pockets (I fervently hope), with roses climbing over cottage walls and the kitchen gardens that the girl on the train was talking about. But as with everywhere else in India, perhaps the world, gated communities called LA City and Greenview are working hard at removing the green from the view. There was a mall-like object far out of the city and I puzzled over its existence so close to a centre for Tibetan monks, until I explored a road beside it and came upon an "IT Park", of all things. I threw some garlic at it and ran away.

This, I suppose, is Progress and, indeed, why should the people who live here be left out of the consumerist orgy just because visitors want an "unspoilt getaway"? It's what's wrong with the times, not just Dehradun. Soon the only real holidays will be in the resorts enthusiastically creating debugged versions of the originals.

Once I'd seen the Barista, I was properly oriented to the instructions in the guidebook I'd deliberately left behind in Bangalore (since this was not supposed to be a tourist visit). So I kept walking until I reached the historic Ellora Bakery, where I bought several jam rolls, an old favourite that the even older bakery in Whitefield has stopped making in favour of ill-conceived croissant-like confections. Refreshed by the fact that I had high-sugar, fatty foods for future reference, I walked some more, noted the strange profusion of jewellery stores and dismaying lack of a restaurant that sold something other than butter chicken, and returned to the Barista for the rest of the afternoon. The friend for whose sake I'd come into town was mysteriously missing, but I'd found the me-shaped hole in a café and was very pleased with the day's work.

In the days that followed I made several short trips into town – I was situated outside a little village that lit dung fires at night, so, while their shop sold cream biscuits and bread, I had to commute a bit for anything else I wanted – and noticed calmer, more civilized parts of Dehradun from the bus window. Still, it's not really anywhere anybody would want to go on holiday. If you don't live there, it's just a transit or refuelling stop.

The bus was a smallish blue thing that you flagged down at the end of the village road. A few days of commuting later, I was negotiating with an orangemonger at Dehradun bus stand when the bus arrived, and I expected philosophically to have to catch the next one. But when I turned around with my bargain fruit, I found the bus waiting patiently for me. I remembered dimly that that's what rural bus services were about, and, in return, dug up the skills required to make space for a third person on a seat that was hardly big enough for two.

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