The Songtsen Library, 11km outside Dehradun, turned out to be exactly what I had had in mind when I started planning this holiday, which is something that almost never happens. I could do a lot of tedious description, but I think the pictures will be do a better job.
Surrounded by academics and travellers, and others who belong in a Leonard Cohen song, it felt like living on a small campus, my first-floor suite like my own flat. At times, when Joan Baez was singing Diamonds and Rust and I glanced casually up from my writing, it felt as if I was back in my flat in Muscat. In fact, since it was oriented similarly with the windows facing the sun rising over the hills, it always took a few minutes after waking to reorient myself to the present.
The gardens fell away to the thickly wooded Sahastradhara River Valley. The flowers were profuse, the people quietly welcoming and the unnumbered Lhasa Apsos frolicking about were friendly (these could have been three or four or just an optical illusion. It was hard to tell in the mist, compounded by the fact that most of them didn't have names).
My first evening here, I went down to the fence to enjoy the sunset, feeling a deep relief at the quiet beauty. I watched the darkness and mist fill the valley, until the outline of the hills faded out, and only the sky was left, clear and cold. The stars switched themselves on, one by one (coinciding with the half-hour load shedding on the ground), and the waxing moon showed up shortly after, way too bright for a mere crescent. It deepened the dark, intensified the cold, and sharpened the outline of the hills once again. And along with them, the dark shapes of bushes, trees and sundry undergrowth. Then, having been reading Jim Corbett and being possessed of an unreasonable imagination, I retreated hastily to where there were lights and tea, and humans. It was only six-thirty in the evening, but it felt like ten, so I prowled around the kitchens until dinnertime at seven. In yet another of those reminders that the Earth is round, the chef here turned out to have worked at Rice Bowl, the old Bangalorean institution on Brigade Road. Apparently, the restaurant belongs to the Dalai Lama's sister; I'd always assumed it was Chinese-owned, and rather tactlessly said so.
Once I'd gotten into a rhythm, I would only stop working in time to watch the mist and star show from my balcony. In any case I wouldn't have returned alone to the rather lonely viewpoint unless I could have got one of the dogs to accompany me. But small dogs have a lot of cat-like qualities and won't go anywhere inconvenient or uncomfortable unless there's something in it for them. I did manage to buy some man's-best-friend-ness with a chocolate biscuit, but it clearly didn't run to wandering outside in the cold.
Looking at my photographs now, there's still a sense of unreality to the whole thing, not least the fact that this perfect place was came my way because of a perfect stranger. There, cushioned within the blessed diversity of many nationalities and the anonymity of being just one among many, I got a lot of work done. Mealtimes were enlivened by cameo conversations, nearly always with someone new. These ranged from being silly with the merriest Germans I've ever met over the ways of fictional murderers and the possibility of any such making it to the Nobel list, to satisfying the bloodless curiosity of a librarian about a book in the making. It occasioned no awe or wonder or any singularity whatsoever, that I counted my holiday well-spent sitting at a laptop in a library all day; or that two hours of walking did not need to lead anywhere.
The Dalai Lama's vintage-ish Mercedes displayed on the Library lawns.
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