A town in my memory - Dehradun
Suparna Banerjee, Oct 07, 2010
If you approach Dehradun from the Delhi-Dehradun national highway, the experience is a rude anti-climax. Barely has the dust of the plains settled, and the long, winding road from ‘Mohand’ begun elevating elegantly through the towering Shivalik hills, that it all gets over abruptly. Once inside Dehradun, it’s the same old symphony of any town trying to grow up in a hurry. The new has grown all over the old, without a second thought. The end result is somewhat like trying to paint a room again without scraping away the old layer first.

Only sentiments can cloud your vision of this place and chances are if you’ve been here earlier you’ll be quite besotted. Of course that doesn’t change the landscape when you’re approaching the inter-state bus stand. Eager hotels peer out at potential tourists amidst a maze of really ancient, old and derelict buildings. This is routinely interspersed by gurudwaras and temples. The litter spills out of the innumerable sweet – rabri-kulfi, chole-bhature – and basmati rice shops into the streets and is nicely pollinated around by the never-ceasing flow of people. This preview of a town which has better sights to offer once you’ve wrenched yourself from its tangled guts, is easier on the senses if one enters by dusk or night time. Everything looks tentative then and recedes into the night. The ones that are lit-up are redeemed by the sheer virtue of lighting up a sleepy, often dead-by-night town.

First timers who stumble into the town with expectations of drifting into a green, undulating gentle valley nestled at the ‘foothills of Himalayas’ (brochure jargon) are the ones who are most disappointed. Almost angry. But then, which pretty town in India has been spared the twin onslaught of population and tourism? Dehradun is a smart town this side of the country – a byproduct of the innumerable English-speaking schools lurking in every nook, corner and crevice of the valley. The jewels in the crown are, predictably, the all-boys ‘Doon School’ and the all-girls ‘Welhams’ residential schools.

A considerable proportion of the demographic belongs to the armed forces – both present and retired, and that almost gives the town a stiff upper lip. What gives the place away is, however, the overwhelming majority of traders and their characteristic compulsion for commerce. Most people are always busy buying and selling something or the other. Life - education, marriage, raising children – all happen in course of the brisk business of life. While the elderly have gracefully yielded to the compulsions of age, the young here carry the surge of youth right upto Mussoorie on most occasions, which usually include school picnics, furtive dates a little away from a conservative town or the ultimate event of the year – the ‘snowfall’!!!

While Dehradun may not be a perfect picture, it is, however, a very well framed one. Its fringes are laced with picnic spots – by the water, under the hills, wrapped up in forests. Robbers cave, Sahastradhara, Lachiwalla are high on popularity charts. For those wanting to duck the routine crowds, a little adventurous temperament is enough to wander into neighboring hills and forests.

Like a balding man clinging desperately to his last strands, Dehradun is also holding on to the last of its ‘litchi bagaans’ and basmati rice fields. Civilization has snaked its way into the remotest of villages, which are now studded with the inevitable mustard yellow STD booths, beauty parlours and the odd grocery store, all of which loudly announce that man has at last arrived – here too. And if the village is irresistibly picturesque you can be sure to find a board promising a holiday resort, determinedly put up in a clearing, with promises of a ‘quiet and tucked away’ experience for tired urban souls.

The heart of Dehradun swells up and bursts open in the widest and the smartest stretch of town – Rajpur Road. It’s a small town’s pride complete with delightful confectionary shops, well turned out departmental stores (with English speaking store keepers), dignified bookshops and restaurants that have grown both appetites and reputations over the years.

It wouldn’t be too off the mark to say that Dehradun is almost an institution by itself and one, if viewed in that light, which also boasts of a very strong and powerful alumni.

Basically a happy town, it is tinged with sadness as well. Perhaps there is too much of nostalgia directed at it which comes from its many successful adults now in other teeming metropolises who started their ‘walk of life’ right here barely out of their respective schools. There is an age and time for being around here and popular opinion is that late adolescence is the right time to opt out. This is exactly the time when most reasonably ambitious youngsters outgrow the cozy comforts of this small town; especially the ones who don’t have the benefit of a family business to bail them out for want of any other occupation.

Often huge houses with sprawling lawns in well-guarded private neighborhoods hide elderly folks left with only well-groomed dogs for comfort. Their children are all ‘out there’ – the further away the better, with a clear preference for any state in the US. The dollars keep the houses growing and the cars jostling for space in the garages.

On the whole, the balance of the elderly and the very young averages it out as a reasonably delightful and busy place to be in. A place of hidden unexpected delights for visitors who’ve tuned down expectations of small town India (especially small ‘hill destinations’). It is places like Dehradun that are destined to carry the weight of urban India which routinely swoops down upon its fragile eco-system every summer to rid itself of its staleness and desperation. As Ruskin Bond puts it – ‘Our trees still grow in Dehra’ - hopes and dreams still stir in this valley that is reluctantly parting with its green complexion with every passing year.
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Dehra Dun, schools, trees
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