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Letter from India--How Things Were

September 2006
Letter from India--How Things Were

The Shatabdi train meanders through the familiar landscape of Dehra Dun. The city I grew up in, the city I was so eager to leave. The city I have held dear ever since my escape.

I ignore the grime wedged along the windowsill and look beyond the tinted glass, wishing it weren't airtight. Pages from Ruskin Bond's books come alive. A longtime resident of Mussoorie (an idyllic hill station 35 km north of Dehra Dun), Bond's astute descriptions of the valley and its cultural topography are peppered with subtle humor.

Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, the city once served as a doorway to Mussoorie, a popular retreat for the British elite during the Raj. Since then Dehra Dun has become more than just a base camp. This small town takes mother-hen pride in its long grain Basmati, venerated educational institutions, and homegrown actors Udita Goswami and Shiney Ahuja!

Did I say small town? I stand corrected. Much has changed in Bond's Dehra—and mine. Varicolored construction stings the eyes. The cacophony of horns and engine groans is deafening, even in the once tranquil side streets. Vikrams (smoke-spewing tempos, three-wheel vehicles) rule the roads. I can taste the pollution in my mouth, feel it on my skin. The one-style-suits-all urbanization epidemic has arrived.

As the newly christened capital of Uttaranchal State, Dehra Dun has been stretched in all directions to accommodate political agendas. The city's soul lost in translation. Gigantic hoarding for McDonalds and Dominos Pizza dwarf remarkable old structures like the Indian Military Academy and the Forest Research Institute. Slick developers are commercializing every inch of space with no regard for the city's architectural sensibilities or flora and fauna.

I wanted my Dehra Dun to remain untouched, pristine. Why must all small towns be inflated into big cities?

Haphazard, ill-planned townships are fast becoming the hallmark of modern India. The journey from New Delhi to Dehra Dun through Ghaziabad, Meerut, and Haridwar epitomizes such overnight development. It's a brick and mortar maze. Dehra Dun's beloved sal trees have been uprooted to make way for shopping malls and apartment buildings. Have we learnt nothing from metropolises like Mumbai where ill-conceived urban development has left the city's Shanghai dreams awash in gutter water? The drama of deforestation in Doon valley is yet to unfold.

I take a walk down memory lane, revisiting the narrow pot-holed streets of Dalanwala, only to get lost in my neighborhood's new avatar. I need directions to trace my way home!

I finally find the harmony I hanker after—in my own backyard. I remember playing guli danda and kho kho. We once grew lettuce and strawberries here. And grapes—my father fancied himself to be a wine maker! When my brother and I weren't being made to squash grapes or cram math tables (sometimes doing both at once), we would climb mango and litchi trees. Of course, the juiciest plucking always came from the neighbor's trees, forbidden to us!

Living in an age of virtual reality and A.I. (artificial intelligence), anything natural, anything I can touch, taste, and feel, is precious. Some things must remain constant—to help me endure all that changes.

Like the passing of my father eight years ago.... Sitting in his room today, looking at the fifty-two photographs of him that line the walls, I attempt to embrace the vacuum left in his wake. There is little warmth in frozen picture frames.

In the company of my father's friend, Parmesh Dangwal (author of "I Dare", biography of Kiran Bedi, Director-General, Home Guards & Civil Defense) I reminisce about my childhood: watching my father play tennis with him, dueling over scrabble, enjoying fondue in the peak of winter. A few pegs of Old Monk rum at the Doon Club lift Mr. Dangwal's spirits, while my fresh lime soda nudges me further towards nostalgic stupor. Pesky mosquitoes that make it past the Kachua Chaap repellent coil smoldering near our feet (some things never change!) bite me back to reality. Suddenly, I am in the moment. No sorrow, no judgment, no expectations. Just an acceptance of the way things are.

"The moving finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit

shall lure it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it."

– The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam


[An Atlanta resident, Reetika Nijhawan is currently on a one-year sabbatical to India, from where she will comment on life from the perspective of an expatriate. We welcome your responses to this article. Please write to letters@khabar.com]

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