A Year in Dehra

I was eight years old when we left the hills for the first time. My teacher-parents worked in a school buried deep in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India and I was taken there as a baby. And so began my love affair with the hills. I spent my childhood in those hills, running to school in a red sweater and monkey cap. I accompanied my parents when they took their students on school camping trips, hiking and trekking in Top Slip, Upper Bhavani, Avalanche, and numerous other wonderful places in the region. I came to love those hills, and it was a rude shock to me when we left all of a sudden. We spent a few months in hot Jamnagar, right on the Gulf of Kutch; it was such a striking contrast to the southern hills which was home to me till then. The next year, we shifted to Bangalore, with its neon lights, then nascent IT boom, shopping malls, and all the glitz of a bustling metropolis. I liked Bangalore- it was the first time I actually lived in a city, discounting a few weeks every year in Mumbai when I visited during the monsoons- but I missed the hills dreadfully. And so I was ecstatic when my parents decided to relocate to Dehra Dun the next year. It was like finding manna in the desert! Dehra, right at the foothills of the Shivaliks, would be just like going back to the Nilgiris, and I would be home again!

I remember arriving in Dehra on the Shatabdi Express from Delhi. I had recently discovered the magic of a Ruskin Bond story and so I was charmed by the town right from the beginning. We could see the twinkling lights of Mussoorie, high up in the hills, from the balcony of our house, and I spent many an evening gazing at the horizon. In Dehra, I overcame my fear of dogs, and discovered how perfectly lovely it was to have a canine companion that seemed to know when I was sad, and would make me feel better by just coming and laying her head on my lap. Appa and I cycled around every Sunday morning, and we made friends with an old uncle and his dog whom we bumped into on one such day. The dog was an enormously fat Golden Labrador called Sparky. He was a jolly old fellow, always delighted to meet new people. The first time we met him, he was so excited that he jumped onto my cycle, knocking me over!

I had started school (grade 5), and I was really enjoying it, except for Hindi. Being typical south Indians, none of us spoke Hindi at home, although I had studied it earlier. I was dismayed to note that Hindi was the language used informally within school circles, and I kind of felt left out on that score. Even the only other south Indian in class spoke it fluently. (She was a fauji kid, and seemed to prefer Hindi over her native Malayalam.) Apart from this little linguistic barrier, I had the time of my life. I was chosen to represent the school at an inter school poetry recitation competition, and I recited a hilarious poem called The Tummy Beast written by the incomparable Roald Dahl. I came second in that competition and the prize was the best of all- two book coupons that I could use to buy books at the English Book Depot! I was elated and the very next weekend we went to the book store where I bought one of the Twins at St Clare’s books by Enid Blyton. I often think back to that day and realise that this competition had really encouraged me, given me a boost of confidence, and in many ways, it was a starting point for future endeavours. I cannot thank my school principal, Dr Arora, enough because it takes immense patience and compassion to recognise that each and every child has the potential to rise and shine, if only they could be given a chance in the first place!

School kept me busy, but I still had a lot of time out of school, which I used to feed my voracious reading appetite. I cycled to the lending library nearby where I gorged on Nancy Drews and Enid Blytons. But my favorite had always been (and will always be) Ruskin Bond, and on sunny winter afternoons, I was most content to be sitting on the lawns, soaking in the afternoon sunshine, and reading about Ruskin’s old Uncle Ken and his eccentric antics — Uncle Ken who thought soaking gherkins in brandy could cure his baldness, and who was always getting into scraps of all sorts! Every weekend, I would coax Appa and Amma to take me to the Natraj Book Store on Rajpur Road, because I had heard that it was a favorite haunt of Mr Bond, but unfortunately I never got to meet my hero.

I still can see the book store in my mind’s eye, and the neighbouring crowded Paltan Bazaar with its many shops and restaurants. I really liked going to Kumar Sweets; their rasmalai and soanpapdi were to die for! The latter especially, flaky and soft, would just melt once you pop it into your mouth. I discovered that the best thing about Holi was devouring gujiyas (another new find about northern India for the clueless south Indian). I remember gobbling them down greedily with glee.

It was in Dehra that we bought our first car- a third-hand old white Maruti from Mr Gilhotra, a retired major in the Army. Appa loved the old car and in the evening we drove around town, stopping to eat spicy chowmein and momos from roadside stalls.

I remember dinner at a grubby Punjabi dhaba where a Buddhist monk dressed in red robes also came in for his meals. I had only heard of Dharamsala and Tibet, and remember pondering about what life would have been like in those distant places, further north. I often thought about what makes a place ‘home’ and how people cope with the agony of being away from it. Just a few days ago, a friend at school had pointed to a classmate and whispered in my ear that he was a Kashmiri and his family had been forced to flee their home. (It would be years before I read about the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, and now I cannot help but think of my old schoolmate, and wonder what happened to him.)

I remember long drives outside the town, where we spotted roadside vendors selling kinnow, a citrusy fruit belonging to the orange family. When my uncle visited, we took him to Sahastradhara, on the outskirts of the city, where it is said that a thousand springs join together against the backdrop of the Himalayas. We also visited nearby Hardwar and Rishikesh- we travelled in a rickety old bus, where I sat in between two old dadajis, eyes twinkling, and paan stained teeth revealing kind smiles. Hardwar is literally the Gateway to Shiva, and the whole town seemed to be dancing in the bliss of being with Him. Sadhus with long matted hair and bowls for bhiksha wandered around; curious tourists armed with cameras and backpacks snapped photographs. We had a quick dip in the holy Ganga, my teeth chattering in the bitter winter cold of December. A few miles away is Rishikesh where we witnessed the spectacular evening aarti on the banks of the Ganga. A conch was blown at dusk, and the chants of evening prayers mingled with drum beats to which people danced in oblivion, soaked in the happiness of finding God. I remember returning home to the Doon Valley, feeling a sense of peace and solace, and to this day, thinking of the evening Ganga aarti brings me great comfort whenever I feel down.

All too soon, a year in Dehra came to an end, and my parents decided that it was time to move again. Greener pastures in the brown desert soil of the Middle East beckoned and I had to bid farewell to my beloved hills again. There’s a Welsh word I discovered recently — hiraeth — which describes my state of mind every time I think of the hills and Dehra. It means a profound sense of nostalgia for a home that you cannot return to. After Dehra, we moved to the island of Bahrain, and from there to Dubai, where I graduated from high school. Soon after, I moved to Singapore for university. After Dehra, after the hills, it has been a never ending search — swimming to different shores, trying not to forget ‘home’, and yet knowing that your definition of ‘home’ keeps changing.