A second chance

Irwin Allan Sealy | Updated on January 24, 2018



Forests, freshwater canals, and golden trout once signified my city, but Dehra Dun has become plain Dehradun. I prefer all the earlier forms but have learnt to live with the later

The Himalayan mahseer is a golden trout my uncle used to fish in the river Song just outside Dehra Dun. I never saw one landed, but tramping a boulder-strewn bed in search of the right reach for mahseer was to become for me emblematic of the Doon. There was of course the forest, a tin-roofed bungalow in Dalanwala, the old British quarter, and a freshwater canal, the East Canal. These things, not the mountains, made up my Dehra Dun. Today the canal is gone, the forest disappearing and the mahseer paltry. And Dehra Dun has become plain Dehradun. I prefer all of the earlier forms, but have learnt to live with the later. The early ’60s town is turned city, with the airs (and the air) of a capital. When I tell that boy sitting on the carriage steps of the speeding steam-powered Doon Express (one May morning long ago) he’s going to end up living here, he just laughs. I was after all a product of the plains, of small towns scattered from one end of Uttar Pradesh to the other, towns whose chief feature was their featurelessness; no forest, no foaming canal waters, no magical trout.

I’m still not enamoured of mountains, and I wonder if I woke up one morning to a flat horizon whether I might not be happier, the way I once was in say Saharanpur, across the Siwaliks (those “Sawa-lakh” peaks of the pre-Himalayan range that divide us from the plains). You’re supposed to feel at home in your city, but the truth nowadays is I feel that way at home, with the gate latch drawn. All through the ’80s and ’90s, when more often than not a bus brought me back here, the first blue heave on the northern horizon always brought on a sigh that said, home! I felt it in my fellow passengers too, the way they’d loosen up and begin to notice their neighbours or simply look out the window, forgetting the video. If the bus broke down, as it often did, I would pray that it would happen in the forest. But it must have been more than that distant swell of blue-green hills that charmed us; it would have been the whole ensemble of basmati rice fields and tea gardens that called out, and the lychee groves and the tottering rain-blackened long-suffering city with its fuddy-duddy clock tower for a zero milestone.

This was in pre-Barista days. In the new century, since Uttarakhand, the roads, the shops and houses, seemingly every frontage, has spruced up a little (not more, this is still the cowbelt); lately every time I go into town I discover a new eatery with chrome furniture and a plateglass door. Over the same period I too have rebuilt my father’s house, though I’ve not touched the most sacred part of his (or any) house, the roof. Built true and strong, flat concrete not sloping tin, that roof has for 35 years withstood the interminable monsoon of India’s wettest city. The building’s finished now, all except for a proper post box; when it rains, the lad who’s replaced postman Bisht calls out, “ Sailiji!” and shoves the mail under the garage door.

If a city is its profile the great disappointment of life in any Indian city (leaving aside municipal matters) must be its public buildings; more than half a century after Independence we have not come up with an architecture for our times. Apart from the Forest Research Institute, which dates from the ’20s, Dehradun’s best buildings date from the ’90s — the 1890s. That busy decade produced the Forest Rangers’ College (which governors and chief ministers covet) and, among other things, a little-known gem — the leprosarium at the edge of town, an exquisite alpine village. Most of the leprosy chalets have been knocked down to make room for vile structures. The vandalism extends to humbler shapes too: our roadside antique market, one of the city’s pedestrian glories where kabaris stocked phonographs and grandfather clocks, now squats by a noxious nullah outside town. Today the one piece of open ground at the heart of the city, a parade ground used for circuses and rallies and fairs and wrestling matches, is being steadily encroached on at every corner. Our city councillors, once people of intelligence and refinement, have abandoned any pretence of civilisation.

Depressed at the sight of six city-felled tree stumps, I park where the kabaris were (right where I found my teak mapmakers’ desk spanning a black drain) and go spotting old iron lace balconies in Paltan Bazar. I pick up a punnet of shimla mirch (capsicum) seedlings at my old friend the paudhwala’s, scold the acharwala (“No brinjal??!!”), unearth a ’50s hardback dust jacket intact in Moti Bazar, and find myself at the fish market. Best shop in the row there is the corner shop (location, location), and it’s there I’m granted a vision from an old bestiary. At the very top of the macchiwala’s stand, glowing like a promise in a fairytale, is perched a gigantic golden mahseer.

Alright, I’ll give this town one more chance.

(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)

Irwin Allan Sealy is the author The Trotter-Nama and other novels

Published on May 29, 2015

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