You are so lucky that you moved to Dehradun from a city, I get told all the time. As cliches go, it’s a great line. I see the foothills of the Himalayas every time I look out of the window. I am surrounded by countryside. I have a garden full of flowers.
Especially after the pandemic, you read articles or you hear about people from Gurgaon, Delhi, Meerut, looking to move to Dehradun. I get calls from friends about the availability of land or flats. The horrors of pollution and the rat race have been brought home in full force after almost a year of “work from home”. They use the line I myself used when I moved here six years ago: all you need is a good Internet connection.
I know, you’re looking for the poetry. The dawn chorus, the bird song through the day, the evening choir, which depending on the season could start at three in the afternoon or three hours later. Every November, you wait for the Himalayan Whistling Thrush to make its annual visit. Winter has begun when you hear its beautiful call early in the morning. Then the song stops but the bird stays, hopping the garden, and glinting when the Sun catches its brilliant dark blue with speckled wings and a yellow beak.
Some sounds are all-India sounds but evocative of the seasons and their gifts nonetheless: the thok-thok of the Coppersmith Barbet, the cooing of the doves, the summer frenzy of the Brainfever Bird, the persistent call of the Koel. Others like the plaintive Grey Hornbill or the did-you-do-it cry of the Red Wattled Lapwing come and go through the year.
The birds alone, even if you are ignorant from one page of Salim Ali to the next, are worth it. It’s the sheer privilege of course. The privilege of knowing that even if the mountaintops are covered in summer or winter haze, the air is clear and fresh. That when visitors arrive for the first time, the enormous hit of oxygen makes them sleepy.
And it’s those little pleasures that are hidden privileges. Garden privileges. Of camellias and magnolias. Of discovering daffodils and tulips when your orientation is tropical. Of making your own compost from kitchen and garden waste. Of having the time to meander. Of staring at the sunbirds while they feed on the vine or pose on the passionflower.
But, there has to be a but. It’s not all sapsuckers and sappy stories. There are those harsh realities of the countryside. Of the lack of basic amenities. Health, education, migration for work. Of environmental destruction and the resultant devastation.
Why did I move to Dehradun all those years ago? I moved to live with my parents. I left Mumbai, the city I have also felt the closest to, left my friends, my colleagues, my little flat with its verandah garden, to start a new chapter. For me, it was family and that’s a different kind of poetry. Not romantic lyricism but something far deeper, more elemental.
And it has been a struggle, as it was for my mother when she made the move from Calcutta post-retirement. You have to rejig your mind and your expectations. From the ridiculous — o lord, there is not one decent restaurant — to the sublime — where are the art galleries to feed my soul.
And for me, where is Arif who brought me my breakfast brun pao every morning, on his cycle, fresh from the bakery? Tiwariji who took me to work in his taxi every morning, and was always a phone call away for any emergency? Or Yadavji, ready with his taxi for the day when family came to visit? Or Baba who would travel miles for any electrical emergency, and had saved up enough to buy an old small flat that I had once lived in? Or Lalji, who smiled his way through every carpentry disaster? Or Anita, who looked like a dream and then fulfilled her own dream with a little food stall near a school?
Living in Mumbai was heady, a mix of enterprise, collaboration and trust every day. Going home from work by public transport at any time of the night. Putting in those commuter miles, whether by train or bus or auto or taxi. Three hours a day or more, gone. How did we do it? How do people still do it? And that buzz. That ineffable, glorious, unquantifiable, addictive buzz of big city life. I have not found it in any other Indian city. They have other attractions. Soul perhaps, entitlement definitely. But not buzz.
Dehradun has no buzz. It has higgledy-piggledy growth. Almost none of it is organic. It is all concrete boxes. It has locals trying to adjust to the status of a capital. Some hate it. Some love the increased scope of income and business. Most rue the degradation of a slow life because of increased speeds and influxes. Many watch aghast as the very reason for living here vanishes with loss of tree cover and garbage-dammed streams.
You will argue that all these concerns are universal. The planet revolts around us, wherever we live. So while I can I raise my eyes to the hills and this new-old life. It’s spring. The bignonia venesta is a riotous celebration of colour. And I pretend I can’t see that ugly new building beyond.