There is little of the essence of Garhwal I find in the town’s residents though, much like there is little of the culture of Kumaon in people from Nainital
A coucal calls loudly outside my window, and I leave the comforts of my pallid, pristine room. Past the blue door and windows that contradict the whitewashed walls, I step out into my wide sit-out overlooking the courtyard where an imposing mango tree adds to the beauty of this quiet morning. It’s hard to believe I’m in the heart of the buzzing town of Dehradun, but I’m grateful for chancing upon this oasis that is the Mango Courtyard. It’s not just this bed and breakfast though; in my multiple years of visiting Doon, the list of my discoveries of the surprisingly quiet pockets this unassuming town has to offer, has only grown.
Dehradun clock tower
Growing up in Nainital in Uttarakhand, Dehradun was just another town in my state’s backyard. Ironically, it was a longer drive to get there than New Delhi.
My earliest memories of Doon are a road trip with my father and his brother in a blue ambassador my uncle drove back then, and me lined up with my cousins in the backseat screaming ‘the Dehradun clock tower!’ repeatedly in unison, while driving past the famed landmark.
As an adult, my first long stay in Doon was marked by the harrowing episode of my passport renewal, a chore for which one had to travel all the way to the state capital until only recently. The red tapism left a bitter taste in my mouth that couldn’t be sweetened even by the sumptuous goodies of Doon’s famous Ellora bakery, and I almost always bypassed the place since to head to the hills of Mussorie, or beyond.
It took a chance meeting with the delight that is Ruskin Bond, that made me give his hometown another shot.
In A Town called Dehra, Bond reminisces about his childhood in the British town, which often features in his writing. I’ve picked my copy at the English Book Depot, one of the oldest bookstores here and another hidden gem of Doon, tucked behind a coffee shop. I also lap up some of the nostalgia spilled over from the past when I walk across the rambling campus of the Forest Research Institute where my father often trained in the 70s.
An overnight halt a few years later in the outskirts at the Lacchiwala forest rest house also acted as a catalyst — the quaint dak bungalow in the thick of a sal tree forest was straight out of a Bond book that aided in the slow metamorphoses of my impression of Doon blossoming from one of a traffic laden city, to one packed with stories and old world charm.
Brimming with new found acceptance, I return to Doon for a week-long stay, in search of study material I need for a long form story I’m working on. I spend afternoons at the library on Old Survey road, the street where Bond grew up at his maternal grandmother’s house.
Old parade ground
Sauntering down the road, I cross over and walk past the 1878 Doon club and the old parade ground, a small park, then back to my retreat. The cozy sitting-cum-dining is abuzz with guests; a father who is coaching his son for his upcoming exams, and educators who teach across Doon and Mussorie’s well-known schools.
My host Ruchi grew up in Doon, while her American co-host Kaylen fell in love with the town (and India) and made it her home. There is little of the essence of Garhwal I find in the town’s residents though, much like there is little of the culture of Kumaon in people from Nainital. They are unique products of their ecosphere of boarding schools, bakeries and the pahadi-anglo life, but it is also the common thread that binds us across popular hill stations.
Before I leave this time, there is one last place on my list. The Mindrolling monastery in Clement Town was established in 1965 after the repeated destruction of the original one in Tibet, complete with a massive Padmasambhava statue, a peace pagoda, clever signboards, and a sprawling campus.
Strolling around the township outside, I watch women in traditional chupas, grandpas rotating prayer wheels, and kids playing on the street. I sit on a roadside bench and ask ‘auntie’ for a plate of steaming momos and thukpa and watch the world go by, a refreshing change from the animated, upmarket cafes that line Rajpur road, the commercial lifeline of the town.
Called Dehra by the older generations and Doon by the new lot, I’m not sure which of the two this world falls in. But it’s very much an inherent part of the town that recharged me in my only weekend getaway during the drudgery of this lockdown.
In his book, Bond mentions a wild flower ‘Blue Mint’, which grew in ditches and open spaces across his beloved Dehra. Increasing human population hasn’t supressed it, and it remains his association with the town. ‘I have known it since I was a boy, and as long as it’s there I shall know that a part of me still lives in Dehra.’ I try finding my association with Doon, and what keeps springing back to my memory is something blue too — the ambassador from that trip with my uncle. Both are long gone, but I return to relive that sweetness which still lingers in Dehradun’s old lanes.
Born and brought up in the Himalayas, the writer is an adventurer who derives great joy from napping under the mountain sun.