Not Young in Dehra Anymore
Springtime Nostalgia of a Lost Decade Amidst Himalayan Pines
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Now that all the transactional things are taken care of, let us surf deeper, shall we? Welcome to the Rumination Station of Berkana - a glass palace of memories and experiences of love, loss, and longing. We all dream of living up to our full potential, some of us are even brave enough to venture into paths that take us there. Those of us whose courage and dreams are bigger than our fears, know how it is out here in the real world, especially when you are not handed down an atlas of survival or success. The problem is, we rely too deeply on the formula of life which never work in the real world. I had a book of formulas when I first left my home for Dehradun. In my book, the formula to life after school was simple - college, job, career success, love, marriage, and kids - mainly in that order. Let me tell you, nothing turned out as per the book, and I am grateful for the unpredictability of life. It would be a lie if I told you that I did not anticipate this life trajectory, I have always been an oddball and had no wish for normalcy. In all its broken beauty, a mosaic of endless dreaming, sleepless striving, and peaceful pauses - life has been a glorious mess, and rightly so.
Whenever I think about Dehradun, a nostalgic hum takes over my inner monologues. My memories swaddled in a satisfying sense of solitude that occasionally turned into strange pangs of emptiness. Vivid memories open up with distinct flavors of both joy and sorrow. I have known, loved, and lost many people over all those years, and when I look back from today’s vantage point, it all seems like a ‘dream within a dream’. Things often seen but unobserved through young eyes reappears in the subconscious and demand validation when the gaze of youth transmutes into the wisdom of quarter-life. A touch here, a sound there, some spoken words falling on undeserving ears, some silence ricocheting between meaningful glances, every memory is coming back as a sensation, a realization of an intangible past whose vanishing shadows awaits my intent recall, but I refuse them all. The life I intend to create has no place for ghosts, except in my writing. Some I may write about with tender reminiscence, and others are like blurred backgrounds over which my experiences are superimposed. Even if you don’t hear of the unspoken ones, they are still very much there, trapped in my version of reality in their tiny crooked shells of identity, fading away in distant indifference. Admittedly I have forgotten a lot, and a lot of what I narrate could be a facade instead of a memory because our perception of the past often shifts with the wisdom of the present. So I guess I could be an unreliable narrator for my own story, we all are because our stories are our perceptions, and most times perceptions are not reality. But I am also the only credible narrator of my story, and I am sure that is why you are here. Such a strange world full of contradictions, isn't it? So with this suggestiveness of a reinterpreted past, allow me to take you along the memory lane of spring-time Dehradun.
Dreaming in the Valley of Flowers
The mercury scale rises throughout the sub-Himalayan ranges as March arrives. Spring enters in full bloom with rhododendrons nudging through almost all gardenscapes. But I only had eyes for the wildflowers. Spring would lure the unruly valley of Dehra into the lush embrace of sweet-smelling wild roses both pink and white, and Fragaria that would eventually ripen into tangy wild strawberries. Purple primroses, dandelion, sunflowers, apple blossoms, and pink knotweed also grew bold and unhidden to the gaze of other mortals. All the vibrant colors and sweet fragrances of spring in Dehra blended well with the general serenity of the valley. I have spent four full springs in the Dehradun, but the song of the hills echoes within my soul as if I have known those harmonies for an entire lifetime. With each bygone year, the apparitions of the past decade have only manifested with more prominence, pulling me into a deadlock of an oscillating past. Held within the clenched grip of nostalgia, I think writing about it is the only way to slip into admiration for what was. So here I am thinking about the late spring and its soft heat melting the snow which is now a stale hue of pale brown, earth mixed with water. Across the valley, flowers pop up in their myriad arrangements, wilfully growing against the harshness of the strong Himalayan winds, which are now changing direction. Streams throughout the valley are free-flowing towards their ecstatic climax as they meet the Gangetic tributaries, like the perennial Bhagirathi. This incessant flowing of one water body into another is a deception of time, it evokes a feeling of eternity. It makes you believe that this stream or river must be eternal, it must have always existed. It was here before I came, and it will be here after I am gone. It becomes a frame of reference, a solid landmark against which you juxtapose your reality. But do not be deceived, the river is not eternal, nor are the trenches that it makes along its path. Nature is not unlimited, it will spare you what is left of it while you are here, but it will soon be gone, like you and I - vanished, forgotten, and replaced by a new one whose time and story will unfold as ours did. I too am tracing my story along the reference frames of nature in Dehradun that is familiar to me, when they shall disappear, and my story becomes irrelevant, I know not.
I usually returned from college late afternoon, exhausted from campus surfing all day long. My day ideally started within a classroom, but then the day’s routine demanded constant movement. From the classroom to the cafeteria to laboratories to vending machines to workshops to admin-building, and then back to the library before wrapping up - all on feet through 25 acres. The institution is nestled in an expansive canopy of pine forest, hidden away from an average passerby en route to the hill station of Mussoorie, 6 miles away from the hustle at the heart of Dehradun city, which I once called home. I traveled 30 minutes daily, both ways, by any rickety old public bus that I could catch early. I used to squeeze myself uncomfortably in between several anxious passengers who, like me, would have often waited a long time for its arrival. The city was rather loosely connected via road, one of the major disadvantages of living in a lower-Himalayan town. There were a limited number of routes and buses traversing throughout the city, if you miss one you might have to wait for another half an hour for the next. So if time is not your best resource, then you too should climb onto whatever ride you could manage to make it to the first lecture. The transportation was not the highlight of the trip but the view through the dust-spotted glass windows held together by the trembling aluminum frame of the moving bus made it the most enjoyable 30 minutes of the day. If I had to paint a romantic picture of the reality of my everyday commute like people do on Instagram, I would have only given you the picture of the lush landscapes, pretty cottages with private apple orchids, magic realms of Ayurvedic study centers hidden within acres of Deodar trees huddled together to protect the secrets recipes of ancient cures. However, real life is not like the polished version that we paint on social media. That is why I tell you about the overcrowded public transport, with its rusted metallic body which creaked and moaned each time the eccentric driver hit the brakes. It jumped several inches up against gravity like a startled cat at every speed bumper. But the scariest distances were along the narrow mountain path when the bus torqued around the corner as if it was semi-floating along one side, fully inclining towards the deep mountain trench on the other. The passengers would grab onto whatever suspension they could find, half-petrified and half-hopeful of surviving just another day in the Himalayan foothills. I can assure you that these trips used to be nothing less than any adrenaline-driven trapeze stunt, especially on days when I had to stand throughout this balancing act because there wasn't any place to sit.
Everything is a little slower, a little messier, a little unoriginal, and a little underwhelming, in ordinary life. But I am writing this to remind myself as much as to say to you, that magic of ordinary life is hidden in the passing moments between one ordinary moment and another. The routine of waking early and catching the morning bus used to be ordinary, and then reaching college and getting started with the day was also ordinary - but the journey in between, the peeking foothills from the horizon, the bassinets of pines with flowering shrubs at its feet, the song of the crickets by the evening, the over-ripened wild berries scattered at the side of the roads spiraling uphill, the same old lady selling flowers outside the ancient temple, hundreds of rhododendrons covering the gothic old cathedral grounds which I argued quite often as haunted (I admit I have a weakness for gothic romanticism), falling in love with the old bungalows gone to ruins, devoured by perhaps all the lurking memories of those who have abandoned them - every single thing in between the beginning and end of my daily journey was the purest form of visual magic that I have ever encountered in real life because, in those 30 minutes, I stood rooted in peace and observed the world. Even if everyone spoke at once and the muffled voice of the conductor gesturing me to buy my ticket distracted me. Even if the stuffy smell of diesel, exhaust fume, and a weird showdown of multitudes of perfumes and talcums, gave me olfactory exhaustion, getting down at my college gate and breathing the crisp mountain air on a new day never gets old. The somber peace of Dehradun never gets old. It is equivalent to being suspended in a surreal world where time flows slower, because if it didn’t, how else would I explain the feeling of having lived there perhaps a couple of lifetimes?
A Quite day in Dilaram Bazaar
Unlearning is the most difficult of all tasks that I have ever undertaken. I am a very good and fast learner but not very adept in unlearning, especially habits. I have always been quite set in my ways, some people might even say stubborn. Although my ways were not much hardened a decade ago, I remember that I always had a knack to piss people off even without doing anything offensive. I have been sneered at and ridiculed for trying to have a meal quietly by myself. Is it that hard to understand someone who is socially reserved? Like anyone else who struggles to follow a herd, I have been outcasted way too many times than I care to remember. Sometimes for disagreeing, sometimes for being an introvert and needing my space, and sometimes for being an Alice lost in my own wonderland. A decade ago when living a slow life and making ASMR YouTube videos based on it was not a fad, introversion was still frowned upon. Apparently, you could offend people even if all you were doing is trying to be invisible. For the majority of those years, I was living the life of a highly creative person with misplaced passion and an innate inability to fit into any immediate social groups. Back then, it was difficult to be optimistic and see beyond the present, I had no sense of belonging or acceptance among my peers. Even so, I was my own person and I deeply belonged to myself. I learned how to enjoy my solitary evenings at Dilaram Bazaar. After the sun distanced itself at the horizon, I would go for a walk down the cantonment road with fenced bungalows on both sides, each with its own mango, lychee, apple, and bayberry trees. I was often alone but never quite lonely. On my way, I ritualistically visited my friends who appreciated the absence of small talk as much as I did - some familiar street dogs, a mysterious black cat, and the old man who sold green and red apples on a cart for half of its market price. Were those some excess apples from his garden, or did he develop a soft spot for the underweight young girl that I was, I know not. I felt content with the ear-to-ear grin on his wrinkled face - a gesture of recognition in a world where I was invisible to even my roommates. I never needed their names, the dogs, the cat, and the old man - they saw me, and I saw them. In that world of perpetual movement, and constant hustle, we mattered to each other. If not for them, I could still be making all of these up. But they remain the witness of my silent presence in that particular serene corner of the valley. And thus, on a quiet day at Dilaram Bazaar, my life was perfect because I was there, to count the moments passing between spring and summer by the clock of garden blooms, and to see the snow melting from the mountain cap of the Mussoorie hills.
I am now the Horizon that looks back at the Human
A decade has passed in the haste of chaotic youth - like years of war shifting between reality and a distant dream. Sometimes I was there, but sometimes life was just absurd dissociation from whatever happened in between. I long for Dehra, like someone who longs to see their beloved after a war. I want to erase the years that passed in survival, to be able to reconcile with my old life with its solitude and absence of worldly responsibility. But there is no reconciliation after a war, it takes away more than it gives, even if you win it. Even if you go back, your home empty of your presence has created memories on its own. It has changed, and so have you. Dehra has changed, and so have I. Maybe someday I will go back and grow old in places where I used to be young. Maybe I could go back and drive around the city late in the evenings or go on treks just to look down at the valley glimmering with city lights from an altitude on a quiet full-moon night - things I couldn't do before in Dehradun. Maybe it is okay to be a lot older while doing things that I wanted to do when I was younger, in places that I love. Some flowers take the whole spring season to bloom, and maybe it's alright. Maybe we have time, but we rush and panic, and want to have it all at once because we are too young, insecure, and frivolous. Maybe it is for the best that I am not so young in Dehra anymore.
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I loved this reverie and felt so much of what you write about. Wouldn't it be great to all get together and just write alongside one another, the need for conversation not the only way to communicate? :) I'm grateful to have read more about your experience of this place and its descriptions--this made me want to go immediately honestly: "mango, lychee, apple, and bayberry trees"--trees bearing fruit like that always feel like magic to me, everytime I am in California I stare at lemon and avacado trees in neighborhoods with awe. LIke they're just THERE. amazing. Lychee and Mango is even more magic. I lived in Scotland in grad school and I have the same longing for that place, knowing it wouldn't be the same as I experienced it, that that world I lived is gone. It's such a profound feeling of longing, past joy, present memory. 💜 And hooray that we can support you now!