When I first crossed the threshold of my future home in the northern Doon valley, I experienced a feeling of ambiguity. On one hand, I was charmed by the countrified ambience and lushly forested surrounds. After an interminable search for land on which to build, here was an attractive, ready-made home in a quiet village, its environment unsullied, its inhabitants uncorrupted by urbanity. A perfect setting for creative thought and activity. Yet I was not entirely satisfied. My ideal would have been a home in Goa or Pondicherry. I was born and raised by the sea and, since settling in New Delhi in the late 1970s, I missed coastland culture.

Knowing the Garhwal foothills would be the last place to rediscover the sensory bliss of life close to the shore, I consoled myself with the thought that there was something romantic about living in proximity to mountains as legendary as the Himalayas. I was also cheered by the prospect of developing the small garden bordered by a veranda, broad and inviting, a potential reception area to be filled with lush plants. The garden itself, though boringly laid out, was full of potential.

There could have been no more apt a situation for my husband Anil, a Bengali from Varanasi, indifferent to the ocean, yet an artist who craved solace in abundant green nature. The house was not only complete with metres of wall space beckoning adornment and a light-filled studio atop an ample terrace, it looked out onto a pristine sal forest, while at the rear it provided a sweeping view of the “Queen of the Hills”; Mussoorie seemed so close that one could reach out and touch it.

This was, besides, a practical choice: although a village, it was barely 10 kilometres from the centre of Dehradun, giving us access to whatever we might need, from provisions to doctors to computer technicians. Just as importantly, we would be in striking distance of Delhi where, for professional reasons, we retained our base.

There was an additional rationale for a home at the base of the Himalayas: our adopted son, Neema, a boy with autism, born in Gangtok of Sherpa-Tamang stock. Now a teenager, Neema had been attending a special school in Delhi whose usefulness had run its course. He became bored and suffocated, unable to go out of the house unless escorted. He also suffered from severe pollution allergies and, being genetically built for cold climes, he barely endured the Delhi summers. Our new home would suit his needs on every count.

In late 1999, when Dehradun still belonged to Uttar Pradesh, we completed the formalities for the purchase of the house. We moved into it in May the following year.

The first summer in our village unfolded as well as we’d hoped, in some respects better. Morning walks along a nearby river, accessed by almost empty roads, were energising, partaken of not only by Anil, Neema and me but by our three dogs, each rescued from the Delhi streets. The shallow river waters were clean and bracing, inviting us to paddle; at least one of our dogs took to swimming as if a duck.

While the days could be hot, occasionally uncomfortable, the evenings were balmy, to be enjoyed on our terrace, looking up to Mussoorie whose lights twinkled with reassuring constancy. Our power situation was erratic to say the least. Worse than the frequent power cuts were the voltage fluctuations, sometimes so acute they burned appliances; once the UPS for my computer emitted flames. We took this in our stride, accepting it as a drawback of rural life.

The silence of the night was hardly a drawback but I often missed the nocturnal hum of the city. The sounds of nature could be overwhelming: the chorus of cicadas, the croaking of frogs and the barking of dogs incited by the presence of wild animals.

Even then, our village and its environment were deeply restful.

The village wasn’t a gaon in the customary sense of the term though the overall ambience was rural. It was large and sprawling with numerous pucca houses. The village could even boast of a beauty parlour named Barbie’s Hut, a testament to the ubiquity of American culture. In addition to the unspoiled sal forest, we were surrounded by paddy fields and orchards. The lowing of cattle and the cackle of poultry were habitual sounds.

Anil’s levels of creativity peaked: over the course of a few months he produced all the work he needed for a solo exhibition, scheduled for the winter in Delhi. He’d been focusing on landscape for the past decade but the paintings he now produced had their own special quality. It was not merely the vibrancy and variety of his greens, habitual in his work, but the sensation of rain and moistness he evoked; this was inspired in large part by the relentless intensity of the Dehradun monsoon, an experience he hadn’t known since early childhood in rural East Bengal.

Neema adapted well to his new surroundings. Very sociable, he soon befriended most in the village, becoming popular in particular with the old and very young. This and the lightness of the traffic on our road gave him a sense of independence he’d never before known. We could permit him to go out on his own at least once a day and if he tarried or wandered, a solicitous villager would escort him home.

Thanks to Neema’s social connections we forged links with the villagers with relative ease. Yet, beneath the surface it was hard to fathom how they viewed us, especially me, since I was the one with whom they generally interacted. They seemed pleased enough that an “angrez madam” had moved into the neighbourhood, perhaps for no other reason than that I provided some relief from the monotony of village life; some may also have welcomed our modest contribution to the local economy. We were not the first outsiders: well before us, gentry from afar had established themselves in the village as kothi-wallahs. But there seemed to be little interaction between the classes. Neema was the great leveller, the social catalyst, and I was grateful for that.

I spent a large part of that first summer setting up house and becoming acquainted with the labour force of the area: plumbers, electricians, carpenters, telephone linemen. The villagers were not at all rustic or innocent in their dealings with the world. The area was close to the centre of a large town and this had influenced their ethos.

The mali (gardener) gladdened my heart. Obliging and enthusiastic, he pruned, weeded or planted the odd shrub. For the rest, I pottered around the garden with a pair of cutters, contemplating the plot through half-closed eyes, trying to landscape it in my mind. I found this a welcome escape from setting up house.

In the late spring of the following year, Anil died suddenly of cardiac arrest; he had arrived in Dehradun just a day earlier and was painting in his studio when he collapsed. Consequently, many of my neighbours assumed I would want to get rid of the house as fast as possible. The village pradhan was one of those who believed a distress sale was imminent. He called on me one morning and I tried my best to respond with grace when he inquired as to whether I wished to put the house on the market; he then indicated he had a buyer.

Nothing could persuade me to sell, I told him.

After the customary period of mourning, almost the first task I set myself was to transform the garden into a work of art that would celebrate Anil and become a haven for all who entered it. I soon realised, however, that I possessed insufficient skills for such a task. What to plant, where and when to plant it were questions over which I hemmed and hawed.


Monsoon by Anil Karanjai

Most elusive of all was the matter of layout. I had learned from my green-fingered mother that in landscaping a garden, care should be taken to ensure every feature is not evident at once; a garden needs to enclose mysterious spaces, corners to make discoveries; it must also create the illusion of space. To achieve this in a limited area is a trickier proposition than in an extensive one. 
Serendipitously, a solution presented itself in the person of a long-term houseguest. An art teacher and designer, he had laid out gardens in other parts of India, including hill areas, so he had the expertise I lacked. Within a couple of months, and with an able-bodied assistant, we transformed the beds and lawn from an ugly square into a serpentine design, bordered with monkey grass, which drew the eye to meander from curve to curve. A brick path was laid to one side, leading from the veranda to the base of a mount from which we had removed a clump of barren banana trees. In their place we now planted the sapling of an Indian coral, belonging to the flame-flowered Erythrina genus.

The following year, after my houseguest had departed and the tree had grown, I brought in a mason to construct a short flight of steps from the end of the pathway up to its base. At his suggestion, the steps were finished with lime plaster giving them a sparkling, stone-like appearance. This would make the tree the focal point of the whole garden, its raison d’être, a destination.

In later years, the Erythrina would grow into a tree of seasonal splendour, especially in the early summer, when in full bloom. I was agreeably surprised by the villagers’ appreciation. I’ve noticed the majority in India looks upon flowers as offerings for a temple or household puja, as opposed to wondrous works of nature sacred in themselves. Yet here were signs in my village that nature was speaking to some people.

On a personal level, I was thrilled by my coral tree and the manmade elements which had transformed it into a work of art. As if by magic, it had become a homage to Anil: so many of his landscapes were traversed by a pathway or steps, sometimes both, and now these elements had been brought together in a lush, mysterious corner of the garden. I felt I had created a piece of art to celebrate art, something permanent and rooted. My joy in the face of this idyll knew no bounds.

It was around the time I became conscious of a threat to the idyll that I read a passage in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol which initially struck me with its philosophical quirkiness. “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own”, Warhol had written. I recognised in these words a pithy articulation of my inchoate feelings about the world I’d put together, which now showed signs of falling apart.

I should have been alerted to the “ruining” right from the start by the plastic litter along the roadsides. But this was not so pervasive as to herald the death of village life; nor did it seem an irremediable problem. That first summer in the village, Anil and I joined forces with an NGO to combat the plastic menace on the hillsides of Mussoorie.

For a time it seemed our activism would pay off. But it failed miserably. As the population increased, locals took to throwing their waste into verdant trenches or to setting it afire, usually around other people’s homes.

I have often since wondered whether we might have escaped the long arm of skewed development and the greed and ignorance that pilots it, if Dehradun had not been designated as the capital of the new hill state of Uttarakhand. But designated it was and with this fait accompli, the ugly face of progress unveiled itself. Within a few years, my serene green gaon, still ruled by a panchayat, was transformed into a suburb of Dehradun, its pastoral atmosphere all but destroyed.

The first conspicuous symptom of the destruction was the demarcation of plots in the fields at the back of my house, comprising a litchi orchard and a playground enjoyed by local youngsters. These soon became the turf of local contractors: a place to pile up bricks and other accoutrements of their trade. I began to notice building activity along the road and in the interior, some eating into the fringes of the protected sal forest. Similar activities were visible in adjoining villages as far as the cantonment, a stretch of several kilometres.

It would have been hypocritical on my part, if not foolhardy, to complain about this boom for I too had been an invader, albeit one who respected the environment. In any case, while some villagers were already reaping rewards from the boom, selling parcels of land to whoever came along, others were delighted to see land prices soar.

I discovered that a good part of the village had been scooped up by Delhi property dealers. Sometimes they would build a house on the land they acquired, then move into it, only to move out when another was built. In other instances they would hold onto the plot in anticipation of a killing. One such plot, complete with ramshackle dwelling, was next to mine.

It was only we kothi-wallahs who grumbled about the unregulated development wrecking our landscape, allowing houses unsuited to a hilly, rural environment to mushroom. We complained that they were either unsightly suburban boxes or faux-Mediterranean villas screaming nouveau riche. And how, we asked, would the infrastructure hold up when it was already so inadequate? But harping on in this way was a monumental waste of time and energy; we knew where the answer lay and the futility of fighting it.

Not all my new neighbours had bad taste and deficient civic sense. There was, for instance, a retired school principal who cherished her garden and cared for the environment. Of similar inclination were a couple of doctors and a few government officers of quite senior rank.

But when eventually they moved in, they remained aloof in the main. There would be no sense of community, except among the villagers on the occasion of weddings when they would forget their differences of jaat and political affiliation.

I discovered that a good part of the village had been scooped up by Delhi property dealers. Sometimes they would build a house on the land they acquired, then move into it, only to move out when another was built. In other instances they would hold onto the plot in anticipation of a killing. One such plot, complete with ramshackle dwelling, was next to mine.

The previous owner and his family had driven me mad: having sold some land down the road, they’d become affluent overnight and felt no compulsion to work, doing little other than eating and bellowing inanities at each other all at once; often their din prevented me from working. But no sooner had they left than I began to miss them, to consider that the devil one knows is infinitely better than the shadowy developers biding their time to devastate the environment. On a few occasions, as I looked over my wall, I espied one or other skulking on the plot. More than once I inquired whether they intended to fell the trees: a pair of mangoes and a magnificent litchi. I was constantly assured that they would refrain from such destruction because “trees are good for health”.

Beyond the aggravations inflicted by property dealers, a more ruinous development had been taking place. Like other Indian cities experiencing the impact of neo-liberalism, Dehradun was witnessing a great leap in road traffic, affecting not only its city centre but also its green spaces and rural hinterland.

Within two or three years, the narrow road running through the village became a main thoroughfare of the northern Doon valley. No longer a road for the convenience of local traffic, it now afforded an expedient shortcut to all manner of vehicles plying between Dehradun and Mussoorie or other destinations; these included large numbers of commercial vehicles seeking to avoid police checkpoints and toll barriers on the main roads.

By 2012, our road had been converted into a virtual highway, choked with traffic most of the day. Sometimes hurtling hell for leather, sometimes gridlocked, the offending vehicles included not only SUVs from far and wide, but also mammoth taxis and tourist buses, and trucks laden with building materials mined from local river beds.

The effects of this traffic on village life were distressing. Children who had once strolled to school in twos and threes now had to hug the verges single file, while those awaiting buses had to be watched hawk-like by their mothers. More than once a child was hurt by a speeding vehicle. On the main road where the traffic turned in, there were two deaths in as many months, both only sons from poor families.

As for the village elders, most had ceased to be visible at all. One exceptionally intrepid mataji, a frail-looking woman who kept scrawny cows, continued to sally forth but after her dog was crushed by an SUV, she always appeared vulnerable and beleaguered.

We too felt under siege. Neema by now had joined a centre for autism where he lived most of the time and carried out small jobs. But at home on holiday, he could no longer go out to meet his village friends unless accompanied. His escort was generally my employee, Balbir, a man of sterling qualities from the Garhwal hills. Incensed at the indiscipline on the road, Balbir walked my dogs at the crack of dawn, the only hour when few vehicles were in sight.

I altogether stopped walking on the road, since to do so made me feel ill and unnerved. It was as though I had developed agoraphobia. Yet whatever the syndrome might be called, I became grouchy and despondent. Not a day passed when I wasn’t compelled to paraphrase Warhol: “having land and not having it ruined is the most beautiful art...”

I resolved not to succumb to pressure and to keep myself cool by enjoying my garden. But remaining in a state of yogic calm was a tricky proposition when mega trucks, at times in convoy, crossed my line of vision. On Sundays the mayhem would attain such levels as to test my meditative powers to the limit. Affirmative action was plainly called for.

The first step was to get back to my morning exercise routine. All this required was the acquisition of a gym cycle. The contraption was modest by the standards of work-out addicts but it was complete with a digital meter so I could monitor everything from pulse rate to distance and speed. Installed on my veranda, in full view of my garden, it offered me release, even catharsis: I could burn calories and improve muscle tone while instructing Balbir and his wife on horticultural matters and eliciting the names of villagers unhappy about the road. Balbir always assured me that there were plenty.

Balbir also introduced me to a grassroots activist willing to support this cause. He lived close by and had already achieved a modicum of success with the disposal of plastic waste. He and I held a series of meetings, initially just us, and then with our pradhan, to chalk out a strategy. Although she was on our side, the pradhan emphasised she was powerless to act alone. She proposed that we convene a meeting with all the pradhans of the area, numbering three or four.

At the meeting that ensued a few days later only one pradhan other than ours was present; a third was represented by a villager who explained that his leader was most of the time inebriated and unable to attend to the business of the gram panchayat. The meeting thus opened with a lively dialogue about the necessity of closing down the hooch shop adjacent to the temple.

This was my first foray into local politics and administration and when my time came to speak, I tried to make it clear in my somewhat faltering Hindi that my motives were altruistic. While admitting that the traffic troubled me personally, I underlined that I was also motivated by concern for the health and safety of the villagers at large. My associate laid stress on the numerous road regulations being violated; his points gave greater credence to our cause.

Everyone present seemed to be on board and it was now decided to convene a much larger meeting at the home of the pradhan from the next-village-but-one; she was evidently a woman of considerable clout.

The event that followed was more an assembly than a meeting. There were over 50 residents of that village, many of them Gurkha Regiment retirees. Also much in evidence was the head of the zila parishad, a woman with a formidable reputation for getting things done. I noticed her eyeing me curiously, almost haughtily, which I did my best to disregard.

I was invited to open the meeting, a daunting proposition. I had never before addressed a large gathering in Hindi, that too on a subject as thorny as the environment, the paryavaran. I believe I discharged my mission with a degree of honour or at least without making a great fool of myself. After I was done, person after person spoke in earnest about the road issue and its diverse ramifications; even the army was to be made aware of the planned measures.

It was unanimously agreed that a petition be drawn up and signed there and then, and handed over by all present to the district magistrate the following week. We would be notified by the pradhan of the exact day and time of our meeting with this distinguished official.

The following week passed without news. Perturbed, I called on my pradhan only to learn that the plan of action had been revised. She had received a report that her counterpart in the next-village-but-one and the head of the zila parishad had taken matters into their own hands, eliminating the need for a delegation to the DM. Further inquiry through my grassroots associate revealed that some politicking had occurred: while the former office-bearer had handed our petition to the local MLA—who, like she, belonged to the BJP—the latter had rushed headlong to the Congress chief minister.

What they hoped to gain from such strategy has never been clear to me. Perhaps it was a chance to hobnob with their party leaders and prove themselves as women of power and worth. But whatever their motives, no action was taken. The traffic on the road continued to worsen.

Having learned my first lesson in local politics, I felt my approach from then on should be more circumspect. Egged on by our pradhan, my associate and I resolved to draw up our own petition. After deciding upon the points to be highlighted, I completed the English version while he undertook the Hindi translation. By the end we had covered every angle: legal, environmental, health and safety. We had also listed concrete suggestions to curb the menace.

The spirited Balbir was now brought into the picture. Thrilled at the prospect of contributing to a cause, he was assigned the task of collecting signatures from as many as possible—villagers and kothi-wallahs—and from as wide an area as he could reasonably cover. As I was to be away in Delhi for a long stretch, I gave him ample time to fulfil his mission. I also provided duplicates of the petition to a few people in neighbouring villages who guaranteed the procurement of a good number of signatures.

It took two months before our petition was ready to be submitted. We had collected nearly 300 signatures, well over half due to Balbir’s efforts. Most of the villagers he approached had lauded our campaign and signed gladly, he told me, but a few had refused to entertain the petition. One of these, a shopkeeper, was particularly dismissive; his establishment stood on a tight corner of the road and he was certain the petition would lead to nothing but the widening of the road and the demolition of his shop.
No argument could convince him that the opposite was our goal.

It was just the two of us who entered the audience chamber at the DM’s residence on a cold January morning to present our petition. Whatever hope I may have harboured had already dwindled, as there were at least 40 others desirous of the DM’s attention, all as earnest about their cause as we were. When finally we did have his ear, he appeared to listen, but it was more or less obvious that nothing would come of it.

Six months later, in the summer of 2014, a second petition was prepared, this time with pictures illustrating the state of affairs on our road. This petition was signed by far fewer than the first but some of the signatories were people of influence. Besides, it was our plan to present the two petitions together with a covering letter so that the recipients—the senior superintendent of police (SSP) and the superintendent of traffic—would grasp the weightiness of the matter.

We were again just two when the SSP received us. Initially the officer ignored me almost entirely as he posed questions about the provenance of the offending vehicles, principally the trucks, the route they took and so forth. It was not until I spoke a few words of Hindi that I captured his attention. He was wholly courteous but his expression made it clear he was wondering why a “foreign lady” should concern herself with the business of road traffic and lawbreakers.

The word “mafia” was never uttered but it was understood; the officer was no doubt hoping that henceforward I would keep my distance both from him and the mob. I had already been warned by a journalist friend in Delhi that the local mining mafia was as vicious as they come.

“They cut people’s throats like goats,” he had counselled. “Nobody can take them on, so don’t you think of it.” Not desirous of becoming a martyr to a lost cause, I had already determined that it would be enough to curtail their use of our road.

At the end of our meeting with the SSP we were given assurances that within a few days, inquiries would be made and that my associate would be called upon to assist the investigators. That he received no such visit then or later did not surprise me but it was frustrating beyond words. In a mood of despondency I took off for Delhi.


Monsoon by Anil Karanjai.

Upon my return I became further exasperated, this time on account of some senior kothi-wallahs who posed tiresome questions about the fate of the petition and seemed to hold me responsible for the jams that enmeshed them whenever they sallied forth and for the potholes they had to negotiate along the road. I began to curse the day I’d taken up this cause.

But towards the end of last year I was again given reason for optimism when I dropped by the office of our newly elected pradhan. I was accompanied by Balbir who was friendly with her husband, as the two had once been volleyball teammates. Balbir had told me that he was the proactive one and I noticed on entering that the man loomed large and was expecting to deal with the matter at hand. However, after the requisite small-talk, I fixed my gaze on the pradhan alone, presenting her with copies of our documents, by now quite weighty.

Having expressed her heartfelt support for this cause, she told me the problem was soon to be solved; her counterpart in the next-village-but-one had received a letter from the Dehradun Cantonment Board instructing him to erect a barrier at his end of our road.

Thankful that our visit to the SSP had indirectly paid off, I felt our pradhan might now be encouraged to follow suit at our end of the road. Naturally, she had conceived of no such plan. As her husband insisted, one barrier would more than adequate to control the flow of trucks through all our villages,

Unconvinced, Balbir and I went to the next-village-but-one a few days later to inspect the barrier. Unable to locate it, I hunted down the pradhan to sound him out. After some small talk, I broached the subject of the invisible barrier. In the absence of a coherent response to my inquiry, I pressed him further, insisting that the demand was coming not from me but from some irate kothi-wallahs who were threatening dire consequences if the directive was not followed.

The pradhan remained polite but was perceptibly upset; he said he saw no reason why he should be singled out to stop the traffic flow, adding that other pradhans should be similarly directed. I had very little argument to counter this logic. I empathised with his disinclination to be the sacrificial goat. At the same time I felt like cuffing him. In fact, I yearned to cuff the lot of them.

Between then and the present there has been one further attempt to bring our road crisis to the notice of the authorities: a piece in a well-known local daily by a reputed journalist and environmental activist. More than a story, this was written as an appeal to the Inspector-General of Police. Since its appearance there have been intermittent signs of a marginal improvement but these have always been short-lived. This is especially the case with the trucks; each time their presence seemed to be lessen, they’ve bounced back full force.

The villagers are traumatised. They may not have been as proactive as I’d hoped, but when they talk they express their disgust and resentment. An electrician asks: “Vikas ka kya matlab hai (what’s the meaning of development)?” For the past 15 years, he’s been wiring and servicing all the properties that have sprung up in the area, yet his economic condition has improved not a whit, he claims. As to the road, “All we want now is peace,” he says, as others around him nod in agreement.

The auguries are not good. There is no restraining the mafia or the cockeyed development that has overwhelmed the once fabled Doon valley. As if to confirm this, I have recently been informed that plans are afoot, under the Dehradun masterplan, to widen our road and turn it into a pucca bypass. Where this may lead and what purpose it may serve nobody can explain.

At a panchayat meeting confusion reigns: according to one man, it will never come about as there are too many “burra sahibs” to oppose it; another says it will happen for sure but not for many years; a third man is adamant that the plan will be implemented before the assembly elections less than two years hence; yet another asserts that while the road won’t be widened much, it will be improved to facilitate the flow of traffic.

Whatever path is followed, people will be edged out literally, their meagre plots eaten up, their modest shops and eateries flattened or shrunk. That I will be among them will be important to me but in the greater scheme of things, it won’t count for much, for at least I’ll have the option to sell up and depart.

But I will regret the loss of my house, which gives me the breathing space I need for my life and work. Above all, I’ll regret the loss of the 100-odd square metres that constitute my garden. I’ll miss nurturing it and, within its boundaries, conjuring up a little magic.