Invitation to speak at the seminar over the last weekend of July provided the fillip for a sojourn to hills of Dehra. The family joined in. Train reservations were unavailable and as we were not comfortable taking to the wheel during the rain (compounded by the yearly ‘Kavariya’ procession), we made reservations for the night bus. For our stay in Dehradun cousin Asha managed to garner two rooms at the guest house of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). The third room, a suite was allotted to us, courtesy the Director’s office. For our return we booked the last seven seats on Sunday’s Shatabdi Express.
On Friday night, at the ISBT, Kashmiri gate bus stand we were joined by five members of the NGO organising the seminar. If New Delhi is full of trenches, bridges under construction and buildings with foreboding impression of a war torn city, ISBT looked smelt like a dingy, dilapidated public toilet! Rain had created puddles on the bays and the stench emanating from the overflowing toilets added to the misery of passengers waiting to board. The tired staff at the counters were hounded by a multitude for the remaining few tickets to be sold. Amidst this melee we spotted our unkempt ‘A/C Deluxe’ bus. The A/C vents were not amenable to control, reclining seats refused to get upright and vice versa! The casual attitude of the pan chewing conductor certainly did not help assuage the frayed tempers of passengers. The bus took three hours to plough through the traffic and reach Meerut by 1 am. By 5 am the bus was negotiating the Rajaji National Park and by day break we could see the skyline of Dehradun. The main bus stand is a obscure unmarked round-about and without realising, we continued past the Transport Nagar and Clement Town Bus stands before alighting at the Old Bus Stand where the service terminated. Autorickshaws ferried us to the WII guest house, driving past the deserted markets of Clement Town, the railway station and the main bus stand.
Settling down in the suite at the guest house and two rounds of tea drowned our fatigue and the lovely wooded environs made us forget the harrowing experience of the journey. Established in 1982, the Institute’s idyllic campus that has been carefully developed to create state of the art infrastructure encourages scholarly work. Though small in area, it has an impressive diversity of flora and fauna. Nestled at the base of the Himalayan foothills, the campus and the surrounding landscape are characterised by a mix of habitat types which gives rise to the unique biodiversity. The vegetation is natural represented by a mosaic of scrub, woodland, various successional stages of Shorea robusta forest including stream bank vegetation and grassy banks. The website adds there are a total of 556 plant species comprised of 438 species of herbs and climbers including 12 species of pteridophytes, 54 species of trees, 64 species of shrubs and lianas. The fauna includes 11 amphibian species, 309 bird species, 73 butterfly species, 16 species of moth and 21 reptilian species. Porcupines and Indian Pangolin have been sighted occasionally in addition to sporadic visits by wild elephants from adjoining forests.
We quickly got ready and following yummy ‘alu paranthas’ for breakfast we followed the ‘Nature Trail’ towards the lake that connects to the Asan river. The Grey Hornbill flew across the path and innumerable butterflies in multicolors flitted around the bushes. The trees were resplendent with birds. Spotted and collared doves, Himalayan and red rumped bulbuls were easily seen. We could hear the calls of the Barbet. As the sun broke through the clouds it became uncomfortably hot and humid, especially for Ammaji and we retired to the cool confines of our suite. The cook volunteered that his brother could take us for the afternoon to Mussoorie in his ‘Bolero’. In a jiffy the vehicle arrived and we were off to Ruskin Bond’s home town in the hills.
Situated at an average height of 2000mtrs above sea level, the name Mussoorie is often thought to be derived from ‘mansoor’, a shrub which is indigenous to the area. Commanding snow ranges to the north-east and glittering views of the Dehradun Valley and Shiwalik ranges in the south, the town was once said to present a ‘fairyland’ atmosphere to tourists, hence termed the Queen of Hill Stations. Originally colonised in early 19th Century, the town played host to Dalai Lama, before he shifted to Dharamshala. From the days of the colonial empire, Mussoorie has housed various schools, instituted for the children of British government officers and army personnel. Many of these institutes now house Indian students and retain the values as ascribed years before. These include St. George’s College,1853; Woodstock School,1850’s; Oak Grove School,1888; Wynberg-Allen,1888; and more. Mussoorie also has the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, the premier training institute for officers of the Indian Administrative Service and other civil services. The main promenade in Mussoorie is called, as in other hill stations, the Mall.
The driver took us through the less crowded cantonment area and up the winding ascent past the helipad for about an hour and dropped us at the Mall. The sky was overcast, the hill side green and the steady cool breeze kept us in good humour. The Mall was crowded with tourists who were striking bargains with vendors selling, fruits, corn cobs, hand crafted wooden items, picture postcards, etc. Cycle rickshaws were offering to take us to the Company Garden, while pony rides promised a grand view of the Mall. There were benches to sit and enjoy the resplendent view of the Valley below that was by now unfortunately shrouded in thick cloud. Wisps of white cloud would float upwards and pass through us drenching our clothes. It was a memorable experience.
Light drizzle accompanied our return journey. On the way down we stopped for a while to see the Mussoorie Lake, at the wayside vendor to pick up roasted corn cobs and reached Dehradun well before the rain started. The driver took us past the gates of the Governor’s residence, the Doon School, the clock tower and we were able to pick up fresh pears, peaches, plums and apples. Teatime at the guest house was a rich array with fresh fruits (including the red pear), tea and hot ‘pakoris’.
Sunday morning, I was taken by the NGO to the historic Survey of India Campus at the Hathibarkala Estate, the oldest scientific department of the Government of India, set up way back in 1767. Over a hundred teachers from several districts of Uttarakhand deliberated with members from the scientific community in order to render scientific data more relevant. Transactions continued till after lunch, when it was time for me to wrench myself from the invigorating participants and leave for the station. In the meantime, the family had been to the clock tower, done some shopping at the Paltan Bazar and arrived at the station. A pleasant ride on the Shatabdi Express past sacred town of Haridwar reached us to New Delhi before midnight.