By Kulbhushan Kain
Life has changed almost unrecognisably since I was a boy. Nowhere is this change more pronounced than on the roads we travel on. As a schoolboy they were potholed and single-laned – many were dirt tracks. Now, they have become swank highways on which one can drive at 140 kms an hour. Most of India is now connected by superb highways which have reduced driving time considerably.
One such Highway will connect Delhi to Dehradun, covering a distance of 210 kms. Land has been acquired, trees have been cut, and some old buildings that came in the way of its construction are/will be razed. The trees and buildings will be replaced by a state-of-the-art road with fabulous midpoints for change and refreshments – every 25 kms! The present generation will lap it up and say, “Wow. Awesome!”
However, the prospective highway does not thrill me as much. It will pass close to Clement Town and the Daat Kali Mandir – near to where I cut my teeth as a greenhorn!
Let me take you back into history, to about 200 years!
During the British rule, Dehradun was more or less inaccessible. It was only in the 1820s that the Britishers ventured into Dehradun and Mussoorie and that too on narrow roads, through fairly inhospitable terrain of hills and forests.
John Northam, a Britisher, wrote a very interesting account of his travels from Saharanpur to Mussoorie. He goes into great detail about the travel on a horse/mule “ghaary” (carriage). He wrote that if one started at 8 or 9 p.m., then one had “every chance of getting into Rajpur by about 5 or 6 in the morning”.
That would make it a traveling time of about 9 hours!
He further elaborates on the distances between the various stages of the travel. He wrote, “The dak chaukis or stages from Saharanpur to Rajpur at the foot of the Masuri Hills are as follows – Chhutmalpur 14 miles, Mohand 28 miles, Tunbara, Landibara in the Mohand Pass – (not specified), Asaruri 36 miles, Dehra 42 miles, Bodyguard Lines Dehradun 49 miles”.
In short, the distance of 42 miles would take 9 hours to traverse! He wrote this in the year 1884.
Fast forward to 2024 and the distance of 42 miles is estimated to take less than 20 minutes!
Northam also wrote about the tunnel – the Daat Mandir tunnel and its surrounding areas, “The short tunnel, pierced through the crown of that part of the range, gives us an immense advantage” and continues “wild beasts were occasionally troublesome- the wild elephant often rendered inconveniently familiar. There have been occasions when travelers have given up the night journey in consequence of a report that a “mast” elephant is paying a visit to the highway”!
All that is threatened now. No matter how much we try to protect wildlife and the foliage – modernisation leaves scars that never heal. Some landmarks will get wiped out.
I have been saddened by the news of the impending demolition of one such landmark- the Forest Rest House at Asarori.
This is what Northam wrote of Asarori and I quote,
“Ongoing down a hill (after the tunnel), the bullock, as well as the gharry pony, reaches Asaruri. We are here on the skirts of a forest where game abounds and where the wild boar has his lair. If the traveler has come through the pass by night, he might in the very early dawn yearn for a cup of tea a luxury that can be supplied to him from a tumbledown shanty which people in generous moments have called a “rest house”. The traveler may even indulge in the extravagance of boiled eggs and bread and butter. There are rooms, but they are in an advanced state of ventilation, the furniture being practically nil”.
The British built the Forest Rest House in 1886 at Asaruri, which is a stone’s throw away from my bungalow in Clement Town. Learning about its impending demolition, I went to revisit it after nearly 50 years. When I was young – my father used to make us walk to it every day! It was his way of making his children breathe the fresh oxygen laden air.
As of now, it still stands on an elevated hill just a short distance before the tunnel near the Daat Mandir Temple.
It is a typical British construction – compact, slanting roof, an open verandah, and a kitchen connected to the main building by a covered path! It looked swankier – it has obviously been renovated.
The memories came flooding back ……
I could see my father drive us in our black Austin, talk to the housekeeper (khansamah), our own helps taking out the utensils and the rations, and going into the kitchen… They would get working on making a meal while all of us made our way to the stream across the road. We would throw and run after the frisbee…, play hide and seek… ring tossing. I could see my father sitting and sipping his beer… I could hear my mother repeatedly asking us to be careful lest we hurt ourselves… I could see Prem Singh lay out the cooked meal on the mat…
I walked around the resthouse. The words of an iconic song came back…
“I stood before the tavern,
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass, I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely man really me?
Then through the door there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name…”
Very soon it will disappear. It can’t run away, and neither can I save it. The future generations will not have seen it. To the present generation, it may not matter.
However for someone like me, it will always live on.
For me, it was, and never will be, just a brick-and-mortar structure.
Yesterday, today or tomorrow!
(Kulbhushan Kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain @gmail.com)