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Bygone Doon: Time Travel in the Shadow of COVID-19

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By PRADEEP SINGH

Nudged by COVID-19 fear and isolated for the present at our village, just an hour’s drive from the city, but in material terms decades removed from the madding crowd and the concrete crassness, I indulge in reminiscences of bygone Doon! The nostalgic deja vu like air still stirs in the countryside. Wheat stalks are perceptibly embrowned by each passing day. Sugarcane plots are already thinning out as the crushing season comes closer to the final weeks before the sugar mill in nearby Doiwala shuts down for the season. This landmark engine of social change is nearing ninety years of its existence in what was once a dreaded part of the Dehradun district. But the mill’s presence has been transformative for the way traditional farming was put on the level of an organised industry and has proved a boon for the economy of the district since 1933, and the more significant as the mill was located in a remote and unhealthy part of the district.

What locals and revenue officials call the Parwa Doon is also known as Eastern Doon, which just a couple of hundred years ago was known more for its extensive swamps and jheels and johards (lakes and ponds), the more famous of which were seen at Mothorowala, Nakraunda, Jogiwala near Rishikesh (not the Jogiwala adjacent to Mohkampur). These wetlands, characteristic of old Doon, gave birth to fresh water streams like the Suswa, Khattapani, Teenpani and so many others.

Doon was never a dreamy paradise then, just as it is now a mixed canvas of bright and dark and dull shades changing with the perspective of the viewer.

Challenges abounded for much of the old Doon and more so for its eastern portion that was for vast stretches a daunting wilderness and an ecosystem that was complicated with enervating humidity levels, high water table and a soil loaded with centuries of leaf mold and humus: inviting for a prospective farmer but equally problematic due to the seasonal malarial fevers that decimated hamlets in the area almost as a routine. Our family tradition recounts depredations of malaria at Chhiderwala that can hardly be believed if recounted today. Wild game abounded to make poaching an avocation and every village had its legendary shikari as also expert trackers of wild animals, who were equally adept in retrieving domestic cattle that routinely got lost in the sal forests that engulfed many of the villages like Dudhli, Jharond, Bulindawala, Bullawala and those further east such as Chhiderwala and Motichur. Not so long ago, in the early 1900s, the District officials approved and rewarded killing of elephants, tigers, bears and the like by rural shikaris to curb destruction of standing crops. Rewards ranged from Rupees Five to Ten.

Our elders led, in their own way, isolated lives much akin to Alexander Selkirk, whose four years of being marooned on an island inspired Daniel Defoe to write the classic Robinson Crusoe. Eastern Doon with its climatic and logistic challenges drew on survival skills of the people who braved these obstacles to lead a more settled and predictable life.

In isolation in the very same village, I take inspiration from those before me, separated by a century, and seek sustenance from the local bounties of fresh air, well water, available supplies of basic food and spells of long hours that make me mull that money, which is a must-have in the civilised world, is useless in my present seclusion. Also, a lesson from my current phase of solitude in semi-wilderness is that, in overcoming phobias and fears, one can create a happy existence even on imaginary islands.

Let the master of isolation, Daniel Defoe, have the last word so apt for today: “Those people cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet what He has not given them. All of our discontents for what we wantappear to me to spring from want of thankfulness for what we have.”

(Pradeep Singh is author of the “Suswa Saga: A family narrative of Eastern Dehradun” and “Sals of the Valley”).