From our vantage point on the hillside we looked down onto the area between the Himalayan foothills where we lived and a smaller range of mountains called the Siwaliks. This area was perhaps twenty-five miles or so across, and on a clear day you could see sixty or seventy miles from east where the Ganga (Ganges) came out of the Himalayas onto the plains (Rishikesh and Hardwar) to the west where the Jumna River spilled out onto the plains. This area was called a “doon” (also spelled “dun”) and smack in the middle of this area, and directly in front of us, was the town of Dehra Doon. For much of the year there was a haze, a combination of smoke and dust, and when that haze cleared, you could see the town of Dehra, at that time a town of about 100,000.
When I was in the sixth grade dad got a wild hair idea that we ought to spend the winter in Dehra Doon. It was nearby (22 miles down the hill), we could rent a place at reasonable rates for two months, and it was warmer. We found a flat above a prosperous Indian family named the Auroras right on the main drag, Rajpur Road, about a mile north of the center of town.
Up to this point Dehra Doon was merely a place we traveled through to get to Mussoorie, our home. Sometimes we bought vegetables there, and sometimes meat, but we did not really know the town except for the major roads. That winter we got to know the town very well. My folks did not own a vehicle in those years and so everything was done by walking, bike, bus, or taxi. We didn’t own any bikes, but we discovered that we could rent a bike by the month at very reasonable rates. So Gordy and I each rented a bike for the duration. The Warrens and the Seefeldts moved down too, so we had Dale and Paul and Ruthie and Beth Ann (and their chut brothers and sisters) to pal around with, play games and discover the area.
Just a couple of lots up from where we were staying was an auto repair shop. Norman meandered over there one day and met a young Indian fellow named Kishan Chand, a crackerjack mechanic. He was jacking up a car and as Norman stood there watching this fellow who kept saying “jack up” which sounded like “Jacob” and Norman assumed that was his name and that was what we called him for some time. Kishan eventually opened up his own shop and ended up repairing all our mission vehicles. In later years, this was a prime testing ground for our driving skills where we “borrowed” scooters and jeeps and other vehicles left for repair.
It was an idyllic time, really. We biked all over Dehra. We biked 12 miles or so east of town to Lachiwala to fish in a stream there. We biked over to Clementown near the military complex where there was an old WWII DC 3 airplane that was on display, which we could climb into and sit in the cockpit. How this got here was a bit of a mystery because there was no airfield anywhere around.
We headed out to the sugarcane fields and helped ourselves without ever even considering that we were “swiping” someone else’s property. There was simply so much of it out there surely it was OK to have a stalk or two. It would be like grabbing a couple handfuls of wheat from a field by the side of a road in Kansas. Is this stealing? We learned to break the stalk, to grab it just so by our teeth and rip off the exterior skin, strip by strip. Then we would break off a bite-sized chunk of the white, juicy stalk with our teeth, chew it and spit out the fibers. This whole process pretty much expends nearly as many calories as you take in.
We would go on hunting expeditions in the outskirts of town with our cattys, shooting bulbuls (a type of common bird) and when we had enough for lunch, we would roast them on a fire of twigs, followed by a stalk of sugarcane for desert. After we had explored the town, we also discovered that there were huge bats (called flying foxes) that hung out on the eucalyptus trees in the area where sawn timber is sold down by the train station. They had unique leathery wings and a wingspan of up to three feet. These we would shoot with a pellet gun and these, we were told, made good eating. We did try them. You kind of have to get over the idea that what you are munching on is bat in order to enjoy it, we discovered. They made a fine curry.
We discovered a place down near the clock tower that traded comic books. We could just buy them or take our old ones in and swap them out—take in 4, come out with 3. It was a form of arbitrage and the shopkeepers made out just fine. So did we. And when we got tired of Archie, Dennis the Menace and Superman, we would read some of the British comic books.
Himalaya Arms, the only place in Dehra to get ammunition or to buy a shotgun was nearby. We would go in and look at the guns and ammo. Hunting was a part of our culture there and we longed for the day when we could go out with a real gun that shot real bullets. Till then cattys and pellet guns had to suffice.
Most of the well-known aspects of Dehra Doon held little interest to us at that time. There was Doon School, where the privileged went (and where Indira Ghandi sent her two boys). There was the military base. We knew not to mess around there. There was the Forest Research Institute out on the road to Rampurmandi, an impressive institution.
And the railway station.
Ahhh, the rail station. That was different. No one was supposed to just walk in and wander around the station but…. we did. No one ever tried to stop us. We were just 11 and 12 year old boys out on a lark and the railway people never seemed to mind. We would place coins on the rails and wait for a train to pass over it. They would be flattened to paper-thin and nearly three inches around–rather unique. And, just for fun, we tried to use these to buy something (with a straight face) and the vendor would laugh out loud. The other thing was to meander down to the repair shop for the steam engines. Here they were pounding in rivets, cleaning out the calcium buildup in the boilers and the piping, and greasing all moving parts. Everything was black from coal dust and soot and just standing around doing nothing but watching somehow left us filthy.
One day we got into a spot trouble. There was an accident on Rajpur road and Gordy and I went over. Involved was a bus (the winner) and a car. No one was on the bus and we noticed that there were some cigarettes just sitting there on the dash. We helped ourselves. And tried them. A definite no-no, punishable by death or close to it. Somehow mom found out about it and she told dad. Dinner was a pretty sorry affair because we knew we were going to get it afterwards. Dad was raised by a disciplinarian mother. His normal pattern was to get us to drop our trousers and then give us a couple of licks with his belt. His approach was always to talk things through beforehand, give a little lecture, and then practice on us what seemed to have worked on him.
Gordy and I stood in our living room and dad asked us to “assume the position”– drop our trousers and bend over–which we did. Just then the doorbell rang. We looked up, dad said to pull our trousers up, and he wound up the belt in his hand belt and put it into his pocket. Vernie and Norman were standing around, not directly watching the spectacle and one of them opened the door and there were the Warrens, over for a surprise visit. We had a most delightful visit, played games. Dad had to keep hitching up his pants since his belt was in his pocket and we were hoping there would be a permanent delay in the proceedings. When they left several hours later and he shut the door, he turned to us and with a slight smile, said, “Saved by the bell, boys”, and proceeded to put his belt back on. It is the only time in my life that I can recall being saved by the bell…or anything else, for that matter.
This was also the winter that Gordy and I were aghast when we discovered how much mom claimed it cost to feed us all. A rupee went a long way for food in those days and after discussing it, and after making a few calculations on a scrap of paper we came to the conclusion that if the amount spent was divided by six, and he and I were each given cash for our 1/6th portion, we could not only eat better, but we could save money. This is one of those memorable experiences where “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” We took our proposal to mom that she allowed us to fend for ourselves for a month on 1/6th of what she was spending on food.
Mom was in nearly every respect a good mother. And in a few areas she was exceptional. This was one of them. She listened carefully. She made sure we understood what we were getting into. (Yes indeed we did.) She underscored it meant no snitching from her doolie (screened in box, usually located just outside the kitchen on the outside of the house; often used to keep vegetables and the like fresh in the days when fridges were few and far between), no helping ourselves to her leftovers, no bugging the Aurora’s khansama (cook) in any way shape or form, and that we were fully on our own for a month. And there would be no reconsideration or renegotiation of the terms in the middle of the month. We agreed to all her stipulations with alacrity. The next day we received seventy five new one rupee bills each. More than two rupees a day for food! Any Indian at that time could have done it on half that amount easily. We could hardly stifle our elation and success in conning mom into such a lopsided arrangement in our favor. We had never held that much cash in our grubby little hands in our lives.
What we discovered was that mom was serious. Dead serious. And mom could really be dead serious when she was dead serious. To her this was a life lesson for her sons and she meant to help them learn it. We learned it. Skimp as we might it was clear we had grossly underestimated how long 30 days was, the amount of money needed and the cost of even the cheapest dhaba food (roadside stalls). And this was to say nothing of our appetite due to having to peddle into town for each meal, the other enticing things on which to spend the crisp rupee bills we had (comic books, for example), and the fact that she meant what she said—no re-negotiation and not a scrap of food from her table. It was one of the more indelibly memorable events in my entire childhood. We survived…but barely. It was a good thing there was so much “free” sugarcane around.
Sometime in February we moved back up to our home, Redburn Oaks, up the mountain.
When I was in the 8th grade, we felt that we were being gypped—no movies. All our friends would go to movies in the buz nearly every Saturday. We were not allowed to go to movies in Mussoorie, but we had never been told we could not go to movies in Dehra Doon. It was a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of situation. At that time it cost about Rs. 2.50 to go down by bus, and that much coming up. And if you were going to rent a bike, eat (we often saved by taking sandwiches from home) and take in a movie, it stretched our income way past the desired outcome. Our “allowance” was such a paltry sum that there was no way we could, in any given trip, do everything we wanted to do. What we worked out is that we had to have a bike in Dehra to get around. And, of course, enough for the movie. Those were givens. Everything else was negotiable. To make the money last it came to this: would we rather walk up the hill, back home, all the way from Rajpur, or would we rather walk down the hill? Some of the things we did were dumb, but that did not make us idiots. We chose to walk down the hill and ride back up. And by packing a lunch we saved a bit on food.
The walk down was about two hours. Down down down, through the buz, left turn at the clock tower, a tromping jog down the steepest parts of the road, down past Wynberg Allen, through Barlowganj and past St. Georges, past Oak Grove (these three schools were our major rivals in sports), and on down the ridge to Rajpur. To save an extra 50 pice (half a rupee in the new system, eight annas in the old one) we would nip somewhat out of the way down to the tollgate to get a coupon that allowed us to come back up toll free, which added an extra twenty minutes at least. We always had to weigh whether time was more valuable, or the 50 pice we saved in toll coming back up on the bus. When we arrived in Rajpur we seldom had to wait long for a bus for the last nine miles into Dehra Doon.
There was a bike stand where we could rent bikes by the day directly across from Astley Hall, just as one entered Dehra proper. Astley Hall was where Chugh had his travel business, a chubby Sikh man who looked surprisingly like the man in the Air India logo. We liked this particular bike stand because it was the first bike stand coming into Dehra and the exact location of the last bus stop on the way to Mussoorie. Not coincidentally there was a movie theater called the Odeon just a half a block away.
Thus it was that we could tool around all day on the rented bikes, and at some point during the day we would pick up tickets for the trip back up the hill at the bus station which was conveniently located near the rail station. Around 4PM or so we would turn the bikes back in. Then we would walk from the bike stand the very short distance over to the movie theater. We would then catch an afternoon matinee–the cheapest show in the cheapest seats. The seats in the auditorium went for different amounts, the cheapest seats in the house being in the balcony. Quite frankly, ALL the seats by any measure were cheap. Without regard to “our station in life” or the color of our skin we were bona fide cheapskates and sat in the balcony, but as close to an exit as we could get. Hopefully, when the movie let out, it would allow us ample time to amble over to the bus stop.
However, on more than one occasion we knew time would be tight and had to half stand at the exit to make sure we would not miss the bus. We HAD to catch the bus. Several times we made a mad dash and barely caught the last bus as it was pulling away. The rest of the trip up the mountain left time to talk about the movie (all kissing scenes were edited out and so we had to speculate just what happened at various jumps in the film), watch the road ascend in front of us, try to suck in beerdi or cigarette smoke as the fellow in front of us exhaled, and sundry other ways to pass the hour it took to chug up the mountain.
We disembarked at Picture Palace (where we could not go to see a movie) and some thirty minutes later we arrived home in time for a late supper.
Over the years we saw a number of excellent examples of third-rate movies, about the only kind that seemed to make it to these places. But this in no way detracted from our time. We had fun. A lot of fun.
But you know what I miss the most right now? Do you know what we had in abundance that I am tearfully nostalgic about? What I long for?
Is it a zero sum game and I wonder, did I use most of it up then?