The heat left over from the day radiated through everything. From the crushed gravel under my feet to the jasmine tree blooming outside the gate. The fevered air, with its intoxicating fragrance caressed me like a lover’s whisper, promising the world and of the possibility that lay ahead.
“Sir, where you go?”, the taxi driver asked, pulling me back into the present.
“Huh? Kya?”, I said reflexively, not wanting to leave this memory just yet.
“Kidhar ja rahe? Lemontree Hotel?” he said, wanting to make sure he was still taking me to the place he agreed to take me an hour before.
“Han ji,” I confirmed.
I was going to Rajpur, a suburb of Dehra Dun, to see what was left of Guru Ram Das Academy, better known as GRD (my second school), where I got to live the closest thing to an ordinary teenage life in India.
Leaving GNFC for GRD felt like a weight was being lifted off my chest and I could breathe again. Gone were the ever-present threats of violence and the real fear it created, permeating every aspect of the school day. With the end of this daily fear for my safety, it gave space for a whole new set of issues to arise, more akin to the worries of an average American high school student. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
At fifteen, I was in the throes of adolescence and the once forbidden, being able to talk to a girl for longer than a few minutes, was no longer out of reach. Girls were in the same school, the same class, the desk over. Not in a separate school a mile away, occasionally brought into the line of sight for special school functions, allowing for sparing glances or the rare exchanged word. Infatuations and crushes now had meaning and became much more real.
Despite the proximity, there were still rules. Becoming boyfriend and girlfriend was out of the question. Holding hands and kissing was verboten. But considering where I was the year before, in an all-boys school, with way more restrictions, the sheer presence of girls in this moment of my adolescence helped prevent what could have been a much more dysfunctional influence on my notions of romance and love.
The taxi taking me from Mussoorie to Rajpur was an Ambassador, which was fitting, considering it was the most ubiquitous car on the road during my time in India. Based on a British design from the 1950s, this car was manufactured with very little modifications made to it, both internally and externally until 2014. Sitting in the backseat I noticed that this newer version had slight updates to the console and windows (and I mean only slightly) from the Ambassadors we would ride in back in the 80s, with much of the rest of the car remaining the same; bucket seats for both the front and back with no seatbelts in the back. Descending from Mussoorie into the Doon Valley, I kept waiting for the driver to turn his engine off, so he could coast and save on gas. My willingness to pay for an AC taxi probably prevented him from doing so.
As we wound down Mussoorie Road on our way to Rajpur, I took stock on how much this road had changed. There were now countless dhabas (open air restaurants) that lined the road, guaranteeing that I would not run the risk of starving for the next hour. The entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism was in full effect and the insidious nature of marketing (think corporate naming rights for a stadium) was front and center.
Maggie’s Point was once a toll booth with a handful of buildings around the halfway point between Mussoorie and Dehra Dun. It was renamed Maggi Point after the famous Asian noodle brand and transformed into a tourist trap trumpeting the great views of the Doon Valley below. While many of the dhaba names had about as much thought and creativity put into them as could be expected, there were a few that stood out. My favorites were –
Whatever Point – Clearly not sold on the idea of opening a dhaba at Maggi Point.
Munch Selfie Point – Nestle India launched a Munch candy bar line, with the feature bar being called Munch Nuts. This café did nothing to help the situation.
Murgasm – Hey I got a great idea! Let start a dhaba and make chicken that will give people orgasms. Any idea on what we should call it?
My First Coffee Café – A quick rendezvous for any god-fearing Indian looking to cross over to the darkside and escape the tyranny of masala chai, the national drink of India.
Little Heart Café – I get what they were trying to do with the name, by using “Little” to evoke something precious, however, when you are trying to sell food, a certain level of passion is required to keep people coming back.
Down in Rajpur, the taxi pulled up to the gate of my hotel, The Lemontree, which was part of the Pacific complex, an example of modern India doing a great job of what the U.S. had done for so long; co-opt other cultures, without any sense for how convoluted it may look to anyone from that culture.
Using a significantly sized replica of the Statue of Liberty to grab people’s attention, the façade of the Pacific was also plastered with some of the shops’ logos, to help lure the consumers-in-training to the American Mall experience inside. Maybe there would time to explore this later, but I had other things to see first.
Getting out of the car, I was greeted by my first beggar. Carrying a baby and dressed in a dirty sari, she had her free arm outstretched. I pulled a 50 rupee note from my pocket and handed it to her before passing through the gate, an invisible barrier that she seemed acutely aware she could not cross. It was interesting to see how attentive the guards were as long as you were in their compound, but the moment you stepped outside of that defined area, you were fair game.
Leaving my suitcase in my room, I made a quick exit of the hotel so I could start walking up Rajpur Road towards GRD. Within five paces outside of the gate I was flanked on either side by beggars, a boy and a girl, both under the age of ten, shoeless, with unwashed clothes, matted hair, dirty faces and looks that could melt the hardest of hearts. The boy started in on making his case for me to give him money.
With his head just a little higher than my waist, he held his hand open in a receiving gesture, brushing up against me as he said, “Please bhai, paise de do, mere pas shoes nahin hai, main roti khana khao.”
“Paise nahin hai.” I replied haltingly. My desire to give them money clashed with the certainty that they would not be able to keep it.
Sensing an opening, the boy continued, “Please bhai, paise de do,” saying this as he leaned into me looking up, with the girl closing in on my right.
My pockets were difficult to access, and there was nothing in my backpack that that they could reach, so I didn’t feel that I was at risk of getting pickpocketed, provided I paid attention. The boy’s continued tactic of bumping into me and repeating his request for money so he could buy shoes and eat bread, elicited an amused look from the guard standing watch over the shopping compound next to The Pacific.
Unused to the heartbreaking poverty of India, I was unprepared to handle this situation. Not knowing what else to do, I tried to walk fast, but they kept up. I then stood in one place pretending to ignore them, but they remained. I felt out of options.
Feeling defeated, I said, “Abhi paise nahin hai. Main vapas, paise de do,” in the hope that the promise of me giving them some money when I returned would end this standoff.
This stopped the boy’s chant. He looked up at me. His eyes were darker than mine, and they lacked the innocence and joy a child of his age should possess. The sadness and pain I felt for him was palpable. Every part of me wanted to pick him up, hug him and tell him that everything would be…
“Please bhai, paise de do, mere pas shoes nahin hai, main roti khana khao,” he said, as the bumping began anew.
Resigned that I could not win in convincing them to leave me alone, I began walking up Rajpur Road, with the two right at my heels. The boy was in mid-sentence, when his voice trailed off. I turned around to look back and they were gone. Glancing to my left, they had already made it halfway across the road walking diagonally, deftly avoiding traffic, with their sights locked onto a pair of tall blond European women walking down the other side of the road.
God speed, I thought. Those women didn’t stand a chance.
Rajpur Road had been expanded quite a bit since my days at GRD and it looked like it had been doubled in size. Starting at the intersection with Mussoorie Road and going all the way into Dehra Dun there was now a divider, to split the two ways of traffic. Once past this intersection, heading away from Dehra Dun towards Rajpur, the divider ended and the road quieted down considerably, both in traffic and in the amount of commercial buildings lining its edges. Passing this point, I knew I was close.
Working against the toll of time, I searched for any scrap of memory, any fleeting visual imprint left of the trees and houses I now walked past. With nothing registering, I was beginning to doubt if I there would be anything left for me to remember. That was quickly dispelled when I recognized the banyan tree, twenty eight years after the last time I saw it. It was the oldest tree on Rajpur Road (which also served as a bus stop) and it looked exactly the same. What surrounded it was another story. Gone was the open field next to it, where we played volleyball. In its place were houses.
Getting my bearings with the help of the banyan tree, I was able to find the house the older boys and I were quartered in for the first few months of GRD until the dormitories were finished on campus. Staying in the smallest room of this house with four other boys, our beds were jammed together frame to frame against the back wall of the room, with a ceiling fan that could transform the thickest heat of a Doon Valley summer night into cold flowing air. U2’s Joshua Tree was the soundtrack, blasting from a boombox, on auto-reverse for weeks on end.
During the first month of living at this house, the running joke was to find as many ways to bring up in public conversation where we were staying. The owner’s name was Mrs. Cock and we took every opportunity to be able to say this and get away with it.
“Yeah, we don’t live on campus just yet. We’re staying at Mrs. Cock’s house.”
“Fuck, I left my skateboard at Mrs. Cock’s.”
“Are you heading back to Mrs. Cock’s?”
Mrs. Cock’s house was also where the road of drug experimentation for me had begun. It started with huffing glue, which thankfully ran out quickly (it was American made). Next up was nutmeg.
When consumed in large quantities, it could induce a similar physical experience to weed, in that it would give your body a buzz, slow down your perception of everything, make you susceptible to fits of laughter and give you the munchies. On days off from school, I tried consuming nutmeg in multiple methods, starting first by ingesting two or three nuts by chewing them up. This left a nasty lingering taste in the mouth, so I quickly moved on to making tea, before finally settling on shakes with ice cream, using a blender bought in Rajpur.
Staring at the house nearly three decades later, I was sure Mrs. Cock had long since passed. Whoever lived there now had let the house fall into disrepair. The house’s exterior still had the same yellow wash from when we stayed there. The lychee and pear trees that Mrs. Cock would try in vain to keep us away from, so she could sell these to fruit vendors for extra income, remained behind the house.
I wandered through the front and side yards, while the patrons of a chai cart outside the gate craned their necks to get a better view of what I was doing. After several minutes of this, I grew tired of being watched and was ready to move on. Besides, I knew GRD was only a short distance away.
In the two years I spent at GRD, there was constant construction. When I left, a second parcel of land had just been purchased to expand the campus, so I wasn’t surprised to see a secondary gate that allowed access to this area before reaching the main gate.
Back at GNFC a few days before, I had been informed of GRD’s fate after all the Khalsas (us American Sikhs) had left. Mr. Harbans, who had taught at both schools and was now the headmaster of GNFC, told me that GRD had become a technical college, which it remained to this day.
Before the property had been transformed into a school, it started with just a cozy bungalow owned by a friend of Yogi Bhajan’s (Raja Singh), which was occasionally used by us Khalsas during transit from Mussoorie to Delhi, Poanta Sahib or Rishikesh. Over the years, I had spent several nights there. One time was after I broke my glasses. With Mussoorie not having an optometrist, one of our guides was tasked with taking me to Delhi to get a new pair. Whether it was intentional or due to incompetence, the Delhi optometrist prescribed lenses that made objects seem much closer than they were. Returning to school with these glasses, I began miscalculating leaps and drops that were much longer or further than my lenses were telling me, while playing games like Capture the Flag. Rather than risk a broken leg or worse, I ended up wearing these glasses sparingly until my trip back to the U.S.
While staying overnight as this bungalow, I remember being in awe that the bathroom had a hot water heater, which after taking cold showers for year and a half, was about as luxurious a thing a kid in India could ask for. As the hot water poured from the spigot, I crouched underneath, letting it cascade down my back and over my shoulders, the heat reassuring me, in that moment, that all was good in the world.
Stepping through the main gate, the bungalow remained where it was, with the same wide gravel driveway with groves of lychee trees on either side leading to its entrance. At first, I was hesitant to go any further.
When will you ever be here again? I thought.
This was enough motivation to move me forward. As I got closer to the bungalow, I could see that it had been given a facelift. The front wall of the building had been replaced by glass, a popular motif it seemed in India these days. At the Reception Desk sat two young women, both of whom just stared, waiting for me to say something.
“Hi. I used to go to this school.”
“Excuse me?” Said the woman closer to me.
“I was a student here before it became a technical college.”
“That must have been a really long time ago,” she said matter-of-factly.
What is up with people telling me that I look really old? I know I’m not twenty anymore, but it’s not like I’m about to the hit the retirement home anytime soon. Maybe it’s the beard..
“Yes,” the receptionist continued, “I could see you standing up at the gate taking photos, I was beginning to wonder if you might have come here before.”
“I went to school here when this was a K through 12 boarding school. Does Mr. Raja Singh still own it?”
The receptionist stared blankly back at me.
“Hain, Mr Raja Singh is the Chairman of the School.” Her contemptuous tone telling me what she really thought, while she motioned to a framed photo on the wall behind her, obscured largely by the glare from all the light pouring in through the plate glass facade behind me. I can only assume it was a picture of Mr. Raja Singh.
Fuck, this is going badly.
“I even stayed in this building before it was a school. There were no other buildings behind it. Just this.” Both receptionists exchanged glances as if they were deciding if they needed to call security.
“Look, that is still a bathroom,” I said pointing to a closed door on the left down the hallway. Apparently, this was enough to deem me sane and their concern seemed to lessen greatly after I said this.
“Please sir, have a seat and someone will come out to see you shortly.” The receptionist said, while motioning back towards the couches near the entrance.
Making a quick mental calculation as to the value of the time I would need to spend explaining myself in order to see more of the school, over the time I had remaining to see the rest of Dehra Dun, I did my best impersonation of a polite person.
“Oh, no thank you. I just wanted to see the school for a minute.” And with that I turned around and walked out the gates.
The town of Rajpur was a short walk up the road past the school. I was greeted by the familiar sights of roadside sugarcane juice vendors, roasted corn sellers, dhabas and general stores lining Rajpur Road, unremarkable from the others I had seen elsewhere.
I remember there being a public elementary school right off Rajpur Road, that we held classes in, while our classrooms on campus were being built. Looking down an alley, I thought it might have been this, but with so many years now passed, I was unsure.
Although a fan of hot weather, I had now spent several hours walking out in the sun and I was beginning to think it might be good to stop somewhere along the way back for tea and to cool down.
About halfway back to my hotel, in the quiet part of Rajpur Road, I chose to stop at Café de Piccolo. The desire to find a place with air conditioning trumped my prejudice against patronizing restaurants with Western names in Asian countries. Opening the door, the design of the place could easily lead someone to believe that they just stepped into a roadside café in Northern California, or some other area in the U.S. frequented by people of means. Its high vaulted ceilings were adorned with hanging flower pots and cutouts of fanciful cupcakes, matched perfectly with its use of exposed wood in the cabinetry and table tops, with white painted wooden chairs and couches and loveseats upholstered in acceptably modern colors.
Choosing a table in the corner, I unloaded my backpack into the opposite chair and started to read the menu. That is when I noticed the music.
About after the 3rd whimsical percussion driven whistling song, I began to feel like I was in my very own Twilight Zone episode, in a café designed to make people believe that everything was ok (you must be HAPPY and CAREFREE), eating meals that cost an Indian laborer’s weekly salary, while glued to their iPhones and laptops, oblivious to the horrible disparity outside.
“Are you ready to order sir?” The waiter with a neck tattoo asked. Dressed in a crisp white long sleeve shirt, fitted jeans and black Chuck Taylor All Stars, his expensive clothes clashed with his poor taste in body adornment.
“A pot of chai and the check please.”
Back on Rajpur Road and with time running out I had to choose between one of the two remaining places I wanted to visit in Dehra Dun, Kumar Sweet Shop at the Clock Tower, or Yeti Restaurant. Kumar’s was famous for its offering of classical Indian sweets along with its legendary Mango lassis that I remember religiously ordering on every visit. Yeti’s was the place to go for Chinese and Western food to escape the Indian food served at school.
Kumar’s ended up winning out, not just for its awesome sweets, but also for the fact that there was a bazaar situated right next to it that I wanted to walk through, if time allowed.
Across the street from my hotel was the taxi stand. I asked the Rickshaw driver how much it would cost to take me to the Clock Tower.
“150,” he said trying to highball me.
$3 for a 15 minute ride is an insane deal in New York. I thought, I’m not going to haggle with him over pennies.
“Chalo,” I said agreeing with his ask, throwing him off as he was anticipating the back and forth that would normally ensue.
With the price agreed upon and me in the backseat, the motor rickshaw took off down Rajpur Road, providing me a comfortable shaded position to view all the new development along it. The divider on the road helped make the traffic slightly less chaotic and the few street lights thrown in along the way, surprisingly kept the traffic flow in check.
The only landmark I could remember that stood out along this road was the President Hotel. While I think I recognized the space, the hotel was long gone. Arriving at the Clock Tower a few minutes later, I too realized that Kumar’s suffered the same fate. Although unlike the President Hotel, the location where it once stood was completely razed. Nothing remained on the corner where the Kumar Sweet Shop once stood. The bazaar’s entrance was still right next to where Kumar’s used to be. After asking a passerby where Kumar’s was and finding out it had moved to the opposite side of the Clock Tower, along the road the rickshaw had brought me down, I decided I would seek it out after I took a quick walk through the bazaar. Full of cheap clothes, stuffed animals, jewelry, books, household items and much much more, the bazaar was a pleasure to walk through, people watch and soak in a part of Indian life, however brief, that I missed very much.
Located in the newly built Food and Entertainment City complex, Kumar’s was located on the second floor. Looking like a standard Indian sweet shop, it had barfi in rows of every color, trays of gulab jamuns soaked in sugar syrup, stacks of laddus with various nuts, and piles of deep fried jalebis, bright orange in color. A small fridge against the back wall held clay cups covered in aluminum foil, which I assumed were take-away lassis.
Taking my turn at the counter, I said the words I had been waiting to say again for years at Kumar’s,
“Ek mango lassi.”
“No mango lassi. Only plain lassi.” The manager replied.
Goddamn you time.
Rolling with the punches, I decided to just go with it.
“Achaa. Ek lassi, aur do laddu.”
One worker put my two laddus into a small to go box, while another came out to the fridge and pulled out one of the clay cups that was to be my lassi.
Rolling, rolling, rolling.
Grabbing a seat on the veranda outside, I was midway through my lassi, when I heard, “How is it?”
Having spent the last few days being largely ignored unless I made it a point to engage, it took me few seconds to realize that I was being asked a question.
Seated to my left was a stunning woman elegantly dressed in a yellow and white kurta pajama with her two children.
“Oh,” I said. “It’s great.”
“Have you ever had one of those before?”
Smiling, I replied, “Yes, I’ve had many lassis. I used to go to school in Rajpur and whenever I would come to town, I would stop at Kumar’s to get their famous mango lassi. Sadly, they do not offer them anymore, so I had to settle for this.”
After introducing her children to me, whom both had impeccable manners and spoke perfect English, I asked where she came from, since she looked ethnically Tibetan.
“I was born in Dehra Dun, I went to school in Dehra Dun, I got married in Dehra Dun. And you? Where are you from?”
“Well, I am sorry that there are not more friends around here for you.” She said somewhat apologetically.
“That’s ok. I didn’t plan on coming to India to meet other people.”
“How long do you plan to stay here?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow for Rishikesh.”
“Oh, you’ll meet plenty of friends there.” she said smiling.