Dhaka, Bangladesh
A town called Dehra

A town called Dehra

It's so quiet the snap of a twig sounds like gunfire. There's a rustle in the deciduous woodland stretching on either side - a luminous pair of golden-green eyes holds mine. The dogs stop barking and the screech of an owl shatters the night. To escape the mayhem of the Jat agitation only to meet a leopard on the prowl, I think. The honk of a car breaks the reverie and I hurry down Clutterbuck Road that runs past a golf course at the edge of the forest connecting two of Dehradun's premier institutions - the Forest Research Institute (FRI) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA). The plan was to let the new car roar through the countryside, but the Capital and all routes to the West and South are under siege, and the only way out is to drive northeast to Dehradun. Ghaziabad, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar whiz past in a cloud of exhaust fumes, highway-choking traffic and riot-scarred houses interspersed with mustard fields. Two hot parathas and a frothy sugarcane juice later, I cross the East India Company-built bridge over the Ganges canal into Roorkee, Uttarakhand. Home to Asia's oldest technical institution (now, IIT Roorkee) and the Bengal Sappers, it is the kind of provincial town discovered as one journeys elsewhere. But beyond the dust devils spiralling through its Cawnpore Dwar, the mountains beckon. Cradled between the purple-hued peaks of the Himalayas and the rain-doused hillsides of the Shivaliks, Dehradun has been a hub of learning since The Raj - The Doon School, Welham, Survey of India and establishments that study wildlife, geology and energy. But, at heart, this gateway to the Terai remains an old-world town that indulges in ice-creams in the dappled shade of deodars, and the joy of browsing through wood-panelled bookstores. All life radiates from the red-bricked Ghanta Ghar, a six-face clock tower, beyond which lies the crush of Mall Road, Rajpur Road and Paltan Bazaar, with its array of curiosity shops and the famed Sunrise Bakers. The burnished gates of IMA swing open to a world that hasn't changed since the past century. Established in 1932 as a training establishment of the Indian Army, its colonnaded Collins and Kingsley blocks have housed generations of youth perched on the precipice of manhood. The Chetwode Building, named after Field Marshal Philip Chetwode, whose credo is engraved in the central hall and in the heart of every officer who earns his pips, fronts the drill square. Inside, impressive oils of generals and gallantry award winners who were alumni line the walls. The museum has interesting war relics, including Pakistan Army Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi's pistol surrendered at the end of the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Across the highway that divides the campus stands Khetarpal Auditorium, from the steps of which newly-commissioned officers throw up their caps in jubilation. The Tons river skirts the outlying grounds, made famous by Lakshya and Vaaranam Aayiram, and dotted with trees, handsome colonial bungalows and signboards that announce 'Gentlemen Cadets have the right of way'. The FRI that trains Indian Forest Service officers stands alongside, past a road of wild flowers that dust the grass. Almost every tree in the tropical litany claims a place here, but this wooded paradise is just the hors d'oeuvre. The Greco-Roman building at the end of Brandis Road, named after a German forester in British service, Sir Dietrich Brandis, houses the main office and many museums, and is a work of incredible beauty. Mynahs peek through library windows, Red-vented bulbuls sing from bushes and monkeys swing incessantly from tree to tree. The 35-km drive to Mussoorie takes in the trimmed prayer flags of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Mindrolling, the open vistas of Garhi Cantt, bungalows entrenched in deep lawns fringed with dahlias and, to my surprise, stacked apartments with enviable views of the hazy jungle ridges. As the car wheezes its way up the steep hills, clouds come boiling up the valley. Mussoorie, at an altitude of 6,000 feet, is considered the Queen of the Hills, but I find her more like a dowager. The sahibs in sola topees and memsahibs with parasols picnicking by Kempty Falls are a sepia-tinged memory. The summer exodus from the plains is yet to begin, but the town teems with snarling vehicles and harried pedestrians. Yet, sometimes, you can still glimpse the Mussoorie that once was. At the Mall, where during The Raj Indians and dogs were not allowed, and leaders like Motilal Nehru knowingly broke the rule to pay a fine, people crowd its grand hotels. I search in vain for the Charleville that once hosted a British monarch and then generations of Civil Service probationers, as part of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. The Savoy where fancy dress balls were held still stands, but no handlebar moustaches quiver over chota hazri. The Company Garden is awash with flowers, and Lal Tibba, the highest point here, glows in the afternoon sun. Children stream out of red-roofed public schools like Woodstock and Wynberg that still survive with their traditions unchanged. Up another steep, white-knuckled drive stands Landour, a cantonment town once built for convalescing soldiers, with pretty houses presided over by well-known names like Ruskin Bond and Tom Alter. The ginger-honey-lemon tea at Char Dukaan preps you for the winding climb to St. Pauls, and charming Rokeby Manor, now a hotel in the midst of pine-lined roads that eventually lead into Tibet. My last stop is at the house of George Everest, Surveyor-General of India, who lived here briefly. Cool winds vectoring off different peaks meet under the wide verandah. The aroma of freshly baked cake wafts up. A lone hawk glides on a thermal, as clouds and evening sunbeams contend for dominion. And beyond these far pavilions, in the valley below, Dehradun lights up like a blazing comet.

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