When the train In stopped in Dehradun so did the air-conditioning. It was hot, like being in soup. Loud. Five red-shirted government employed porters rushed into the car to argue with each about who would carry my suitcases, for which they would charge me 800 rupees each—instead of the regular price of 20 rupees for both– because I was white. Within five minutes, Rageev, Anjula’s brother, found me me. He laughed like a round-bellied rascal. “No way will we pay 800 rupees,” he said.
The porters insisted, shouting, fighting with Rageev, and pointing at me. Defiant, yet with humor, Rageev crossed his arms. Robyn, Anjula’s young nephew, pushed in next to Rageev, shook my hand politely and asked if I had the Grand Theft Auto video game.
As it ended up, the skinniest porter carried both of my suitcases on his head. Rageev paid the porter 20 rupees–total.
Outside, on the train platform and in the parking lot, grousp of men with hollow cheeks argued under fluorescent street lamps. A hundred cars honked their horns, but not loud enough to drown out the sound of a dozen motorbikes ripping through the parking lot. It iwas monsoon season and it hadn’t rained for a couple days, so humidity hovered at 99 percent. The air smelled like diesel fuel and shit.
I sit in the back seat of Rageev’s Toyota I buried my blondness in a shadow. As soon as we pulled out onto the main road, Robyn wanted to know the name of my favorite wrestler. I tried to remember the biggies in the sport but couldn’t come up with a recent contender. Robyn turned his head and with a totally cute smile rolled off a roster: “John Cena, Rey Misterio, Mark Henry, Terry Funk, Vince McMahon.”
Dehradun, where I landed, is the first Indian city I got to know: I arrived there on my own, on a northbound train out of Delhi. A 6 hour trip. My travel companion, Anjula, was tracking down her misappropriated suitcase and would follow the next day.
IT is the capital of the newly formed state of Uttarakhand in northern India. To call it a boomtown is close but not quite exact enough to capture the energy and the hungry, hopeful, and emerging feeling. This city of half a million nestles at the foothills of the Himalayas. The sacred Ganga and Yamuna rivers encircle the town, which is a collision point for the modern and traditional; rural and urban; a place with no stop signs and a few red lights that every driver ignores. In the past year, land value quadrupled.
Everywhere you look men in flip-flops are building houses, malls, banks, or condos. They transport impossible loads of plastic conduit pipes to job sites on bicycles. Women in dirty saris dig ditches. People, who migrate here from poorer areas of India, find day jobs on the brim of the road, selling stuff or carrying stuff. Sometimes for fourteen straight hours they hit rocks with hammers creating gravel so that the road can be widened.
English medium schools are popping up on each block like pungent mushrooms in rich, moist, well-rotted animal manure, of which there is plenty in Dehradun ( and everywhere in India) Cows nap on the streets. Pigs eat shit. Dogs follow the pigs. Families live next to the pigs under black tarps at the side of the road. Men pee on trees and storefronts. Everyone drops trash on the streets for someone else to pick up. Of course, short of the pigs, cows, dogs, and children who sort through the stuff with bare hands, heaps of trash continues to pile up on corners and in ditches.
When they occupied India, the British used Dehradun as a summer retreat where they raced horses, trained troops, conducted forestry research, and enjoyed the greenness and more-temperate-than-Calcutta-and-Delhi climate. Nearby cities include the holy river towns of Rishikesh and Hardiwar, and the hill station resort town, Mussoorie, where the Brits used to hang signs “No Indians or Dogs Allowed.” Today’s young people are the town’s treasure. Those from families with money spend their weekend evenings on Rajpur Road hopping clubs and snacking at the clean Pizza Hut or cleaner McDonalds. They call their town Doon, are proud to be citizens of the “school capital of India” and, who like Robyn, possess a cosmopolitan, westernized outlook of the world and India’s future.