In June 1947, Lahore was in turmoil. Raj Kanwar, who was a few months short of 17 at that time, was in Dehradun with his family. What they thought would be a short vacation, till the riots and violence subsided, ended up being their permanent residence. In the news about neighbourhoods getting burnt, children getting killed and women being raped, they heard about their home also being looted and burnt, and they decided to never return to Lahore.
Since then, Kanwar – journalist, writer, reader, entrepreneur – has been the city’s silent chronicler, witnessing it grow from a small quaint town to a state capital. It is these observations that he has documented in Dateline Dehradun (Rs 599, Writers’ Combine), an anthology of his writings and columns.
Kanwar, 90, also documents his own journey – the tryst with writing that started in college, becoming a stringer for The Tribune, The Indian Express and The Statesman in the ’50s, launching his own magazine Vanguard, being the first public relations officer for Oil & Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), and documenting the history of the institution in Upstream India (2006) and ONGC: The Untold Story (2018).
What makes Dateline Dehradun unique is that it is a chronicle of lived history. Kanwar writes about his personal relations with people, places he has visited, and describes every nook and corner of the city which he calls home, along with giving the bigger picture. It makes the book a treasure trove of stories, anecdotes and lesser-known historical facts.
The book is a fascinating read. The author tells us about how Dehradun was a revelation for the Russians – about a hundred of them came in to set up ONGC in the late ’50s – after having lived in the regimented Stalin era of the Soviet Union, how vegetable vendors picked up Russian to converse with the wives, and desi vodka was invented. Or how Lala Narain Das, whose family runs the popular indie bookstore Book World in the city, came to be known as the “legendary father-figure of book trade” in India, whose apprentices went on to establish successful publishing and books-related businesses across the country.
The various institutions that give character to the city, including Weather Observatory, Indian Military Academy, Forest Research Institute, Survey of India, ONGC, Institute of Drilling Technology, have been duly documented. So have the life stories of the famous men and women who have put the city on the world map, who have been interviewed by Kanwar in the book. Celebrated writer Ruskin Bond is top on the list.
One cannot write about Dehradun without writing about its schools, and Kanwar fittingly had the sobriquet “the school town of India” on the cover of the book. A number of people across the length and breadth of the country (including this writer), and the neighbouring Nepal, owe their upbringing and education to one of the many boarding schools that throng the twin cities of Dehradun and Mussoorie, including The Doon School, Welham Boys School and Girls’ School, St Joseph’s Academy, and Wynberg Allen School. There are stories of headmasters and principals and renowned alumni. Be it of the Aiyar brothers (Mani Shankar and Swaminathan), the Seth brothers (Vikram and Shantum), Himani Shivpuri, Karan Thapar, or Wajahat Habibullah, among many others. One of the stories is a lesser-known tale of how The Doon School came to serve as a mini refugee camp during the Partition riots.
Those who have a connection with the city ought to have this book in their collection. But if you don’t, you will be equally engrossed, because Kanwar engages you with the stories in a way that makes Dehradun feel like home.
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