People like us have loved the hills to death. And we have done this while believing that the hills are alive with the sound of our iPods, our boarding school fee, our pilgrim fervour, our Volvo-hotel bookings and our little summer cottages.
We started innocuously enough. My father was joint development commissioner based in Nainital when he heard of a 15-acre plot for sale in a remote Almora village. This was 1968. For him, an officer transferred every few months for being too upright, it was the home he would retire to whenever he threw up his IAS job. He called it his piece of paradise. He planted over a thousand apple saplings, but their leaves were a delicacy for the barking deer in the forests nearby, who had no respect for private property. We did, however, get to pluck apricots, peaches and walnuts from trees he got planted. We stayed in solitary splendour in our cottage built of stone dug up within our territory, cemented with a mixture of mud and grass. The entire snow range shone in front of our bedroom windows on clear days.
When we were children, we enjoyed roughing it. There was no electricity, running water or newspapers. Only the radio kept us in touch with the world and my father’s large collection of books expanded our imagination. An underground spring yielded just enough water to sustain a family of four.
Times changed and the fantasy proved unsustainable. The family did not have the leisure any more to spend even a week in the hills. The rarefied atmosphere did not suit my father, who had developed asthma. In 1998, a land developer came and persuaded my father to sell. He lied that he would be using the land for his personal residence.
As it turned out, he was a land shark. On the front pages of Delhi newspapers, he advertised a resort with a swimming pool, a helipad and a golf course. People Like Us, harried city slickers with money to spare, bought the dream, just as we buy into the ‘lifestyles’ of residential high-rises. About 40 cottages sprang up, some cute and cuddly, some as alarmingly large as their owners’ egos. A rude signboard and a forbidding watchtower sprang up at the entrance. Words like ‘trespasser’ entered the local lexicon. However, it was a ghost town even in summer, as the owners were too busy to visit or just not happy with the gated community concept, too close for comfort to their Delhi reality.
Every summer, for 10 years after my father sold his property, I searched in villages nearby for a cheap plot where I could rebuild the dream.
Then came the moment of truth. Just a week before the monsoon proved calamitous for other parts of Uttarakhand, I happened to accompany my aunt to an RWA meeting near Nainital. Like the Almora ‘resort’, this was a ‘private colony’ promoted by a developer, but with a more satisfied clientele. A bunch of retired officers from the armed forces had been running an efficient ‘society’ for the mostly absentee landlords. They were happy with their investment and the colony was maintained by permanent staff paid for by the RWA.
But there were disturbing, discordant notes. They declared they would not allow ‘their’ road to be used to access another private developer’s colony being built on the hill-top. They want the government to pump up borewell water as the local streams have dried up.
Before the dream turns sour, they will no doubt pull strings to get their bijli, sadak, pani. They’re loving their piece of paradise to death.