She has traveled the length and breadth of India, seen and stayed in various locales of the country and abroad, before leaving the fast paced professional life and setting up roots in more relaxed vacation location of Ranikhet in Uttarakhand. Meet Dr. Mala Srikanth as she talks to us in an exclusive interview about her life which she herself terms as an extraordinary story of an ordinary woman.
Please give me some background information on yourself.
Born to an Army officer with a childhood of transfers to small cantonments, new schools and new friends, feeling at home in every State and relishing their culture and cuisine too. Adult life has encompassed a great medical education and vocation, commissioned Air Force officer, mother to two daughters, a medical practitioner in rural Oman and learning to speak, live and drive like an Arab. Was a WHO consultant for the Indian TB-DOTs project, Global Fund proposal expert for the Govt. of India and other countries, and HIV project Director for the Catholic Church. A Bengali by birth, but a world citizen by choice, I am an expert at knitting and related crafts, I love driving, reading non-fiction, writing thoughtful emails and enjoying life with my friends.
Why did you decide to settle in Ranikhet?
Seven years ago, I got a second life after surviving a horrific road accident. It made me see the aimless and superficial social life I could have, if my focus remained on earning more and more money, getting more and more recognition and power and working harder and harder to touch new heights of accepted success. I decided that I would live life on my terms as soon as I could ensure that my daughters can earn enough to be independent. I had a home in a place where I could knit all year around, and I had the opportunity to be among people who cared for me without the social codes which make up city living. Ranikhet fitted the bill— it’s cool and quiet (except for the 3 summer months). There are enough people around to meet when I want to, and enough distance from them for me to retire into my private space and finally, the view! It takes my breath every time I breathe!
What do you like about the place?
I like the dignity and the comfort of this small hill town. The essentials of life (fresh food, roads and travel modes, Internet and mobile connections, good domestic support) are available. The exasperating frills (malls and designer shops, bowling alleys and cinema halls, loud crowds and social parties) have been kept away. I enjoy the local hill people and their attitude towards life –far more accepting, patient and realistic way of taking the ups and downs of living in the hills. I like the long walks, the pine forests, the Himalayan view and I really, really like the sunny and airy home I live in.
Tell us something about the locality you live in. How far is it from the market place?
The apartment building has been built on the edge of a reserve pine forest, with an army parade ground in front. The main Ranikhet-Almora road runs past the building and we are just 3 kms from the market. When I want the sounds of people, travel, civilization, etc, I just stand on the front balcony or read in the adjoining bedroom. When I want to hear the birds sing, the pine forests hum and to listen to the sounds of silence I have the other bedroom and its large balcony. And for sitting in the sunlight and getting toasted, the living room does the trick!
How do you manage to get your supplies?
I make my list of groceries, vegetables, etc and drive to the market. If I am lazy, I can hop onto a passing bus or cab and pay Rs 10 for the ride. The apartment manager brings in the daily newspaper – milk and seasonal veggies are supplied at a little shop just 200 metres from home. And for other indulgences, I use online shopping for books, yarns and other desirables. The postal service is excellent and beats the couriers hands down.
What do you do for recreation? What are the places one can go for a cup of coffee or a good dinner?
I recreate all the time! I knit, I read and I keep planning to begin a blog, or write the novel inside my head. I go for walks in the forest with my dogs. I clean out shelves and cupboards and I indulge in marathon movie sessions, but it’s bedtime by 9pm! We have some lovely places here for whiling time and drinking coffee. At Naini, Saby’s café is great for a snack and hot coffee. The market has some amazing places for aloo tikkis, chowmein, jalebis, samosas, etc.
A good dinner? Two excellent hotels – Windsor Lodge and Rosemount Chevron. Some great cooks are my personal friends…and of course, a long drive to Nainital for lunch and for some crowd gazing can also be a great option!
What are the problems you faced in setting up your house or otherwise?
No problems as such…since the planning and the plotting were done for six years. I have some good friends here, even better support systems (trusted cab driver, good builders, etc.) and it was a case of “slow and steady winning the race”. The one challenge which took some time to handle was the laid back attitude of people here. It took time to accept that timelines were cosmetic, it really didn’t matter and that work will get done when it has to get done. Great lesson for a wound-up Delhiite!
How is your social life here?
My social life is just the way I planned. Very few friends who have the same attitude to life, but who are genuinely interested in me and who are genuinely interesting to me. However, in the summer months, there is this whirlwind social spin, when the summer visitors and guests come in and there is a deluge of parties and social gatherings. I try to ration my attendance, but the systems are yet to fall into place.
How has Ranikhet changed over the years?
The market, the Mall Road and cantonment remain the same. There has been a lot of construction of houses and apartments from Kalika towards Majkhali. The sites look like bombed out craters for the two years of construction, then they morph into lovely homes or flats with a big lock outside – for 10 months out of 12! The local youth has become smarter, self assured and serious in making big plans for their future. Lots of mobile shops, lots of internet and media, lots of old houses being replaced by shiny new ones.
Who are the other people like yourself you hang out with? What do they do there?
I hang out with some friends who live here permanently. A couple who run a successful organization for empowering the community, another couple who help their neighboring village, run marathons, set up a library and garden, a retired IAS officer and his wife who have been living here ever since their retirement. We all live life in our own space, meet infrequently, help each other when needed and share SMSes about brilliant sunsets, mountain views and bird sightings!
What about medical facilities? Are they easily accessible?
Yes, there is an Army Hospital, the Civil Hospital and a couple of reputed nursing homes with doctors who have been serving the town for decades. I have a hospital just a kilometer down the road.
What is the general budget one should keep in mind when looking to buy a property in Ranikhet and what they can expect to get for that?
It all depends on what they are looking for. If it’s a stand-alone house or cottage, it would mean a budget of around INR 80 lakhs and lots of luck, since there are hardly any good plots left. If an apartment would suffice, a 2 bedroom holiday apartment would be around INR 50 lakhs and again, some luck. One has to budget water expenses in the summer months, domestic help and caretaker, and other issues related to living in the hills.
Any advice for people keen on living in Ranikhet?
Don’t buy property or build a house here if your family is not convinced or doesn’t share your dream about living in the hills. It’s makes economical and environmental sense to rent a house or use one of the excellent homestays which are available around Ranikhet. In that way, you will be helping the economy by supporting the local people, saving the trees and the water sources of the area by not building a house which is going to be used for just a few days or weeks in a year. In the process, you will be contributing to halting the senseless destruction of the natural beauty of these Kumaon hills. Come to live in the hills only when you are really really ready to opt out of the rat race, to give up the so called frills of the city and when your family is comfortable with the idea of quiet long evenings, and quieter nights. Living in the hills is not a fairy tale or dream, unless you have prepared yourself in every way.
Are you happy to be staying in Ranikhet?
I am delighted, grateful and totally at peace with my decision to live here. As I keep telling my daughters, “the honeymoon just keeps going on and on!” I live a day at a time, and though I know that the inevitable ups and downs of life will come along, right now, there is no place on Earth where I would rather be. It’s been one of the best decisions of my life.