Spicy and informative, Ganesh Saili’s survey of Mussoorie past and present is full of lively anecdotes about the hill station’s history, people, eccentrics, scandals – everything that makes the place unique.
Never a dull moment in this chronicle of our most popular hiss resort.
In the spring of 1808, Captain Hyder Jung Hearsey and Captain Felix Raper became the first visitors to get a view of the Garhwal Himalayas from the bend near La! Tibba in Landour.
For centuries the Himalayan foothills have been summer retreats, where, the chaans or temporary thatch-shelters of the local hill f0!k were the only signs of human habitation. It was left to the British to come up, move in and claim all the credit for discovering hill stations all over India.
In the early nineteenth century, Capt Young, an intrepid official of the East India Company arrived in Landour, was charmed by the gentle climate—an indispensable relief from the heat of the plains down below- and built a shooting lodge in Mullingar.
‘Like meat, we keep better here.’ Gushed Lady Emily Eden… ‘The climate! No wonder I could not live down below. We were never allowed a scrap of air to breathe…The air is a cool sort of stuff, refreshing, sweet and apparently pleasing to the lungs…I see as the best part of India.
The Raj summers in Mussoorie, chintz tablecloths and lace doilies, amateur dramatics of the Mussoorie Theatre Group at he Happy Valley Club: all these are woven together with long years of research. Ganesh Sail’s Mussoorie Medley; Tales of Yesteryear takes the reader down nostalgia lane to evoke the mystery and magic of the times gone by.
Mussoorie born Ganesh Saili has had a life-long love affair with the Garhwal Himalayas. Settled atop a spur in Landour, he has taught English and American literature at Mussoorie’s post-graduate college. Having had the good fortune of living in the hills, he has seen the changing facets of the hill station. For thirty years and more, he has researched and trekked these mountains, capturing in words and film the awe-inspiring beauty of the hills. Several of his books have been translated into French, German, Dutch, Italian and other foreign languages. Numerous periodicals, journals, magazines, films, books and national awards are a testimony to his roots.
My Mussoorie Medley: Tales of Yesteryear neither is, nor pretends to be a comprehensive history of Landour and Mussoorie. It attempts
to bring to you dear reader some of the fun and games, gupp and gossip of our small station’s history and share with you some of its troubles. Of all the hill stations established in the 19th century by the British, ours has a special character.
If you remember that Simla was the headquarters of the British Raj; Nainital, the summer capital of the United Provinces, while Mussoorie, always racier, ended up as a sort of pleasure dome for maharajas and military on rest, recuperation and recreation. Ever wonder why the twins, Mussoorie and Landour, are so very different from each other? The answer is simpler than it seems—Mussoorie succumbed to the immediate economic needs of the hour, while Landour clung on to pretensions of leisure and contemplation.
For Landour, still in love with its past, has old bungalows clinging on to their names. The roll-call includes Alyndale, Firs, Sea forth Lodge, Shamrock, Bellevue, and Oakville. Please forgive us, if at all, for some of our unpainted roofs. I admit they look like they have been hammered-out of rusted biscuit tins! Trouble is the early houses, covered with thatch, had leaky roofs that poured like sieves in the monsoon. Over a period of time, they were replaced by the ugly but practical galvanized tin-sheets. What happens, in our times, the owners often forget to put a lick of paint!
This minor aberration apart, the cantonment has almost escaped the developer’s myopic gaze.
Climb up through the narrow bazaar and you emerge in a mountaintop world of deodar trees, church spires, flowering gardens and panoramic views. This is as close as you can get to unspoilt British India. Luckily, the army owns all the land here. There is a pretty good chance it will stay that way!
Staying that way too are the old churches: St Peter’s (established in 1829); St Paul’s (established in 1840) and Christ Church (established in 1836), having just been restored by public spirited individuals. Though the old Methodist Church in Kulri needs repairs, even a fresh coat of paint would do it good. You will find all that shines here are the brass plaques put up in fond remembrance of the servants of the empire who sailed across the seas to die.
Some of those who (lied here are going to he with us forever. The two cemeteries, our dominions of silence, on Camel’s Back Road and the Upper Chakkar, are in pretty good shape. Unfortunately, you cannot say the same of the rest of Mussoorie. If one could somehow wish hack the one-time British rulers of India, or the wealthy maharajas who flocked here to escape the heat of the plains, they would be hard put to recognise it.
Everything has changed. Even the old rickshaws of yore, drawn by sturdy, livened hill men, have been replaced by the ordinary three-wheeled cycle-rickshaws. To say they clutter the Mall is a classic understatement. ‘Old’ Mussoorie has been swallowed up by the burgeoning middle class. Kulri Bazaar overflows with fast-food restaurants, souvenir shops; high-rise hotels block the breath taking views of the white Himalayan crests on the one side and the Doon valley (low-n below. You will gape at files of raffish hotels sprouting plastic palms, out of which at dusk, the hordes dehouch out of their bedrooms straight on to the roads.
I should remind first time visitors, our station runs east to west—all length and not much width. What you see is what you get!
If only the tourist ventured out, broke free and set out to explore the extremities of the town—towards Bhadraj in the west or beyond Jaberkhet along the road to Tehri, to the east. Unfortunately, this remains the exception rather than the rule. Our present-day arrival’s must-do includes Kempty Falls, Lal Tibba and my guru, author Ruskin Bond! Poor man! How they test his patience! Especially when aroused bleary-eyed like a hear from his siesta as fond parents arrive at Ivy Cottage waiting for him to bless their children or get photographed in the middle of the afternoon. Never mind even if he is still in his pyjamas!
Few know, when he is not sleeping, Ruskin’s a great film buff. He and many other old—timers like him wish the town’s six movie halls had not downed their shutters!
Once upon a time, entertainment was promised even if you did not like the film. Take for instance the Electric Picture Palace that opened in 1912, the year electricity came to town. This was Mussoorie’s oldest cinema hall. Years later, the basement reincarnated as the Jubilee Cinema. They forgot to fix the leak on Picture Palace’s roof. Over many monsoons, the rusty water trickled down, staining half the silver screen brown... Yes! You could still see your film but half in black and white, and half in sepia tone!
Literally, the last of our cinemas, at the end of Camel’s Back Road, the ground floor of Summer House, was the Basant Cinema. Reincarnated as La Anjuman, the change of name did not help as the seepage of sewage from the surrounding hotels drowned out the station’s last cinema hall.
There are some who believe that Mussoorie paid because of its easy accessibility. Indeed, it is the only hill station visible from the plains. Helter-skelter expansion left us grappling with traffic congestion and shortages of water and electricity. Often garishly painted hotels promise guests hot and cold running water but usually it is the poor guest who does the running around—with buckets of water, hot or cold.
What were the largest stakeholders in town, the 17 prestigious schools doing all the while? Couldn’t they have bestirred themselves to make a difference? In the end, they (lid what the sahibs and brown sahibs have always done. Talk was cheap. So, they talked. There was ample time to stop it, had they wanted to. But they waited, talked a lot, not pushing hard enough. They made some of the usual noises while turning a blind eye to the frenetic rape of their environs, choosing the security of their own artificial bubbles. Other schools set up ‘solely for the benefit of children of the poor, the orphaned and the impoverished’ forgot the noble dreams of the founding fathers. They too went main-stream—joining the loot and scoot! And may the devil take the founders and our hill station!
It is no great secret that Mussoorie has always been a ‘Station for Scandal’. What it has kept to itself is the tale of its man-eaters (or shall we call them man-eatresses?) no Jim Corhett could have tracked down and shot. They are not in the alleys, the lanes or the abutting jungles like their feline cousins. Our denizens have more cunning, more wile than any self-respecting tiger or leopard prowling these hills. Across the years, grass widows were not the only ones looking for a fling and merry widows swelled their ranks.
Ironically, in a gossipy little town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, their depredations are covered in a conspiracy of silence. And then, there is just one more little secret! For some inexplicable reason, Landour has always had a tradition of gambling. Do not ask me why? All you will notice as you walk up the great ramp of Mullingar, is clusters of resident’s playing cards wherever there be shelter from the wind or a patch of sunshine in winter. Writing in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words, January 30, 1858, Australian writer John Lang, describes a visit to Suakholi, then in the Tehri Rajah’s territory, where he came upon the largest gaming den north of Meerut. ‘In the hostelries or sarais, nautch-girls would dance the night away,’ as the rich and famous (now outside the reign of British Raj and its brass hats!) gambled fortunes away. According to local lore, a fine summer palace on Camel’s Back Road has been lost and won several times over.
Though in our story, set many a century later, the gambling carried on it what we shall call Chachi’s house. Rather amply endowed, fair, tawny- eyed Chachi (aunt), ran an open house for lovers of the infamous fifty-two playing cards, in a room above her provision store. Local shopkeepers would gather there hoping to make a killing. Only problem was that when she got a bad hand, Chachi was prone to dropping her saree-pallu (part of the traditional Indian saree, draped across the shoulder), exposing a perfect plunging décolletage. Drooling to distraction, our card-players would lose a perfectly winnable hand!
When she passed away in ripe old age, I am told two of her admirers wept inconsolably. Putting his arms around them, Chachi’s husband did his best to console them, whispering soothingly: ‘Don’t worry! In a few months I’ll marry again!’
‘That’s all right for you!’ they cried, adding: ‘But what will we do today?’ I wasn’t in the least surprised when as a tribute to her many-fold talents; the entire bazaar downed its shutters for the funeral! Yes! Our Mussoorie and Landour are still a special place!
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