“Are you going to stay here through the winter?” asked a friend, planning to go the warm south. “It must get lonely up here,” he insists.
My friend has no clue how off the mark he is. Being lonely and being alone are two different things. Of course, much has been said about “solitude in multitude.” But it’s not for me. To be on one’s own in a bustling tourist destination has become something of a rarity. Oh! It is like a quaffable cognac, swirled in a warm snifter on a cold evening sitting near a crackling fire-place.
In its two hundred years of existence, our hill station has been a home away from home to those in internment or in exile. Our first guest was Dost Mohammed, Ex Amir of Afghanistan, housed in the splendor of craggy Bala Hisar in 1840, where forty-four years later housed the Allen Memorial School where I spent my childhood. Though restored to the throne in 1842, before leaving, some believe, he had introduced the aromatic basmati rice from Kunar in Afghanistan to the Doon valley.
Following in his footsteps, was the handsome Raja Lal Singh externed from the Punjab for his own safety. He received permission to get away from the blistering summers of Agra to stay in the sleepy hollow of Barlowganj. Redemption came much later, at the time of Independence, when his grandson, Kunwar Shamsher Singh by a single-cheque stopped the liquidation of the Doon Club. What would the parched throats have done without him? May God bless his soul!
In the same year, Maharaja Duleep Singh was sent up to Landour to be interned at the Castle Hill Estate. Tales survive of the young lad, playing cricket with the boys from the Mussoorie Seminary on Taylor’s flat in what is today’s Survey Field. But life is not all cricket. Two years later, packed off to England, to become the blue-eyed boy of Queen Victoria, he never forgave the dowdy Empress for not returning the Koh-i-noor diamond that he remembered having worn as a child.
Another internee, who was destined never to see his fort again, was Amir Yakub Khan, put up at Bellevue (today’s Radha Bhawan) after his arrival in the Doon in the spring of 1880. He died in 1923. Then again, to commemorate the signing of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty, another Afghan King, Amanullah Khan built the Masjid-a- Amania off the Library.
Other neighbours in exile, in 1902, included Maharaja Deb Shumsher Rana who escaped by the skin of his teeth to build the sprawling Fairlawn Palace in Jharipani. It is said that somehow, he managed to bring the famous Nau Lakha necklace concealed in a bottle of pickle. What it did for the pickle? I do not know.
Our last arrival was in 1959, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama crossed the border into India after an epic fifteen day journey on foot from Lhasa, in one of history’s great escapes. Husbanding his strength he left Lhasa on 17 March, resting only on reaching the Tawang Monastery, fifty miles inside the Indian border. A guest at the Birla House, he saw the beginnings of the first Tibetan refugee settlement in Happy Valley.
One sometimes wonders what it must have been like for all of them, to be torn away from their home cultures, from the familiar, and be left to weave a forlorn tapestry of memories all of their own. Often, human history turns into the flood waters of a river in spate: blind, ruthless, insensate force carrying everything before it.
And in the end:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade …