‘Is there something in the water?’ a friend from the plains once asks cattily. ‘How else does the place sprout so many writers?’
To be honest, I was stumped for an answer. Apart for Mussoorie, is there any other place in the world, where per square kilometer, there so many internationally published writers plying their lonely trade?
Over the years, our part became home to merchants, traders, writers, poets, artists, actors, faith healers and wheeler-dealers.
‘Such beautiful rhododendrons! They are forest trees, not shrubs, as you have them in England,’ exclaimed, the indefatigable traveler Fanny Parks in her diary in 1838 as she ascends to Mussoorie in her palanquin, adding: ‘I could not help sending a man from the plains, who had never seen a nettle, to gather one; he took hold of it, and relinquished his hold instantly in excessive surprise, exclaimed, ‘It has stung me; it is a scorpion plant!’
A bouquet of stinging nettles where the Himalayan foothills come alive in a fast paced, scintillating account of growing life in the fast fading hill resort of Mussoorie in the 1960s. This entertaining tour d’horizon begins where the Raj and its minions had already packed their bags and gone, leaving behind a legacy of missionary schools, hand-pulled rickshaws, fancy fairs and picnic hampers. But living in a small town is like life lived in a fish-bowl. Almost anyone knows your business or at least claims to know. Sometimes it’s even things about you that you yourself don’t know. Everybody thinks everybody else’s affairs to be more worth looking after than their own. If you have a friend or two to lunch, tea or dinner, the whole town is sure to know before noon next day what was on your table and who said what!
Forty years down the road, it is time to share some of these tales with you. Come to think of it, if we were to take them all together in one single embrace, they have never been on the same page together. You’ll find that one has to push the restless traveller, linguist and legendary scholar, Rahul Sanskritayan together with the frolicsome Maharajah of Kapurthala. What could they possibly have in common? Well! They were residents who, at one point, spent time in up here and were all great observers who have left tall tales — some gupp, others gossip which fill up the lanes of the station at the day’s end.
But death has not been the end for the writers of the three oldest guides to our town. They defy Time, standing on their own. How surprised I was to find threesome together, meeting one last time at the Lodge Dalhousie or least their names met and mingled on the same board, under the Roll of Worshipful Masters: John Northam (1870), F. Bodycot (1900) and F. Wilson (1936).
Or you could glean some of our history from diarists like Mauger Fitzhugh Monk, a teacher at Mackinnon’s Mussoorie Seminary, our first school, established in the 1840s. He was just a letter-writer who has left us tidbits of his times. Then there is my friend ‘the Kipling of Mussoorie,’ author Ruskin Bond, who takes in his sweep the five decades, spanning the 1960s to the present. For those who are new to his work, I think we should include a statutory warning: ‘Just the weight of the body of his work may be injurious to your book-rack!’
And how can one forget that travel-writer, Lowell Thomas, who in The Land of the Black Pagoda (1936) gave us that memorable quote: ‘There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a separation bell at dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious go back to their own beds!’
Rudyard Kipling arrived here in the summer of 1888. Staying in Happy Valley, you would have found him tucked away comfortably with his friend and companion, Mrs. Edmontia Hill, at the Charleville Hotel. Small wonder the Nobel Laureate just about manages to give us four lines inscribed on a photograph taken by the Hills of the Front Office:
And there were men with a thousand wants,
And women with babes galore
But the dear little angels in Heaven know
That Wutzler never swore
And who on earth was Wutzler? Well! It turns out he was the Proprietor of the sprawling hotel, whose foul mouth would send his staff scurrying. But Kipling has another Mussoorie connection…
In a letter, Kipling wrote to his friend: ‘The Native Press is pointing out with glee that I ought to have been whacked…’
Perhaps given his bias, he should have been!
Luckily Kipling left India soon after.
Ah! What would one do without their enchanting sepia-tones of a time when the thatch-roofed bungalows were simply lime- mortar pasted on to four-anna bricks.
* * *
In our times, ‘If you stand still for five minutes, they’ll build a hotel around you!’ the late Colonel Gerald Powell muttered as I photographed him at Wakefield, his ancestral home in the little village of Barlowganj. The year: 1990.
Little did he know how prophetic his words would be! No sooner had he sold the place to return to his grandchildren in England; the new owners flattened the grand colonial bungalow. In its stead sprouted a concrete monolith. Indeed, how right old Gerald was: ‘Stand still for five minutes! They’ll have your beautiful old cottage turned into the rear of an aircraft hangar!’
Sometimes, and on rare occasions, we residents too feel like ‘making a bolt of it!’ or running away from here. The urge to debouch is strong, especially on week-ends when the town is grid-locked with cars and car-bars (they are the latest ‘in-thing’ all over these hills).
Or perhaps, on second thought, I had better leave the present times to the future social historians of Landour and Mussoorie. Maybe they shall be better equipped to see through the pillar of dust that rises from construction activities along apologies for rutted roads.
At the time of writing, I see around me the symbols of progress: tree stumps, garbage dumps, and boundary walls all over topped with barbed wire.
‘Ah! Shut up you two!” The pro-progress builders write in: ‘Ruskin Bond and you are just pseudo-nostalgiawallahs!’ Whatever that might be!
So be it my friends!
Take heart. You will find the magic of what was good in the past, hidden where if you scratch the surface, the gupp-shupp bubbles to the surface.
And who’s to tell? Maybe out of this crazed churning a new hill station shall emerge.
Though for the present, you will have to retreat from this chaos into a world gone by, but full of glamour, wine and witchery where the poet said:
You may break; you may shatter the vase, if you will;
But the scent of the roses will cling to it still.