Telegraph (Calcutta), 4 April 1999, p. 18.|
Raj Chatterjee looks back at Mussoorie before the glass-and-concrete apartment blocks moved in
Winter in the hills. China-blue skies with only a wisp of a cloud to the far north, floating serenely above snow clad peaks. The air is thin and ice-cold with a sharp edge to it that hurts, till you draw it in and then it fills your whole being with its healing, invigorating quality.
Below, to leeward, the Doon valley looks lush and green, thanks to a good monsoon last summer. The flowers are gone. All except a lone narcissus here and there, with none to rival its delicate fragrance. The pine, the fir and the overgrown cypress stand a little aloof from the deodar and the desi silver oak. But soon, all will be hidden under the same white mantle, indistinguishable, one from the other.
A few more days, and the schools will close. Then the winter stillness will be complete. But now, there is the sound of laughter in the dorms, on the play ground, at the tuck shop. There are bright eyes and rosy cheeks on smiling faces and a few that are sulky because of a tick-off from the form teacher.
Plans are being made for the down ward journey to the plains by bus and train. Slabs of chocolate, bags of candy, society magazines smuggled in, saved up pocket money - all go into the common pool, to be taken out and shared on the way home to the accompaniment of incessant chatter and oft-repeated school songs.
And it is the end of another season for the simple and hard working hill folk - the rickshaw-puller from Paori, the subziwalla and car attendant from Srinagar (Garhwal). the shoe shine boy from Tehri and the sturdy youngster from l3hatta who walks three miles each way, five days a week, to the government school at Kincraig.
They too will stay a few more days to buy rezais and heavy pull-overs knitted by Tibetans, brass pots and silver trinkets, razor blades and torch batteries. Since March they have been saving money for these purchases, living on a shoe-string budget, eating the cheapest vegetables cooked in adulterated oil, with thick chappatis or rice. There were days when even this cheap fare was unobtainable. Gram, cups of tea sweetened with molasses, biris or cheap cigarettes had kept them going. Forty or fifty years ago the distances to their villages was reckoned in the days they had spent trekking up and down through thickly wooded forests. Now, it is a mat ter of hours in buses travelling on pukka or semi-pukka roads that go beyond Badrinath.
My association with Mussoorie goes back nearly 75 years when I used to be taken up by my parents for the three month's summer vacations from July to October. May and June were considered to be healthy months down in the plains, being too hot for mosquitoes to sur vive and for 'viral' fevers, as they are called now, to spread.
My childhood memories tell me that our journey up to the 'Queen of the Hills' was a joy in itself. A man from one of the 'agencies' would meet us at Dehra Dun and take us across, in tongas, to Mrs Chapman's guest house in Rajpur. There, hot baths awaited us in tin tubs, followed by an English breakfast - porridge with thick cream, bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade, tea or coffee. Then we were ready to climb the seven-mile bridle path to Mussoorie.
Jharipani, the wayside halt, still has its Oakgrove School, once the alma mater of Anglo Indian children whose fathers manned the railways. Its other claim to fame vanished many years ago. This was a restaurant owned by a German couple, the Ungeforans, who sold Beck's beer at 12 annas a bottle. Small won der, then, that the women and children reached their destinations far in advance of the men.
It was about that time that a company promoter conceived the plan of constructing a tramway between Rajpur and Mussoorie. A lot of people - shareholders - lost a lot of money and that was the end of the project.
The motor road made its debut in the early '30s, first only as far as Bhatta, then to Sunny View, then to Kincraig, from where it bifurcated, finally to the Library on the left and the Masonic Lodge on the right. Now, of course, one can drive right up to Landour on the one side and Happy Valley on the other.
The old Jharipani route, still used by energetic trippers, comes up near St. George's College, passing under a wooden suspension bridge that joins the college to the monastery inhabited by the brothers of an Irish order of Franciscans.
Mrs Mackinnon, who belonged to a family of local brewers, managed the Happy Valley Club, one of the very few at the time, whose membership was open to Indians. I remember, with gratitude, the club marker who used to coach me in tennis on the grey, bajri courts of the club. He was a wiry little man with pomaded moustaches standing up at the ends, rather like Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot save that instead of a black hat he wore a jaunty red fez.
I remember too, the big, dazzling shops on the Mall, Trevillion and Clark, Whitaway Laidlaw, Fitch and Co. and others, displaying in their windows cameras, meccano sets, fleecy cardigans, silk ties for none of which my weekly pocket money was sufficient.
All that was in the '20s. But chasing memories, I continued to go up to Mussoorie, first by myself, then with my family, no matter where I was stationed at the time.
It was in the summer of 1938 that I found myself in the NWFP on tour for my company. I had three days' month-end leave due to me and I decided to spend them with friends in Mussoorie before returning to my H.Qrs. in Lahore. Leaving Bannu at the crack of dawn in my Ford V8. I was in Lahore for brunch, in Saharanpur for tea and in Mussoorie by 6 pm. What's more I went out dancing that night at Hakman's on the Mall. It's a won der what one can do in one's twenties.
In the late '50s my in-laws bought some property in Barlowgunj, a couple of miles below the town. That is where we spent my annual leaves. However, my desire to end my days in the environs of a place that held such happy memories for me remained.
But, it was not to be. Shortly before I retired from service I had inherited the family house in old Delhi. After spending a tidy sum of money on renovating it I could have sold it and bought a place in Mussoorie. But certain personal problems compelled me to stay in Delhi. Besides, from what I heard and saw of the 'Queen' it was no longer the quiet, clean and restful haven that I had known over the years. The very approach to it had been ruined by quarry owners digging into the hillside to extract lime stone. aided and abetted by corrupt politicians and government officials. Glass and concrete multi-storied apartments have destroyed its old-world charm. And, during the two seasons; spring and autumn hordes of visitors put a severe strain on its power and water resources apart from covering the roads with their litter.
And so, I have contented myself by living on my memories. One of the fondest of which is of my evening constitutionals. Up a short path to the road, past the ruins of a brewery, down the small bazaar and P.O. to below St. George's College where I used to wait to hear the Angelus ring out from the monastery above me, soft and clear, as I watched the sun go down behind the Shivaliks beyond the Doon.
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