"Stand still for 10 minutes and they'll build a hotel on top of you," said one old-timer, gesturing toward the concrete jungle that had sprung up along Mussoorie's Mall, the traditional promenade. This hill station in northern India is now one long, ugly bazaar, but if you leave the mall and walk along some of the old lanes and byways, you will come across many of the old houses, most of them still bearing the names they were born with, back in the mid-19th century.
Mussoorie, like other hill resorts in India, came into existence in the 1820s or thereabouts, when the families of British colonials began making for the hills in order to escape the scorching heat of the plains. Small settlements grew into large "stations" and were soon vying with each other for the title of "queen of the hills". Mussoorie's name derives from the Mansur shrub (cororiana nepalensis), common in the Himalayan foothills; but many of the house names derive from the native places of those who first built and lived in them. Today, the old houses and estates are owned by well-to-do Indians, many of
++ Page 10
whom follow the life style of their former colonial rulers. In most cases, the old names hažve been retained.
Take, for instance, the Mullingar. This is not one of the better-preserved buildings, having been under litigation for some years, but it was a fine mansion once, and has the distinction of being Mussoorie;s oldest building. It was the home of an Irishman, Captain Young, who commanded the first Gurkha battalion when in its infancy. As you have probably guessed, he came from Mullingar in old Ireland and it was to Ireland that he finally returned when he gave up his sword and saddle. There is a story that on moonlit nights a ghostly rider can be seen on the Mullingar flat, and that this is Captain Young revisiting old haunts.
There must have been a number of Irishmen settling and building in Mussoorie in those pioneering days, for there are houses with names such as Tipperary, Killarney, Shamrock Cottage, and Tara Hall. "The harp that once in Tara's Halls" must have sounded in Simla too, for there is also a Tara Hall in the old summer capital of India.
As everywhere, the Scots were great pioneers in Mussoorie too, and were quick to identify Himalayan hills and meadows with their own glens and braes. There are over a dozen house names prefixed with "glen" and close to where I live there is a Scottsburn, a Wolfsburn and a Redburn. A burn is a small stream, but there are none in the vicinity, so the name must have been given for purely sentimental reasons.
Above section from -- Date: Wed, 17 Apr 1996 07:41:58
Subject: Ruskin Bond's Mussoorie
The English, of course, went in for castles -- there's Connaught Castle, Grey Castle, Hampton Court and the Castle Hill, home for a time to the young Sikh prince, Dalip Singh, before he went to England to become a protege of Queen Victoria.
Sir Walter Scott must have been a very popular writer with the British in exile, for there are many houses in Mussoorie that echo his novels and romances -- Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Woodstock (now a well-known school), Rokeby, Waverly, The Monastery As also Abbotsford, named after Scott's own home.
Dickens' lovers must have felt frustrated because they could hardly name their houses Nicholas Nickleby or Martin Chuz-
++ Page 11
zlewit; but one of them did come up with Bleak House, and bleak it is, even to this day. I have never had the money to buy or build my own house, but I am every the optimist, and if someday I do have one, I shall call it Great Expectations.
Mussoorie did have a Dickens connection in the 1850s, when Charles Dickens was publishing his magazine Household Words. His correspondent in India was John Lang, a popular novelist and newspaper proprietor, who spent the last years of his life in Mussoorie. His diverting account of a typical Mussoorie "Season", called "The Himalaya Club", appeared in Household Words in the issue of 21 March, 1857. Recently I was able to obtain a copy from the British Museum and it appears here for the first time since its original publications.
I haven't been able to locate the house in which Lang lived, but from a description of his it may have been White Park Forest, now practically a ruin. The name is another puzzle, because of park and forest there is no trace. But on looking up an old guide, I discovered that it had been named after its joint owners, Mr. White, Mr. Park, and Mr. Forest.
It is well over 50 years since a parson lived in The Parsonage, and its owner today is Victor Banerjee, the actor, who received an Academy Award nomination for his role in David Lean's A Passage To India. Victor doesn't mind his friends calling him the Vicar but he does value his privacy.
Another name that puzzled me for a time was that of the old Charleville Hotel, now an academy for young civil servants. Was it French in its origins? Most of the locals always referred to it as the "Charley-Billy" Hotel, which I thought was an obvious mispronunciation; but the laugh was really on me. According to the records, the original owner had two sons, Charley and Billy, and he had named the hotel after them.
Local residents have got fed up offering me lifts on the road to our hilltop bank and post office. As they drive up the steep road to Landour in third (or is it fourth?) gear, they see me plodding along on foot and out of the goodness of their hearts stop and open the door for me. Although I hate to disappoint them, I close the door, thank them profusely, and insist that I
++ Page 12
am enjoying my walk. They don't believe me, naturally; but with a shrug, the driver gets into gear again and drives off, although sometimes they have difficulty getting started, the hill being very steep. As I don't wish to insult them by reaching the Bank first, I sit on the parapet wall and make encouraging sounds until they finally take off. Then I renew my leisurely walk up the hill, taking note of the fact that wild geraniums and periwinkles have begun to flower, and that the whistling thrushes are nesting under the culvert over which those very cars pass every day.
Above section sent - From: GAIL.HARRIS@.......com
Date: Thu, 18 Apr 1996 07:39:57 -0400
Subject: Ruskin's Mussoorie, cont.
Most people, car drivers anyway, think I'm a little eccentric. So be it. I am probably eccentric. But having come to the Himalayan foothills over 25 years ago in order to enjoy walking among them, I am not about to stop now, just because everyone else has stopped walking. The hills are durable in their attractions, and my legs have proved durable too, so why should we not continue together as before?
The friends who walked beside me, like Ganesh who once took photographs, now have their shiny new cars or spacious vans and don't emerge from them unless it be to seek refreshment at some wayside teashop or cafe. When I invite them to walk a few metres with me, they complain of breathlessness or of twinges in their hinges and rents in their ligaments.
Now I am no fitness freak. I don't jog either. If I did, I would certainly miss the latest windflower to appear on the hillside, and I would not be able to stop a while and talk to other people on the road..villagers with their milk and vegetables, all-weather postmen, cheeky schoolchildren, inquisitive tourists..or to exchange greetings with cats, dogs, stray cows and runaway mules. Runaway mules are friendly creatures except towards their owners. I chat to the owners too, when they come charging up the road. I try to put them in good humour so as to save the mules from a beating; but mule-owners are generally short-tempered and would have me mind my own business.
Most of the people I have mentioned are walkers from
++ Page 13
necessity. Those who walk for pleasure grow fewer by the day. I don't mean long-distance trekkers or high altitude climbers, who are almost professional in their approach to roads and mountains. I mean people such as myself who are no great athletes who enjoy sauntering through the woods on a frosty morning or leaving the main road and slithering downhill into a bed of ferns, or following a mountain stream to reach the small spring in the rocks where it begins. But no...everyone must have a destination in mind, for this is the age of destinations, be it the Taj Mahal, the casino at Cannes, or the polar ice-cap. I glanced into a bestselling book of records the other and my eye alighted on an entry which stated that somebody's grandmother had knitted a scarf that was over 20 miles long. Where was it going, I wondered, and who would be wearing it? The book didn't say. It was just another destination, another "first" to be recorded.
Personally I prefer people who come second. I feel safer with them.
It takes a car less than five minutes up the hill to the Bank. It takes me roughly 25 minutes. But there is never a dull moment. Apart from having interesting animal and human encounters, there are the changes that occur almost daily on the hill slopes: the ferns turning from green to gold, the virginia creepers becoming a dark crimson, horsechestnuts falling to the ground. And here's a Redstart, come down early from higher altitudes to escape the snows. He whistles cheerfully in a medlar tree. Wild duck flying south-there they go, high over the valley, heading for the lakes and marshlands.
Above section - From: GAIL.HARRIS@.......com
Date: Tue, 23 Apr 1996 13:21:35 -0400
Subject: Ruskin Bond's Mussoorie
If there's no one on the road, and I feel like a little diversion, I can always sing. I don't sing well, but there's no one to hear me except for a startled woodpecker, so I can go into my Nelson Eddy routine, belting out the songs my childhood gramophone taught me. "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp", "Stouthearted Men", "Song of the Open Road"! No one writes marching songs now, so I have to rely on the old ones.
Above me the blue sky, around me the green forest, below me the dusty plains.
++ Page 14
Presently I am at Char Dukan (Four Shops) and the bank and post office.
Letters posted, I enter the bank, to be greeted effusively by Mr. Vishal Ohri, the manager - not because I have come to make a large deposit but because he is that rarity among bank managers, a nature lover! When he learns that I have just seen the first Redstart of the winter, he grows excited and insists that I take him down to it. As it is nearing the tea-break, he sets off with me down the road and, to our mutual satisfaction and delight, the Redstart is still in the medlar tree, putting on a special performance seemingly for our benefit.
The Manager returns to his office, happy to be working at this remote hilltop branch. Both staff and customers will find him the most understanding and sympathetic of managers, for has he not just seen the first white-capped Redstart to fly into Landour, Mussoorie, for the winter? As good a "first" as any in those books of records.
As long as there are nature-loving bank managers, I muse on my way home, there's still hope for this little old world. And for bank depositors too!
Some residents of Landour past and present have been known to be slightly touched. There is a theory that anyone who lives above 7,000 feet starts having delusions, illusions and hallucinations. People who, in the cities, are the models of respectablity are known to fling more than stones and insults at each other when they come to live up here. Even those who have grown up and gone away still retain their cattiness. As one whiz kid in the advertising world who had grown up in Mussoorie wrote to one of us: "So, has the earthquake left your walls all cracked up...Seriously, how were the tremors in good old Muss? Half the buildings, which are collapsing anyway, should have - especially the crumbling ones like Mansaram and all those in the same line! I'm being horrid, but disasters do bring out a perverse glee, don't they...especially when one is only a spectator from a faraway place."
A typical Mussoorie feud can be best exemplified by an elderly bachelor and an ancient spinster living in Barlowgang
++ Page 15
who should really have married each other years ago. They keep up a verbal feud speaking of each other in derogatory terms.. One refers to the other's "pink, green and blue dyed hair", while he refers to her as "a walking newspaper". She insists that he is "death warmed up!" and at times "a stuffed shirt" or a "poached egg on toast". He hears it all, only to say: "The best way to cure her arthritis is with a big hammer!"
At the other end of town, the owner of the Savoy, Nandu Jauhar, gets used to complaints from his customers because of the widely dispersed wings of this historic edifice. Says he: "When a customer orders hot coffee, the bill is always made out for a cold coffee!"
Meantime, the tradition of murders continues. A double suicide in one hotel; a body tumbling into the room of a honeymooning couple; and another being exhumed from the floor of a third.
Among the many well-known families who are a part of the history of Mussoorie and who still reside here are : the Rajmata of Jind; Princes Sita of Kapurthala; the Gantzers; the Badhwars; the Barettos; the Skinners; the Keelans; the Alters; Lala Banwarilal; Ram Chander & Bros; Pooran Chand & Sons; and P.C. Hari's family. Most of the shopkeepers of Landour bazaar are descended from the merchant who first came here with the British soldiers and settlers over 160 years ago.
Mussoorie has always remained a poor cousin to Simla, which had its Viceroy. Nainital had its Governor from the United Provinces. Mussoorie remained unofficial - for affairs of the heart. It has always been a gossipy place, as the extracts from the Miscellany and the "John Lang" article will show. Maybe it is too close to the plains and not close enough to the real mountains; but it has never been a dull or boring place.