Mussoorie blues

Of growth and evolution. Photo: Rakhshanda Jalil  


Rakhshanda Jalil traces the contours of the hill town’s changing character and culture.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills…

Psalm 121

Sunlight filtering through tall pine trees creates a brilliant patchwork of dark and shade, green and gold on this serene mountainside. All around me lie crumbling headstones, moss-encrusted and indecipherable, some embellished with fine pilaster work and engraved marble, others unadorned save for an ivy-covered cross. The air is crisp and crystal clear; the springy turf underfoot carpeted with fallen leaves and trailing vines; a profusion of ferns and wild flowers peep from every nook and cranny. I am reminded of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

Simple beginnings

I am at the Mussoorie Christian Cemetery, looking for the grave of Eugenie Catherine West (d. 1895). After much diligent searching and scraping off many a moss-encrusted tombstone, we find it. A simple grave and in fairly good condition, it contains the mortal remains of a remarkable woman who embarked upon a brave and selfless cause. She was the first superintendent of the Christian Training School and Orphanage that began with precisely two pupils in a rambling house atop Jaberkhet and was to later transform into the Wynberg Homes and finally the Wynberg Allen School as it is now called. In fact, I am in Mussoorie researching the early years of the school, its contribution to the education of Anglo-Indian children, its provision for orphans and destitutes of European and Eurasian descent. From a purely philanthropic initiative meant to provide quality education in a healthy environment at highly subsidised fees to a professionally-run, high-ranking school, among the best of the hill schools in Upper India, the Wynberg Allen School has had a long journey as it gears up to celebrate its quasquicentennial year.

Partition dealt a severe blow both to the Anglo-Indian community and to the educational institutions set up and managed by them. With a dwindling flock of both staff and students — some having migrated to Pakistan, others to the ‘Home Country’, still others having found new homes in the Commonwealth countries or in Africa — Wynberg Allen coped bravely with the exigencies of a newly-independent country. Responding to Pandit Nehru’s call of fashioning new temples of modern India, the school strove to adjust with the times that were a’changing. All through the turbulent years of nation-building, it kept producing soldiers, sportsmen and statesmen as well as athletes, teachers and entrepreneurs. And while no longer a school exclusively for Anglo-Indians, it reflected the changing face of the community.

As the school grew and evolved, sadly the city of Mussoorie fell into decline. The former ‘Queen of the Hills’, robbed of her gaiety and grandeur, ravaged by the Mandal agitation and later by the demand for statehood that culminated in the hiving out of the state of Uttarakhand, is a shabby, over-grown, over-congested dump. The picturesque estates of the Anglo-Indians and the rajwadas having changed hands and fortunes, haphazard and unauthorised building activity has irrevocably changed its skyline. Its once-forested slopes are pockmarked with neon-lit hotels and garish spa-resorts. Its arterial road, the Mall that runs from Kulri till the Library, is choked with kiosks selling tacky mementoes you are never likely to want to keep at home alternating with over-priced shops selling winter woollies and hole-in-the-wall restaurants outdoing each other in fleecing hapless hungry tourists. A ramshackle cable car takes you on a clanging journey to Gun Hill; flea-infested ponies offer a shamble along Camel’s Back; rapacious cab drivers take you to Kempty Falls, reduced to little more than a muddy trickle during the ‘season’.

But there is the other Mussoorie, too, one that reveals itself reluctantly to the visitor, the Mussoorie that is carefully guarded by the ‘locals’. This is the Mussoorie of churches, cemeteries, flea shops crammed with collectibles and a community of writers, teachers and other retired folk who live in quaint cottages tucked away among the oak and deodar copses. Sunday mornings are best devoted to service in one of the many old but beautifully preserved churches. Christ Church — built in 1836 and said to be the oldest church in the Himalayas, with its soaring Gothic roof, stained glass windows, a giant deodar planted by the Princess of Wales in 1906 — is definitely worth a visit. The richly-timbered voice of Reverend Templeton makes the words of the battered old hymn books come alive even for uninitiated visitors. The Union Church at the mouth of Landour is served by the much-loved Pastor Cornelius and his charming wife who welcome both the faithful and the stray with equal warmth. Two other famous churches are the Kellogg Church and St. Paul’s way up in Landour, the latter being a garrison church still bearing pews with grooves to rest the guns of soldiers during worship.

Glimpses of the past

Once a cantonment and famous for its sanatorium for ailing soldiers, Landour is today a part of the giant amoeba that is Mussoorie. Derived from Llanddowror, a village in southwest Wales and reminiscent of the many nostalgic English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish names common during the Raj, it still retains traces of its once-pristine charm. Unfortunately, the few tourists who take the steep ascent up to Landour go as far as Char Dukan (literally, four shops built on what was the Parade Grounds) and end up eating Maggi noodles and pancakes or peering through a telescope at Lal Tibba. Few bother to take in its other delights: chiefly, a leisurely walk along the circular road that takes you past its serene old cemetery to the American Presbyterian Kellogg Church and Landour Language School set up over a hundred years ago to teach Hindi to missionaries; Prakash’s shop at Sisters’ Bazar to buy home-made gooseberry jam, a sharp cheddar cheese and a still-warm-from-the-oven banana bread; the home of film actor Victor Banerjee, profusely decorated with Buddhist prayer flags and called somewhat incongruously ‘The Parsonage’; and the wonderfully scenic Rokeby Manor named after Sir Walter Scott’s long poem. A brisk walk along the old bridle path from Lal Tibba till Sisters’ Bazar followed by an idyllic lunch at the Rokeby is a perfect antidote to the Mussoorie Blues set off by the clutter on the Mall.

Rakhshanda Jalil blogs at >

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2016 1:28:12 PM |