Ashis Dutta returns from his trip with saucy tales of the days gone by
“Mussoorie, you know, was created by the British for their pleasure,” said Suri, pronouncing the last word — pleasure — lingeringly, smeared with a sauce of decadence.
Retired Colonel Suri is an old timer of Mussoorie and the hills around. His place, the ‘Nest’ as he has fondly christened it, is up a steep climb from Camel Back Road, overlooking the mighty Himalayan ranges to the north. Our car groaned up his porch. Suri, as he insisted on being called, loves the mountains, his pet German Shepherd, Blimey, and his scotch. Not sure in which order though. And Suri has stories. Stories of the underbelly of Mussoorie’s colourful past.
But it took two pegs and umpteenth caressing of Blimey’s hairy shoulder before he began to steam up. One Captain Young of the British Army from the cantonment in Dehradun erected a shooting box for hunting — the first structure on these hills, way back in 1823. He then decided to leave the dusty plains for good and move up. Other sahibs followed suit.
Soon, Mussoorie became a goulash of all British varieties — Scottish and Irish, the Welsh and the English. Army men and contractors, disreputables and do-gooders, they came trudging up the hill, built their bungalows and named them nostalgically after their homeland. So, the mushrooming of names such as Tipperary and Shamrock, Scottsburn and Wolfsburn, and Connaught Castle and Hampton Court. There was a smattering of others too. Like the Australian journalist John Lang, among the earliest chroniclers of Mussoorie, or the German Bohles, whose brewery gave tough competition to that of the MacKinnon’s’. The competition was not without its side effects. Gentlemen and the ladies would gather for drinks after attending church service. And as far back as in 1884, in one such drinking session, so wrote a leading newspaper, a lady stood up on her chair and offered her kisses to gentlemen at Rs. 5 each. Such pluckiness would raise its intrepid head now and then in those edgy years of the Raj. As recounted by Mussoorie’s most famous story-teller, Ruskin Bond, this time in a charity show in 1932. A lady stood up and auctioned a single kiss and the bid was won by a gentleman for Rs. 300. Bond recollects with his characteristic chuckle of those days in Mussoorie when beer was cheap and only kisses were expensive.
“Mussoorie became a playground for the Brits and Indian Maharajas,” said Suri. Much as the travel writer Lowell Thomas who visited Mussoourie in 1926 wrote about a certain hotel where, ‘they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious, get back to their own beds.’
The Savoy played host to young Jawaharlal Nehru who was warned by the British to refrain from engaging with the Royal delegation from Afghanistan staying at the same hotel. The effect was, however, the opposite. Then again, there was the clairvoyant crystal-gazer Lady Ormes by Gore. She was in demand in Mussoorie ‘circle’ as much for her soothsaying faculty as for the title she carried on her shoulder. But then, for once her psychic enlightenment let her down. She couldn’t predict her own murder in her suite at The Savoy. The police were out of their depth. Not to give up, Rudyard Kipling wrote a detailed account of the crime to his good friend in London, Arthur Conan Doyle.
Suri took a long sip at his scotch, threw back his head with a chortle and said, “The murder was never solved, but then there was never a dull moment in Mussoorie.”
Suri was now in full steam and I was all ears. Stories of yore came slithering down the mountain slopes smoothened by vintage scotch. Of a dowager who had no patience with married women who flirt. Of a Lieutenant whose afternoon visitations to a particularly beautiful lady, whose husband was serving in the cantonment down below in Dehradun, did not go altogether unnoticed. After all, the Lieutenant’s pony had to be tied to something nearby. Of men who went broke over gambling at the billiard table at the Himalaya Club. “Take for instance the heritage hotel you are staying in,” said Suri. “Before its present owner, a maharaja bought this bungalow from a British for a lady, who later went on to become his third wife, the youngest maharani.” I couldn’t stop a wow escaping from me. Suri nodded and went on, “And the story goes, that when the maharaja used to go down to his estate in the plains leaving the maharani in Mussoorie for long periods, a certain Englishman used to meet her on secret rendezvous.” Then suddenly added, “Did you say you’re staying in room number 15, the one overlooking the Doon Valley?”
I sheepishly nodded a yes. “Ah,” he said, “the wooded slope below your bay window. Rendezvous.”
I came out of Suri’s Nest, and got to where the Mall Road has morphed into Kulri Bazar. I was still in a warp, expecting the Maharaja of Kapurthala promenading with his entourage. Instead, the cloth merchants of Jalandhar and factory owners from Ludhiana were having a ball of a time with their colourful family.