Between lake and hill

Charming Naini Tal. We stopped to watch a game of cricket in progress in the large maidan on the west end of the lake. Was there a Manish Pandey developing in front of our eyes? That young man might have played on this field as a child. Kumaon has produced its share of cricketers recently; Ekta Bisht is probably the highest achiever among them. Some good playing but no pyrotechnics today on field. We moved away.

A touristy shop nearby was full of fancy candles, interesting fridge magnets, and herbal oils. The Family looked at the young girls managing the store and said “They should be studying.” At the check out counter she took a survey. Most of them were in college, working at this shop part time. The youngest had a hangdog look. “I’ve just finished class 12. I don’t want to go to college.”

Right in the middle of Mall Road was a large hotel in a meld of Kumaoni craftsmanship and colonial architecture, now completely empty. We scoped it out for a future visit. The manager was happy to show us several rooms. We loved the old-fashioned suites. It is old, and one can probably find more comfortable rooms elsewhere in town, but nothing half as charming. It even had parking. Perhaps an interesting place for a couple of nights in the autumn.

We walked along the narrow path between Mall Road and the Naini lake. Out of curiosity I checked Google ngrams, and found a surprising fact. The word “mall” was most popular in the mid-18th century, when it was used in the sense that the Mall Roads in colonial towns still evoke. The late-20th century revival of this word with its modern changed meaning is a lesser blip. We came to this interesting gate. What large eyes you have, Grandma! Naini Tal is idiosyncratic, and when the tourists are thin on the ground you can still enjoy the place.

Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.

Chat on Mall Road

‘Stand still for ten minutes, and they’ll build a hotel on top of you,’ said one old-timer to me today, gesturing towards the concrete jungle that had sprung up along Mussoorie’s Mall, the traditional promenade’

Ruskin Bond in Landour Days (2002)

The traditional promenade! How could we not walk it on our first evening in Mussoorie? The next day was full of a hundred things that we wanted to do. There was no rain predicted for the next three hours, so we started our late evening walk from Library Square. The steep drop on one side gave us a nice view of Dehradun at night: a twinkling galaxy below our feet.

The narrow Mall Road is crowded and full of cheap hotels, some truly awesome tourist junk, and lots of food carts. A lady sat waiting for customers at a cart with a poster which read “Mussoorie Chat Corner”. She was out of luck today. Her bun tikki, big drum of chutney, samosas, were not attracting many passersby. Her face in the photo tells of dashed hopes when The Family and I stopped only to take a photo. A neighbouring cart did much better business with roasted bhutta and fresh tikki chole.

Tibetan food spread right across the Himalayas years back, so it is impossible to walk along a place like this without encountering stalls full of steamers. This one promised veggie momos. The father and son manning the makeshift stall were dressed in dark blue, and would have made a lovely photo. As soon as I raised my phone, they skedaddled out of the frame. They didn’t want their photo taken. Superstition or legal issues? I apologized and the father accepted the apology with grace. The stall still looks good I think. I love how eclectic Indian street food is: potatoes, chili, and corn from the new world, samosas from Turkey, momos from Tibet, buns from Britain, all with local spices.