Ruins

When you travel in the hills and mountains of India it is not uncommon to find the ruins from the late colonial era. The British tended to gravitate to the cooler regions of these higher elevations when possible. Often that meant that the administrative apparatus would go into very long breaks in the two warm seasons (summer and Indian summer). When the Raj collapsed, they sold what they could and moved back to the Old Blighty. What they couldn’t, slowly fell into ruin as the country reverted to its normal way of life.

Just past the bazaar in Mukteshwar I came to one such set of buildings: a late colonial barracks. Mukteshwar was perhaps at its bustling busiest in the 1920s. There had been continuous growth since the beginning of the 20th century until the Black Tuesday market crash in New York. Arguably, the punitive taxes imposed by Britain on its colonies in the aftermath of the crash led to the invigoration of the independence movement, and Britain’s eventual exit from India. But this past is a prologue to the sunny day on which I took these photos and wondered what could happen to this row of two-room apartments, each separated from its neighbour by just one wall. I suppose it will be torn down, and the stones reused to build something more suited to today.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of these old barracks was the miserly view they gave of the beautiful vistas behind them: the high Himalayas on one side, this lovely forest on the other. I left the ruins behind and followed the road, under the deodars and the firs, into a land full of the sounds of insects and birds.

No tiger in Mukteshwar

The tiny village of Mukteshwar (called Muktesar before 1947) has not changed substantially since Jim Corbett visited about a hundred years ago and met the brave little girl with the buffalo, before shooting the man eating tiger of Muktesar. You can do worse than follow his description of the place.

“Eighteen miles to the north-north-east of Naini Tal is a hill eight thousand feet high and twelve to fifteen miles long, running east and west. The western end of the hill rises steeply and near this end is the Muktesar Veterinary Research Institute, where lymph and vaccines are produced to fight India’s cattle diseases. The laboratory and staff quarters are situated on the northern face of the hill and command one of the best views to be had anywhere of the Himalayan snowy range.” The beginning of the story sets the scene. The Institute was relocated to this place in 1893. The population of the village remains small, but standing at 812 in 2011, has probably quadrupled since Corbett’s days. The number of resorts has increased substantially as word of the views have spread, but they are strung out along the road without crowding the bazaar.

“Accompanied by a servant and two men carrying a roll of bedding and a suitcase, I left Naini Tal at midday and walked ten miles to the Ramgarh Dak Bungalow, where I spent the night. The Dak Bungalow khansama (cook, bottle-washer, and general factotum) was a friend of mine, and when he learnt that I was on my way to shoot the man-eater, he warned me to be very careful while negotiating the last two miles into Muktesar for, he said, several people had recently been killed on that stretch of the road.” Corbett continued on foot the next morning, and reached Muktesar by early morning. Our drive took us a little more than two hours, allowing for a halt for chai. The road is good enough to do bettter.

“This was the first time I had ever climbed that hill, and I was very interested to see the caves, hollowed out by wind, in the sandstone cliffs overhanging the road. In a gale I imagine these caves must produce some very weird sounds, for they are of different sizes and, while some are shallow, others appear to penetrate deep into the sandstone.” I’d kept a look out for these formations described by Corbett, but nothing we passed seemed to fit. It is possible that the caves were dynamited to widen the roads. The only similar formation today is Chauli ki Jali, which is a steep rock face used by rapellers, and could not possibly have been an alternative route up.

“Where the road comes out on a saddle of the hill there is a small area of flat ground flanked on the far side by the Muktesar Post Office, and a small bazaar.” This description is still true, and corroborates my conclusion that the road is the same as in Corbett’s time, but without the caves he described. The flat ground is where we parked the car. Beyond the bazaar are the two famous guest houses of the place. By not taking the upper path I missed out on Chauli ki Jali and went instead to where Corbett has his breakfast. “[T]he khansama in charge of the bungalow, and I, incurred the displeasure of the red tape brigade, the khansama by providing me with breakfast, and I by partaking of it.” In the century since the Muktesar man-eater raged here, the Dak Bungalow has become a State Tourism (KMVN) guest house, accreted a number of cooks and waiters, and, as I found, is still so tied up in red tape that it takes a long time to fill in the paper work needed to serve a cuppa chai.

After a chai and toast, I picked up my camera, and followed Corbett, who continues, “Then, picking up my rifle, I went up to the post office to send a telegram to my mother to let her know I had arrived safely.” Meeting up with The Family, back from her jaunt to the ridge, we found that the sturdy colonial era house has changed in many ways in the century since Corbett was here. I am sure the paved forecourt is no more than a decade old, the solar panels are substantially more recent, the sign over the gate perhaps a couple of decades old, and the gate itself is half a century old if it is a day. Telegrams no longer exist; I had sent The Family one of the last, but that is another story. Nevertheless, the post-office is still one that Corbett might recognize if he were to reappear here.

“In rural India, the post office and bania’s shop are to village folk what taverns and clubs are to people of other lands, and if information on any particular subject is sought, the post office and the bania’s shop are the best places to seek it.” The shops have been remade in the last century, and the post office has probably lost its social standing. But the bania’s shop is still a place where people gather. I was amazed at how much sense Corbett’s description of Mukteshwar still made.

Two roads diverged

We had to park the car at the center of the little village of Mukteshwar. The road beyond this was under repair. We walked past a few shops and a post office. This was just a dusty cross roads, not a yellow wood, but our roads diverged here. The Family took the high road, up towards the Shiva temple and Chauli ki Jali, a rock face which is locally famous because it has become a favourite of rapellers (and no, that’s not an Anglicization of rapelleurs). I took the other, which was just as fair, because it was grassy and wanted wear. Late on a smoky morning was not the best time for either, but each of us enjoyed it.

The road I had taken wound above a wooded region called Kholiya. This is supposed to be a wonderful place for bird watching earlier in the morning. I stopped above a dense cluster of colonial era buildings. The air was full of bird calls. I’m not very good at identifying them, but a short message away are two experts. I recorded some of the sounds and sent them off. I had no luck at spotting birds at all, and I moved along soon.

The Family had found Chauli ki Jali, left completely to its own in this second pandemic year. The view would have been nice, she said, if there was less smoke in the air. She clambered about some of the rocks, got a few selfies against the bland gray smoke, while avoiding the fair bit of maskless tourists near the temple. The second wave was beginning to swell, and such tourists were to be given a wide berth.

A couple of hundred meters below, I had just walked past the cars parked on the side of the road by those same maskless tourists and found my morning’s muse: a crowd of Pachliopta aristolochiae, a swallow-tailed butterfly more well known as the common rose. This late in the morning they are extremely active and hard to photograph, so chasing them took up quite a bit of my time and energy, without producing anything useful. Photography is a nice and strenuous pastime, wouldn’t you say? When we got back together at the cross roads, both parties had stretched our legs adequately, and were ready to go look for lunch.

Stopping by the woods on a smoky morning

The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Robert Frost

During the drive to Mukteshwar I began to suspect that big data is only as good as the data. The drive took a little over two hours, just twenty per cent more than what the Mapapp told us it should. I thought it was slower than it should have been, but you can’t win if you argue against Google. Our slower than Google-average trip timing was now backed by all the phones in the car. When these numbers were crunched by Google’s hammer, it would increase the next prediction just slightly. Since the drivers are mostly locals for hire, and the phones mostly belong to tourists they ferry, the data is suspect. The charges for the hire are by hour, and the longer the drivers spend on a route, the better their profit margins. So it gives them a motive to drive slower than normal. I talked to someone who drives between Naini Tal and Devasthal quite often, and he confirmed that his next drive, which was done at his normal driving speed, took about fifteen per cent less time than Google’s prediction. This means that our driver took about forty percent longer than he might have.

That’s all to set the scene for the fact that by the time we were close to Mukteshwar, it was well past mid morning, and we needed our elevenses. A little cafe by the wayside presented itself. Nice wooden deck, elegant bare brick walls, possible view over a valley, space enough next to the road to squeeze in the car. We stopped. The main space was a large room with pinewood furniture. Warm colours, lots of light. There was a smaller side room for private parties. We opted to sit on the deck overlooking the valley. On a less smoky day we would have had a view of the high Himalayas from here, the kind of view that Mukteshwar is known for. Today, there was only a blue haze.

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.

Robert Frost

I’d noticed an espresso machine on our way in, so I asked for a shot. “Not possible. No electricity today,” the waiter replied. We got a masala chai instead. Some cakes. Not so bad. We were ready for a short walk. On the way out we met the owner, a red haired woman in her early 40s. It turned out that she had first come to Mukteshwar as a tourist, fallen in love with the place, and had pulled up her roots from Pune and moved here a few years ago. She’d built the place. Electricity? “Not so bad. It comes and goes.” About the same as Pune, then? “Not so predictable.” Does it rain a lot? “Not a lot. Not as much as Mumbai.” Maintenance? “Some. But the brick and wood holds up well.” I wondered about bare brick. It’s not so strong when it is soaked in water. While I totted up the reasons for not moving there, others were coming to the opposite conclusion.