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.

Breakfast in Barjuri

One of the pleasures of traveling in India is to stop at a roadside dhaba in a little village and sample their food. Not only do you get a feel of local food habits, you also get to meet people. Early in the morning, on our way to one of the further ranges in the forests of Kaziranga, we stopped at a tiny village. The sky was light, although the newly risen sun was hidden behind thick clouds. I was surprised to see this young boy awake and already on his full-sized bike. I think he was delivering newspapers, but he wouldn’t reply to my questions. I tried three languages, so I think he was just not in the mood.

Across the road one shop had opened up, and the owner was cleaning out the dry leaves which had collected overnight in the area in front of the shop. I was very amused by the long bamboo which one man was carrying on his shoulder. It was probably a reasonable load, but the skill involved in moving this around was considerable. I saw the long bamboo bob up and down quite a bit. Bamboo is a common building material here, and the other people around ignored this sight.

The dhaba was already doing good business. The highway was already busy, so I wasn’t too surprised by that. The signboard told me the name of the village: Barjuri. The well-dressed couple sitting at the table in the middle had driven up in a car, and were busy with a paratha and bhaji. It looked good.

I sidled around to take a photo of the cook. He was having a conversation with one of the customers. When he realized that I was trying to take a photo he became silent and concentrated on cooking. I guess this is an image thing. No matter; I can vouch for the fact that he is a very competent cook. The traditional earthen chulha fired with coal can produce great results if the cook is good, but the amount of smoke it produces is not inconsiderable. I always wonder whether there is some better and cheap alternative. So close to Dibrugarh and its refinery, I’d expected more use of cooking gas. I’d forgotten about the entrenched problems of governance in this state.

As I waited for my food I walked over to the tiny brick room next to Gopal’s. This turned out to be Barjuri post office. It would probably open at 10, four hours later. I haven’t been inside a post office for years, and I wished I had been here when it was open. The locked door was just two planks of wood reinforced by cross pieces. I’d grown up in houses with doors like this. I hadn’t seen a post box for some time too. The ones in cities have been removed or are hidden behind new construction. It didn’t look like this post box was in use either.

It was clear why. The slit below the window is the modern post box. I guess when the post office opens the window becomes a service counter. “It can’t be such a small village,” The Family said, “if it has a post office.” That sounded correct. There must have been more of the village off the highway. There was a substantial market next to the post office: a long row of shops, all closed for now. Gopal had got our breakfast by now. We had our chai, ate the pakoras, and drove off.

Walking through Yangon

Walking through an unknown city is always a great way to spend time. How else could I know that in Yangon even street-side eateries give you a pot full of tea with your lunch? How else would I begin to suspect that townies hid their faces when a foreign journalist took their photos; a reflex that persists even after democracy is back?

Jumble of building styles in YangonOutside the Colonial centre of Yangon every street is a jumble of architectural styles. Sagging buildings from the first half of last century share a frontage with modern buildings: some are high-rises, others are pre-fab commercial units faced in glass and metal painted concrete. Some of the architecture dates from a few decades ago. We saw these two high-rises next to each other. Decaying high rise in YangonOne was modern, the other was probably thirty to forty years old, and already ripe for demolition. This gave me one answer to my question about why Yangon was such a small city. Most cities in Asia are huge sprawls. In comparison, Yangon is like a town from the 1960s with the traffic of problems of the 1980s. The answer that this building gives to the question is that construction was costly and shoddy during the lifetime of two generations. Yangon never grew, and now it will probably do this at thrice the rate that the rest of Asia manages. How would it cope? To see that I took a walk through the Colonial centre of the city.

The town hall of Yangon

By all accounts the centre of the city is Sule square. Strange that the invading British would plan the centre of Yangon around one of the most revered temples in Myanmar, but that is one of the contradictions of Imperial Britain in India and Burma. Right next to the pagoda is the imposing town hall (photo above). The restoration of this building and the ones next to it are done with loving care. Book store in central YangonThis lovely bookstore reminded me of Kolkata. Outside of Kolkata, Mumbai and Yangon I would be hard put to name a town where there is an almost untouched colonial era district. I say almost, because the building just behind this is modern. It is interesting that the central district still has a large bookstore: banks have not yet taken over. Post office in central Yangon Two blocks down, there was a massive colonial-era building which served as a post-office. It had not yet been restored, but seemed to be in good repair. The colour scheme was no different that what you might see on a similar building in Kolkata.

Used book store on the streets of central YangonThe streets were full of informal commerce, vendors selling food, toys, socks, sun glasses. The sight of a row of pavement stalls selling used books reminded me of Mumbai in the 1980s, when I, and probably a million other people, would buy books mainly from such vendors. That past is now as foreign as Yangon.

Merit vendor in YangonIn direct contrast to such familiar sights was a vendor who brushed past me on the road, carrying cages full of birds on his shoulder. I followed him for a few paces. They were not birds which you might want to eat. Nor did it seem likely that several Burmese every day would impulsively buy a couple of birds as pets. It turned out later that this was a wonderfully cultural con. A devout Buddhist would gain merit by buying a few birds and releasing them. The birds are quite tame, so after release it would be easy for this man to catch them again for merit recycling. I guess the net result is that the vendor gains money and loses merit: something he is willing to risk.

A grand but dilapidated building in central YangonRestoration work had not yet covered all of Yangon. As we approached Strand Road, and the river front, we passed this magnificent but dilapidated building. Some enquiries led to a tiny crumb of information: that it belonged to a famous Jewish merchant from India before independence. It was sold to a local businessman, and was later bought over by a general. The Baghdadi Jews of Mumbai were great merchants in the late nineteenth century, and left their architectural stamp on downtown Mumbai as well as the Bund in Shanghai. None of the names I mentioned made any sense to the people I talked to. I’m sure the urban history of Yangon is documented well enough that one can trace the history of this building.

District court on Strand Road in YangonRight on Strand Road was this vast and crumbling building. The locked doors and the man sitting on the steps smoking reminded me of Kolkata in its worst decades. This was apparently the District Court, locked up for the weekend. I asked why a district court is crumbling away when a post office can be in good repair. There was no real answer to that. Myanmar lost decades, and it is beginning to catch up. If this district is restored and put to use, it may become a major cultural heritage: the only place on earth where the architectural style of the Raj remains untouched.

Little canteen in downtown YangonYou can probably tell by the shadows in my photos that it was now well into the lunch hour. The street food scene was buzzing. I discovered a little canteen which seemed to be full. It looked clean, and the inside was full of purposeful bustle: waiters and waitresses went back and forth, and there was a low rumble of conversation between diners. I didn’t go in, but one of the waiters noticed me and posed for the photo you see here. The place looked like a typical inexpensive eatery from my days as a student in Mumbai. Bakery in downtown YangonJust a little before I’d come to this, I saw a van come to a stop outside a building and two young women get down to unload trays and carry them in. I got a look at one of the trays as it was carried in. It was full of bread. I followed them in, and it turned out to be a cafe. It was busy with customers and uniformed waitresses. I was tempted to sit down there for a quick lunch. But the previous day I’d had lunch at a similar place, and I was planning to try out a Burmese-Chinese place in an hour. I clicked a few photos and said a reluctant goodbye to the cafe.

This had been a successful walk. I saw a slice of Yangon which emphasized the common recent history of the countries along the Bay of Bengal, and found out a little about everyday life in the city.