Landour Clock Tower

The area around the clock tower of Landour is a network of narrow roads which twist and turn on the steep hillside. On the side of the road leading to the clock tower was a little gazebo, one of the many we’d seen around Mussourie. We walked in to take a look at the breathtaking view of the hills. You could look out and forget the crowded road behind you. The ornate ironwork looks like it was installed about a hundred years ago, perhaps a little more. The British Empire would have been at its height then, unconscious of the fact that within a few short decades it would have vanished.

The clock tower, just outside, marked the century old separation between the civil area and the army cantonment. The tower had been built in the late 1930s by a local resident called Ugrasain Verma. Photos from that time show a white masonry tower with a square cross section and a flat roof. The clock stopped working before Mr. Verma’s death in 1992. Soon after that the tower was deemed to be a hazard and demolished. The tower that you see in the photo was constructed less than two years ago.
above

We walked past it to the bazaar. It looked very pleasant. Small kiosks on one side of the road had opened their doors for the day. Customers and shopkeepers knew each other well. The trio whom you see in this photo were chatting away as the shoemaker repaired one’s shoe. It was sunny but cold; there would be a hailstorm later in the day. We walked along the narrow road, taking care to stay out of the way of passing motorbikes and cars.

The traffic is fairly considerate here, but scrapes and bumps are almost inevitable. As you can see from the state of the parked car in this photo, most cars have a few dents. Public art is very common on the tall walls which are natural to these slopes. Was this picture of a harvest festival, or was it part of wedding? I should have asked, but other things occupied me, and now I have only my guesses.

On the other side of the road, just beyond the line of kiosks were carts of fresh vegetables. Everything looked fresh but there was nothing that I could not recognize. There were no local fruits or leaves which you could not find anywhere else. Garhwal is strongly plugged into the markets, unlike the easter Himalayas where you still find interestingly new local food. Nitin had found safe parking ahead, and we got into the car to go on to our next stop.

The Ghosts of Mussoorie

Whose ghost was it that Ram Singh (the Savoy bartender) saw last night? A figure in a long black cloak, who stood for a few moments in the hotel’s dimly lit vestibule, and then moved into the shadows of the old lounge.
“Landour Days”, Ruskin Bond

Mussoorie is a haunted town, as you would know if you ever read books by its most famous living resident- Ruskin Bond. I’d decided to make his stories my guide during our brief stop over in his town. Accordingly, we walked down Mall Road in the evening, to stop and admire the view of Dehradun spread out below us. These towns are relics of the British Empire, whose administrators fled to the hills as soon as winter Marched out. The phrase “Hill Station” for these once-charming little towns dotted across the lower heights of India are clearly a colonial joke (“Which station are you at, old chap?”, “A hill station you know. Taking a bit of rest.”).

What did the English like about these places? Apart from the temperature, it must have been the upredictability of the weather. The day had been nice as we drove up from the valley, but now clouds were gathering. There was to be a brief hailstorm the next evening. But right now the weather was pleasant. We decided to walk on to the Savoy and its storied Writer’s Bar, where the ghosts of Mussoorie gather for their evening’s tipple.

A lot of people who enter the Writer’s Bar look pretty far gone, and sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing the living from the dead. But the real ghosts are those who manage to slip away without paying for their drinks.
“Landour Days”, Ruskin Bond

Charles Dickens wrote an account of Mussoorie’s social whirl in a piece called The Himalaya Club which appeared in print in 1857. I counted that would have been three days short of 162 years ago when we walked into the bar. It was off season. A young couple sat in one corner gazing at each other, far away from a group of men talking on their phones more often than to each other. As a result, the bartender and a couple of other servers hovered around us and plied us with conversation and drinks. (Their special cocktails are a treat, and should not be missed if you are in town.) “Has anyone seen McClintock’s ghost recently?” I asked. I was told that the rooms we sat in once had a piano which was haunted by the said ghost. “But it has been sold off,” the Maitre told me. “But you can still hear the piano sometimes”, one of his platoon said in counterpoint.

After a perfect evening of interesting drinks and food, we were taken on a tour of the Savoy. One major stop was the grand ballroom where, in 1952, the film star Nutan was crowned Miss India. There was some pride in the Maitre’s voice as he said this was the first time a Miss India had been selected. This is almost true, says Wikipedia; you have to discount only the pageant in 1947 held in Calcutta, but that’s easy, because that was before independence. After a walk through the rambling old building, extensively added to in recent years, the Maitre got a hotel car to drop us off at the Library Bazaar.

By now the bazaar had shut down. It had got a little chilly, and it was dinner time. Reason enough for the few off-season tourists to have disappeared. The square was lit up by the headlights of passing cars. I liked that atmosphere; it looked like the ghosts of the past could stroll by us in that bad light. Mussoorie lives with the ghosts of better days, even as, like all the old hill stations, its once charming center slowly sinks into the swamp of cheap hotels.

The most haunted mine in India?

While trying to make a list of interesting places to see in Mussoorie I came across a story of the Lambi Dehar mines outside the town. According to various travel sites (who copy from each other) this is the most haunted place in India: everyone who goes there dies a horrible death, the mysterious screams of half a lakh dead miners ring through this valley, the blood-thirsty laughter of a witch can be heard at nights, there are no birds or beasts around the mines. “Exactly the kind of place I want to see,” I told The Family. It was marked on the map I usually use, so finding the way would not be a problem.

The day we set aside for this started nice, but there was a prediction of a thunderstorm with hail later in the day. By the time we passed Library Bazaar the sky was grey, and wan light was exactly the kind which is best for viewing ghosts. The road was very good, but completely deserted. Our first view of the remains of the mines was perfect (see the featured photo). The road passes a little above the buildings. We stopped the car there and walked down the slope to the buildings. Nitin was happy to remain with his car. The surrounding forest of Banj Oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora) was slowly changing colour, but there was a spectacular orange tree, which I didn’t recognize, in the little clearing we walked down to.

While I was channeling the Chipko movement, The Family had located the spirit which haunts the place. The soft-spoken young man was a fount of information. “Yes, people do say this is haunted,” he admitted. When The Family asked whether he didn’t feel afraid, he smiled bashfully. “Lots of people come here,” he said when we asked about tourists.

That’s why he was there, of course. He runs the little shop in an auto which you see above. I could see that it would be possible for the auto to drive up to the road where Nitin was parked. He smiled again when I asked him if this was the best place for customers. I thought that the side of the road above this place would be a better location, but apparently he preferred to be here in this quiet place. I could see why. I was beginning to relax into the slow rhythm of the place, the bad light, the little chirps of birds.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The abandoned offices of the mining company had become a canvas for artists, and, of course, lovers. I liked that drawing of a smoker. The idea of alienation seemed odd in these hills, but the exhortation not to become a robot meant that young people here do feel it. Perhaps it is intrinsic in the society we live in. Looking at the ruins, I realized that words and stories come much more easily to us than images. A few paintings, but so much scribbling!

Behind the buildings, in a secluded area these four young people had spread out a picnic. They did not mind me taking a photo. I asked, “You don’t happen to be ghosts, do you?” Laughter ensued, not at all blood-curdling. “No more than you are,” one of them said. I wondered about the internet-wide story of 50,000 miners dead in these mines. If that had ever happened it would have been an enormous disaster. No mining disaster in this area is recorded. Moreover a mining company which employed 50,000 miners in one site would have to leave a huge footprint in media. So what was the real story? The internet has replicated the false story so many times that reality cannot be found by searching for “Lambi Dehar”. A few drops of rain fell as we made our way back to the car.

I was pointed to the real story by this blog. As I’d suspected, the Lambidhar mines, to give it its earlier name, was one of the many limestone quarries in this area which was forced to close by a decision of the Indian Supreme Court in 1996. There is no record of a disaster. After that this site was taken up as a research station in the restoration of the normal ecology of this area. A seven year long project found that eco-restoration improves soil characteristics and allows the oak forest to get a foothold in the area (for example, see this paper). However, when we looked at the quarry site from the road (photo above), it was clear that more than twenty years after closure, the scars of quarrying are still clearly visible. Sadly, reforestation will not be easy. There may be no ghosts here, but Lambidhar tells us that the ghosts of our profligacy will haunt our children for long.

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.

Love song of the bee

Winter has ended in the north of India, the only part of the country which has a clear winter. That is the season when gardens are full of exotic flowers brought from temperate countries. Bees are everywhere at the end of winter, in the last flowering of gardens, and continuing into spring, the season of wildflowers. On my trip to Dehradun, and up to the Garhwal Sivaliks, I saw lots of flowering gardens. I didn’t manage to capture the bees with my phone camera, but I got the flowers.

In response to an invitation for a villanelle (I had to look up a detailed description too), I had fun making up something which you could call the Love Song of the Bee. It could remind you of Vogon poetry, or you could think of it as a mashup of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Thomas Eliot, Theocritus by Oscar Wilde, and a view of a garden seen from a kitchen,

Still through the ivy flits the bee
While I finish in the kitchen
Before the taking of toast and tea.

The winter sun dips behind a tree
A pot and cups, in the light glisten
Still through the ivy flits the bee.

I hurry. The kitchen chores a fee
I pay for the pleasure of the garden
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Winter’s almost gone. I see
the leaves are touched with brown.
Still through the ivy flits the bee.

Kitchenwork’s done. It’s time for you and me
To walk in the garden, talk, listen
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Come, see the flowers. I’m now free
For the wicker chairs in the garden,
Where, still through the ivy flits the bee
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Three postcards from March

March is the cruellest month in the mountains. We often go for a short holiday to the Himalayas in March. The roads are usually open, but the weather is unpredictable. We found a hotel in the Garhwal Sivaliks where we were the only guests, and our room had a spectacular view. Our last day there had been clear (photo below) but clouds began to come in over the high peaks just before sunset. Sunset and sunrise paint the snow in glorious colours. The clouds muddied the colours.

Dawn had been even more cloudy, but it had cleared up soon after sunrise. During breakfast we kept our eyes on the clear view of the mountains. The day was great and the view was wonderful. We decided to travel along a route which would keep the high Himalayas in our view most of the time. This was a day when our luck held, until sunset.

March is cruel. The weather keeps changing, and predictions are not accurate more than a day in advance. When we arrived at the hotel the view we had was spectacular for a photographer (above) but disappointing for a traveler. Every year we keep telling ourselves “Next year we’ll come to the Himalayas in April.” Maybe next year we will.

Reluctantly letting go

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t look into a display of sweets in a shop and sigh. As a child I would spend my time looking at all the sweets in a display (while an accompanying adult took charge of buying the most boring thing visible) and trying to fix their shapes and colours in my mind. Now I gaze at the things I do not really want to eat, but a lifetime’s habit makes me want to photograph and share with the Youngest Niece.

I got a very satisfying smiley back from her. What will I do when she is too old to respond so spontaneously? Then I saw this tray of gujia. They reminded me that Holi was just a few days away. 1750 meters above sea level, in New Tehri, Holi was probably celebrated in much the same way that people would celebrate it down in the plains. At least, with the same sweets. There will always be people who enjoy sweets, to look at, if not to eat.

Sculpted mountainsides

People have lived on the Garhwal Himalayas for a long time. The mountainsides are terraced into fields up to a height of nearly three kilometers above sea level; perhaps even higher, although we did not travel so far. There are big farmhouses dotted about the hills. Villages are scattered collections of households. Perhaps the ease of being close to one’s fields overcomes the natural tendency to cluster into groups larger than families.

We stopped at various points along the road from Mussoorie (2 kilometers above sea level) to Kanatal (2.6 kilometers above sea level) to look out at the lower Himalayas, some slopes forested, others sculpted into agricultural land. The population density in this part of the country is similar to that in Sikkim. However, driving along roads in Sikkim gives you the feeling of being in forests, whereas Garhwal has the feel of a farming countryside.

Later, as we took a long afternoon walk through villages we saw an unexpected use of the terraces. A small game of cricket was in progress. The batsman did not have to pull back his shots. I managed to photograph a lusty shot, which would have carried the ball to a boundary even in an ordinary playing field. Here a fielder on a lower terrace gave chase. This region has a shortage of water. I wonder how hard farming must be at this height.

So bad it’s fun (XXXVII: Mussoorie Lake)

Our efforts to find the most artificial and unattractive, the most kitschy places, in India continues. I search high and low (mainly low) to bring you a list of places you might want to avoid. Unless, of course, you love tackiness and kitsch. Wouldn’t you love to spend Valentine’s Day taking a selfie with a ferocious dinosaur and your Valentine? If you do, then this series is for you.

Mussoorie Lake (number 33 out of 33 attractions on Tripadvisor) was on our must-miss list until we had an hour with nothing to do. Nitin stopped the car at the lake and said, in his garrulous way, “Lake.” The Family and I got out into a maze of little shops selling cheap things that nobody ever buys and found a ticket office with friendly signs saying things like “Entry 12 Rupees (including GST)” or “Persons found without ticket will be charged 10 times the entry price.” We bought a ticket and climbed down many stairs to find a glorified bathtub.

The periphery was full of exciting shops full of things nobody ever buys. There was a haunted house with a short loop of ghostly screams blaring from it. Next to it a food shop served “authentic South Indian dosa”. After that was a shop which rented out “traditional Garhwal wedding dresses” for you to take selfies in. Or you could go boating in the bathtub lake.

The Family and I walked around the shallow artificial pond slowly, taking notes. After three minutes we reached the high point: something under construction which said “Selfie Point”. Apart from the ferocious dinosaur in the featured photo it featured a tree full of multi-coloured flowers. “Plastic!”, The Family described in the tone of voice that Archimedes must have used when he jumped out of the lake bathtub shouting “Eureka.”

On the way back up the stairs, in one half-hidden corner I found a stand of Calla lilies. I don’t see them very often; Mumbai’s climate is not good for growing them. So every time I see these flowers I stop by and take photos. I like the delicate tones of the spathe, the modified leaf which surrounds the central yellow stem with the inflorescences. Twelve rupees is not much of a price to pay for such a wonderful discovery. Please remember Mussorie Lake the next time you feel you’ve been ripped off. It’s bound to make you feel better.