We, the Government
By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
Among all the major hill-stations of India, Mussoorie is unique.
Nainital, Simla, Darjeeling and Ootacamund were the ‘summer capitals’ of the United Provinces, Punjab, Bengal and Madras, respectively. Before the ‘hot weather’ arrived, enormous caravans of files, chaprasis, clerks, the hierarchy of sahibs, memsahibs, baba logs, servants, pets, their Excellencies the Governor and his wife, and their retinue of uniformed flunkies, migrated to these exalted retreats in the hills. Starch, formality and poodle-faking were the prescribed orders of the day.
But, so the story goes, a wise old boffin allegedly wrote in a dusty old file: “Our young chaps work like dogs in the plains, protecting the Jewel in the Crown. The passage home and back would eat into their leave. If they don’t have a salubrious place in India to let their hair down, they will go batty. I strongly urge that we keep the most accessible hill station, Mussoorie, free of officialdom to ensure that our young chaps maintain an even keel.” That, according to legend, is how Mussoorie grew: free of the fell diktats of the bureaucracy. It went its own, unstructured, Victorian-Edwardian, “propah!” way. Solar-topis were doffed whenever a gentleman met a lady on a road. She then tilted her parasol in acknowledgement; shooting sticks were de rigor; Duckback gum boots and raincoats were worn in the monsoon; ladies slipped into fur-coats and gloves in the Autumn. It was as tightly structured as a ballet.
But, under all this brittle formality, our transient population led an uninhibited social life. The prunes and prisms prissiness of the sunlit hours gave way to the complex carnalities of a rabbit hutch when the Flying Squirrel mewed and stars spangled the black Himalayan sky! Mussoorie invented the Separation Bell to separate the Jekyll and Hyde character of Raj Society and all was right with the world.
Our town has always responded to the changing needs of its visitors. It has very little heritage and virtually no entertainment. Grass widows no longer rent cottages for the March-to-November ‘Season’ and the call of the charcoal burner is no longer heard when the Winter Line flares over a dark Doon. The Mall has ceased to be the Drawing Room of Mussoorie where high society women, ‘dolled up’ and perfumed, perambulated to see and be seen! Today, if you have the time and money, you go ‘to the abroad’ and amble down Bond Street or Fifth Avenue, Via Veneto or the Champs Elyse. You come to Mussoorie for a week’s break to stroll, leisurely, on the mile-high, unpolluted, naturally air-conditioned Mall; shop and snack on your casual, unwinding, walk.
Anything ‘We, the Government’, can do to cater to these essential needs of our 21st century tourists will encourage them to say longer, shop more, and even return. In particular, our visitors want to be safe and not embroiled in manufactured local issues stoked by would-be netas in search of a constituency.
To start with, we must cater to our very peaceful Asian need for street shopping and snacking. Twenty-three years ago our wise City Board added a cantilevered widening to Shawfield Road. They did this, specifically, to allow the affable Tibetan Sweater Sellers to use this extension to set up their day stalls off the public, pedestrian, road. For many years, the City Board gave individual sellers rent receipts for using this purpose-built space. Then some ill-informed neta advised the Board to refuse to accept such payments, presumably hoping that such non-acceptance will justify the Board’s denial of the Tibetan’s right to use the extension built specifically for them.
Every house owner in Mussoorie pays a house tax assessed and levied by the City Board. But if the Board refuses to accept this, that’s their call. It does not deprive the House Owners of the use of the property! In fact it could lead to the presumption that our Municipal authorities find the owners’ presence so valuable that they voluntarily forego their right to tax them!
We also need to draw inspiration from the way Singapore has handled its hawkers. They have solved the problem of over-crowding and littering and created a very popular tourist facility. We’ll come to that in a future column.