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Some Swear by Fire

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By: Ganesh Saili

There are some who swear by fire. At least the ‘Agnihotris’ – our Keepers of the Fire – do! They will tell you how raging infernos lap up anything that crosses their path. Of course this includes buildings like Nainital’s Metropole Hotel, built in 1880 and became the symbol of the Lake City’s architectural heritage. Its claim to fame rested on the flat non-corrugated, galvanized tin-roof that came to be known in common parlance as the ‘Nainital-pattern-roofing.’ Neglect wormed its way into the eleven-acre property belonging to the Nawab of Mehmoodabad, Raja Amir Ahmed Khan. Before he crossed over to Pakistan on partition, he left the place in the tender, loving care of an old Parsi couple, who ran the Metropole as a hostelry with its seventy-five rooms and five tennis courts. They welcomed among its many guests, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had come to Nainital on his honey moon. Apathy saw the tennis courts, in a hill-station choking for space, turn into illegal parking lots. This spring some vandals kindled a bonfire, starting off a firestorm on the night of 4th March. Of course this was a long time coming. Twenty years down the road, we still do not have a Heritage Act and the loss is not Nainital’s alone. Another precious bit of Uttarakhand’s history had gone up in smoke. Come to think of it, on second thought, Mussoorie has, in comparison, been spared the devastating fires that have wiped out heritage buildings in Shimla. Perhaps this is because their beams were made from the inflammable deodar while ours were of rhododendron and oak. My old books remind me that on May 5, 1935, a blaze almost levelled Landour bazaar, which forced the Municipal Board to acquire its first fire extinguisher. That was of little help when old Phoenix Lodge, burnt down to the ground as a hot air balloon from a wedding party settled on its thatched roof, setting it on fire. Fire found the Lal Bhadur Shastri National Academy of Administration Academy in Happy Valley on 24th May 1984. Igniting from the gas godown, it spread to the VIP Guest House, the Library the Dining Room and the Director’s residence, changing the very essence of the old Charlie-Billie Hotel. Another loss was Stiffle’s Restaurant (later reborn as the Standard Skating Rink) that once opened its doors to visitors with ‘Come Where its Always Bright!’ – a great rendezvous for the young lovers, despite the tacky music consisting of Baby Elephant March, the Spanish Gypsy or the Blue Danube that they played all day long. This is where you found the boys with their devil-may-care attitude jumping off the bridge with a resounding boom that never ever failed to impress the pretty ones on the floor; this is where they met; this is where romances began and this is where sometimes love blossomed. That is up until the night of 17th April 1968, when the hungry flames returned. Many theories abound. The breeze flicked a curtain over a kerosene-fuelled stove in the canteen’s kitchen setting it alight, triggering off a major conflagration that raged through the night with the flames visible from Dehradun, which reduced the building to ashes. Last month, on a laid back day of spring, I happened to mention this to Jaswant Singh Ramola or Ramola ji – as we all respectfully called him. Arrived in his late eighties now, at the time he had worked for the U.P. Roadways, living in Willow Bank abutting Stella Cottage, close to the Standard Skating Rink. He shudders when I ask him about that fateful night. ‘Her cries still resound in my ears, keeping me wake at night!’ he murmurs. ‘Mainu bachao! Mainu bachao! (Save me! Save me!)’ Shrieked the owner’s wife, flitting from window to window on the first floor trapped like a sparrow; no fire station to call and no way out. She was locked in by the ravenous flames. ‘Rescuing a child, I carried him across my shoulder. But by the time I came back, the only way in was up those the wooden steps that had burnt down. We could do nothing.’ That’s why our Keepers of the Fire call fire the ultimate leveller.