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15th August 1947

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Travelure

By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

Dawn light flowed slowly down Burnt Hill when we assembled on Big Flat. As senior Manoites we had all been members of the AFI(I) till yesterday, when it had been disbanded. So though we still wore khaki, and were still under “Sergeant” Hearsey, we were in civvies. Then when the clock on the New Building chimed the quarter hour,

Sarg bellowed “Platoon… Quick March!’ Check! Left-right-left-right left and we began to  march to hoist the Tricolour of Independent India at Mussoorie Library Square. Reality, soft-focused by nostalgia, flicked through our minds to the crunch-crunch-crunch of gravel under our boots. A feather-like breeze cooled us, whispering out of the shredded mist banks, like drifting wraiths of the past.

The past would not return. Our school-mates of the Lahore and Karachi batches had become aliens of another land, yesterday. St. Fidelis, our con-joined twin, would be merged with us making a new St. George’s.  At “Wisteria Bank” a group of tough, beadered “Aghani” stone workers clanged their belcha-shovels and zabal-crowbars in respect and wished Sarge “ Salaam Alaikum. Hearsey sahib”   Our Sarge saluted them “Alaikum Salam,Mohammed Ali”. The Afghan stone workers had come to Mussoorie with the exiled Afghan princes. They too would be gone as the pages of  history turned.

A mule train trudged past, tried tail-to-nose: one muliteer took three mules. They were our main cargo-transporters and our City Board had built Watering Troughs for them and our many horses. Riding was a popular activity with our visitors many of whom jiggled and shook like jelly on a plate but they enjoyed it. That had been sustained by the popularity of movies about America’s Wild West.

There were two Westerns being screened in the Electric Picture Palace and its lower-level Jubilee. We were now on the Mall, our High Street. It had been named after London’s Pall Mall, a pedestrian road. On it were all seven of our cinema houses which were a major source of entertainment in those relaxed days.   That is when we got our first scent of wood-smoke. It was faint but pervasive. Wood was a major fuel in Mussoorie. It heated our ‘filters’, which is what we called our geysers. It started the coal fires on which we cooked our food and, in Autumn and Winter, wood fires burnt comforting us in our grates, heating our homes. The wood was brought to Mussoorie by bands of Nepalese who carried it in panniers on their backs. They were also charcoal burners who had perfected the art of converting oak wood into charcoal.  We passed four of them bargaining with Hakman’s clerk.

Hakman’s Grand Hotel was an institution in Mussoorie and its ballroom had springs under its huge dance floor.  It also hosted our famed Flower Shows, run by the Mussoorie Gardening Association. Our Mother, the late Mrs Maisie Gantzer was its secretary. She also ran Mussoorie’s Poultry and Dog Shows.

Dogs were very popular particularly with our  influential retirees. We even had a wonderful widow who made a living baking and selling Dog Biscuits. The City Board protected these beloved pets by having them licensed and destroying strays.

This policy had the backing of a very powerful, but seldom mentioned, segment of our population of retirees.  Many were ex-servicemen who had very warm memories of our town from their  younger days when Mussoorie was known as “The Paris of the East”.  Our Flag Hoisting Platoon had now reached Stiffles Tea House and Restaurant, an iconic part of our town’s unique history.

This brings us to a well-known but seldom publicly admitted reason for Mussoorie’s unique character. The Season and the Separation Bell.  The March to November ‘Season’ of the hill stations was created to allow expat wives and children to escape the heat of the plains and get immunity from malaria.  Brit. doctors believed that the malaria  parasite could  not multiply in elevations above 5,000 feet. Children were sent up to boarding schools in “the Hills” and their mothers hired cottages in such places for those nine months. But then the pragmatic Brits realised that most of their younger civil servants were bachelors who could not afford to go home on leave because the sea voyage was long. If, however, they spent their leave in an Indian hill station they would be stuck with the starchiness imposed on them by their bosses due to the annual migrations of most senior civil servants to their “summer capitals.” They solved this problem by keeping Mussoorie, the most accessible to New Delhi, free of protocol. Naturally, then, young wives without their husbands established relationships with young bachelor sahibs! First, the ‘Kala Juggha’ was born: a wooded Palm Court attached to the ballroom. Couples could discreetly disappear into this court, make plans for future meetings, and then rejoin the crowd of swirling dancers in the ballroom.  The next step was encounters in the afternoon in Stiffles’ Tea House and restaurant. Finally, they moved into rooms on the same floor in hotels. Hotels then introduced the practice of the Separation Bell. An old, half-blind waiter walked the corridors an hour before sunrise, ringing a bell. Gentlemen had enough time to return to their rooms before the customery tea, a banana and biscuits were served in the rooms!

The Manorite marchers had reached their destination. The pupils of some other schools joined them. The member-trustees of the iconic Mussoorie Library looked down at them from their vantage point. Faintly, the Manor House chimes reached across the valley. The ceremonial parade sprung to attention. Slowly a senior civil servant hoisted the Tricolour as the sun reflected back from the windows of the most iconic building in Mussoorie. The flag of Independent India flew proudly, starched by a clean Himalayan breeze. We thought of a former classmate who had migrated to Pakistan and joined the Pakistan Navy. We had met him in Trincomalee and he had gone ballistic. “Our flag will yet fly over your illegally occupied Kashmir”, he argued.

We felt sad about a lost friendship. But his misplaced rage only reaffirms our pride as the Tricolour of free India flies proudly over the high, Himalayas.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 firstperson articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)