By: Ganesh Saili
‘Nope! It’s not this one either!’ groaned Jack Plant. He had come all the way from Cape Town looking for a church that seemed to exist only in his mind. That, to be honest, is exactly what I thought.
Or was he putting to rest the devils that plagued his mind?
We had met by chance at a bookshop on the Mall. I found him quizzing the befuddled owner on the churches of Mussoorie.
On a hunch, I had volunteered to help. To do that I made a quick search through my books: John Northam’s 1884 ‘Guide to Masuri’ makes just a passing reference in a one-liner of an early Roman Catholic Chapel built in 1827; then there is Frederick Bodycot, who, in 1907, glosses over it with not even a bare mention and Charles Wilson’s Miscellany, of 1935, does not know about a Catholic Church either.
One knew that beyond Sisters Bazaar there were no churches. Given the fact that Jack has no name for the church is not much help. Could it be St. Paul’s, dating back to 1840, that sits at the end of the Old Flat near Char Dukan? I knew it as the oldest House of Worship in Landour, which Sanjay Narang, an ex-Woodstock’s alumnus has restored bit by bit to its old glory.
I take Jack there, but he is unimpressed. That leaves me foxed as he insists: ‘That one straddles a ridge with the Doon valley to the south and the Himalayan ranges to the north.’
That could be true for all of Mussoorie. After all, our hill station is all length and no breadth. On a hunch, I take Jack past the Language School; past the Nautchghar (or the old Theatre); past the Sergeant’s Mess to arrive at Chheh Tanki or the six water storage tanks; and then to the flat where we, as children once played cricket. Never, in all those years, had we seen a church in that area.
Jack tensed up. Something in the air had jogged an old memory and he quickens his pace.
‘Right here Ganesh!’ he spluttered. ‘I can feel it in my bones. It’s right here somewhere!’
Hidden behind the water-tanks is St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Chapel, consecrated on 28th June 1828, the oldest church in the hill station. At 7,999 feet it is the highest Church in the Garhwal Himalaya. It is a classical Greco-Roman style building with Doric pillars holding up the front and topped by the insignia of the Key Regiment.
Abandoned after 1947, it is a place that Time forgot.
With tears welling up in his eyes, he sobs: ‘We lived in those barracks up there. Every Sunday, my mother sent me to look out over the parapet’s edge.
‘Jack!’ she’d say: ‘Tell me when you see the priest arriving.’
‘From my perch I could see the path winding past the Mess, right across the Flat. Till one day, when she didn’t answer or come out, I darted inside to find her lying on the floor. By the time help came, it was already too late. Who knows? Maybe her heart was weak, or at least that’s what they told me. Next day we buried her in the Landour Cemetery below.
‘Crushed, my father put in his papers. We went to South Africa to start life anew. Seventy years it has taken to come home!’
We walk back down the hill with a lump in our throats. Not a word was said. Silence seemed golden.
‘Stinking goats!’ Ashok Solomon, living in nearby Landour View wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘The chowkidar housed his damn goats here!’
Luck turned, when many a generous soul on the hillside gave unstintingly of themselves to restore the church. Though ‘restoration’ is, at best, a slippery eel, especially when there are no pictures or maps to go by.
On Thanksgiving, I am part of a small congregation gathered in the churchyard for a Sunday feast. If everybody wore sepia tones, it would be a picture taken out of an old album. Today, though, the bright colours of a Sunday lunch are giveaways of the times we live in.
Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.