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A GUN HILL WITHOUT A GUN

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By GANESH SAILI

For those tuning in late, here’s a reminder: Gun Hill, at 7,029 feet, is our second highest peak in Mussoorie west and is where the main reservoir of the hill station’s water supply is located. If you would like to see it for yourself, take a walk, ride a pony or step into a trolley that carries you along a 1,310-foot ropeway from the Mall to the top.

‘Why call it Gun Hill?’ complains Col. Gaurav Misra, a retired colonel,  who just like the late Puneet Monga spent their childhoods in school here, saying: ‘A Gun Hill without a gun is a non-starter!.’

Of course there was a cannon there that had been brought from the Arsenal in Calcutta inscribed with: ‘H.H. Maxwell, 1865, Cossipore.’ Noon was marked with a loud blast. Though the gun was a source of worry when pointed eastwards when two ladies – Miss Brian and Miss Hamilton – running the Grey Castle Nursing Home wrote to the Municipal Board complaining ‘When the gun is fired, it loosens plaster from the ceiling of the wards, which falls on patient’s beds, unnerving them.’ If it were pointed northwards, it would have ‘blasted away to kingdom come Mr Yerborough’s house, Dilkusha’, so they turned it, pointing it to the northeast instead, and almost immediately a complaint came from Crystal Bank. Turned south, it did what cannons are meant to do: the gunner or time-keeper forgot to remove the ramrod from the barrel, and on booming noon, the cannon sent the ramrod clean through the roof of Stella Cottage, (today it is home to advocate Aaloke Malhotra, and generations of his wonderful family). Luckily no one was hurt as everyone happened to be out as it was noon.

Opposition to the gun stiffened. As a last resort, it was turned to face the Mall. Remember that the boom was produced by shoving a mixture of moist grass and waste cotton into the barrel to act as a plug or wad which would be ejected into the void. One day one of these flying grass balls landed in the lap of a lady who was being taken down the hill to Rajpur in a dandy. ‘The jolt the coolies gave her was even more unnerving than the bouquet.’  That was the last straw and the gun was silenced.

An economic drive at the end of the Great War on 28th of July 1919, caused a shortage of metals. Our know-it-all City Fathers resolved to get rid of it. The price (and that was more or less all they really cared about) was good. They sold it. The wooden frame of the gun carriage lasted a few monsoons, until vagrants ripped it apart bit by bit to start their fires.

Our obsession with Time was once a fetish. Records tell us that on Empire Day, May 24, 1909 when electricity first came to Mussoorie, the dimming of lights, called ‘the wink’ was resorted to. Your lights ‘winked’ between four minutes to nine o’clock and three minutes past nine to let you know it was nine o’clock. This practice continued until 1934, when someone realized that it infringed on the Indian Electricity Act.

 ‘Kitney bajey hain?’ was a common phrase up until the 1970s; it was no more than a way of saying ‘Hi’ or ‘hello’, just like two ships tooting their whistles as they pass each other in the dark. This phrase died, along with pocket watches, with the advent of wrist watches that ensured soldiers fighting in the trenches during the First World War would have both their hands free at all times. In the 1930s, Maharaja Tej Singh of Alwar, holidaying at the Charleville Hotel, caused a sensation by gifting away West End watches to all those who happened to call upon him.

I think it was mobile phones that really hammered the last nail on the coffin by telling you the time, correct to a fraction of a second, whether you want to know it or not.

As I write, a hundred years have passed since the gun on Gun Hill went silent. And we are left with a Gun Hill without a gun.

(Ganesh Saili born and homegrown 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 recognitionworld-wide.)