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A Home In The Clouds

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By: Ganesh Saili

That our hill station began in the north, is a taken for granted. It’s the civilians who were shoved to the margins, towards the west, as far away as they could possibly be. To this area the nineteenth century saw a procession of luminaries move in: there were well-known names like the Surveyor-General Sir George Everest, who lived in the Park; William Fraser, the Resident of Delhi, in Leopard Lodge and an engineer, Captain Edmund Swettenham, Commandant of the Landour Depot who built a place in the clouds called Cloud End.

And thereby hangs this love story.

‘Capt. E. S. has an estate in the hills called Cloud End – a beautiful mountain of about sixty acres covered with oak trees.’ wrote Fanny Parkes, Edmund’s cousin in her notes.

How the Captain came to own the estate is the stuff of fairy-tales. Out on a shikar, he was enchanted by the song of a girl gathering fodder for her cows. Besotted by the ‘solitary reaper’, he trailed her home. She turned out to be the daughter of Chief of Rikholi village, all of fourteen years old. He was twenty years her senior. But Cupid’s mark defying age, swept him off his feet, as he found himself begging the incredulous father for permission to marry his daughter.

‘On this spot,’ wrote Fanny Parks, ‘He had long wished to build a house and prepared a plan but his duties as an engineer prevented his being long enough in the hills to accomplish the object.

‘The situation was beautiful…. Having fixed on the spot for the house – the drawing-room windows face a noble view of the snowy ranges.’

A month later, the garden had been laid out and seeds sown around the spot where her little tent was pitched. By July, the house was ready with a ringal bamboo hedge around the edges.

Mrs. Swettenham – the matriarch – whom Fanny Parkes called My Fair Lady, was gifted this estate in dowry, which he named after a peak opposite his home in Wales. They had six sons, all of whom became Colonels. One of them, Col. R.A. Swettenham, was a signatory to the Charter of the Dehra Dun Club 1901. One of the granddaughters Louise Swettenham inherited her grandmother’s voice to be called the ‘Nightingale of Mussoorie’.

‘Oh! One of the Swettenham girls was so beautiful,’ I was told by the late Jim Keelan, who lived in Wolverdene: ‘They hired a deaf and dumb servant who’d walk ahead of her, and, on seeing a stranger approaching, he’d stirred up a dust storm with his broom – to ward off the evil eye.’

In my files is a letter from Mrs. Elizabeth Morrison, Cambridge, U.K. : ‘Some of my forebears the Swettenhams’ lived in Mussoorie. They were brothers and sons of Sir Henry Swettenham, ICS who was a judge in the Bengal Civil Service. He resigned from his post after he took as his second wife, a teenage girl by whom in 1826, he had a daughter, Jane Penelope, who married a Captain Henry in Calcutta. Jane went to sea with him and bore him two daughters in the Indian Ocean. He died from over exposure in the Gulf of Bushaire while trying to secure the ship which had run into difficulties. She got the mate to take her back to Bombay where she died in child birth. The two little orphans were sent home to England.

‘The elder was my grandmother, Jane Penelope who while at sea kept what she called ‘My Private Journal’. From the various letter received, we are trying to write her history…

‘One of Henry Swettenham’s sons married an Indian lady – the ‘Rose of Mussoorie’ – while another son set up a Health Centre in Mussoorie.’

By 1965, the last Swettenham’s before leaving these hills, sold the estate to Durga Ram Agarwal, the Manager of the Kaulagarh Tea Estate in Dehradun, and the present owner, Digvijay Agarwal’s father.

Should you, like me, enjoy a dip into the past, even though briefly, you can still find the Swettenham family’s large and elaborately hand-tooled, leather-covered Bible still lovingly preserved by the Masons of the Lodge Dalhousie, in Mussoorie.

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.