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A Man Who Would Be King

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By: Ganesh Saili

Call us scribblers. Call us amateur historians. It matter little. Try as much as we will, the finest of combs cannot untangle the knotted strands of history. Sometimes how tempting it is to judge yesterday with the rules we make today. Those who risk of putting the cart before the horse look like the town drunk trying to prop up a lamp post.

Pioneers of the nineteenth century had no time for such the niceties. There was a job at hand and it had to be done. That was that. Whenever I sit at my desk, all I have to do is whisper ‘Frederick E. Wilson’ to feel his ghost peeping over my shoulder, trying to trip me as I try to retell his story. I heard of him, the first time from my friend, the author Ruskin Bond. It was he who led me to his grave in the Camel’s Back cemetery forty years ago. At that point, we believed he began his career at Landour’s Sergeant’s Mess. A casual chat with the bartender on the boom in animal trophies saw him travel to the remote recesses of the Bhagirathi valley.

Later, much later, I found he was a teacher at the Mussoorie Seminary. In November 1841, he accompanied another teacher, Maugher Monk, on a shikar in the forests of the Doon. After which he headed towards Tibet as a guide to Prince Waldemar of Russia, who was touring the area.

Then Wilson traded in borax and animal trophies. His stellar achievements included a 350-foot suspension bridge across the Jadganga. It was 1,200 feet off the valley floor and was not meant for the fainthearted. To reassure them he mounted his favourite Kabuli horse to gallop across his rippling contraption. Disaster struck on the first Sunday of November 1864 when three shepherds with a flock of 150 sheep tried to cross the bridge, as a freak squall barreled down the gorge, flipped it over, sending them plunging into the ebony dark below.

By now, Wilson had ‘gone fantee’ by marrying Gulabi, the pretty daughter of the drummer of Mukba. Childless, three years later, he took another wife, marrying Gulabi’s niece Raimatta. She bore him three sons. By 1859 he leased forests from the Raja of Tehri and built staging posts or forest rest houses at Dharasu, Bhatwari and Hursil. Henceforth he shuttled between two worlds – one that he had forsaken and the other he had adopted.

Imprint magazine, in 1970s, published an article by Mady Martyn with black-and-white photographs of the Wilson coin. Were they gold? Or silver? Or were the Hursil rupees brass tokens meant to simplify bookkeeping? At the end of the logging season, workers could have traded them in at the Haridwar outpost for official silver rupees. Two of these were bought by the legendary Jack Gibson, who in the 1930s, out on a trek with his charges in the Jadhganga valley, found his porters gambling with them.

Wilson bought many homes in Mussoorie, including Rokeby Manor, Ivanhoe, Parade Point and Evelyn Hall whilst in the Doon he acquired a fine bungalow in Ashley Hall.

Then, prematurely on 24 April 1880, the Himalaya Chronicle published a banner headline ‘Mountaineer’s Farewell’, announcing the death of Pahari Wilson in a flashflood at Dangalla while reportedly taking a dip in the healing waters of its hot springs. Of course, two months later the Sandman did come knocking to West Lynne. On 25 July 1883, the hill station saw the grandest of funerals with a horse-drawn hearse carrying a coffin down Camel’s Back Road to the cemetery where half the hill station had turned up. Eleven years later, Gulabi came to rest beside him.

‘To ourselves, the shock comes with double force,’ wrote the Himalaya Chronicle about a man who was kind, simple-hearted, straightforward and honest.

‘In the death of Frederick Wilson we lose a respected and dearly loved friend.’

When the end came, there lay a man who had more than enough money to flutter around. One more of Mussoorie’s sons had risen from rags to riches in a story that would be the envy of kings anywhere – anytime.

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.