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A Train Of Lost Things

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 By: Ganesh Saili

The first was no option. Loose gravel, slippery shale, crumbly limestone and weak dolomite above Rajpur posed a huge challenge.
In St. George’s College, Kailash Nath Mehrotra, a gifted teacher, taught us: ‘The Devil is in the detail!’ Quickly adding: ‘Dive deep. There are no short cuts to glory.’

The second option foreclosed in 1900, as the first train chugged on the Hardwar-Dehradun line. Originally, it was proposed to carry the line to Jakhan – but ‘owing to the short-sighted views of the Rajpur hotel-keepers,’ who petitioned against the railway being brought up so near. Add to that the outrage of ‘the do-gooders-brigade’, about the destruction of amenities in Dehradun if the train passed through it, brought the line to a halt. Ten years later, the mistake was admitted, but by then they had missed the train.

The last option was a tram. ‘Unless the Indian and Colonial Development Company are able to execute their project for an electric tramway from Dehra to Mussoorie, it certainly would be desirable to extend the railway to the foot of the hills near Rajpur.’

In the growing up years, I too fell for the chatterer’s gossip. convinced that somewhere along the old bridle path lay the imprints of an abandoned railway-line. But we had the bull by the tail. All that was planned was a tramway: ‘From the Toll Bar on to the Oak Grove school spur is encountered the one really bad bit which has for the last decade and more daunted the spirits of other enterprising spirits.

‘The present Engineers propose, in addition to using a rack section, to overcome the difficulty by tunnelling through the loose shale hill.

‘Across the proposed tunnels, one would be deposited at the Oak Grove spur, where the line would continue by easy gradients to serve the Railway School, Jharipani, St. George’s College, Barlowganj and Mussoorie proper before terminating near the Himalaya Club in Landour.

Suitable stations were planned along the route near large estates, important cross roads, schools etc.’ Mackinnon’s Guide lays it out. The whole journey from Dehra Dun Station to the Landour Terminus, including stops, would have taken under two hours. ‘A truly delightful prospect for holidaymakers as well as austere, elderly, infirm, or extra rotund maidens and men coming up to the hills.’

In 1919, along came Belti Shah Gilani from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) to float the Dehra Dun-Mussoorie Tramways. Among his many investors, was Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha – a staunch nationalist with ties to the Swaraj Movement. He had refused coronation by the Viceroy; he had refused to send Nabha’s troops to bolster the war effort and had generally refused to play ball. The last straw for the Empire was a donation he made to the Tilak Memorial Library. Small wonder he has been called ‘a defanged lion among hyenas’. His crafty Accountant-General, offered as a bribe a job in the project for his own idiotic son, and swayed by it he advised him to invest ten lakh rupees in the tramway.

The money was there; the permissions were there; Upper Rajpur had been de-notified and placed under the Mussoorie Municipal Board, as the bubble burst. I have the niggling feeling (and it refuses to go away) that it was all part of a more sinister plan of the Empire to strip him of his rank, his titles and to depose him. He abdicated in 1923, and in 1928, his eldest son Pratap Singh became sovereign. The Maharaja was exiled to Kodaicanal, where aged 59 years, he passed away in 1942.

In Dehradun, allegations abounded of the directors diverting money for personal use. Cases were registered. The Company went into liquidation in March 1926. Belti Shah was tried, found guilty and convicted to five years for fraud. The local press dubbed him ‘Guilty’ Shah Gilani.’

Our tramway was still born. Fortunately, by then, the motor-road had snaked past Bhatta to the bus terminus at Douglas Dale spring.

A hundred years later, we hear that in two-three years, a fifteen-minute ride – on one of the world’s longest ropeways – will deposit us near Library.
By that hangs another story.

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.