Near Bala Hisar the disaster of unplanned construction unfolds.

By: Ganesh Saili

‘There’s a cabal of Mussoorie writers on the loose,’ chuckled William Dalrymple, the celebrated author. ‘They’ve ganged together to perpetuate the myth that this hill station came into existence to benefit recuperating soldiers…. All fabrications!’

As he smiled at us, I squirmed in my seat. We were at the Mountain Writer’s Festival, which swings between erotic poetry and book readings. Some are guaranteed to push you into sleep. Others, not too bad. An occasional cringeworthy moment thrown in.

‘Mussoorie,’ he booms, ‘was a part of the Great Game.’

‘It gives us a place in history,’ Mr Craven, our headmaster, would say, referring to Bala Hisar being named after the 5th century Fort in Kabul. For hobnobbing with the Russians, Amir Dost Mahomed Khan incurred the wrath of the East India Company, until, in November 1840, he surrendered to the British, to be whisked away to this hill station. Imagine our seven-mile-long path from Rajpur bristling with troops.

Mr OB Craven – our Headmaster. Pic courtesy: Family Album

‘Explicit orders were issued to arrest anyone with the remotest Afghan connection trying to enter these hills,’ says Dalrymple, adding: ‘Not a fly could have squeaked through. Two years later he was restored to the throne of Kabul.’

Wrapped in the truth of the past, I know it was our invigorating climate, spring water, and easy accessibility that were the primary reason for the founding of Wynberg-Allen School at Bala Hisar. What began from humble beginnings in 1888 at Rockville along Tehri Road with just two students is now known worldwide as a premier school. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Not if you go by the notes of indignant board members: ‘Some teachers’ salaries are too high, as much as Rs.100!’  Another took umbrage at finding out that ‘clothes sent for children were sold to kabaaris in the bazaar and seen there by the person who sent the clothes!’

Of those early days, an ex-student recalls: ‘The twenty-one-mile journey from Dehradun to Kingcraig in a heavily loaded bus carrying several school children with their boxes and beddings secured on the roof, was memorable, if only for the debilitating nausea most first-timers experienced. It was plain sailing until the bus had left Rajpur behind. Then, when the driver changed down from 4th to 2nd or 1st gear at the beginning of the inclines and innumerable hairpin bends, the whine of the engine combined with the smell of petrol fumes and the rapid passing of the scenery all served to adversely affect one’s hearing, sight and smell, and induced nausea. Parents who had made the trip before came prepared with palliatives and handed around pieces of barley sugar, fresh ginger, and cloves to those in distress.’


A break in the monsoon. Pic courtesy: Manavi Kumari

Gwyneth Palman asks: “Do you remember the first winter we spent in school? I shall never forget our heartache and longing for home as each ‘batch’ went, homeward bound. The terrible isolation and loneliness, as the school emptied and we were left in the far-from-tender care of Mrs. Watson and her little pug ‘Puffer’.

‘I remember also, with great distaste, how she would graciously permit us to bathe in her bath water when she had finished her dip! It was the only time I saw water that one could have walked on!”

Retired Colonel Cole recalled an electric storm striking Mr. Mackintosh’s Cottage – where the Afghan king had been interned – a bolt of lightning zeroed in partly destroying the cottage.

Like many others before me, I recall walking up to the gate as an awestruck child, clutching my father’s hand. Across the desk, looming larger than life sat Papa Biggs. In the turbulent times following Partition, he was credited with personally escorting some of his charges across the border aboard a bus.

‘Yes, Babu! How may I help you?’

‘My son needs admission.

‘Send him tomorrow! Uniform can come later.’

How well I know that there are just too many of us for miracles like these nowadays! The good old alma mater remains Nulli Secundus or second to none, where the founding fathers’ dreams are nurtured by those who have donned the green and gold. It’s a fellowship that immortalizes Bala Hisar.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.