We, the Citizens
By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
We’ve seen it coming, slowly, for many years.
On long week-ends we would flee out of Delhi on our Vespa scooter, in the crisp early hours, and arrive in time for lunch with Mum and Dad in Mussoorie. We learnt to love the slow clock of the seasons on the fields and forests of our intriguing land. We were also curious by the changes we noticed.
By then we had morphed from a Naval family to travel-writers. And when we had Seen-that-done-that all across India and the globe, we returned to our own version of Thoreau’s Walden Pond in the oak woods of Mussoorie. Here, in our silver years, we have tried to do for our little town what our parents had done before us: stop its, possibly well meaning, politicians with their 5-year shelf lives, from pressing Mussoorie’s Self-destruct button!
Our economy is visitor-dependant on tourists and students in residential educational institutions. They, in turn, are attracted, or sent, to Mussoorie, essentially because it is a cool place. Our climate is our Unique Selling Proposition. The recent negative headlines made, all over India, of the happily drenched crowds in Kempty Falls, is proof of that. But there are ominous signs that things have begun to change.
To get back to those distant scooter trips from Delhi, there was a distinct botanical divide between the sal forests of the Doon Valley and the oak woods of our range. It was a band of wild cactus. They began to die out. Not because they were struck by a disease or human activities; they just seemed to lose all desire to live as if they knew that their time on earth had drawn to an end!
Or had there been some subtle change in the environment which we could not sense?
Then we began to notice some other unusual events. Every year we were delighted to receive flocks of Scarlet Minivets. These brilliantly coloured birds, a little larger than sparrows, come in startling red and sharp mustard yellow. They’ve not visited our wood or garden for many years. Nor, for that matter, have the graceful Long Tailed Magpies. They are the peacocks of our range, flaunting two long, tail feathers and announcing their presence with loud squawks. They were regular summer visitors, perching around our ivy draped bird-bath like heraldic icons. They are also extremely intelligent. One of them, rescued by our son from an over-enthusiastic pellet-gun ‘sportsman’, could not fly again in spite of our mother’s excellent nursing. We named him Dickey and he lived a long life in a cage at night and a large, mesh-covered vegetable enclosure during the day. He and our mother’s Apso Terrier, Honey, formed a security team. If a stranger appeared, Dickey shrieked, Honey barked and ran to the back door. The bird never objected to any of our employees or the postman. He was certainly not “bird-brained”!
And what has happened to our family of Flying Squirrels? For many generations they had lived in a large hole in an old tree, at eye-level to anyone standing on our lower garden. Once we had seen them gliding in delta formation from a neighbour’s tree, all across the width of our cottage, to another near our kitchen. Sometimes we still hear a solitary Flying Squirrel wailing like a lost soul in the darkness, but its family has abandoned us.
Then there is the really curious thing that is happening to our little wood. From the time two bachelor brothers, from England, acquired this property and it was shown on a map registered in 1831, it has been nestled in a wood of Himalayan Oak trees, the respected banj. Down the years someone planted a single Windmill Palm: the only variety of this usually tropical tree that can tolerate snow, though it still prefers warmth. For many earlier decades that we had known it, this was the only palm in our wood. Over the last five years, however, it has produced a whole lot of progeny without any human assistance.
So, is it getting warmer or cooler, or drier or wetter, or just so determinedly uncertain?
Also, the monsoon has come but where has our summer gone?
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other
National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on
national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person
articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian
Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)