By: Ganesh Saili
Of recent, it’s begun to get nasty. Every tourist has begun to look like a potential threat. Around parked car-bars, behaving like overgrown teenagers, they hit the town-squares of Char Dukan or Lal Tibba on weekends to become quite tipsy, staggering about, and screaming so as to be heard miles away. One barely has to scratch below the surface to see the urban detritus.
To get away from it, I take you back to a time when the hill station had not begun. With nothing to show the touch of human hands, its dense forests of oak and rhododendron teemed with wildlife. A leopard gliding past noiselessly, as if moving on air; or leopard-cats moving like phantoms, without making a sound, their glossy coats shimmering in the dappled light and shade. In this lovely woodland you would have found pine martens gamboling near waterholes; or hear the fruitive cry of a barking deer; or hear the grunt of wild boars; as far away a bear broke through the brambles flushing the pheasants – Koklas or Khaleej – before they settled at dusk.
That, unfortunately my friends caught the eye of colonial pioneers like Captain Frederick Young, Superintendent of the Doon and F. J. Shore, the Political Agent to these hills and they built shooting-lodges in Landour’s Mullingar and Kulri’s Zephyr Hall. Consider that in downtown Barlowganj, over a hundred years later in 1938, St. George’s College imported a clock from J.B. Joyce & Co. in England which struck every fifteen minutes. It told you the time and scared away wildlife prowling in its four-hundred-acre campus.
Gentle reader, let me clarify that I am no shikari. With that disclaimer in place, I find only one recorded entry of a panther in Maryville Estate, mauling Clarence Thomas Wyatt ‘who died in January 1949, aged 33 years.’ Quite a record that by any long chalk. Among many who came up the hill from Rajpur included the tragic Prince Maharaja Daleep Singh, who turned up in the middle of the nineteenth century. His minder Mr. Login, taught him the white man’s ways. In a ploy to turn him into a wog, falconry was frowned upon, hunting was encouraged. Or take the Afghan Amir, Dost Mohammed who ‘asked’ to stay in Bala Hisar, where Allen Memorial School was built, so that he could while away his hours chasing wildlife in the stream down below or on Pari Tibba. Elsewhere Mr Weldon of Oak Grove, the Railway School in 1924, shot a full grown leopard in Barlowgunj. Up to the late 1950s, shikaris like Colonel A.N.W. Powell tracked down cattle-lifting panthers in the abutting villages by my friend Gerald Powell, living in Wayside Cottage, used a contraption – a drum with a rope drawn through it – using it to mimic the mating call of a leopard.
Or take Dr. Jwala Prashad, one of our town’s reputed GP’s. One day, having finished his rounds at Waverley Convent, he stopped to catch his breath under a medlar tree outside the Chateau gates. ‘It happened in a flash,’ he later recalled. ‘As our eyes made contact, a black bear slithered down the tree. I ran as fast as I could down the slope and lived to tell the tale.’
In Landour’s Ganesh Hotel, an out-of-luck panther slipped and drowned in an open water tank in 1950. The year is stamped on the back of a picture in my family album. It was a momentous event – like a circus come to town – a precursor of our first selfie or Landour’s Goldilock moment. Folks who’d never seen a leopard, posed over the ill-fated feline like triumphant hunters over a trophy. Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words, must have known that it would be written about it.
Given our proclivity for trouble, two hundred years later, despite poaching, loss of habitat and a population as large as ours, of 1,224 bird species in the hills, only two have gone extinct. And to the best of my knowledge and belief, none of our butterflies have yet been driven to extinction. That’s saying quite a mouthful as we get overrun by tourists.
(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.)