BY: GANESH SAILI
Thirty-two days of lockdown, I confess, have me champing at the bit.
‘Stop being impatient!’ I mutter.
Where else but home could I be? Nonetheless, I am anxious in the manner of a spirited horse that tugs at the bit in its mouth, eager to move on. I guess you could also say this is what they also call chafing at the bit.
‘Grandpa! No stepping out of our gate!’ Niharika, my ten-year-old granddaughter warns me, adding: ‘It’s for your own good!’
Now who is arguing with that?
For peace and solace, I turn to the safety of the well thumbed pages of my history books to find that cholera did not take too much time in finding its way to our hill station. In it’s infancy came hordes of troopers, porters and transient parties thronging to what was a prosperous hill station. As early as 1840, Fanny Parks reports an outbreak of cholera in the Mussoorie-Landour bazaar that ‘caused most of the hill-bearers to take flight.’
And the affliction simply refused to go away as Dharamsala and Murree suffered a loss both of reputation and lives and menaced Simla’s environs from 1857 to 1875. By the turn of the nineteenth century, you could see its scars on our hill stations and up here, quietly without much fuss, the hapless victims were bundled and buried in unmarked graves on a flat opposite Baker’s Hill.
To tackle the rampant bubonic plague, the British enacted the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 to arm themselves with special powers to contain the out break that swept away my grandmother. She left behind three sons, including my father, the eldest, who was then all of twelve.
Of late, I notice there has been much hullabaloo over the ruins variously described as Chaman Estate, Radha Bhawan or Bellevue – all of course refer to the same spot. Some claim ‘that during the Raj there was a carpet factory in Bellevue as also an ‘ice-pit well’ (sic).
In my humble opinion, that is twisting facts to fit one’s theories and are akin to a man who shoves his foot into a shoe two sizes too small and complains it does not fit. Fact is that in the sunset years of the 1960s, when it had Cantonese tiles along its verandahs, some Tibetan refugees rented the place for a carpet weaving center, before moving to Rajpur, where it continues to thrive. And as for the ‘the ice-pit well’ (sic), it was an old ice-pit and no well – the cavity underneath was to catch the ice melt. Though refrigeration sounded their death knell as from Radha Bhawan to Himalaya Club; from Happy Valley to Hakman’s; they were ruthlessly cannibalized for stone.
Around this time, Mussoorie was home to Mohammed Yaqub Khan, Amir of Afghanistan, housed at Bellevue on his capture at the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. And no chains bound this internee, he had unfettered access to all the hot spots of the hill station. My Guide to Mussoorie of 1936 has it: ‘Ex-Amir Yaqub Khan was invariably accompanied by a British Political Officer, who on the many rides around the Station could never understand the prisoner’s habit of suddenly spurring his pony into a fast gallop, without a word of warning to his companions. These bursts of speed became more and more frequent and the officer eventually put it down to a mere whim.’ One day the import of what was actually going on was brought to bear on him, as he stopped at the fork near the Library to chit-chat with a friend. To his abject horror, he saw his prisoner galloping away down the road to Kingcraig towards the plains and perhaps, to freedom.
Chasing the fugitive, the officer took short cuts to block off the escapee and on his return, he made a detailed report of the incident to the Governor General.
‘Don’t hurt one hair on his head,’ came the laconic reply.
Though he never returned to Kabul. In 1923, when he passed away in Dehradun at the age of seventy-six, his lockdown had lasted forty-three years.
Indeed, history never bids bye-bye! It simply says see you later.