By Ganesh Saili

Sometimes I wonder what the Himalayan traveler Godfrey Thomas Vigne – the first Englishman to describe Nanga Parbat – had been smoking in 1832. He spent seven years travelling through north west India and was the first European to visit Baltistan and had arrived in these foothills on a personal invitation from Sir George Everest, then Surveyor-General of India.

Perhaps it was the clarity of that day that caught my attention. He looked upon the vast plain like one looking at a map lying spread-eagled upon a table. ‘The beautiful undulations of Dehradun…. And the low hills known as the Siwalik range, by which the Dun is separated from the spurs of the Himalaya were of pygmy height … Town after town, mere dots on the surface of the plains, were pointed out to me in succession; and the minars of Imperial Delhi, or at least their locality, are sometimes visible.’

‘Fat chance!’ I grumbled. ‘Who’s going to put the genie back into the bottle?’
Perforce, last week, I had to change my opinion. Life in the Times of the Corona Virus wiped out the smog that usually hangs over the Doon. The Air Quality Index fell so low that at night it was pure magic. Even with the naked eye, one could see the twinkling lights of Saharanpur, Roorkee and Sarsawa from Landour’s razor ridge.

‘Ganesh! I have never seen anything like this in all the time that I have been here!’ gushed Swiss author Christian Kracht, staying in one of the cottages facing the western aspect of the hill.

‘The silence is so loud!’ remarks Abu Tripathi, a friend of old, living at Mont George above Sisters Bazaar. ‘It’s like someone turned the clock back fifty years. Fewer people and no cars.’

Quiet reigns in our hill station and wildlife is back to reclaim what was theirs to begin with. I am told that the CCTV of our hostelries have trapped leopards lopping around the Upper Mall. I guess it’s that kind of time – one could believe almost anything.

When I last wrote of leopards lurking in Landour, I remembered our battered hundred-year-old burial register (since gone missing) in the Landour Cantonment Cemetery. It had but a single entry alluding to death in a man-animal conflict. ‘Clarence Thomas Wyatt who died in January 1949, aged 33 years.’ It records the cause of death as ‘accidentally mauled by a panther.’

At the time of writing, little did I know that his Mussoorie-born, niece Roz Franken-Rebbechi in 1971 emigrated to Cold Stream, Victoria in northern Australia. She wrote to me a few weeks ago, as among her parent’s treasures she discovered an old clipping of the Mussoorie Times of January 14, 1949 referring to the unfortunate tragedy.

Apparently, Captain C. T. Wyatt, a 35-year old retired military official, along with his brother was out hunting in the evening, around his estate, Maryville in Barlowganj. Between them they had a special improvised drum with a rope drawn through it to imitate the ‘mating call’ of a leopard. So effective was the sound that no sooner was the rope pulled, a full grown leopard rushed straight at him. Of course he fired shots, wounding the animal, but as dusk was settling in, he turned around to head home.

Next morning saw him set out with his brother, a servant and a dog. Of course the dog sniffed out his quarry. Soon as Captain Wyatt arrived, the feline attacked him latching on to the skull. The brother tried to intervene, but to no avail. Mr. Wyatt fired shots and both he and the leopard rolled down into the khud.

Reports had it that afterwards, a female leopard with two cubs was reported to be roaming about in the vicinity of Maryville looking to avenge the death of its partner.

I guess it is worth mentioning that Captain Wyatt, who had served in the Great War in Burma and at Dunkirk too. He belonged to one of the oldest British families settled in Mussoorie – a direct descendant of Lt General J. B. Hearsey of the Gurkha War fame.

That genie too, someday, must go back into the bottle.