By: Ganesh Saili
‘Horse racing in the hills?’
Where on earth could you have had punting in the hills? Given our topsy-turvy terrain, I have always blamed a fertile imagination.
Instead, the joke was on me.
I had got it all wrong. I knew it the moment I saw Rahul Kohli’s fine collection of old watercolours of the hill station, especially the one of our breweries done by the Headmistress of Cainville Girls School. And more pictures continued to pour in from Lyn Neville in the 1960s, who had come here to help the Tibetan Homes Foundation find its feet.
They reveal what the history books fail to tell you. For instance Charlie Wilson (son of the famed Pahari Wilson of Hursil) owned race horses that galloped around the Happy Valley Club. Scratch around a wee bit and everything in Mussoorie levels out to a single denominator – the Mackinnon family, founded by John Mackinnon and followed by his two sons, Philip Walter Mackinnon and Arthur Vincent Mackinnon. In 1904, they established the sprawling Happy Valley Club with a Reading Room, a Library, Card Room, Billiard Room, a bijou theatre and space to spare for gymkhanas too. ‘The place is par excellence, the one for great tamashas, with a small race-course round which riders manage to steer their horses with few or no accidents.’ gushes an old guide.
Robert Hawthorne in his Mussoorie Portraits in Rhyme (1889) wrote:
‘Scandals, Flirtations, marriages,
Of ye naught I can say,
For if I do, I shall go on
Almost to Christmas Day.
For betting boys, and racing men,
Gymkhanas had their day,
And crowds of people gathered round
For gossip and display.’
After the good times came the hard times. Mussoorie declined in prosperity as from 1920 onwards it saw a steady drop in the number of visitors. Most houses lay vacant and, except in May and September, the hotels too ran half empty. First the Happy Valley Club folded up; the race-course and polo ground lay derelict for years; the Himalaya Club had already shut down by 1920, as had the two breweries; the Castle Hill Estate of the Survey of India lay empty by 1932. The Municipal Hall leaked, was hardly habitable and could not be used for ‘balls, theatricals and other entertainments.’ By that time nearly all the English-owned stores had been taken over by Indian owners.
Of course, horse racing had been the rage in Dehra Dun at the end of the First World War. Its Race Course and pavilion lay east of the railway station, off Haridwar Road. Though don’t go looking for a race-course there today. At the time of writing, you will find it a place where houses are crammed cheek by jowl, looking as if a child’s geometry box spilled on the ground. Or if you were to be polite, you would say it’s a jigsaw puzzle of residential colonies. Your explorations may be rewarded with a flat tyre.
We are told that in the early days, one could, on a clear day with a good pair of binoculars, see the horses galloping neck to neck from any outcrop on the ridge. This was before the valley took on the appearance of a distended octopus and its population sky-rocketed to twenty lakh people, packed into twenty square miles.
Old records have it that in the 1920s the household help of a Municipal engineer could not figure out why his Sahib was carrying around a mirror in his pocket. ‘Must be woman trouble!’ he muttered to no one in particular. Little did he know that the Sa’ab rode to the edge of the Jharpani’s sun-bleached cliffs so that he could flash messages to his bookie at the races in Dehradun.
Our engineer almost got away with it – but a complete spoilsport sneaked on him. All hell broke loose and with the gift of hindsight, let me assure you that our punter could not have been very amused to be transferred to a remote village in Fatehgarh. That place was way too far from the Doon’s race course or, for that matter, racing of any kind.
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.