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How Doon got its Potato

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Bygone Doon:
By Pradeep Singh

When the juggernaut of the British East India Company limped into the Doon Valley in 1815 to claim the spoils of its facile victory in the Anglo-Gorkha War, the Company Bahadur had its job cut out in the newly acquired territories in Garhwal and Kumaon besides Himachal. The stark reality was that the conquest of territory did not translate automatically into conquest of climate or conquest of hunger.

The raw beauty of the valley and the more rugged uplands towards Mussoorie and Chakrata appealed to the Irish, Scottish and English troops and officials as the landscape and its flora reminded them of their homes back in the British Isles. The unfailing charm of Doon had already seen a soft surrender in the battle-weary units of the soldiers who remained behind to consolidate the gains of the war.

But beyond the veneer of the Valley’s allure the desolation of the place was also a hard reality. The Gorkha occupation of the valley from 1804 to 1814 had been a tumultuous decade in which the only beacon of some order was seen around the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai. Established by Guru Ram Rai in 1676, the Darbar was the pivot around which radiated not only the spiritual aura of the saint (died in 1687) but also the stabilising force for much of the socio-cultural life of nascent Dehradun.

The obsession with bureaucratic propriety saw the British over the next decade work out the legal and administrative framework for Dehradun as they had before this no experience of a territory as varied culturally and strategically as the new region presented. However, all this ultimately resulted in the appointment of the charismatic and diversely gifted Frederick Young (1786-1874) as the Superintendent of the Doon, virtually making him the sole authority over the region stretching between the Ganga and the Yamuna bounded in the north by the Himalayas and enclosed in the south by the gentler hills of the Siwaliks. Born in an Irish landowning family of Donegal, Young was ably suited to pursue his passion and official duties with a rare flair and entrepreneurial spirit. His decade and a half long tenure from 1826 to 1841 was marked with several initiatives that had an impact in and also beyond the Doon Valley.

The vast open areas and the higher reaches of the Valley were a mine of opportunities but only if one would bend his back and have a vision for maximising the potential of the latent bounties of the terrain and its climate. Young was fast in discovering the salubrious and bracing weather for much of the year on the immediate ridges to the north of the Valley. Once he had trekked up to these heights he realised the boon that lay about in undisturbed natural splendour of oaks, deodars and pines. He took it upon himself to settle the place with basic amenities for comfortable living during the dry hot season in the valley below. The heat of Hindustan was capable of undoing the work of the empire if no steps were taken to keep its officialdom safe from the rigours.

The human presence in and around Mussoorie in early nineteenth century was negligible as sustenance was difficult due to the nature of the topography which did not allow for creation of large flat surfaces for agriculture. Life was supported by importing costly grain from the plains while wheat or rice was nearly impossible to grow and prohibitive in cost and labour. Consequently the population and family size in the uplands of Mussoorie and adjacent Jaunsar Bawur was small.

The Irish ancestry and farming heritage of Young came to the fore. He introduced the first potato fields, albeit small, on available spaces in Mussoorie where he had built a bungalow (The Mullingar) as a summer retreat. The weather much suited potato cultivation as the crop thrived on the cool air and less number of sunny days. The local farmers encouraged largely by Young soon saw the wonder tuber as a saviour. The potato crop was easy to raise with less labour and, growing underground, was safe from the birds and langurs that were the bane of regular crops.

As the scattered cottages in Mussoorie and then Landour took the shape of a popular hill station, the potato farmers earned a healthy income from sale of the much loved potato that was a staple of English cuisine. In years to come, the hill potato harvest that came in peak summers when the rest of the country had an off season of the same, good money was earned. The variety called Tumdi was much sought after then as it is today for its excellence.

Significantly, the nutritional value of potato had another favourable outcome. It was three times as nutritive as wheat in terms of energy and it entailed less than half the labour and cost of the cereals. This helped in supporting bigger families at lesser investment in time and money. The spread of potato cultivation was also a policy decision of the British just as they were serious in promoting tea gardens in the valley below. Both, tea and potato are those legacies of the colonial rule that are easy to stomach literally and metaphorically for the Indians and in this the contribution of Frederick Young cannot be lost sight of. Homage to Young is evident in the humble dish of Alu-Bhaat and Alu-bhujji just as much in Alu parathas and tea up in the hills.

[Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun (2011) and Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun (2017)]