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IT’S ALL IN THE NAME         

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Bridging the gorge in Landour Cantonment. Pic: courtesy unknown

By: Ganesh Saili

We are no big deal—a teeny-weeny-itsy-bitsy place hanging on a mountain’s edge. Mussoorie and Landour put together are only nineteen square miles from end to end even if you were to throw a thumbnail cantonment of around 1040 acres. That would include our ten narrow alleyways with steps that connect the North Road to the South Road, we remain no big deal. And if truth be told, we look a little used and past our prime, But then, so am I!

The locals have given the houses names, based on the owner’s looks. Ask for ‘Motay-ki-Kothi!’ and several houses pop up. Try being more area-specific whilst looking for old Fatso’s house. How well I know it is downright impolite, but then that’s how the cookie crumbles. Learn to take it like me, with a pinch of salt or a large dollop. It helps.

Kutta-khana, or the house of dogs, was the earlier name for Kirkland Estate. As the name suggests, it was known for its racing hounds. Today it is the Mussoorie Girls’ College. ‘Lal muuhwaIey ka ghar’ or the Red-faced’s house is the appendage for Redburn, now a rabbit warren of Air BnB and a rash of guest houses. A little way before the old bus terminus of Kingcraig, do not look for traces of a menagerie just because the place limps along with its old name of Chidyawali Kothi.

Library end of the hill station. (Pic: Courtesy Author’s Collection)

In the old days, your baggage would have been whisked away by the coolies—migrants from the hinterlands would make some cash during the break in the cropping season before the monsoon came. They would snap Dhangwali instead of Prospect Point, after the precipice that it hung from; Banjwali for the clump of oak trees around Tabor Cottage and Company School for those going to Woodstock School.

Further afield, around the Balahisar area, the Station House Officer investigating a break-in, shook his head in disbelief to mutter: ‘What a strange place this!’ The unpronounceable, co-educational Wynberg School was renamed Bhai-Behan School as in brother-sister school; the cottage below Antler’s where the relict of the late Kotwal Ram Singh Yadav, lived was called Behanji’s place (as in sister’s house) and the gurgling stream that dropped to the bottom of the hill was referred to as Mausi Falls (or aunt’s waterfall.) Its proper name was Mossy Falls, for it was named after Mr Moss, a bank manager who had slipped while picnicking there and had lent the place his name.

Hydrangea magical blossoms

Leaving his home unattended, Professor Sheel,  who taught Sanskrit in our college, had gone for a walk, when thieves had broken into his cottage. On his return, the good professor was much relieved to find the burglars in police custody and profusely thanked the constabulary.  Zaidi, the SHO’s new driver, repeated for the nth time, ‘This is a strange place indeed!’ Grunting: ‘No one gives you money! Only this thank you, thank you! Can I stuff these in a bag and go back to my children?’

He shook his head, asking, ‘Who builds a house in the middle of a forest?’ Adding: ‘Why can’t they live safely in a mohalla like us in the plains?’

That’s as close to the truth as you will get in these hills. Everyone is polite, courteous, and gentle to a fault, but having tasted the apple, they turn into monsters. The change is so drastic that you will be hard-pressed to recognise them. Walking down the bazaar, the aroma of someone’s paranthas, wafted by the breeze, stirs the pot of memory. In my mind’s eye, I see the moustachioed Tungal, the office help, appear at our house to walk my father to the office.

‘Bibi ji!’ He would plead with my mother, knocking on the kitchen door. ‘Please, can I have a bit of ghee?’

‘What will you do with it?’ asked my mother in all innocence.

‘Too expensive! Who can afford to eat that stuff? Like this, at least I get to twirl my moustaches and make them shine, whilst all day long I get a whiff of the real stuff!’

Oftener than not, the scent must suffice.

Ganesh Saili, author-photographer, has written and illustrated twenty books, some translated into over two dozen languages. He belongs to those select few who illustrate their writing. His work has found publication in periodicals, columns, and journals.