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LOOKING FOR FAIRY DUST

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By: Ganesh Saili

‘Where on earth do you find this stuff for your writing?’ a curious friend asks. And she is not the only one – many others have asked me the same question time and again.

How I wish I could answer that!

Take for instance Boycott’s Guide (pub: 1907) which told me that  Annfield was once called White Park Forest – thus named after a chummery – with Mr White, Mr Park and Mr Forest living there.

The rest, I owe to the sleuthing skills of Rahul Kohli, a Dehradun based historian, who unearths the fact that the trio were actually Lieut. Colonel Archibald Park, William Forrest and George Francis White. It was George Francis who over a period of three years visited Yamnotri, Gangotri and Nag Tibba. It was on Nag Tibba that White met a person who was ‘so amazingly knowledgeable’ about the area.

Now the ball is back in my court. ‘Who could this be?’ wonders Rahul.

Given the narrow window of time when George Francis White wrote his book, from 1829-32, I know it could only have been Maugher Monk, a teacher in The Mussoorie Seminary.

‘Bang on Ganesh! Especially the timing!’

I persist with: ‘Another teacher with him was Frederick Wilson. Together they hunted bears in the area.’

‘But Wilson came to the party too late!’ pleads Rahul.

‘That’s way before he became known as Rajah Wilson of Hursil.’ I reassure Rahul. ‘You’ll find it in Monk’s letters, now published as Letters of a Mussoorie Merchant.’

‘I’ve read the book Ganesh.. it sort of broke my heart reading it the first time. I felt terrible for him.’ Rahul tells me.

These letters throw light on the social life of the hill station in its early years especially in a closed school community. Mussoorie was barely fifteen years old and our first homes came up in the late 1820s. So far, I have not found any other narrative of the hill station in those early years. They present a fascinating picture of British social life in 19th century India, and the part that Mussoorie played in the lives of those who had set out to make their fortune under the Pagoda Tree.

Carefully preserved, these letters tell a tale of hard work ending in failure. Even though Monk was a polished scholar – he spoke Parisian French and Saxon English –  he failed at almost anything he put his hand to. And that is exactly what makes him interesting. While climbing up the ladder, it is so easy to kick out the lower rungs. Monk did not do that. Instead he turned to many enterprises: among others, a hotel, and a school. But failed.

He married on 26th November 1842 at Mussoorie and on 26th September the following year, a daughter was born who, sadly, lived for just three days. Then, on the 21st of September 1846, his wife Elizabeth passed away.

His Rajpur Victoria Hotel ran on grand scale – 13 horses, 2 assistants, a veterinary surgeon, an army of servants. Four houses with an ice pit that was filled up with snow from Mussoorie. Excellent cuisine; the cards and billiards were very attractive.

One ‘customer’ drank eleven cups of tea at a breakfast and the Khansama, with tears in his eyes, was heard to lament: ‘The tea was the best ‘Howqua’s Mixture’ at I don’t know how many rupees per pound!’

Money paid by folks resting there used to be brought in daily in cheques and cash which could not be counted. Everything was thrown into a drawer to which Elizabeth had the key. Monk had no idea of what was paid and what was pocketed by those in his employ. Naturally, the hotel folded up, followed by Hazelwood and the Landour Academy which too were sold.

Star-crossed Maugher Monk, neck-deep in debt, fleeing his creditors, caught a chill, died and was buried in Meerut on 9th December 1849.

Next time you happen to be near the Landour Cemetery, spare a glance for Elizabeth’s yellow-sandstone tomb that has survived two hundred monsoons. This is where like fairy dust, she came to rest amid the tall deodars.

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.