We, the Citizens
By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
The Garhwal Post carried an interesting report on Saturday under the headline “Campaign held to plant Mansur plants in Mussoorie”. The volunteers who organised this commendable effort were members of a group called Pejal. They have done a lot of excellent work during the height of the pandemic with remarkably self-effacing reticence. Perhaps that is one reason why our dynamic SDM, Manish Kumar, and very earnest DFO, Kahkasha Naseen, joined in the planting.
As a schoolboy in St George’s, one of us had eaten the ripe fruit of this shrub growing on the hillside between two of our flats. They had the sweet-sour flavour of gooseberries with a slightly astringent after-tang, like the bite of a particularly tart bitter-lime. But there were no berries on the two sturdy shrubs Pejal sent us. We did, however, notice their extraordinary root development. For plants which were a little more than a metre high their root systems were wiry masses larger than basketballs. Clearly, the roots of these plants had evolved to establish a firm hold on loose soil. They and others of their species, growing in close proximity, would form a sub-surface mesh-like web binding the earth firmly against erosion.
“Does this plant grow alone or in thickets?” we asked one of our staff.
“Close together. It spreads so fast that we have to keep cutting it down or else it would overrun our fields.”
Clearly, then, it grows in thickets which would break the force of the rain, allowing it to sink gently into the earth where much would be absorbed by the roots of the plants. Then a very interesting thing would happen. It is called transpiration. More than 99% of the water absorbed by a plant is returned to the atmosphere. This is an essential part of the plant’s circulation system and is one reason why it is always cool under a tree.
“Do you feed Mansur leaves to cattle?”
“No, cows and buffaloes don’t eat Mansur, but goats do.” She thought for a moment, and then added, “We chop up the twigs and leaves and spread them as bedding for our cattle. Then when we clean out the byres, heap the dung mixed with the Mansur into mounds to mature and dry. That becomes excellent khaad for our crops.”
She said that the berries are too small to be collected for the larder, and she had not heard of anyone using them as a medicine. Children, however, did eat the fruit when they walked through the thickets.
We had the two Mansur saplings planted in a wilderness protected from human and animal interference. It is east facing and shadow free. The man who had planted them was quite amused by the care that we had lavished on the saplings. He then told us that in the same wilderness area there was an entire terrace filled with small Mansur plants!
“Birds or the wind must have brought the seeds.” Then he asked, “Why are people so interested in the Mansur?”
We told him about the legend of the Brit who had ridden up from Dehra in the 19th century. He was a shikari who had hoped to bag something for the Christmas pot. In a scrub-dotted meadow, he had bagged a brace of Khalig with a right and left. Delighted with his feat, which would do him proud in the Mess, he had asked the local herdsmen grazing their cattle what was the name of the meadow. Not quite understanding his accented Hindi, they had said that the thickets from which the pheasants had been flushed were “Mansura”.
The word evolved from Mansura through Mansur (because Hindi speakers hate the ‘a’ ending) and Mansuri (which was the preferred local pronunciation till the 21st century) to Mussoorie, fairly predictably.
The bottom line is the PWD-Forest Departments must make it mandatory for all earth disturbances in our Himalayas to be planted with Mansoor seeds or plants to be cared for till they have grown into thickets.
After that, with a little bit of luck, Nature will take over; visitors will know how Mansura-Mansoor-Mansuri evolved into Mussoorie; and we will have fewer landslides.
And, oh yes: Thank you Pejal!
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)