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Mussoorie: Back to the Future

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We, the Government

By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

Mussoorie was born in 1842. She was conceived earlier when, according to a legend, a Brit came across a group of herdsmen in a pasture. He probably asked, in Fauji-accented Hindustani: “Yeh jugga ka nam kya hai?” The Garhwali herdsmen presumed that he wanted to know the name of the shrub he was pointing to and said, “Mansoor”. The hunter anglicised the word to “Mussoorie”, the way he would have pronounced ‘Johnny’ as ‘Johnneh’. As more and more Brits came, and built their hunting lodges, these evolved into permanent cottages. In 1842, the cottages grouped themselves into a municipality.

Along the way, some wise Old India Hand, tanned and heavy with gout and experience, said to his cronies in the Civil and Military Club, “I say, chaps, our young fellahs have nowhere to let their hair down when on chhutti. The voyage home is too damned long. So why don’t we keep one of the hill-stations free of all starch and poodle-faking. And we can move all our exiled royals there without treading on anyone’s toes. I know just the place. Mussoorie!”

“Hear! Hear!” chanted his cronies, gulping down their scotches-and-sodas, and the deal was done.

So the King of Kabul was exiled here. He brought his skilled stone masons, locally called the aghanis, and rice from the Kabul valley, now called basmati. They left behind the rice, the name Bala Hissar, and solid dry-stone walls called pushtas. The Brits also exiled the hereditary Prime Ministers of Nepal, the Ranas. They built the multi-turreted ‘Fairlawn Palace’ in Barlowgunj. This led to a mushrooming of the summer palaces of our myriad princes and nawabs which, in turn, gave Mussoorie the title of The Queen of the Hills and the slightly more risqué Paris of the East. The legendary Separation Bell, rung in the corridors of a popular assignation hotel, was only part of that mystique!

Mussoorie’s glittering diversity grew dramatically over the first 100 years of its existence. By 1942, the names of its cottages reflected the global origins of its settlers. To that were added families fleeing fascists in Europe, Burmese and other SE Asians running from the expanding ‘Co-prosperity Sphere’ of Nippon. Also, hordes of convalescing Allied soldiers.

Mussoorie’s civic society welcomed these Immigrants, Transients like our hordes of boarding-school students, and Diverse Flocks of Tourists, each with its special needs and seasons. Exactly one century after its founding, the City Board Mussoorie (CBM) reflected the diverse social and economic composition of the town.

Our father JF Gantzer, was elected Chairman on 10 November, 1941. The superseded Board started functioning with his election. The other Members of the Board were

KS Bhandari, Senior Vice Chairman
• Kamta Prasad Jain, Junior Vice Cairman
• Anand Prakash
• Chander Sain
• Daulat Ram Sanon
• Kishori Lall
• RSM Hasan
• Hira Lall Tamta
• Om Prakash
• S Darshan Lall
• Gopal Datt Dimri
• Pirthi Chand Hari
• Mohan Lall
• (Mrs) Wisaluddin

1947 was five years away and there was not a single Brit on the Board. The Board responded to the needs of its citizens, and visitors swiftly and effectively. On one memorable occasion, the CBM spent a lot of money changing all its street lights to mercury vapour ones. This brought a barrage of complaints from women who said that this illumination made their make-up fluoresce and gave them the look of zombies risen from the grave! Without any hesitation, our City Board changed to a more acceptable illumination. The people’s needs came first.
Compare this with what happened recently when smug netas congratulated themselves on being sensitive to the needs of the poor and committed totally to their well-being. Really! Then why did the ‘Shiffan Court’ eviction happen with such heartless cruelty? Other thick skinned netas claimed that the evictees would be settled as soon as the CBM provided the land. Interesting. By the same skewed logic our netas first agree to spend crores of our tax-payers’ money, and then do a survey attempting to justify their spendthrift decision!
Many of the descendants of those old CBM members live in Mussoorie today. Do any of them have the courage to stand and oppose our netas?

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 half-hour 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 is a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)