By: Ganesh Saili
‘There is a treasure of a little hill station,’ wrote Fanny Eden, the Governor General’s sister on March 11, 1838, ‘situated less than a hundred miles from Delhi. The view of the many mountains is grand and the air from them refreshing.’ Almost two hundred years later, she would turn in her grave seeing what we have managed to achieve.
‘Nineteenth century roads were not meant for twenty-first century traffic!’ A friend muses as an XUV narrowly misses his toes.
It was not so, certainly not in our teenage days. Perched on roadside railings we watched a moveable feast. And they left no dents, those railings. Not like that Malacca cane. If I close my eyes, I can hear the swish, cutting a ribbon through the air, before landing on our bottoms.
‘Six of the best!’ said O.B. Craven, our headmaster fondling his cane. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child!’ was the norm in the 1960s.
‘Take that out! Take that out!’ he would say, pointing at exercise books shoved into the seat of our pants to cushioned the impact. Blame the sound – it was a dead giveaway. Lesson learnt: ‘Never doodle in hymn books!’
A survivor of those halcyon days remains Gunanand ji’s Star Bakery, where we flattened our noses on its showcase ogling at the contents – every item had character; and every wedge precariously balanced or a drop of guava jelly on their pastries.
With no warning, temperatures soared on our northern borders, bringing an influx of Tibetan refugees along with their culinary delights: chang – their famed rice beer; paye – their tangy wine served in stone-ware jars; thugpa and momos. From Mogambo in Landour’s Mullingar hill to Happy Valley’s Gaydeling. Tibetan food became the rage. Momos and chow-mein emerged as game changers. As I write, chow-mein has been adoption as an Uttarakhand dish, where no wedding is complete without a mound of steaming noodles.
1960s end saw the opening of our first South Indian restaurant in Landour. ‘Let’s meet at South Indian Embassy!’ Kunhi Raman, father’s friend would chuckle, inviting us to a carpet-bombing of our north Indian taste-buds with rasam, sambhar, dosas and idlis to an accompaniment of of chutneys. The summer of 1970, saw us looking for part-time jobs. Of course the handsome Jhabber Singh was the first to find employ as a bill boy in a famous eatery.
‘Look! What’s this in my kofta curry?’ fumed a customer, revealing wrapped in his napkin the remains of a cigarette stub.
‘The customer is always right!’ Jhabru reminded himself, heading to the kitchen. But someone had to pay for this.
‘I smoke beedis,’ drawled the cook. ‘I saw the Manager smoking those!’
‘I could not win, so placating the customer, I sent him a fresh serving.’ He tells me. ‘This time without trimmings!’
You will see few fresh servings in the shacks lining our streets. They offer boiled corn, chow mein, bhel-puri, chaat and boiled eggs, not forgetting the auntyji types – waltzing in dressing gowns – for them, jalebis dipped in milk. But don’t go looking for Kwality’s melt-in-the mouth toffees. They are long gone, just like the whispers in Whispering Windows. Both were rendezvous for young officer trainees.
Away from the chaos stand islands of calm in Landour’s Bakehouse ‘with no Wifi.’ It ensures folks talk to each other. And at Little Lama Café with its airstrip of a menu, you are served fringe exotica, while at Tavern try Ruskin Bond’s special of Fish n Chips. They take you back to Ruskin’s days in the Channel Islands.
Food has always been about memories, places, or people. Vanished are the gathering of eateries at Rastogi Chowk; gone are the two-into-three chai at Jamna Sweetshop; gone too is Neelam’s cholay-bhatruray and Goverdhan Das’ Sindhi Sweetshop’s aloo-puri. Men of honour, both played a fixed game. Mehtab Singh never served aloo-puri at Neelam while Goverdhan Das had a self-imposed ban on cholay-bhature.
Mussoorie Munchings cannot be complete without mention of the grotto housing Bengali Sweet Shop – founded by Inder Dutt Godiyal in the 1930s – with its famed rasmalai patronised by the Nehrus, Motilal and Jawaharlal, and others down the years.
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.