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Of Mortar, Stone & Timber


By: Ganesh Saili

‘She wants to see a haunted house,’ says Aman, whose father owned a shop selling woollen garments near Picture Palace, pointing towards the pretty girl accompanying him.

 ‘Take your pick! There are so many abandoned houses. Give it a shot!’ I teased them. Ah! Over-tourism will spell the death of us. Bursting at the seams, there are no quiet places left in Mussoorie for youngsters seeking privacy. As I saw them recede in the distance, I wished them well not knowing what lay in store for them.

Remount Depot in the 1930s.

Arriving at a likely prospect after dark, they tip-toed in under the dappled moonlight. ‘Let’s see what’s inside,’ whispered Aman, grabbing her by the hand to nudge open a creaky door.

What they saw there would scare them out of a year’s growth – a man dangled from the rafters – as they turned around screaming and driving like folks possessed straight to the police station. Almost incoherent in their panic they managed to stutter something about having stumbled upon a crime scene.

Annfield was a home that is no longer a home. Pic courtesy: Mark Windsor

Luckily for them, the policemen were friendly and did a thorough job. A few days later, the next door caretaker broke down and confessed, admitting to a squabble with the chowkidar over an old twig fence.  ‘He lunged at me. I hit him. He fell over dead. Panic stricken, I strung him up to make it look like a suicide.’

‘Never again!’ declared Aman fervently, adding: ‘Never again will I look for a haunted house!’

Though my search for forgotten homes continues often by the kind courtesy of those who walk down the same path. I am grateful to folks like Mark Windsor, an old Woodstock student, who drew up a list of houses on the seven old maps of the hill station. Starting with J.B. Tassin’s rock-cut map (1831), printed in Calcutta which has thirty-three property owners, all of them were British with the exception of Hukeem Mendy. Then there is Major Frederick Young owning three houses: Mullingar and Mullingar Cottage, with a shooting box thrown in for good measure. While the latest one, in public domain dates to 1968. Many old-timers remember that Mr Gautam, the handsome Health Officer changed the old name of Lammermoor to Kishkinda Estate as we know it today.

Further afield in Jharipani, the ripped roof or Futty Chhath  was where the Ranas of Nepal built Fairlawn Palace and Barlowganj’s Skinner family owned Midstream was flattened for a new building. Later maps sing songs of men like Major Swetenham, a later day Commandant of the Landour Depot, who owned seven houses! Some like Hawthorden, Gravel Lodge, Log House (later renamed Logarithm House) lay well outside map limits and others like St. Helen’s Cottage (where the Chateau was built at the turn of the nineteenth century) crumbled.

Westwards beyond the Municipal Gardens came Sardar Mukund Singh with his son Pratap from Muree, chasing dreams of having an orchard in Kandi Lodge. No one was too sure of how to grow fruit in what was essentially a hailstone belt. The experiment came to an end one dark night after Pratap, having imbibed a drop too many, slipped off the cliff’s edge snapping his neck.

Any casual student of our history knows that you cannot write off a place like Annfield. It was someone’s home, at least up  until 1947. In our times you will be pleasantly surprised to meet Brigadier Ravi Dimri who inherited some ten acres of White Park Forest and on retirement, turned the place around. He runs one of the hill station’s finest homestays. Meanwhile living in New Zealand, Mark Windsor writes in to remind me of how tough it was to climb from the base of the hill to take pictures of these old ruins – this and the slog up from Butcherkhana that brought him to the edge of Taylor’s Flat.

‘Why wallow in nostalgia?’ folks have often asked me.  I tell them that I write about homes that are no longer homes, in a town that is no longer the town I remember. These tales of mortar, stone and timber are my way of saying thank you to the place where my story began.

 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.