By: Ganesh Saili
‘Who was Hooper?’ asks retired Professor Vidya Sagar Sharma, five years my senior in school. ‘Why is our old school’s assembly hall named after him?’ He adds.
What he brings to the table is a standard form letter stonewalling him: ‘Unfortunately, the records from the past are sketchy or often non-existent.’
To be honest, I don’t have a clue either. Usually plaques bearing the names of the late lamented are not my kind of thing.
Trawling the hill station’s history nets quite a few gems. It turns out that Reverend William Hooper, born in 1837, was a man of all seasons, a Boden Sanskrit Scholar while at Oxford University, who went on to become the Principal of Allahabad’s Divinity School. In his fifties, he came to the hill station and spent the next thirty two years authoring his Hebrew-Hindi and Greek-Hindi dictionaries until he passed away in 1922 at the age of eighty-five.
Whilst here, he lived in the parsonage built near a church that is no longer a church; in a castle that is no longer a castle and you could safely add ‘in a hill station that is no longer a hill station.’ Walking up from Picture Palace towards the Clock Tower, look at the opposite ridge; there lie scattered the crumbling remains of the All Saint’s Church where in September 1838, Frances Bacon married Captain Proby Cautley, who went on to build the Ganga Canal and founded the Thompson College of Engineering at Roorkee, later to become an IIT. But let us leave that tale for another day.
Hooper’s strums his song fifty years after this celebrated wedding as the chaplain of the All Saint’s Church built by the Master Mariner Bayden Taylor for the convenience of the residents living on his 182 acre Castle Hill Estate.
Among the rich and famous, Castle Hill Estate’s owners was Frederick E. Wilson or Pahari Wilson, who bought the place at an auction after one of our fluttering banks failed. He left his estate in the good care of Henry Vansittart, the Superintendent of the Doon or the district collector, who did such a good job that he bought the place himself for ‘a mere song.’ Later in 1850 the East India Company housed the boy king Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab, in the ‘season’ of 1852 and 1853.
Lest we get lost in the by lanes of history, let us get back to the Church. The foundation stone was laid by Rev. Robert North Maddock; his school boys sang in the choir. By 1948, due to the lack of a congregation, the church fell into disuse and was dismantled. The pulpit went to Woodstock’s Hindustani Church.
In a lifetime spent in these hills, I could not help but notice how our venerable city fathers, love one thing more than making money and that is seeing their names etched in stone to commemorate projects, both big and small. You can see their edicts adorning railings, walls, public offices and often public conveniences. Afterwards should you go looking for them, you will find them lying around in various states of neglect.
Neglect has never been one of our municipalities afflictions. No surprise that given its income from collecting toll tax, selling electricity, gathering house tax and water sales it became by 1960, one of the richest in the country. It was decided that a college be started. First step was a slab of sandstone listing our founding fathers. A few years later, the stone had gone missing. Gone for good, or at least that’s what everybody thought. One day out on a walk, going past the hutments of Nepalese settled near the college, I found one of them humming a song as he merrily ground chutney on a stone slab. A closer look at the slab, however, revealed the smudged out names of the town’s luminaries. Poor fellow! At least he had, though unwittingly, spiced up the staid names of our forgotten founders.
At day’s end, fame is a deceiving elf. It’s here today and gone tomorrow. All our names though chiselled in stone, could well have been writ in water.
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.