By: Ganesh Saili

‘Where exactly is Dhumanganj?’ asks Chandu Kamboj, a childhood friend. “How come we never heard about it while we were growing up?’

This tale begins six or maybe seven generations ago when Lala Dhumanmal, accompanied by his younger brother Tulsi Ram, made their way to these hills. Did they arrive a little late? For by that time, the good places facing the warmer south face had been taken or at least spoken for. So they were lumped with the north facing slope just above the old Company Bagh. Left with no other choice, this is where they dropped anchor.

‘Harsh weather in winter in a place where not a ray of sunlight could squeak through made it a very inhospitable place,’ says Rakesh Agarwal of Prakash Brothers in Library bazaar, where he has a store offering ready-made garments. ‘My grandfather Satya Prakash and his brother Pearey Lal ran a general store in Library – a flourishing business selling everything under the sun – you name it, and they had it – pate de foie gras, solar hats, champagne, Bareilly couches, shoes, jams, jellies and pickles, and camping equipment too.’ Rakesh tells me, adding: ‘They sold wine and spirits in bulk to the royal houses, when this hill station was a bolthole for the rich and famous with deep pockets; they could easily buy the exotica on sale, and if you did not like canned sardines or tuna, there was always marmite to turn to.’

If you were to go westwards beyond Company Bagh, having left  behind the milling crowds in Library, you will find yourself on the handsome saddles where were the Dudhli and Hathipaon bazaars. In this densely forested area you could have stumbled upon a leopard idly twitching its tail or sunning itself. The place was special, it could easily be approached from both the valleys of Dehradun and the Yamuna.

Our hill station has one of the most exact documentation for land settlements anywhere. For instance you could take Mr F. O. Wells’ Land Settlement dating to 1842 which made an earnest attempt to settle the early land tenures in the hills. And then there is Mr E. W. Ashworth’s Report on the Land Tenures of Mussoorie in 1904. He gave us the concept of boundaries being fixed by the run-of-water or panee-dhal or dhal-i-tibba.

The last survivor of the Dudhli bazaar in the 1970s was Beeru Lala, whose marrying a Nepalese girl led to him being ostracised in the Library bazaar. Of his shop, nothing remains; an untidy pile of stones littering the roadside are the only reminders of their dreams.

On an impulse, I head towards Hathipaon, where just before the old toll barrier, Nanak Chand ran a shop. Please hush and be quiet for you are on hallowed ground for serious ornithologists and dedicated bird-watchers. This is where the elusive Mountain Quail was last seen and Salim Ali, our bird man, spent many a summer here looking for the bird but never finding it.

In the winter of 1865, Kenneth Mackinnon wrote about seeing the birds migrate from south Tibet’s eastern parts when the freeze settled on the Roof of the World. Though, being a shikari, he shot several of them. As did Captain Hutton, when he found them scurrying around the undergrowth of his garden in Jharipani. Major Carwithen was the last person to see these birds alive. He had been out hunting and shot the female of the pair. Small wonder then that the species has vanished, never to be seen again, that is if you exclude ten stuffed specimens in museums across Europe and America.

I cannot shake off the feeling that maybe I had come here a few years too late. All around me, the trail to Cloud End that was once lined with wiry Moru Oak is now a gaggle of Maggi Points – in reality they are mere shacks with rusty tin-sheets crudely hammered together; a few plastic chairs lie scattered around.

What self-respecting bird would want to scurry around in this chaos? Perhaps, like the Mountain Quail, the quaint bazaars of Dhumanganj, Hathipaon and Bhadraj await another resurrection.

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.