By: Ganesh Saili
Two hundred years ago, this hill station got its name from the mansur shrub – Coriana nepalensis – that once grew in abundance in these hills before we managed to turn into our present concrete wilderness. John Norham’s Guide to Mansuri (pub 1874) was the last publication to call the place ‘Mansuri’. Who changed it to Mussoorie? No one knows.
The more I look at it, Landour had humble origins. It was named after the princely state of Landaura near Roorkee. Those who provided the muscle and sinews that built this hill station came from across the Shivaliks: Laksar, Thana Bhawan, Saharanpur and Roorkee, that’s where the ancestral homes were of the traders who came and settled atop this ridge. A cursory query on Google maps throws up many places named after variations of Landour: you find in Haryana there is Landora, and Landaura; while in Uttar Pradesh there is also a Landhora Guzar.
Come to think of it, in the old days, right up until the 1960s, it was common practice for shops to down their shutters in winters. It made more sense for shopkeepers to leave their premises in the care of a single chowkidar and to winter comfortably in the warmer climes of Rajpur-Dehradun.
Mussoorie turned into a ghost town, deserted in the cold with just a few faithful left behind. Understandably so, there being little or no business to transact. Joining this exodus was Anand Prakash, who was built like a sumo wrestler gone to seed. His doting father Lala Sobharam rented a place in Dehra. A few days into their stay, the landlord’s sons tried to tether their buffaloes to the ground floor verandah pillars.
‘Tie them elsewhere!’ asked Anand, adding: ‘They mess up the verandah.’
And that led to a battle royal! Though hindsight makes such wise men of us all. Looking back through the inverted telescope of time, I find fault with his quicksilver temper which probably forced him to turn to his father’s trusty gun as a menacing crowd threatened to lynch him. As the cordite smoke lifted, two of the would be lynchers lay dead. The plea of self-defence left the judge unmoved, who sentenced him to life imprisonment. As luck would have it, our tryst with destiny was knocking on the door when the appeal before the Privy Council in London was upheld. He was released along with other political internees.
I first met him in the 1960s when, with a great deal of foresight, he started the Hill Top Café at Church Flat. The idea was great but did not work. Our tourists had yet to discover the delights of a pavement café. Perhaps he was way ahead of his time. The only thing you could be certain of if you saw a car tilting to one side hurtling your way, is that it must be Anand Prakash driving somewhere.
Then came the day when I saw him wandering around the hillside with a couple. They seemed to be your typical second-home hunters from the plains.
‘That is my house!’ said Anand, his nostrils flaring.
Of course it wasn’t true! Not by a mile, because Mr Hartley, the last British owner, had abandoned the derelict cottage that had come to him as a part of family settlement of their property which included vast land holdings in Lakhimpur Kheri. But no title deed for the house was ever found. In its ruinous state, it had become a place of last resort for those seeking privacy.
‘Lawyers?’ said Anand, ‘Who needs them? Remember! All a property needs is three things: Location! Location! Location!’ How he loved the sound of it, especially as he was repeating the words of the hotelier Sir Conrad Hilton. Who could argue with that? Or resist the prospect of snowy peaks stretching from one end to the other? For Anand, the pickings were easy, especially with newcomers crowding Landour. Of course, the new arrival would eventually discover what the whole town already knew. But such was his chutzpah or audacity that he got away with the swindle not once but several times.
At the draw of stumps, we are all authors of our own story.
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.