By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
February is a maverick month. For three years of the earth’s journey round the sun it has twenty-eight days. Then, on the fourth year, it has 29. The actual time taken by our planet to run a circle around its life-giving star is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45.25 seconds. To correct this cumulative error we add a day to Feb every four years and call that year a Leap Year.
For us in Mussoorie, however, that is not the only special quality about Feb. It is also the coldest month of our year. Folk wisdom says that is because it has taken that long for the ground to cool. And so, before our Hills of Home get crisp and glittery with frost, we prepare for the Winter when the Winterline begins to glow over the southern sky blushing over the Doon.
To start with, we got busy protecting our fruit trees. We don’t have many fruit trees now because our sarkar thinks that it is more important to protect hordes of marauding monkeys than its vote-giving citizens, so there are very few home orchards left in Mussoorie, but we are talking of the older, more caring times, not our dystopian ones whose preoccupation is on winning elections rather than winning hearts!
In the old days, like the 40’s, when Mussoorie was at its peak, most cottages were little homesteads with small orchards, poultry sheds, vegetable plots, bee hives and often a small patch of oak woodland. They all formed an interlinked tiny biosphere. The poultry sheds were carpeted with oak leaves dropped before the monsoon. They formed deep-litter which was an excellent natural fertiliser for our flower, vegetable and fruit plots. Our bee hives helped to fertilise our plants and were rewarded with pollen and nectar, and our fowls gobbled discarded leaves and stems from our vegetables and a mush of grain sweepings from the granaries of the plains. No one needed to tell us about the self nurturing cycles of Nature: it was a normal part of our daily lives.
This cycle also conditioned our architecture. Our cottages were not bungalows, based on the structure of the Bengal cottages of the East India Company with deep verandas to shade the interiors of houses. Our verandas were shuttered to conserve interior heat because every room had a fireplace. These fireplaces had chimneys thrusting out through our corrugated iron roofs. Every chimney had a detachable top-hat to prevent rain, sleet, graupel or snow for dousing our warming fires. At the first sign of the Winterline, one of our employees walked on the roof, removed the chimney hats, and let down a brick tied to a rope to clear the soot and ash that might obstruct the flow of smoke.
Late autumn was a special time when we listened for the wood-and-charcoal sellers from Nepal. Their Nepalese-accented call was “Koila sailay, Koila?” They were squat, cheerful men with deeply furrowed faces, bent under their panniers of charcoal or wood. Every cottage had a long, covered passage from the house to the kitchen and on the beams of that corridor we would hang weighing scales with a hook to take the panniers of fuel. Oak charcoal was the most expensive, non-oak firewood was the cheapest. Our kitchens were warm and smoke-scented places seldom visited by the owners of the houses. Most of our employees came from the plains because highlanders shunned domestic work and were generally self-sufficient using mule-trains to bring milk and the other products of their villages into Mussoorie. The term Ghost Villages was not part of our vocabulary then!
The cook’s assistant, the mashalchi, originally the torch bearer in the pre-electronic days, was the first to awake in the staff quarters attached to every cottage. He relieved the chowkidar, the night watchman, often of Nepalese origin. He then looked at the sky to search for smoke-grey clouds against a pearl grey background. When the cook briefed the bearer, the steward, the bearer laid the tea, biscuits and bananas for the master and mistress and said, “Salaam, hazoor, Snow is likely.”
This was often followed by a thunderclap.
In soft, silent, flakes, it began to snow.
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)