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THE HILL OF QUEENS

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The magic of the golden hour. Pic courtesy: Angad Bakshi

By: Ganesh Saili

Forbidden! Watching cabarets was taboo in our teens – except we did manage to get a peek by hanging around the railings of Hakman’s Grand Hotel. Come to think of it, our flirtation with beauty pageants began in 1952, when the sixteen-year old Nutun was crowned the first Miss Mussoorie. She made it to Bollywood, and unwittingly started a trend that lasted three decades at Whispering Windows, Hakman’s Hotel and Savoy Hotel.

Whispering Windows’ dark interiors, low ceilings and dimmed lights were ideal for a rendezvous – where Thunderbird, Ashwani Kumar and a juke box belted out Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walking; or Brian Hyland’s Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini or Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again. If you strayed further down the road you found yourself at Hakman’s Hotel – where Pat Blake with his ensemble of twelve along with Rudy Cotton’s saxophone lit up the evenings. Though a tale survives which has the kitchen’s blackboard still displaying orders for ‘Hungarian goulash and vegetable jalfrezi,’ going back to 6th of August 1945 – the day American bombers dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Whatever happened to that goulash? I wonder.

Weston Queen with Mr D.P. Singh owner of Whispering
Windows.

It had taken seventy years and more to bring water from the Yamuna to this hill station. Water is always scarce in the hills and to attract more customers, a hotel had put up banners announcing Running water in every room. Technically true, this! Dripping from the ceiling, trickling down the walls, puddles and rivulets on the floor. In those days of coal-fired boilers, oftener than not, steaming hot water gushed out from taps in one room while only cold water issued forth in the other, and guests resorted to the jugaad of exchanging buckets in the verandas. Above the Library, further afield lay the Savoy Hotel, where my friend, the then owner, Anand Jauhar, solved most problems by simply ignoring them. Instead, he cast his net far and wide by hosting beauty pageants with names like Miss Mussoorie, Summer Queen, May Queen, or June Queen.

‘When we ran out of names, there was always ‘Jungle Queen.’ All you needed was a few twigs in the ballroom!’ he later told me. And don’t you believe it was fair and square! Everything was fixed – from the menu, to the judges who had been told well in advance that some petty official’s wife (despite her pear shape) was to be the winner.

Beauty contests faded away in the 1980s, largely due to the proliferation of gate-crashers and freeloaders who had to be relegated to the rear of the ballroom, where they protested by thumping their feet on the dance floor. The lights dimmed, the drums beat a tattoo as Luscious Lola (a pale shadow of her former days of glory) took centre stage. She had come from Calcutta and was proficient in the Can-Can, Cha-Cha-Cha, Rumba, Samba and the Twist. A collective gasp rose as she flicked a stole over an old man in the front row before sidling on to his lap. She moved on a second later because the wife did not approve. She stamped her foot, cymbals clashed, and the gathering went wild.

A riot of rododendrons. Pic courtesy: Tulika Singh Roy

As if on cue, my friends, acclaimed author Ellwyn Chamberlain and his much talented wife Sally, hit the dance floor; they were joined by actor Victor Banerjee (who had just returned from the filming of David Lean’s A Passage to India) and his pretty wife Maya. They jived the night away as a gifted Goan pianist lovingly caressed the ebonies and ivories, his dainty fingers stroking the piano, that queen of musical instruments (which someone had painted a sickly lunatic asylum green). Imported from Stuttgart at the turn of the nineteen century, it had been carried up the seven-mile-long bridle path by the sturdy hill folk.

‘By the 1980s, it was no longer about ‘Miss Mussoorie’ only,’ says senior Rotarian Narendra Sahani, adding with a flourish:  ‘With so many ‘queens’ floating around, this place, the Queen of Hills had become ‘The Hill of Queens.’

With the word ‘Queen’ meaning many more things, I wonder, who is going to break his heart?

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.