By: Ganesh Saili

Flames can destroy anything that comes their way. Take for instance the Metropole Hotel, built in 1880, iconic symbol of Nainital, the Lake City’s famed architectural heritage. Its flat plain galvanized tin-roof gave us a roofing design that in common parlance is the ‘Nainital-pattern.’

Or is sheer neglect to blame? This eleven-acre property fell apart after the Nawab of Mahmoudabad, Raja Amir Ahmed Khan, left for Pakistan on Partition, leaving the place in the tender care of an old Parsi couple. The Metropole Hotel had seventy-five rooms and five tennis courts. Its many celebrated guests included a young lawyer named Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The slide began when the vacant flats were used for parking; it ended when someone lit a fire that started off a conflagration. Another piece of our Uttarakhand’s history had gone up in smoke. Unfathomably,  we still don’t have a Heritage Act.

Mussoorie, mercifully, has mostly been spared the devastating fires that have gutted heritage buildings in Shimla. Perhaps it’s because in those buildings were made from the fire prone resinous long-leafed pine or deodar, whereas ours forebears used rhododendron and sturdy oak and have survived. However, on May 5, 1935, a blaze almost levelled Landour bazaar, at which point the Municipal Board acquired its first fire extinguisher, though it could do precious little when old Phoenix Lodge burnt down to the ground after a hot air balloon from a wedding celebration settled on its thatched roof, setting it on fire.

‘Ganesh! Help! Our house is on fire!’

Midnight 10th May 1996, and the phone went dead.

There was no mistaking the panic in Maya’s voice. We grabbed buckets, blankets, and brooms and ended up fire-fighting till dawn. Tragedy had come calling on the Banerjees – actor Victor and his wife Maya –  when, swayed by the breeze, the overhead lines shorted; drops of molten metal fell on the wooden panelling and set The Parsonage ablaze. With commendable fortitude, they rebuilt their home, prettier than the first.

On the night of 17th April 1968, the Standard Skating Rink (earlier the old Stiffle’s Standard Restaurant) was being given a lick of paint in preparation for the summer season. Parmod Kapoor writes: ‘It was owned by Ajodhia Nath Monga of Lahore in the late 1940s. Afterwards he who sold it to the Chawla family.’

Old timer, Jabber Singh tells me: ‘On that fateful day, our childhood friends, Chota Dawa Ram and Lakhpa were skating in the last show.’ With their devil-may-care attitude youngsters would jump off the bridge to land with a resounding thud that never failed to impress the lovely girls milling around the floor: this is where they met; this is where romances began; this is where love blossomed and it was the perfect place for a rendezvous.

On the ground floor, the saloon British Piano too suffered heavy losses, as did the oil paintings in Chitrashala – Guruji’s art studio. Perhaps a breeze flicked a curtain over a kerosene stove, setting it alight and triggering a major fire. You still meet folks who remember seeing the flames from Dehradun.  Last month I happened to mention this to Jaswant Singh Ramola, who in his youth had worked in the U.P. Roadways and lived in the nearby Stella Cottage. He shudders on remembering that tragic night. Save me! Save me!’ the old woman shrieked flitting about like a bird, trapped on the first floor. But there was no fire station to call and no escaping those ravenous flames.

‘Her screams resound in my ears and keep me awake at night!’ he says. ‘By the time I came back after rescuing a child, it was too late; the only way to get to the first floor was via those wooden steps and they had been reduced to cinders.’

Another fire began in the gas godown at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration Academy on 24th May 1984 which engulfed the VIP Guest House, the Library the Dining Room and the Director’s residence.

As I write, no fire-engine can hope to get past the cars parked cheek by jowl in Landour’s narrow lanes. Sadly, no one seems to care.

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.