By: Ganesh Saili
‘When will Mussoorie-Landour turn two hundred years old?’ That question leaves the door wide open as we approach our bicentennial.
In answer, I turn to our earliest chronicler John Northam, who in 1884 tells us: ‘It is curious to think the first construction was a small hut built as a shooting box on Camel’s Back Hill, by Mr. Shore and Captain Young in 1823.’
But it was just a shikari’s shelter and that can hardly be called a house!
In 1827, Lord Combermere recommended the setting up of a sanatorium for a hundred troopers. Soon after, the Barrack Master, Meerut was issued instructions to commence building accommodation for men and officers at Landour. A certain Capt. McMullen toiled through the winter and by March 1928 the kutchapucca barracks were ready. Many lives were saved here, starting February the next year when the troops were assembled in Meerut and marched up to these hills.
Capt. Young rode on horseback up the seven mile trail from Rajpur as the first Commandant of the Convalescent Depot and built himself a home large enough to entertain visitors, which he named Mullingar, after his home in Ireland.
n 1847, Maugher Monk, a young teacher at our first school called the Mussoorie Seminary, wrote a letter to his sister, saying: ‘I write from my new house, Mullingar, where I hope I am permanently fixed for the next ten years.’ That proved to be wishful thinking! Star-crossed Monk, neckdeep in debt, fleeing his creditors, died and was buried in Meerut on 9th December 1849.
Young’s old homestead became a string of hotels and was variously called the Caledonian, the Imperial and the Oriental, right up to 1884 when, as the Philander Smith Institute, it downed its shutters in 1905 and moved to Nainital, renamed as the Birla Vidya Niketan.
During World War II, it provided sanctuary to army families from Burma, Andamans and the North East who were fleeing advancing Japanese forces.
Our family came here in 1952, three years before the crash of the Mansa Ram Bank, when Lekh Raj, a refugee from Sialkot, leased the place to kickstart a moribund Mullingar Hotel which boasted of ‘Views of a Pine Valley’ with not a single conifer in sight!
And Mullingar Hotel was Spartan.
‘Hope you’ve brought your own bedding!’ guides from other hotels would yell after prospective lodgers, adding: ‘Take a bench too, while you are at it!’
In winter, Jaber Singh kept an eye on the place. He tried to chase us away with: ‘Snakes guard treasures left buried by the rogue soldiers. Run off!’
‘Did you find anything?’ We persisted.
‘You think I would still be working as a chowkidar if I had?’ he sighs.
We knew we had only to bide our time, laying low till he left for the bazaar. Hardly had he turned the corner when out came the stumps, bat and ball – for the cricket match to start. You were not allowed leg glances because they shattered the window-panes of Mullingar Lodge where lived old Janki Nath Sehgal, an engineer who had retired from the Municipal Board.
How we dreaded his bark peppered with first blossoms of the North West Frontier Province from where he had come here after Partition.
I cannot say the same of the Berry family, who lived next door. Mr Amar Nath Berry generously plied us with cookies and sherbet. God bless his soul! But then his family emigrated to Australia.
1962 brought Kunga Lodey with his four beautiful daughters to Mullingar. Their smiles lit up Landour as he set up our first noodle machine. Despite our reservations, it was a roaring success as today no feast in Uttarakhand is considered complete without Chow Mein.
Families from the nearby Jaunpur area have moved into Mullingar, living cheek by jowl with the Bhotiyas coming from Dunda and Chinka villages.
Sometimes I wonder what the old Irishman would have said if he saw a Gompa festooned with prayer flags over what was once his home?
Life happened. Friends parted, ending up as names on phone lists, while Mullingar remains a bookmark in the pages of our station’s history.
(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 worldwide.)