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Two Centuries Later

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By: Ganesh Saili

’Two hundred years … our Queen of Hills is two hundred years old!’ Or so retired Naval Officer Prakash Mehrotra, now living in retirement in Barlowganj, reminds me via social media. What would, anywhere else in the world, have been cause for celebration, does little to cheer me. And no matter which way I look, there’s no reason to bring out the cake and champagne. Not yet! To some of us old-timers, it is no more than a bookmark in a well thumbed book, to remind us of the number of years its taken us to finish off our nineteen square miles of paradise. Of course there’s no one to blame but ourselves. ‘No one is afraid anymore. Dar khatam ho gaya hai’ exclaims a newly elected member of the Municipal Board. ‘No one is scared of consequences!’ Evidence? Is that what you want? It lies scattered all over the hill station. ‘Guth marning Masoorie!’ announces our tacky, talking, bathroom-tiled Clock Tower in its robotic voice. If Kempty Fall’s mess is not enough to convince you, come visit our Wax Museum. Mr.Bean looks like Elvis Prestley; Prestley looks like an extra from a forgotten Hollywood film and I thought Michael Jackson looked suspiciously like one of our favourite local politicians. Every square inch has become a construction site with mounds of black gravel littering the lanes. Everyone knows where this black gold is stolen from. Wait until dark and see utility vans ferrying illicit bajri, quarried from the Lambidhar and Hathipaon mines, supposedly closed after court orders way back in the 1970s. While Nainital has a High Court and Shimla is a State Capital, orphaned Mussoorie, left to its own devices, has aged anything but gracefully. Colonial bungalows, once covered by forest canopies are now plainly visible to the naked eye. For our trees have been felled to make way for the God of Concrete. ‘Progress’ storms through town like a tsunami from Happy Valley to Landour, flattening everything that comes in it’s way. Of course, folks who schooled return like homing pigeons. ‘Twenty-five years later I was brimming with happy memories!’ recalled Sanjay Narang, who had schooled here. ‘I cannot go through the bazaar without saying hello to the old Sethji,’ I thought to myself. ‘After all, this was where my father had opened an account for me; this is where I came from boarding every weekend for tuck and this was where I had to stop and say hello.’ ‘Remember me?’ I nudged. ‘I’m Sanjay – Class of 1985!’ ‘There he squatted surrounded by a clutter of candies, cookies, bright jars of homemade jellies. Under a dangling light, he didn’t look up, just adjusted his thick spectacles, ducked into the till, licked his fingertip, shuffled a wad of crumpled papers until he found one that he waved under my nose saying: ‘Remember you? I remember you. Your last bill for 65 rupees remains unpaid!’ ‘Who said there are no free lunches in life and that love and fresh air is for the bees and birds?’ chuckles SN. ‘At the foot of Landowr there is an excellent bazaar,’ wrote Fanny Parkes in March 19th 1838, adding: ‘everything is to be had there – Patee foie gras, becasses truffles, shola hats covered with skin of the pelican, champagne, Bareilly couches, shoes, Chinese books, pickles, long poles for climbing the mountains and incongruous articles.’ Wandering around the khuds, she found some hill folk cutting slates for the houses: ‘The slates found in the Hills are very good, but more brittle than those in Europe.’ Our early thatch roofs leaked and lightning often set them afire. Today, Landour Bazaar is lined with shops, some of then dating back to the turn of the nineteenth century. In them are dealers of all shapes and sizes trading in fruit and vegetables and grains. Of recent a jeweller has, most thoughtfully, added a gym in his shop’s basement for fitness freaks. You can get anything you need. Anything includes American corn, boiled eggs, Candy Floss, Bun-Tikki, Maggi and Chow Mein too. On this two hundredth birthday, all I can say is: Gut marning Masoori! It’s about time you woke up!’