By Ganesh Saili
‘What do you folks do for amusement?’ asks a first time visitor pityingly.
‘Stare at folks like you!’ I almost snap, but bite my tongue instead.
In the 1970s the Mussoorie Co-operative Club remained a gathering place for those seeking entertainment, where folks believe you can still hear Mr Arora’s voice booming:
‘Murgi-chor! Number four!
Lovely legs! Number eleven!
Back to back! Thirty-six!
Two fat ladies! Eighty-eight!’
A game of Housie was underway for bored housewives and small children.
Had the men absconded? Of course they hadn’t. They were in the next room around a table dealing cards. During the Raj, there was Vincent Mackinnon’s Happy Valley Club, built by converting the flat at the foot of Charleville Hill into fourteen tennis-courts, along with covered courts for Canadian tennis, sticke and a billiard room and bar, a bridge room with a small stage for concerts and variety entertainments, and a reading room and a library.
It was here at a Pagal Gymkhana held on 19th June, 1943, funds were collected for the Red Cross as part of the war effort. Among generous donors were the erstwhile rulers of Kapurthala, Rampur, Rajpipla, Palanpur, Baoni, Kasmanda, Bansi, Pratapgarh, Nanpara and Bhadri.
David Lloyd sent me Robert Hawthorne’s Mussoorie Portraits As editor of the Beacon, he wrote these under the non de plume of May. It gives us an insight into those frivolous times.
At the Gymkhana
Down to the fair Happy Valley I wended
Last Saturday eve my solitary way,
Sorrow and pleasure so strongly blended
I can hardly say which of them carried the day.
Sorrow for ‘twas the last Gym of the season
Or pleasure because – I won’t tell you why,
Why should one always be giving a reason?
Well, on to the Happy Valley went I.
And now farewell to the sports and the Band,
The ladies so blithesome and gay,
But if you don’t think, my verses too bad
I’ll write more next Gymkhana day.
At Happy Valley Theatre,
A most united band,
Some little afternoon affairs
Most cheaply put in hand.
And very pleasant were these plays,
For talent great was there,
And yet no silly show was made
Nor any undue flare.
Until then, Mussoorie had seen bumper years as Europeans unable to send their families to Europe filled up our hotels and boarding houses. Many new shops sprang up and businessmen made huge profits.
Our Happy Days nose-dived between 1921 and 1931, when the population fell by a precipitous 40 percent. Prosperity declined due to the fall in the number of Europeans visiting or making this a place of retirement and many houses lay vacant while the hotels were usually half empty.
The Gazetteer of 1911 found that the Happy Valley Club was ‘all too small’, and was to be closed the following year; the race course and polo ground had been derelict for some years; the Himalaya Club was closed prior to 1920, as were the two breweries; and the Castle Hill Estate housing the Survey of India was vacated in 1932.The Municipal Hall leaked badly, was hardly habitable and was no longer used for ‘balls, theatricals and other entertainments.’
‘Kipling and Mussoorie? What’s the connection?’ one may ask. ‘Shouldn’t it be Shimla instead?’
At Charleville Hotel, he scribbled four lines on a picture taken by his American friends Samuel (Edmonia) Hill and her husband:
“And there were men with a thousand wants,
And women with babes galore
But the dear little angels in Heaven know
That Wutzler never swore.”
German-born foul-mouthed Henry Wutzler owned both the Charleville and Library’s Criterion Restaurant and would send his staff scurrying to take care of the viceroys and royalty visiting the hill station.
Further afield, Camel Back’s fine nursing home Evelyn Hall folded up, and all the English shops disappeared and passed into Indian hands like the chemists: Hamer’s, James and Pioneer.
Fortunately, a new class of visitor consisting of professionals was knocking the door down. When the British took flight, the upper and middle class Indians simply filled up the vacuum.
All new entrants were welcome to the Club.
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 world-wide.