As my father was in the army, we traveled all the time. Though most of my schooling had been in Delhi Public School, I went to 12 schools in all. The last change happened when I was in my 10th grade. He started the then Defense Institute of Work Study in Mussoorie. So I was wrenched from the familiar to a new world, new friends, and of course, a new school: Allen Memorial School. The following years saw the blossoming of my love affair with the hills. I discovered that the mountains are in my blood. Now I wonder what I have been doing at sea level for the last 37 years!
So Mussoorie it was. The four of us, Sudha, Ed, my husband and I went to the hotel booked by the travel agent. The best view, they had advertised! The moment we checked in we knew that we wanted the accommodations to be more personal. My sister Sudha, in her inimitable style, zeroed in on the house that was available for rent from Googy and his brother. It was situated right off The Mall, a “must-see” place at any hill station. We were at a clothing store run by the two brothers who had built this cute house with two bedrooms on two floors, a split stair leading to each of the bedrooms. Downstairs housed the hall, dining, and kitchen. They overheard our conversation, and before you could say “Jack Robinson” we had approved of the new lodging.
Mussoorie is a very small town. The climb from Dehradun is a mere 33 miles, and just 250 rupees by taxi. What is charming about Mussoorie is that the foothills of Dehradun can be viewed from the hills from most points, including high up Landour, the Cantonment.
This hill station, with hardly any space to grow, had allowed over 250 hotels to crop up on and around The Mall. Through this mess of construction, I spotted the old walking stick shop and the curio shop. In my school days, the flood of Tibetans with their wares was the most noticeable event, as it was close on the heels of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Revisiting after a span of 30 odd years, I noticed many shops run by Sikhs who had fled Delhi at the time of the 1984 riots in which they were targeted indiscriminately after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
My father had the house opposite the St. Paul’s Church and Char Dukan, now a famous landmark beside the Landour Post Office. We walked through the bazaar, and I could almost hear the strumming of the rui-vala, the local cotton fluffer. Every day as I walked back from school, he would be playing his monotone, unmindful of the cotton fluff that covered his beard, hair, and face, and in fact his body and the room he sat in. All the shops were so small that the open door sufficed to expose the whole interior to any passerby. The steep, narrow winding road made us all breathless as we climbed up toward Landour. The bend in the road took us right past the local frame shop, and the old owner was still there. We finally reached the top of that hill where I spotted my high school classmate Ganesh Saili’s house. He still lives there, and is a professional photographer. “I was wondering if you would call,” he says. “I heard you were in town.” This is something that would happen in a place like Mussoorie. Word gets around faster than wildfire.
Walking past our old house, with the church bells pealing loud and clear, as if in welcome—it was a Sunday morning—we talked about how we would watch the foreign missionaries come to post their letters, and remember how they would try and convert us “heathens.” In my youth I was rather oblivious of our culture, and knew just enough to extol the virtues of Hinduism. In those days, I had to study the Bible as my fifth subject for the school final exams, and in the process had read the whole Bible; it was only much later in life that I ventured into reading books on Hinduism.
From the house to the Institute of Work Study was a good walk. The church and the Institute were visible from almost any section of the lower reaches of the hills. On the way is the White Shop. It is still there and the owner fondly remembers my father, and he still sells fresh homemade pickles and jams among plenty of foods that are a delicacy and hard to find at 7,000 feet.
Imagine our thrill on seeing the full range of hills—Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath and the imposing Nanda Devi. Our driver remarked that the range was seldom visible that year and many a tourist had gone back disappointed. I knew without a doubt that my hills had put up a special show for me. We walked with the ranges in full view, to the musical sound of the wind in the old oak trees. The spectacular rhododendron trees were in full bloom. “Remember the wild dahlias that burst forth from every inch of hillside?” I asked Ganesh, a trifle afraid that it must have been my imagination. “Of course, after the monsoons,” he answered, and the mention of the monsoons triggered a vision of me with my heavy school bag, rain coat, gum boots, and umbrella, trudging uphill in the rain with the crash of thunder and flash of lightning that seemed so close that thoughts of being struck dead were never too far from my mind.
The high point of the trip was the visit to my old school. Allen Memorial School is in Barlowgunj. From where we were, only Weinberg, St. Georges and Woodstock were visible, Allen Memorial being at the bottom of the slope from Weinberg, hidden from view. The clock tower was the central pivot and whether it worked or not did not matter. Its high visibility was enough reason for its existence.
T.W. Philips was the principal who received us and showed us around. He invited me to talk to the students at assembly the next morning. I was totally overwhelmed by the red carpet laid out for me. The school choir sang, and I was escorted to the dais and the eager faces in front of me inspired me to talk of my experiences and life. When I finished speaking, I noticed that Sudha had tears in her eyes. I hope I conveyed to the young students some of the unforgettable lessons of life that these hills had gifted me. I had just had my photo exhibition of the banyan tree “Asvattha” at The India International Centre in New Delhi. I was happy that I had brought with me a panoramic photograph of the magnificent banyan tree, which I gifted to the school.
Just as the hills of Mussoorie look like a diamond necklace in the dark of the night from the foothills, the cities down below present an equally spectacular sight when viewed from the heights. In my school days, on a cold night, just after a shower, the air clean and clear, I would open my door facing the plains. The vision of a million stars strewn on the floor and another infinite number in the sky is imprinted in my mind forever. No one talks of the wonderful “Winter Line” any more. Have atmospheric changes wiped it out, I wonder. As winter approached, a broad crimson band would develop after the sun had set in the west, and this would grow more spectacular as the winter advanced till the picture got etched forever in my memory. I guess I have to make another trip to Mussorie in the winter to see for myself, and I hope it is not another 30 years from now.
Professional photographer and writer Usha Kris lives in Chennai, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.