You are on the chukkar looking out at the Himalayas. You can hardly say that without saying “majestic” Himalayas. They are. Framed by Deodar trees, towering conifers, on a clear day the snows are dazzling. A whistling thrush darts through the trees sounding its melodious song. Quiet. Hear that? That …hoo, hoo hoo hoo. hoo, hoo hoo hoo…is a pygmy owl. And that chatter is a titmouse letting that little owl know it is not welcome here.
Oakville is now behind you, Dahlia Bank is above you and you walk on past Kilmarnok and on to Sisters Bazaar. The Prakash Brothers have a near lock on selling canned goods and sundries to people living on the hillside. They make their own jellies. And years ago got started making peanut butter and cheese. On past Fairview and Oaklands to Kellogg Church and the cluster of houses there, one of which you lived in.
Way down in the valley, if you listen carefully and if you know what to listen for, is a deer barking. It is a kakar, a barking deer. The reason it is sounding off is because it is alarmed. Perhaps a leopard is lurking nearby. Or a bear. If you look carefully down at the oak trees near the fire line, just below the ringal (bamboo) you will see branches bent up, the white underside of the oak leaves now contrasted sharply with the surrounding greenery. A bear has been there and made an overnight bed up off the ground.
And as you continue along the chukkar you hear the mellow jingle of brass bells. You know what is coming. Mules. Probably loaded with gravel, four or five of them followed by the mule driver. This gravel is dug from the hillside with a pickaxe down near the bazaar, loaded in burlap pannier bags and hauled up the hill to make cement. Strung around the necks of these mules are turquoise beads, real turquoise, along with their distinctive brass bells.
You walk past the old cemetery. Headstones go back to the1850’s. You and a few friends sometimes come here on dark nights to tell the scariest stories you know. And then a bit further on you come to Childer’s Lodge. This large home on a promontory has perhaps the best view on the hillside. You look down. The hillside drops off into a series of cascading cliffs, home to a surprising number of ghoral (mountain goats). Right there at the corner you can smell something in the air. There is no one around but you know that smell. Some dudhwalas (milkmen) were just there. How can you tell? Easy. The deep cloying smell of buffalo, manure and sweat is still in the air. They stop here for a drink after a five-mile walk nearly straight up from the Aglar on their way to take their milk to market.
Way down in the valley you hear a faint singing. You know what that is. It is a number of women from their village out to cut grass for their buffalo. Their singing is antiphonal, back and forth, often bawdy ballads.
You turn the corner and head towards Kushi Rams. It is late spring and you catch up to a Pahari man, thin, knotted calves, tough as nails carrying a kundi (conical basket) full of apricots. They are fairly small, but the aroma indicates they are fresh and ripe. You ask for a “taste” and reach into the basket and pull one out, thank him, and savor it. You tell the fellow to stop by Chynoweth and sell some to your mom.
As you approach Kushi Ram, the roti wallah (bread man) has stopped to take a breather. He sees you coming. His tin trunk that he carries on his head is sitting in front of him. He opens it up. You take a look in. All manner of pastries on the top shelf, including coconut macaroons, one of your favorites. Below are rows of large loaves of uncut bread, freshly baked. The aroma is enticing but you pass on.
Just below St. Paul’s, and just past Kushi Ram’s the subzi wallah (vegetable man) has made the rounds and has some few items left over–a cauliflower, small and a bit shriveled, and several handfuls of peas. His simple scale is the type the blindfolded Lady Justice holds in front of her. There are also a few leaves of spinach, eggplant and a few tomatoes left. These subzi wallahs that ply the hillside almost always seem to be Muslim. They carry a heavy-duty flat basket on their heads, with 40-50 pounds of vegetables on it.
The meat wallahs do the same thing–bringing their product to the houses. You can buy a pork roast, a leg of mutton, and sometimes fresh fish, catfish usually—and amazingly, sometimes they are still moving.
You head down to the buzz (bazaar). Down, steeply down. You notice a wisp of smoke down the valley from Hostel. It is coming from the burning ghat. Someone died. The faint “dumpety dum” of a drum reaches your ears. The smoke increases. You can pick out a small knot of people, even at this great distance slowly walking down the path.
“Red Monkey” some kid sings out in English, possibly all the English he knows. You smile. It happens in town regularly. No need to call any names back. Your arsenal of Hindi slang and swear words would make your mother ill if she knew you knew them in any language.
The cobbler that makes your shoes, yes, custom made, is on the right as you enter the bazaar at the top of Mullingar hill. He is hunched over his last, hard at work, but missing nothing that goes by. You remember the first time you took a page out of a Sears catalogue, showed him the style of shoe you wanted. “Bhahut achcha, sahib“, he said—“Very well, sir”. You sit down and he takes a piece of paper out. You put your foot on it. He makes an outline around it with a pencil and it kind of tickles. Feels good. That is all he needs. A week later he brings you the shoes to your house. They fit and look great. Talented fellow. He is of low caste because he works with leather. He has dark skin and walrus mustache, which also indicates his low caste status.
Next-door is a chai dukan (tea shop), just a door up from Victory Eggs. The egg wallah sits there holding each egg before a light to make sure they are good, and stamps each egg with “Victory Eggs” in purple dye. You sit down at the tea stall for Hindustani chai. Strong, lots of milk and very very sweet. The fellow asks if you’d like a rusk. You would. Crunchy dried bread, perfect for dipping. There is a lot of clinking and stirring, the Primus is pumped up and roars to life and the water is boiling in no time. Tea is added, one full teaspoon per cup. It boils, the milk is added. It boils and is lifted off before boiling over. The sugar is already in the glass, three or four teaspoons. The chai wallah pours it in with a flourish, holding the teapot about as far away from the glass as he can get as he pours. The stream is perfect and not a drop is spilled. Sipping, slurping you hold the edge of the glass gingerly so as not to burn yourself. You finish, pay and are off.
Sharma the mistry (craftsman), adept at doing almost anything with tin or iron is on the left as you head down the hill. He is the one who helped you, hush hush, finish building your muzzle-loading pistol. He winks. You salam him. You pass the bakery at the next corner on the right. That wonderful smell of fresh bread again. Then Khaliq on the left, right across from the kabardi wallah (junk man). Khaliq is a master at ironwork. His forge always burns brightly. Whump, whump,–a red-hot chunk of pig iron is being transformed on his anvil into a ganti, a hand held farm implement. Clang clang–the thing looses heat and is thinner and in the rough shape of what he is making. The kabardi wallah is one your favorite stops. All sorts of interesting used things. Where do these guys get all this stuff?
The barbershop is on the left just around the next corner. That is where you had your head shaved bald just for fun. All manner of small dukans line the street selling cloth, grains, plastic items, metal pots. You wonder how any of them actually make any money. On the next bend on the left is Khalsa’s store. Old Smiley is not in or you would have been delayed five minutes trying to get away from one of the most engaging conversationalists in the buz.
Onwards, Ghandi chowk. Just before this wide place in the road is our subzi wallah. His array of vegetables is ramped upwards in tiers and he is sitting right in the middle of it all. A temple is just across from him. Always some bell ringing there. A pan wallah just outside the temple, sitting in a niche not more than one meter wide with all his fixings in front of him and boxes of cigarettes line the limited wall space beside him. He slabs on white paste (lime) on a leaf, adds a little beetle nut, peppers it with a mix of spices and stuff including, if you want, tobacco. You don’t want. He wads it up expertly and hands the pan to you; you pop it in your mouth. Thanks. A length of manila rope burns slowly out front—so people can light the single cigarette or beerdi they just bought. He sits straight backed and cross-legged there all day.
You can generally tell the prosperous banias from the less prosperous. The storeowners that are doing well are all chubby. The pan wallah is thin. He is barely making it.
The section just past Ghandi Chowk has three or four sweet shops. The aroma is enough to suck you right into one and spend what little change you might have left on the fresh jalebees. The bright orange syrup makes these pretzel looking sweets very attractive indeed. And they are fresh. And they are hot. They are… irresistible, and sickeningly sweet. As you take your 100 grams in a paper sack you glance at the array of other sweets in the glass cabinets. Flies are all over them inside the case. Along with a couple of bees. You move on.
Next a shop with hundreds of brass bowls of every description. Lotas(used for washing your you-know-what after going to the bathroom), dekshis (cooking pots), thalis (a type of plate) and much more. And then several silver smiths. Pahari women from the surrounding area in their quaint gypsy looking dresses (unlike the saris or sulwar kamiz worn by the ladies in town), with rings on their toes and rings in their ears (and lots of them) and rings in their noses, and silver rupee necklaces, some a hundred years old. They wait patiently with their husband as something is added to the family bank. They own little. And she may well be wearing all their assets. And if they can afford it, one or two pieces are solid gold.
Junki Das is one of these silversmiths. He does a lot of rings and things for classes at school like Class rings. He also made a ring to order for you. You brought him a few silver coins you pried off that door at the little white temple at Kanda Jak. The small wooden door was covered with coins nailed to it. He looked at these coins, a hole in the middle of it, looked at you, and you slumped and looked down at the floor. You knew he knew. It was obvious you had pried them off a temple door. But he made the ring. And you still have it, a tribute to your poor judgment. He also made you a tiger claw necklace. You brought him the claw you traded from the taxidermist in Dehra Doon. Right there across the street was where you watched a man get his head run over by a military truck. He slipped as it was rounding the corner. You were in the barber’s chair and watched it happen in the mirror.
Now, on the right, is a pushta (stone wall) and along this pushta at any given time you will find a troupe of monkeys, rhesus macaques. They are always fascinating–chasing each other, picking off fleas from each other, napping, a baby nursing or clutching its mother as it rides along.
You pass Vital’s Food Store–good for a cold soft drink on a hot day. On past Doma’s Tibetan shop with trinkets made in India that look Tibetan. There are lots of Tibetans living here now, but only one good restaurant and it is way over in Happy Valley. And now you are at the Clock Tower. This thing gongs out the hours, and if you have good eyesight, you can see what time it is from Landour. At the base of the clock tower is Vinod’s place. His dad used to repair furniture. And you knew Vinod when he used to make tops for you on his lathe. You would bring a drawing or a sample and sit there as he would choose a piece of hardwood, get it on the lathe and then offer suggestions for your perfect top. He would drill a small hole, clip off the head of a nail, blunt the other side and voila! Your top was ready. All you had to do was get some string and a bottle top (to place between your fingers so the rope did not slip).
And on you meander down towards Kulri. On the way you pass Thukral’s Photo Shop. Thukral is a successful Sikh photographer who does all the school pictures. Your dad loves photography and because of that at one time amassed a debt of several thousand rupees there, a small fortune at the time. And on down to Union Church where you attended for several years. Across the way are rickshaws, two wheels, pulled by two coolies and pushed by two coolies. Mostly used by tourists. Sometimes, just for fun, you would join the coolies and push one with tourists in it on the flat part going to Library with everyone laughing—coolies and tourists. And right there is where the horses are. They are there for tourists, and from May to September there are lots of tourists. Riding a horse is more than you wanted to pay most of the time. But every now and then you splurge. But they simply do not gallop. And that is no fun.
Picture Palace is to the right. The road to the left is the motor road that went to Kin Craig and on down to Dehra Doon. Straight ahead was a hotel. Behind and down from this hotel is a small field and in that field you can find a cricket match on Sunday afternoon or some nut on a bike riding in circles until he collapses ten days later. How he earns money at it you never knew because you’d be hanged if you give anything to an idiot that does this for a living
Past Picture Palace. You do not go in because your folks do not want you to go to movies. Once you did sneak into a Hindi one, Pat aur Patri over near Library, but that was it. You would have loved to seen El Cid there (it comes back year after year), or Spartacus. On past the police station where your dad took the human skulls you found over by Kanda, to the bottom of Kulri hill. Here you stop for lunch. Neelams is right here. Great North India fare….cheap. You can smell the puris cooking in deep fat as you find a seat. The dal makhani is superb. The rice is fluffy and pure white. Even though you have a cast iron stomach and can eat anything and drink anything, you try not to tempt fate and generally avoid fresh vegetables. You get up, wash your hands after eating (because your fingers are your utensils) and take off up Kulri Hill.
Bee Kay glasses at the top. Along with a Bata store where they sell some pretty good factory made shoes. And just past here to the left (you have to know what to look for) is a billiard room. You spent some sweet evenings in those smoke filled rooms attempting to learn the game before they became off limits…but it wasn’t you that was doing those things that made them off limits. Down to Kwality, a pretentious little restaurant catering to the upper end–one of the few that had a “European” menu. The only good thing they have, in your opinion, is ice cream. And their homemade toffees wrapped in wax paper.
And on. You can go around north side of Camel’s Back Hill. Nice road. Great vistas. But it is a bit quicker through town on the south side. You pass Hackman’s Hotel. You recall with fondness the many times you skated from Kulri to Library and beyond to Happy Valley. These all-metal skates are strapped onto your shoes like a vice. And you carry a key to work the clamping mechanism. The wheels are metal and sometimes bearings give out. It is hard work, the tarmac road is rough, and the ride leaves your feet numb. But it sure is fun.
Not as many shops on this side of town. The view to Dehra Doon is terrific. More hotels now, and much bigger houses. Mansions in fact. Movie stars’ homes. Birla House, of course, is owned by that industrialist family and is where the Dalai Lama first stayed when he arrived in India at the start of his exile. The Savoy Hotel is on this end of town, one of the largest and most lavish in town.
From Library to Happy Valley is another couple of miles on the north side of the ridge. You know from walking this section many times that it is one of the most beautiful strolls in all Mussoorie. Large Oaks overhang the road, houses are well kept, gardens are in bloom, and the view to the north is clear.
You are almost to Happy Valley now. A motor road descends to the right. It goes to Kempty Falls and beyond–down to the Aglar and up the other side to Chakrata. Kempty’s is a beautiful location and the waterfall is magnificent. This is where Norman pulled on a strap he saw in the mud and water below the falls and pulled out a Pentax camera.
Happy Valley. Dad’s office is at Firland Hall, just behind Deodars, a Christian retreat center. Nearby is the Tibetan School–a lot of Tibetans live in the area now. Mrs. Tsaring would be sure to invite you in for a cup of tea if you went that way. The Tibetans are industrious and for having nothing when they arrived and living in exile they seem to have done very well indeed. If you continue on the road on past Happy Valley you arrive at the Botanical Gardens. Just lovely, especially when flowers are in bloom. And on past that a couple miles is Clouds End, the last house on the road. And beyond that, Benog Tiba, a wonderful, short little hike up a grassy slope with a unique view of Mussoorie.
And on nights you find it hard to sleep you take this little walk. You know it well. And it is somehow strangely soothing and reminds you of a time not so long ago when all was well in the world.