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Mussoorie and Other Names

Tipperary in northern India? Ivanhoe in the Himalayas?

'STAND still for 10 minutes, and they'll build a hotel on top of you," said one old-timer, gesturing toward the concrete jungle that had sprung up along Mussoorie's Mall, the traditional promenade. This hill station in northern India is now one long, ugly bazaar, but if you leave the mall and walk along some of the old lanes and byways, you will come across many of the old houses, most of them still bearing the names they were born with, back in the mid-19th century.Mussoorie, like other hill resorts in India, came into existence in the 1820s or thereabouts, when the families of British colonials began making for the hills in order to escape the scorching heat of the plains. Small settlements grew into large "stations" and were soon vying with each other for the title of "queen of the hills." Mussoorie's name derives from the Mansur shrub (Cororiana nepalensis), common in the Himalayan foothills; but many of the house names derive from the native places of those who first built and lived in them. Today, the old houses and estates are owned by well-to-do Indians, many of whom follow the lifestyle of their former colonial rulers. In most cases, the old names have been retained. Take, for instance, the Mullingar. This is not one of the better-preserved buildings, having been under litigation for some years; but it was a fine mansion once, and it has the distinction of being the oldest building in Mussoorie. It was the home of an Irishman, Captain Young, who commanded the first Gurkha battalion when it was in its infancy. As you have probably guessed, he came from Mullingar, in old Ireland, and it was to Ireland that he finally returned, when he gave up his sword and saddle. Ther e is a story that on moonlit nights a ghostly rider can be seen on the Mullingar flat, and that this is Captain Young revisiting old haunts. There must have been a number of Irishmen settling and building in Mussoorie in those pioneering days, for there are houses with names such as Tipperary, Killarney, Shamrock Cottage, and Tara Hall. "The harp that once in Tara's Halls" must have sounded in Simla too, for there is also a Tara Hall in the old summer capital of India. As everywhere, the Scots were great pioneers in Mussoorie too, and were quick to identify Himalayan hills and meadows with their own glens and braes. There are over a dozen house names prefixed with "Glen," and close to where I live there is a Scottsburn, a Wolfsburn, and a Redburn. A burn is a small stream, but there are none in the vicinity, so the names must have been given for purely sentimental reasons. The English, of course, went in for castles - there's Connaught Castle and Grey Castle and The Castle Hill, home for a time to the young Sikh prince, Dalip Singh, before he went to England to become a prot of Queen Victoria. Sir Walter Scott must have been a very popular writer with the British in exile, for there are many houses in Mussoorie that are named after his novels and romances - "Kenilworth,Ivanhoe,Woodstock" (later an American mission school), "Rokeby," "Waverley,The Monastery." And there is also Abbotsford, named after Scott's own home. Dickens lovers must have felt frustrated, because they could hardly name their houses "Nicholas Nickleby" or "Martin Chuzzlewit"; but one Dickens fan did come up with "Bleak House" for a name, and bleak it is, even to this day. I have never had the money to buy or build a house of my own, but I am ever the optimist, and if ever I do have one, I shall call it "Great Expectations." Mussoorie did have a Dickens connection in the 1850s, when Charles Dickens was publishing his magazine "Household Words." His correspondent in India was John Lang, a popular novelist and newspaper proprietor, who spent the last years of his life in Mussoorie. His diverting account of a typical Mussoorie "season," called "The Himalaya Club," appeared in "Household Words" in the issue of March 21, 1857. Recently I was able to obtain a copy from the British Museum. I haven't been able to locate the house in which Lang lived, but from one of his descriptions it may have been White Park Forest, now practically a ruin. The name is another puzzle, because of park or forest there is no trace. But on looking up an old guide, I discovered that it had been named after its joint owners, Mr. White, Mr. Park, and Mr. Forest. It is well over 50 years since a parson lived in The Parsonage, and its owner today is Victor Banerjee, the actor, who received an Academy Award nomination for his role in David Lean's "A Passage to India." Victor doesn't mind his friends calling him the Vicar. Another name that puzzled me for a time was that of the old Charleville Hotel, now an academy for young civil servants. Was it French in its origins? Most of the locals always referred to it as the "Charley-Billy" Hotel, which I thought was an obvious mispronunciation; but the laugh was really on me. According to the records, the original owner had two sons, Charley and Billy, and he had named the hotel after them. This naming of places is never as simple as it may seem. I shall end this piece with Mossy Falls, a small waterfall on the outskirts of the hill station. You might think it was named after the moss that is so plentiful around it, but you'd be wrong. It was really named after Mr. Moss, the owner of the Alliance Bank, who was affectionately known as Mossy to his friends. When, at the turn of the century, the Alliance Bank collapsed, Mr. Moss also fell from grace. "Poor old Mossy," said his friends, and pro mptly named the falls after him.

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