Ganesh! Help! Our house is on fire!” It was midnight. The phone went dead. But there was no mistaking the panic in Maya’s voice. Grabbing buckets, blankets and brooms we shot up the hill to fire fight till day break. Our fire brigade’s chunky fire-engine could not get past the cars parked cheek to jowl in the bazaar’s narrow lanes.
Twenty years ago, on May 10, 1996, tragedy came calling on the Banerjees — actor Victor and his wife Maya. Swayed by a breeze an old service line short-circuited, dropping molten metal on the Parsonage setting it ablaze. All the valiant effort by friends and neighbours were in vain.
In a never-say-die spirit, the Banerjees rebuilt their home prettier than the last. Today, the Parsonage stands tall and proud as proof of their indomitable courage. Come to think of it, Mussoorie has been spared the devastating fires that have wiped out heritage buildings in Shimla and elsewhere. Maybe it’s because our homes were built of rhododendron and oak, while others had used the resinous pine or deodar.
On May 5, 1935, a raging blaze came close to levelling Landour bazaar, forcing the Municipal Board to acquire its first-ever fire extinguisher. Though it was of little help when Phoenix Lodge, burnt down to the ground as a hot air balloon from a wedding party settled on its thatched roof.
Allen School seems to suffer from a vulnerability to flames. Perhaps they carry this legacy from their humble origins at Rockville, near Jaberkhet. In 1886 the basement of the building housing a wood-charcoal bhatta, exploded after being hit by lightning. Later in 1890, the grand old Constantia Hall burnt down, leaving behind ash mingled rumours of arson. Of course, nothing was proved. Ten years ago, on March 29, 2009, an electrical short circuit started a blaze in the thousand-seat Allen auditorium reducing it to cinders. It was midnight, fortunately, no one was injured. In the spirit of ‘Excelsior!’ the school rebuilt a new one, but this time with state-of-the-art safety features.
No such measures were in place at the old Standard Skating Rink on April 17, 1968. An errant breeze flicked a curtain over a kerosene-stove, starting off a major conflagration that raged through the night, reducing the heritage building to ashes. Lightning often plays havoc in the hills. And Capt. Charles Henry Deane Spread of the Invalid Establishment in Landour was struck and killed at Bala Hisar on September 3, 1879.
As an amateur photographer, he was collecting rainwater from the drainpipes for developing his pictures. Strangely, 24 years later, on the same day: September 3, 1903 a bolt of lightning killed Miss Eleanor Amy Nunn a teacher in the Abbey School above Lyndale. All she had done was walk to bolt the doors.
Fire returned to Happy Valley’s Administrative Academy on May 24, 1984. It started in the gas godown, burning down the VIP Guest House, the Library (located right below the Mess), the Dining Room and the Director’s residence, changing forever the facade of the ancient Charleville Hotel.
Mussoorie born author-photographer Ganesh Saili has had a lifetime affair with the mountains. His two dozen books are a testament to the hills of home.