Our hill station’s second child lies in ruins. You will find it marked on the old maps as a 23-acre property with a three-barreled name: White Park Forest – in remembrance of a chummery of three bachelors: Mr. White, Mr. Park and Mr. Forest - who lived there.
Bought in 1911, by the Seventh Day Adventists to start Annfield School. Though in their 58 years of its existence, they juggled with names, variously calling it: The Mussoorie Primary & Intermediate School, or Vincent Hill School & Junior College, and before settling on Vincent Hill.
Later the property was sold to the Inspector of Municipal Tolls, an enterprising Ashraf Ali. Remember Mussoorie, during the war years, was a place where houses were rented to make a quick killing, which was helped in no small measure by the sudden arrival of Italian prisoners-of-war from the African campaign.
Among them was the painter Nino Lo Civita, who marked his presence in Annfield, by making frescoes all over the house: on the ceilings; over the fireplace and even in the alcoves carved out of the walls to house oil lamps.
As children, we wandered through the ruins and saw the magic ceiling: grey-blue elephants massed like clouds; trumpeters blowing their golden trumpets while grimacing monsters huddled around edges in readiness to jump into the fray.
I still hear the songs of a childhood that were spent across the cobbled road, where a little girl would join us. Never mind that none of us knew where she lived. What lingers in memory to this day are her warm grey-brown eyes, her silky tresses and her green-and-red bangles.
Of course the house was empty. Or was it? Not whilst we were around. Afternoons heard the pitter-patter of tiny feet moving from one door-less room to the other. Without a caretaker, vandals had a field day carting away all the woodwork to stay warm.
I miss that tangled garden that we had all to ourselves. This is where we spent our growing up days, in our world of make belief; this is where we built sand castles in the air; this is where we played marbles; this is where we played hide-n-seek and learnt to spin those wooden tops bought from the Clock Tower Topshop. Then came the day, when playing around, perhaps I lingered too long, and silently dusk dropped by.
‘Where’s she gone?’ I asked the others.
‘Sometimes she vanishes,’ teased a friend.
‘Sort of floats away and disappears!’
Though I went through the verandah, into the corridors, searching from room to room, but it was not to be. In the light of the setting sun, I looked up at the ceiling and caught the glint of green-and-red. Or were my eyes playing tricks? Or was it the play of light? I never did find out. But this I know, we never found her again.
That marked the beginning of the end of a happy childhood in White Park Forest.