Mussoorie. That was great. I had three full days to the explore this world of my childhood, to remember more of what happened and also try to put some demons to rest. While most of the time was spent revisiting places of old, I also made it a point to go where I had not (Gun Hill) and try to see Mussoorie through a modern lens.
What had changed? A life time resident I spoke with complained that it had become a slum. Did I see more poor people than I remember? Perhaps. But maybe that was just because there were more people there in general.
What was new? Neck tattoos. I saw way more of those than I was expecting. Was there a Bollywood film I missed where the hero had one? Is it time for me to reconsider getting mine? Or, was this just an indication of how much modern hip-hop culture has spread throughout the world with the help of smartphones (which everyone including the poor had)?
In 1991, the economy reopened to outside investment and business ventures, causing the Indian middle class to explode, giving many millions a better life. This also in turn meant that these millions now had access to motorized transportation. While the usage of these vehicles freed people to become much more mobile, it fundamentally transformed the ecosystem of many towns and cities, which were not built to handle the levels of traffic they were now facing during weekends and holidays.
Mussoorie was no exception, making a walk down what used to be a slow paced and quiet road with pedestrians and the occasional hand pulled rickshaw, into an unexpected obstacle course of scooters, motorcycles and cars, along with significant increase in pedestrian and bicycle rickshaw traffic. Any journey outside of the hotel required me to remain ever vigilant or risk getting run over.
Thankfully horns were used with wild abandon, as a way for the driver to communicate that they were bearing down on you. From the courteous triple tap “Hey, I am nearby, please be aware,” to the more aggressive “Get out of my way, I will destroy you” long single honk.
By Day Three, I had become an expert at identifying vehicles by their horn. The most commonly heard was from the scooter, recognizable by its nasally buzzing beep. Its two-wheeled relative, the motorcycle emitted a flatter, more hollow sounding noise. Many of the cars observed sounded horns that reminded me of an American accent, monotone and unmemorable. The most colorful of all were from the SUVs, which sometimes mimicked a birdcall in its cadence, hitting several notes in rapid succession.
Over the last thirty years, the layout of Mussoorie remained relatively unchanged. By this, I mean the buildings and architecture had not been altered to the point of making the town unrecognizable. Along the Mall Road there were very few buildings that stood out as new construction. Most of the new businesses looked like they just moved into an old building and replaced the sign. The exceptions were of a combo Nirula’s / Domino’s, which seemed to pop mainly due to color scheme and its signs.
Hotel Howard was the other place and it looked like it really went under the knife. The earlier version had a ‘50s Modern design, with a rotating restaurant on top. The new Hotel Howard looked like it drew its inspiration from Robocop, saving parts of the old building’s body while throwing some silver and black pieces over the top to make it whole again. To cement its place into the modern age, Robo-Howard installed a coffee chain in the middle floor, which blared top forty hip hop as a way to draw in the new neck tattooed generation.
The restaurants of Mussoorie were a place for us students of GNFC to take a break from the Indian diet we were largely fed at school. A favorite place for us to eat was The Tavern, a second-floor restaurant near Picture Palace. This was the furthest into Mussoorie we would venture and it served Continental fare, with its specialty being the “Sizzler”. While sounding like it could be a wrestling move, it was more a body slam of spiced vegetables and tofu served in a cast iron dish that came out of the kitchen (surprise!) sizzling. On my return visit, just sitting down to eat at this place was enough. I did not have to relive everything. So, instead of the Sizzler, this time around I opted for their Indian fare going with a Mattar Mushroom dish and Naan instead. It made me happy.
At Library Point, Jeet Restaurant was the go to spot for Western food. Like The Tavern on my current visit, I opted for Indian food and unlike The Tavern, I immediately regretted this decision.
Outside of Jeet’s there were three other places that remained in Library Point from the good old days. A. Kumar & Co. and F. Nath Jee & Co. were general stores where you could stop on your way in for an ice cold Limca (lemon-lime soda), or a Campa Cola and on your way out to grab snacks to take back to school.
Lastly there was Whispering Windows, a favorite hotel for visiting parents to stay and a place where a langur once robbed me of a loaf of bread I bought to sustain me on a long pilgrimage trip to Hemkunt. I say “robbed” because that’s exactly what it did. The monkey was nearly my size and with fangs several inches long (I know this because he bared his teeth and lunged at me) he was welcome to take whatever he wanted after he rummaged through my bag. In the ‘80s, I remember Whispering Windows being a decent, clean place. It looks like that it had never been updated (the rooms look exactly like they did) and at $20 a night was veering into the world of budget travelling.
The “WTF Mussoorie?” award goes to the decision to move the Gandhi statue from its proper place in the traffic circle at Library Point (Gandhi Chowk) and replace it with a statue of an Indian three-piece band (outside of Jazz and Primus, I didn’t know this was a thing). Now Gandhi stands sidelined above a look out point, populated by selfie taking tourists and a whistle vendor. Whomever heads the Mussoorie Arts Committee needs to be fired for this and the many of the other half-baked pieces of artwork that now line the Mall Road.
Gandhi looms ominously as if ready for a comeback (They Call Me Mahatma).
In the heart of the Mall Road, the other hold outs from my childhood were two bookstores, Chander and Cambridge Book Depot, which were way ahead of the curve using depot in their names. Sandwiched together, it was at these two stores that I discovered three publications that would greatly affect my life, Commando Comics (WWII stories of British daring, stick-with-it-ness and a good catalog of German words expressing surprise), Archie Comics (Betty is Veronica with blond hair!!!! Figure it out Archie!!!) and the Joy Of Sex (a book that made me feel things I did not yet understand, nor would for many more years).
And finally, there was Chick-Chocolate. How the mighty have fallen. I think I can speak for most American kids when I say that this store held a special place in our hearts. Before the opening of the economy, foreign snacks (i.e. M&Ms, Coke, Doritos, etc.) were largely unavailable. Chick Chocolate was the one place in Mussoorie you could buy these foreign brands at an exorbitant rate and they made a killing. They also sold soft serve ice cream, toffees and plenty of Indian snacks as well. But, this was the place you went to if you were feeling a little homesick and you wanted something to help ease that pain. I imagine they had to rethink their business model, once we left Mussoorie and with the opening of the economy, which brought many more Western snacks into the Indian market.
Stepping back into this place, the only things still the same were the sign, husband and wife owners and a small selection of U.S. branded snacks. They expanded the space and transitioned into more of a café setup, serving burgers, pizza, coffee and other Western food and drink. I imagined with places like combo Nirula’s / Domino’s and other chains making their presence known in Mussoorie, they have to deal with some stiff competition.
Walking up to the cash register, the husband gave me a weary smile. I told him that I used to frequent his store as a child and it was great to be back.
Whether he had heard this one too many times or he just didn’t care, he smiled thinly again and said, “That’s nice.”
Seeing in the glass case a packet of their toffees and having such good memories from eating them, I asked to buy them without really thinking. As he pulled them out of case, I realized that this was the only bag, which likely wasn’t a good sign. When are you going to be back here again? I thought. Just buy the bloody things.
Hours later after dinner and sitting in my hotel room, I remembered I had bought the toffees. Excited to experience a childhood favorite, I pulled one from the bag and attempted to unwrap it. The parts of the wrapper that were not directly attached to the toffee tore away, with the remaining paper glued to the toffee.
Goddamn it, I thought. Chick Chocolate was going to really make me work for this memory.