Origin myths of what today are well-known places are fascinating not only because of the lore associated with them, but also because descriptions of ‘those days’ allow imaginative encounters with the past. This is particularly so as often, very little of what was originally there remains, or growth and ‘development’ has been so mindless that there is some comfort in looking at paintings, lithographs and photographs as well as reading descriptions of the past. Indian hill stations, many of which are being suitably destroyed by the ravages of real-estate prospectors and developers, are particularly suited to this kind of mental exercise. As these were so coveted by the rulers eager to find reprieve in a better climate, a few first-hand accounts of the times are available — though some by Indians are fraught with instances of racial discrimination and accepted hierarchies.
When, in the 1930s, Murli Manohar Joshi’s step-sister, Tara Pande, and her doctor husband moved to Naini Tal, she found it “a beautiful and lively town, quite different from the old-fashioned, hide-bound Almora of my childhood.” However, “we Indians were not allowed to walk on the Mall Road — that was reserved for the whites. There was another path that ran a few feet below, reserved for the natives.” At the same time, Govind Ballabh Pant’s niece, Shakuntala, remembered going to a school run by “a Christian lady whom we simply knew as Miss Sahib”; more than formal teaching, they “were sent to Miss Sahib to learn the rudiments and to smarten up a bit.”
Jim Corbett’s mother did not teach children but was the redoubtable matriarch of a family that had invested heavily, financially and emotionally, in Naini Tal and its environs. When Edward James (Jim) Corbett was born on July 25, 1875, at Naini Tal, he was the 13th child of his enterprising mother, Mary Jane. A ‘Mutiny’ widow with four young children, Mary Jane married Christopher William Corbett in 1859. She had been among the hundreds of refugees to flee from Agra in 1858, making the journey to the safe environs of Mussoorie by an assortment of man-borne ‘vehicles’. Not long after their marriage, Christopher was to become postmaster of Naini Tal and the journey from one hill station to the next was not easy. Once more, Mary Jane and the children travelled in a doolie (litter) not unlike a palki (palanquin), borne on the shoulders of four strong men. The final ascent was in a dandi, a hammock slung from a single pole. During the 200-mile-long journey through rough paths and jungle tracks, the fear of coming upon the odd tiger, if not a gang of dacoits, was very real.
The couple had nine children of whom Jim was the last but one. Not long after settling in Naini Tal, Christopher Corbett bought land in Kaladhungi and built a house in close proximity to the terai jungles. The present 30-odd miles of motorable road between Kaladhungi and Naini Tal are surely not what Corbett and his friends would have taken; to them the obvious choice was the pakdandi — short cut through “more or less dense forest” interspersed with bits of cultivated areas. Records trace the discovery of Naini Tal to 1841, when a Mr Barron who had been looking for a salubrious spot chanced upon the area with its natural lake. There are two theories regarding the lake’s origin: one, that it was excavated by glacial action and, second, that it was caused by a landslip. Barron was “enthusiastic over the beauty of the scenery, the crystal clearness of the water, and the plentiful animal life.” By 1843, he had built Pilgrim Lodge, which was later to become one of the cottages of the Club.
A 1927 account in a collection of essays on Naini Tal by L.C.L. Griffin, assistant commissioner, provides us with an interesting aside on the politics of hill stations: in a publication called “The Hills”, a writer with the nom de plume of Bagman accused Barron of gross exaggeration: the lake was stagnant, unhealthy and the roads were dangerous to a pedestrian. Barron and friends, it went on, were giving Naini Tal publicity only to press their own advantage. Not to be put down, Barron wrote that he knew of the “despicable” author who went shooting “crawling on all-fours and wore a pair of green spectacles.” Given that too many persons were unlikely to have this interesting taste in glasses, Bagman’s identity was sure to remain no secret. His attack was apparently fuelled by an apprehension that the new hill station might soon rival the older ones of Mussoorie and Simla. Perhaps commercial interests underlay his proprietorial attitude.
In 1857-58, the town was buzzing with refugees from Agra, Moradabad and Bareilly; it was not long before the ‘natives’ got restive, only to be dealt with severely by the commissioner, Major Ramsay, who immediately declared martial law. There were rumours of some hangings as well. Things settled down, and Griffin noted wryly that, judging by the letters exchanged between residents and ‘friendly’ Indians in the plains, “the chief material need was for beer.” Ramsay was well in control of the situation, resisting attempts to send women and children to Mussoorie: the hill people, he argued, had no sympathy with “the rebels,” and relocating populations “would disturb the present quiet, and make a panic throughout the district,” he wrote.
Not one to lose control or have others question his authority, he was to later become Major General Sir Henry Ramsay, and as he ‘ruled’ the region for over 28 years, he was known as the King of Kumaon. While at the helm, Ramsay was able to make Naini Tal the summer capital of the United Provinces. This was in 1862, and it soon became a favoured spot for Europeans and some affluent Indians, and also a suitable venue for educational institutions, the best known being Sherwood College.
By this time, demand for properties to buy or to rent had gone up exponentially; as Corbett’s biographer, Martin Booth, points out, sensing an opportunity, the astute Mary Jane Corbett soon set herself up as “Naini Tal’s first estate agent.” She not only sold cottages that she had got constructed on choice plots, but also rented them out for the season or more. Things changed somewhat after the landslip of 1880 that killed over a hundred people. Thirty three inches of rain fell between September 16 and 19, and as there were deep crevasses left from the clearing of sites for new developments, in no time “the whole hillside was one mass of semi-fluid matter, and required little to set it in motion.” The Victoria Hotel was completely buried by a section of the hill that “had descended with enormous velocity and violence.” Of the 151 dead, 43 were Europeans or Eurasians, and there was considerable destruction of property, including the temple dedicated to Naina Devi. The force of the landslide carried the temple bell to a spot across the lake, where a new shrine was erected the following year. Mary Jane was indeed relieved that her family was intact; however, as the prices of houses plummeted, her business was badly affected. After her husband’s death in the following year, Mary Jane built Gurney House on the Ayarpata Hill, not far from the lake. The couple had bought the piece of land as investment a decade before and though it was not in a fashionable part of town, it was on stable land.
While the landslide shook the morale of residents and those interested in investing in Naini Tal, this was not for long. It was soon back in people’s social calendars, reflected in Rudyard Kipling’s “Tents of Kedar”, an episode in his Story of the Gadsbys. The town’s chatterati are at an elaborate sit-down dinner. Soon, “after conversation has risen to proper pitch,” Mrs Herriott, one of the guests, castigates her reluctant paramour, Capt. G, for neglecting her. Reluctantly, he has to tell her of his other interest. Sensing her distress, the person seated to her left comments sympathetically, “Very close tonight, isn’t it? You find it too much for you?” “Oh, no, not in the least,” she says quickly, though adding “But they really ought to have punkahs, even in your cool Naini Tal, oughtn’t they?” A hundred years on, fans have indeed made their appearance in Indian hill stations — the result of climate change and over-crowding rather than of a much-more-amusing Kiplingesque dramatic sequence. If they chanced to come by today, while they would note the odd old bungalow, Tara Pande and Mary Jane would surely quail at the sight of Naini Tal’s scarred and eroded topography, jam-packed with ill- planned and unsightly structures.