Marry my son,” she said, “and I’ll show you how to swing the sickle.” Now, there’s an offer you can’t refuse. Not when in some tiny, lucid part of your brain you’re thinking, a shroud of tall, harvest-ready stalks of rice, a cold, curved blade, and a prospective mother-in-law, who knows how to swing it! Small talk can be charming in villages like Bhatoli.
Arriving earlier in the day in a pack of Royal Enfields from the JW Marriott in Mussoorie–renting the air with the kind of hyper-urbanism that makes a village look more rural than it actually is–we were distracted at first by what looked like orange buntings from a distance. Someone had clearly gone out of their way to make us feel welcome, I thought. How warm. How rustic. How adoringly smarmy... On closer inspection though, the ‘buntings’ turned out to be swags of corn, dangling for months in anticipation of our noisy party and our Instagram accounts. Those shy, curious children around the corner and the beds of rajma in the pods? They were for the benefit of our Twitter handles, too. No, really... As were all Snapchatty chats, involving future mothers-in-law and private sickle-swinging lessons that inspired bad hashtag-haiku: #followme #nofilter #love #sicklepickle.
As if on cue, I was also introduced to a model daughter-in-law of the village. Young Kiran is married to the son of Jaipal Singh Sejwan, who owns one of the two beautiful, 200-year-old wooden homes around which Bhatoli has grown. With her mother-in-law away in the fields to harvest rice (also with a sickle), Kiran single-handedly cooked lunch for a battalion of hungry journalists and our charioteers in biking gear. On the menu were: makki ki roti or ‘bunting’ bread, fluffed up in a wood fire that included used-up ears of corn; coriander-mint-sesame chutney ground on a sil batta; a raita tempered with turmeric, cumin and coriander seeds; plenty of rice; and a fantastic sweet and surprisingly salty rice pudding, starring the local heroes: kathi walnuts–the word kathi alludes to the hard, woody shells that yield to hinges and door jambs alone. Water chestnut-like in taste and texture, these are distinct from the more common and nutty kagdi walnuts, or the ones with papery shells.
I should know. Walnuts were our constant companions these last few days in the hills. As guests of a new hotel (less than two seasons old), whose full name–the JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa–is practically a confession of faith, not a day was spent without running into walnut trees or walnut tarts here. And while it’s one thing to pass around rancid walnuts in tired Diwali gift packaging, it’s quite another to shake down a tree and collect a large green ‘marble’ with a crinkly nut in its belly (yes, walnuts are seeds, not fruits!). Most of this was by design, of course–the hotel had organised a Walnut Trail, arriving as we were smack in the middle of the walnut season; a short 15-day window in end-September and early-October.
Yet, walnut or no walnut, fair weather Mussoorie and its sibling Landour were ripe for the picking about now. Just as well then that we abandoned the sun-warmed hotel lawns and the beautiful conservatory to drive down to and acquaint ourselves with Landour one evening. A lovely, languid Landour, wrapped up in mist, and tied up like a bow by a figure-of-eight pathway that winds around it. It took us nearly an hour to take a turn about town, stopping to admire a colonial-era church here and a quaint cottage there... That is, when we weren’t raiding the shelves at Prakash Stores in Sister’s Bazaar for jams and cheeses, or polishing off apple pancakes at Anil’s CafÃ© in Char Dukan. We also locked eyes–if only for an instance–with a gaddi dog who refused to abandon his masters’ grave long after he was, in effect, done and dusted. Led by the erudite Ashok Mahendru, who has happily spent most of his life in this neck of the deodar woods, we also managed, along the way, to identify black and orange raspberry brambles, wild ginger and turmeric plants, three kinds of pine, six kinds of oak, horse chestnut trees and ‘mansur’ bushes from which Mussoorie gets its name.
The most important botanical takeaway though–by a long, long shot–involved the naming and shaming of the stinging nettle, and its antidote called the amelda, which grows wild right next to it. (Talk about marriages made in the purgatory!) I would, of course, discover the merits of such herbal felicity– on a hike through the Benog Wildlife Sanctuary later. But for now, the focus of our walk was squarely on the human nettles and ameldas among the first settlers of Mussoorie. Naturally, Captain Frederic Young came up early in the conversation. An Irishman, he’s widely considered the ‘discoverer’ of Mussoorie, the ‘creator’ of the Gurkha battalion (from among the vanquished in the Gurkha War in the early 19th century), and the ‘planter’ of the first potato in the Himalayas. An amelda by all accounts. Yet Mahendru spoke at length about others too, such as John McKinnon, responsible for the first brewery in India. And Frederic ‘Pahadi’ Wilson, an Afghan War deserter, who went on to acquire two wives and much ignominy, while building a fortune on the back of exported animal products and timber–a first-rate nettle, no doubt.
Yet no story is ever quite a story–certainly not in the hills–unless it’s told in the parlour of a beautiful cottage with a crackling fire, or a sputtering bukhari (space heater), to uncurl your toes around. And so it was that later in the evening, we retreated to author Ganesh Saili’s warm, historical home that he and has family so generously opened up to us (courtesy the very resourceful staff at the Marriott). Soon enough, historical
anecdotes and literary gossip flowed freely, as did chai, under the very roof where Captain Frederic Young once rang for his tea 100-odd years ago, looking out, perhaps, at the same flamingo pink sky, past the first potato patch, beyond the vale where the fog gathers like thick pelts of a million ghosts. Author Ruskin Bond, an old friend of Saili’s, appears to have spotted at least one familiar shape in the gloaming. In the introduction to Seasons of Ghosts, he writes: “The ghost of Colonel Young, the founder of Landour, often turns up at Ganesh Saili’s cottage–situated on Young’s old Mullingar estate–and vanishes along with the Mr Saili’s pipe tobacco.” Our evening at Mullingar was extraordinary too–just not for the wrong reasons.
Next morning, long after the sun had successfully chased away the last laggard ghost and any foggy notions of favourite haunts I might have taken to bed with me, Mussoorie redeemed itself with a bright blue sky. As if in anticipation, the hotel had arranged for a special breakfast too. But first we had to get to it. Driving out for a quarter of an hour and scrambling downhill to a bend in a gorgeous, glassy mountain stream by the Himalayan Adventure Institute. By then, of course, hunger had muddled up the prepositions in my head. Did they say we were to do the ‘breakfasting’ by the stream? Or was it in the stream? Who eats in the stream? Turns out we did–as did other groups at the JW Marriott (on request). With tables and chairs planted squat in the middle of the rocky bed, feet stung at first by the gush of liquid cold, it took a few minutes to get used to the luxurious idea of eating toast mid-brook. But we were not really eating toast, were we? In my case, it was anything but toast, as it happens–paranthas and idlis, dimsums and danishes, all brought to the plate by warm waiters waltzing through the water, weaving through the tables with their wicked treats, without once wobbling... you get the drift. Soon enough, even the air was so thick with contentment, you could scoop it up and eat it.
Yet just as I was openly burping and secretly begrudging the absence of makki ki roti–the kind that Bhatoli doles out by the dozens to smartphone-wielding ingrates from the city–down came a herd of mountain goats from the other side, bleating ahead of their minder. Dressed in a long skirt, with a scarf wrapped around her head, from a suitable distance she was a spitting image (or so I thought) of the potential mother-in-law I had only recently spurned. Could it really be her? Is that the pointy end of a hook in the folds of her skirt I see? I shall never know. For she smiled a knowing smile and waved a regal wave, before disappearing again into the fog that is the rural idyll. The sickle-swinging lessons would have to wait. #Epicfail #Bettergohome
The Shatabdi Express is the most convenient connection from New Delhi–it departs early in the morning and arrives at Dehradun around noon. Mussoorie is a couple of hours away by taxi or bus–the bus stand is close to the railway station. You can also fly to Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport, if you prefer, and drive up to Mussoorie. Since the airport lies outside the city limits, it’s a longer drive–about three hours one way.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa on the road to Kempty Falls (from `12,250 plus taxes for doubles; marriott.com). Barely two years old, the hotel’s vintage chic interiors and two imposing walnut trees on the grounds lend it a certain sense of gravity and grace. Sweeping views of the Garhwal range only serve to underscore that effect. The best perch is also the most obvious one–a valley-view room–but the deck attached to the terrace is also a great place to lounge in, especially with a warm apple-cinnamon drink in hand. The Marriott Mussoorie also encourages its guests to spend the evening out on the lawns with complimentary tea and snacks, to replicate the local tradition of kachdi. Many also find themselves drawn to the beautiful greenhouse near the lawns and the sculptures planted all over the property, including one in the likeness of novelist and poet Lady Emily Eden, who gave her bachelor
brother, the first Governor General of Mussoorie, company in India and wrote at length (and with great wit) about her stay here. Pitted as a family-friendly hotel, it attempts to please all with restaurants that offer Italian
and modern Indian, Asian (teppanyaki-style cooking) and all-day dining favourites. But it’s the local specialities you should save your appetite for–especially if you order their elaborate thali, including among other things bichhu
ghaas ki sabzi (dry nettle curry), mandua ki roti (finger millet bread) and gahat ki dal (horse gram), all of which are surprisingly flavourful
What to See & Do
Apart from the usual sights along the mall, Gandhi Chowk and Kulri Bazaar in Mussoorie, there are several nature trails that give fantastic
views. Landour, a few kilometres uphill, also has a charming concentration of colonial churches and cottages. Kempty Falls is best avoided, of course, but consider setting aside some time for short treks in the Benog Wildlife Sanctuary or for daytrips to nearby villages like Bhatol