Literary history

The ghosts of a literary Indian hill-station that haunt the writers of the present

Mussoorie was, and is, one of India's most fertile grounds for writers.

“All hill-stations have their share of ghost stories” writes journalist Sheela Reddy. “But the Doon must be the only spot that can boast of so many writers, living and dead, who have turned their home into their muse.”

The Doon is a quiet valley of hamlets in the state of Uttarakhand, India. It is home to a nearly 200-year-old English literary tradition and many Victorian styled decaying structures. Of all its little townships, Mussoorie and Landour comprise what is arguably the most fertile literary territory in the country.

Well-known writers from the valley include the legendary octogenarian author Ruskin Bond; historian Ganesh Saili; Stephen Alter with his warmhearted recollections of an American boyhood in the Indian hills and intrepid romances; the travel writer and spiritualist Bill Aitken; and the thespian-turned-essayist Victor Banerji.

Around the mid-1820s, Mussoorie became of the first sanatorium in British India. It was established by Captain Frederick Young, founder of the Sirmour Rifles regiment, who also sowed the first potato seeds in the valley.

While Rudyard Kipling seemed to be more partial towards his beloved Simla, Victorian writers such as Emily Eden, Fanny Parkes, John Lang and Andrew Wilson gave us numerous literary and epistolary writings on Mussoorie.

Most of them became characters in the ever-expanding folklore of the valley. Some turned into the endeared ghosts that are said to haunt the region.

Rokeby Manor Gate in the snow. Image Credit: Paul Hamilton/Flickr
Rokeby Manor Gate in the snow. Image Credit: Paul Hamilton/Flickr

The past and its apparitions

From time to time, the Doon’s literary and historical legends emerge to posthumously assume the mantle of the guardian of the valley’s innermost secrets. And current-day writers have ensured that these secrets are well-preserved in the splurge of literature that the hill-station has produced in the past two decades.

In 1964, Ruskin Bond discovered the grave of John Lang in the Camel’s Back cemetery. Lang was an Anglo-Australian-Indian barrister, who had opposed the Doctrine of Lapse in the Indian courts.

The Doctrine of Lapse was a policy of annexation promulgated by Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor General of India, which decreed that any Indian state whose ruler had either died without a male heir or was ruled by an incompetent leader would be annexed by the British Empire. Since the discovery of his grave, Lang has been a standard feature in the Doon’s literary musings.

John Lang with Nana Saheb. Illustration from Lang’s book
John Lang with Nana Saheb. Illustration from Lang’s book "Wanderings in India and other sketches of life in Hindostan" (1858)

Another legendary character was Frederick (Pahari) Wilson, also known as the Raja of Harsil and his second wife, Gulabi. They are among the hill-station’s most recurrent ghosts.

In 1883, Wilson’s obituary in The Pioneer described how he came to the valley:

[Wilson] started from Calcutta, armed with five rupees and a gun on his long march to the Himalayas … He lived for many years by the sale of what he shot, and finally embarked on timber contracts in the forests … until he amassed a considerable fortune.

Although he was not an author, he built the Wilson bridge over the Jadganga river, traces of which remain today. Kipling came in contact with Wilson, took a fancy for the legends surrounding him, and used his biographical details for his story, The Man who Would be King.

The ghosts of Gulabi and Pahari Wilson are said to still lurk in the Doon, largely owing to one of Bond’s supernatural stories, Wilson’s Bridge.

Sisters Bazaar in today’s Mussoorie. Image Credit: Paul Hamilton/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA
Sisters Bazaar in today’s Mussoorie. Image Credit: Paul Hamilton/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Young’s ghost is also an alleged regular at Mullingar flat. Today, Ganesh Saili and his family reside there. According to Saili:

[Young] astride a white horse arrives at the old Mullingar lodge, ties his steed to the remnants of the old wrought iron railing and … waits for the parade of Redcoats to begin.

Young, too, was an author of sorts. He may not have written anything but he helped build St. Peter’s Church and the area around the Sister’s Bazaar in Mussoorie, shaping the literary personality of the town.

An unlikely architectural heritage

Aside from ghosts, the other formal aspect of Doon’s literature is architecture. Writing about India’s hill-station buildings, Giriraja Shah explains:

A good number of historical monuments are famous, more because of the proper exposition of hoary romance, antiquity and myths … than the visible splendour of art and architecture.

Buildings in the region’s writings seem to embody the ghosts themselves, a kind of hauntology: where the literary landscape is a ghostly simulation of the lived space.

The Savoy Hotel, an iconic landmark in the Doon Valley, with its haunted corridors, and famed Writer’s Bar. Image Credit: Nick Kenrick/Flickr, CC BY-SA
The Savoy Hotel, an iconic landmark in the Doon Valley, with its haunted corridors, and famed Writer’s Bar. Image Credit: Nick Kenrick/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Although Mussoorie’s buildings are offshoots of the Swiss-Gothic form – a style praised during the colonial era in the Himalayas – it certainly is not a place replete with architectural intricacies. The Savoy Hotel, the Mussoorie Library, Skinner’s Hall, and some other old buildings and the churches of the township do exhibit the usual spires, gables, dormers, balustrades, pilasters, Glasgow-built lampposts, and colonnades. But these features are not as architectural as the state of disrepair itself in which the buildings find themselves.

The renowned architect-turned-scholar Bernard Tschumi, once gave an “Advertisement for Architecture” with an old photograph of the Villa Savoye, with the caption: “The most architectural thing about this building is the state of decay in which it is.”

Above Bothwell Bank. Paul Hamilton/Flickr
Above Bothwell Bank. Paul Hamilton/Flickr

In literature, as also in reality, Mussoorie and Landour live in a state of aesthetic decay.

The names of their houses invoke a landscape set in a parallel timezone. Mullingar, Zephyr Lodge, Companybagh, Cloud End, Tipperary, Killarney, Shamrock Cottage, Scottsburn, Connaught Castle, Hampton Court, or those borrowed from Sir Walter Scott’s novels such as Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, and Rokeby (the last now converted into a pleasure resort, keeping intact the stony façade of a castle).

Landour preserves the memory of those Anglo-Indian spirits that refuse to acknowledge their extinction. Tourists are seduced by the town’s literary ghosts. And every once in a while, an ordinary night’s peace is disrupted by the purportedly paranormal interventions of a dead memsahib such as the spiritualist, Frances Garnett-Orme.

Her ghost is said to linger in the valley or the corridors of the Savoy Hotel, where she was allegedly poisoned to death, over a hundred years ago.

We might wonder whether the hauntings at Landour have any experiential element or are simply practical fictions conceived amid the solitude of the hills. As Ruskin Bond candidly stated, “when I run out of relatives, I invent ghosts.”

Arup K Chatterjee, Assistant Professor of English, O.P. Jindal Global University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.