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Been there, Doon that

A mixed bag from men who, charged with mofussil enthusiasm, narrate the goings-on in the Doon valley down the years, writes Allan Sealy.

india Updated: Jan 21, 2008 13:52 IST
Allan Sealy

The Doon Valley Across the Years
Edited by: Ganesh Saili
Publiction: RUPA
Price: Rs 295

In the spring of 1908, a young Anglo-Indian from Bareilly, Captain Hyder Hearsay, was deputed to trace the source of the Ganges. Did it rise at Gangotri or did it travel by an underground route, as some believed, from its true source, Lake Mansarowar? Hearsay and two fellow officers spent three months travelling upriver from Haridwar, saving along the way the life of the Gurkha governor of Garhwal when he was attacked by a bear. At the end of their journey they reported that the true source was Gangotri; any sadhu could have told them that in Haridwar. What any sadhu could not have known was that the men were actually spies. (But then how many sadhus are what they seem?)

The very next year, Hearsay was commissioned to raise a fighting force and do battle with the Nepali invaders, which he successfully did. In the process, he befriended the deposed Garhwali raja and bought the Doon valley and the pargana of Chandee off him when the king was short of cash. Afterwards, the British government, in recognition of the sale deed, bought Chandee from Hearsay for a nominal sum; the Doon they simply forgot to pay for, though Hearsay and his descendants never failed to remind them.

The story is told by Col Hugh Pearse and then retold by AR Gill: both accounts appear in Ganesh Saili's mixed bag, the wording often uncomfortably close. It's a feature of much rewriting of the valley's short recorded history (nothing before the 17th century) that every subsequent writer has felt free to draw on earlier prose, often without a murmur of acknowledgement. At the end of any sustained survey of the available histories you begin to feel a little like Oliver Twist in Fagin's den, surrounded by light-fingered young men doing a merry dance around you as they pick each other's pockets in a kind of artful dodgers' passing-out parade. Author quotes author, frequently without attribution, and all roads seem to lead back to the gazetteers.

The men who compiled those treasuries of information were busy administrators; G.R.C. Williams, whose 1874 Memoir of the Doon is still the most valued local history on my shelf, records that he "commenced the present report on the 6th May and finished it on the 14th August". Of course, gazetteer writers themselves drew on other officers' and historians' accounts (for the Kalsi Asokan edict, Williams quotes the Archaeological Survey) but that is as it should be: specialist work consulted and acknowledged. The field is a little muddier with the entry of newspaper journalism and private historians, and it is here that the editor of a historical collection could do much to sift wheat from chaff. Some of the fugitive pieces included in The Doon Valley Across the Years are so slight as to be in danger from the lightest gust. One wishes Saili had taken heart and blown them clean off the page. His genial introduction is a cautionary tale for editors: good intentions (or good nature) alone won't bell the cat.

Much of the mofussil tittle tattle could have been dispensed with; a single specimen for flavour would have sufficed. We get three, so tedious in their narration of prankish adventures as to be unreadable. Schoolboy material is fascinating if it's 2,000 years old, say from Asokan times, but not from just 50 years ago. Photographs and advertisements are far better at highlighting ephemera and Saili has done a commendable job of reproducing these. It sounds ungrateful, but like Oliver, I want some more. When space is limited one must ruthlessly weed out the less good along with the downright bad. Saili doesn't, and as a result the book closes with a tame memoir of a soldier grandfather when it could have included another piece instead and then ended triumphantly with the work of the former Australian novelist and Mussoorie dweller, John Lang.

Lang's "The Himalayan Club" is the one sugarplum in an otherwise duff pudding. It's so good I'm surprised Dickens wasn't too envious to published it in his Household Words. The prose is as strong as Dickens' own but with a fine restraint, and without Dickens' sentimentalism and laboured humour. Even as you laugh you detect a sensibility benign and uncensorious and wise. What the Mafasalite Press fails to do in long and unfunny sentences, Lang achieves in a single deft aside. Their subject is the same: fun and games in a hill station, but Lang does it with matchless wit and grace. His work should have been either up front (but how do you follow an act like that?) or the endpiece, certainly not mistitled and without a date, respects paid to far lesser pieces. It's worth the entire price of the book.

Allan Sealy is the author of the novels, Trotternama, Hero, Everest Hotel, Brainfever Birdand Red. He lives in Dehra Dun and Auckland, New Zealand.