Mussoorie | Debris of an odyssey
Lizards scamper amid the weeds growing from cracks in the walls. Cows saunter in and out of the crumbling house.
The house belonged to the protagonist of a non-fiction book I had read earlier this year. Yet, given what I had read of this person’s monumental achievements, I hadn’t quite been prepared for the decrepitude of the house.
“Let’s go to Everest’s house,” I had said to Anil, our taxi driver, that summer morning.
“There’s nothing there,” he had protested.
I had crossed my arms and smiled.
For the last three days, he had been rolling his eyes at us—my husband, daughter and me. We had refused to see the Kempty Falls, ride on the Gun Hill ropeway, or see any of the tourist attractions he had recommended around Mussoorie.
Some people surf waves and bungee-jump for their adrenalin rush, but I get my thrills by visiting places I’ve read about. And that’s why we were staying in Landour, a small cantonment town almost 1,000ft above Mussoorie. It is where Ruskin Bond lives, and I had long wanted to visit his home and walk the streets he walks in, and see the sights he writes about.
That article and that book had led us on this journey.
From Landour, our taxi descends through head-whirling, stomach-churning, corkscrew-like roads. We have no signboards or directions to Everest’s house; all we have is a handwritten map that the manager of our inn has given us.
“I’m sure we’ll see Mt Everest from Everest’s house,” says my seven-year-old daughter, bouncing on her seat.
“Why do you say that?”
“Why would Everest live in a house that doesn’t overlook Mt Everest?” she asks.
“Sir George Everest,” I tell her, “had little to do with Mt Everest. He was one of the men who mapped our country. His work also helped us know better what the shape of the earth is.”
“It is round, flat at the poles,” she says.
“So why is the mountain named Everest?”
“His successor, Andrew Waugh, and his team extended this work and calculated the height of many Himalayan peaks while surveying the geography of the area. He named the tallest of them after Everest as a mark of respect.”
“And,” I conclude in my best suspenseful whisper, “George Everest never even saw Mt Everest in all his life.”
Her mouth falls open as she wraps her brain around that last fact.
A stony road climbs up the incline of a ridge, and meanders through pine forests before reaching the grassy hilltop clearing upon which Everest’s house stands. George Everest had bought the house and the surrounding 600-acre Park Estate from a British colonel in 1833, and named it “Hathipaon”—or “elephant foot”.
As I walk from our parked taxi to the house, I see that the house is open to the elements, and the walls are broken in several places. A cud-chewing cow lounges in an alcove in the large, D-shaped drawing room which is visible from the outside. The words “I luv you NONU” are scrawled in black on the wall.
I walk through the doorway into the main chamber. Cow dung and unrecognizable liquids—rainwater? urine?—streak the floor. Broken plaster, stones and charred paper are scattered about. My daughter wants to come in, but I ask her to stay outside with her father.
Three other rooms have large windows and blackened fireplaces. One even bears signs of a meal cooked not too long ago—burnt remains of twigs lie under three flat-topped stones. Crumbs of Maggi noodles are scattered on the floor.
Another room has shelves across its walls—I take this to be the kitchen. The last room at the back of the house, which I assume is the bathroom, has ceramic tiles lining the floors and walls, which seems to me a recent, zealous attempt at renovation. The dry brown of cow dung is smeared across the floor.
I walk back to the spacious, sweeping, D-shaped drawing room, which, as John Keay writes in The Great Arc, Everest used as his drawing office. In my mind’s eye, I see what it might have looked like 180 years ago. I see it furnished with carved, cushioned armchairs in burnished wood, and a chest of drawers with brass handles. The windows on the curve of the “D” open out in three directions and are, for me, the highlight of the house.
I picture Everest bending over his polished teak wood writing desk, working on the complicated calculations needed for his task of mapping and measuring the 2,400km length of a country. From time to time, I imagine him conferring with his assistants, serious, whiskered, deferential Britons in frock coats and breeches, many of whom live and work in the houses and observatories built around this house. Only one observatory has survived.
When Everest looked out of the south-facing windows of the drawing room, would he have appreciated the beauty of the sweeping expanse of the valley and the plains that he had mapped and measured? Would he have looked out of the northern and eastern windows at the lofty Himalayan peaks, whose measurement was made possible because of his work on the Great Arc, and the tallest of which would come to bear his name?
I would stand by the window looking over Everest’s shoulder, and he would look up at me and say: “Moo.”
My reverie is shattered. The cow in the alcove feels I’m intruding. “Moo,” she goes again, and glares at me—I’m clearly not welcome in her territory.
I walk slowly out of the doorway, and go back to my taxi.