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Reincarnation for One India Hill Station

Mussoorie in the Himalayan foothills, once a destination for British colonials, is finding favor with the emerging middle class.

May 11, 2003|Tim Sullivan | Associated Press Writer

MUSSOORIE, India — In the Savoy hotel bar, where Britain's colonial elite once toasted their empire in Victorian splendor, the clock is frozen at 1:10 and the paint peels in ragged strips. And Lal Singh, the bartender, will smile apologetically if you ask for a whiskey on ice.

"No ice," Singh says, shifting in his ill-fitting plaid blazer.

A gin and tonic?

Another smile: "No tonic."

A few decades ago, the drinks flowed at the Savoy, the most popular bar in town. It was an elegant wooden vacation palace and Mussoorie a famous mountainside Hill Station, a haven for colonialists fleeing India's suffocating summer heat for the cool of the Himalayan foothills.

These days, the colonialists are long gone and Singh often just wants a customer. Any customer.

But Mussoorie still thrives.

Down a mountain road, mothers pull squalling children past cotton candy machines, an avalanche of plastic toys and noisy arcades. Families gorge at the Gluttony Restaurant (Indian or Chinese food), and couples hold hands on the one real street, which runs along a steep mountainside 7,000 feet up.

Two decades of Indian economic changes have remade Mussoorie, and it has been reborn with a new generation of vacationers: the country's growing middle class.

"First the homes were owned by the Brits," said Ganesh Saili, a local writer and teacher. "Then they were owned by the maharajahs, and then they came down to us common folk.

"It used to be the kind of place where people came up for three or four months," he added. "Now, there's a bourgeois middle class that comes up from Delhi for the weekends."

Hill Stations were scattered across the British empire, often built as sanatoriums or resorts. Mussoorie was one of the most celebrated, a town of palatial hotels and sprawling mansions famous as a place where you could bring a mistress and not worry about the gossip reaching home.

Politics, then economics, changed everything.

After India's 1947 independence, the town went into decline, its houses sold off cheaply, its hotels left largely empty. But in the 1980s, India's economy began to gain momentum. Then, untethered from socialism, the nation of 1 billion boomed and the economy grew swiftly through much of the 1990s. That created a middle class that, by the most generous estimates, now totals more than 300 million people.

Suddenly, people whose parents had never even been on vacation needed holiday destinations, and Hill Stations began to fill up again. Just five hours by train from New Delhi, India's capital, Mussoorie again became one of the most popular. The colonial town was overrun by an explosion of real estate development, and the city of 30,000 now counts a staggering 350 hotels.

The once-quaint village now seems more New Jersey beach town than Himalayan idyll. Traffic jams are common, summer water shortages severe and garbage a serious problem. Hundred-year-old buildings have erupted with plastic signs, cheap souvenirs and other glitz.

"If you stand still, they'll build a hotel around you," said Anand K. Jauhar, the Savoy's owner.

When Jauhar's father bought the hotel in 1946, the Savoy's house band still played April to October, when British colonial administrators, military officers and Indian royals moved into the mountains.

In those days, Mussoorie's residents were the sort of people who didn't need to be told which fork was correct for the canned oysters, how to dress for evening cocktails or where to get a tiger stuffed properly.

Although that Mussoorie still exists amid the decaying elegance of places like the Savoy and the now-moldy stuffed hunting trophies of a few old homes, the modern world has won out.

Not surprisingly, the changes have created sharp divisions between the few remaining longtime residents who long for the town's quieter days and the champions of the new, bustling tourist mecca.

Ask around, and the stereotypes of India's new middle class spill out: The new people are loud, uncultured. They can't appreciate the mountain beauty.

Even those who depend on the tourists sometimes join in.

"They are illiterate people," said Sanjay Bhatt, a Mussoorie native and desk clerk at the Honeymoon Inn.

But the tourists will hear none of it. "Yes, it's ugly sometimes," said S. M. Puri, a businessman who brings his family. "But it's our town now."

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