By Newsmeter Network  Published on  8 Jun 2020 8:26 AM GMT

By Lt General Dr. Mohan Bhandari (retired)

“For scarily had they timely refuge found,

Then a huge limb of the great mountain fell,

Sweeping the fair hillside of home & land,

And burying dozens of their fellow men,

In one uncompromising living tomb!...

Strong men in the proud glory of life’s prime

Women in joyful trustfulness of love,

With the children in the full bloom of life;

All in the twinkling of an eye cut down,

In that rude harvest of the tyrant Death!...

Now the late lovely valley, Nainital

Stands as a witness of the frailty,

Of human strength against the overwhelming night “

(Excerpt from Hannah’s, A Book of Poems “Home Lyrics, 1887” on the catastrophe of Nainital of 1880)

It was a sultry afternoon –very uncommon for Nainital then. But things have changed now. Over the years, consequent to global warming, there has been a total climate change all over the world and especially so in the Kumaon and Garhwal Hills, where Rhodos have started flowering by January end and‘ Kafals’ are entering the market in early April! Mushrooming of poly-houses and other artificial techniques, fruits and vegetables have started growing throughout the year – albeit with little of their taste. With all amenities and luxuries at easy command, values, and attitudes have also changed. Call it good or bad. Progress or the downward trend-whatever way you call it! Nainital has changed so much in the last sixty years in all its manifestations, but what has remained intact is the ‘strength, spirit, and passion of people to win’. This singular factor is because the town and the area around is blessed by no other than the Goddess Naina Devi; the original temple lies buried below Alma Dhar and the present Temple stands with all majesty on the Northern fringe of the Naini Lake. Any visit to Nainital is not considered complete without paying obeisance at this Sanctum Santorum.

It was the third week of August this year. It had been raining incessantly for the last three days. You know how depressing it becomes in Nainital during the rainy season; the clouds even follow you to your bedrooms! ( No pun intended). In London, many a time, I have asked the Britons why they called heavy downpours ‘Raining Cats and Dogs’, I could get no answer. While you may see dogs moving in the rains, cats are mortally scared of water. You never see them. But in Nainital, during this period, even dogs do not venture out.

Be that as it may, after my evening academic session was over, suddenly, the rains stopped. And in the next half an hour, a dense fog started building. This was the best time to feel the fresh air and an outing to the town, I thought. Quickly I changed into my informal dress and my sports shoes and left The Hermitage, moving towards the Flats. The fog had thickened and by the time I reached the Riksha Stand, it was about 7 PM. Visibility was less than 15 meters, and you could not even see the lake. Somehow, whenever I visit Nainital, as old habits die hard, I always go to the Boat House Club; this ritual continues ever since I was a young lad. Today, being a life member of the Club, I feel amply rewarded!

I descended the steps and made an entry to the Club. Lo and behold, I found only a lone person with his head sunk in his hands. He was at the Reception Desk and barely lifted his head to greet me. We exchanged compliments. He was visibly surprised at my visit in such inclement and inhospitable weather. There was not a soul inside. After entering the Club, I went down to the seating area as per my normal practice, wiped a chair, and sat down. In between, I could see the formations of small and big clouds just over the surface of the lake. In between, smaller clouds settling low on the water surface of the lake moved to and fro with astonishing regularity. Dense fog encircled me with moments of lesser intensity in between. There was no one around. At the Reception Desk, I had asked for a waiter to be sent to me and I was waiting for his arrival. A cool breeze had now started stroking my face and I could see fragments of clouds turning into polka dots playing hide and seek. I was simply mesmerized and in a different world.

Suddenly, I heard someone calling out for me. A low and feeble voice. It sounded as if it was coming from the upper Mall and reverberated from Ayarpata Hill. “Do you know me?” the voice asked.

“No,” I said.

“But I know you,” was the soft reply. “You have been coming to the Boat House Club for so many years. This morning you were explaining the Kedarnath Tragedy at the Academic Staff College with waters gushing down from Kedardome, Charbari, and Companion Glaciers and other snouts of the nearby glaciers, weren’t you?”

“But how do you know all this?” I asked.

“Look, this is the tragedy. I had warned Gardener and Trail way back in the late eighties about the impending disasters that would fall upon Nainital. They did not listen to me. The result, after they ignored my warning, was the heavy landslides of 1879 and 1886. May be my fellow Britons were settling down in Kumaon and Garhwal Hills, and were more engrossed in spreading their might and influence after having defeated the Gurkhas. They visited Nainital mostly for fun and frolic. I recall so many late-night parties, Ball Dances followed by sumptuous Dinners. ‘Khalij’, ‘Cheetal’ and Ghural’ meats specially prepared by the Chief Khansama at the Hotel. How can I ever forget the Lady Get-togethers? Ayahs looked after our children. Where do you get all these facilities now?”

By this time I was engrossed in the conversation that was going on.

The voice continued: “You know, Barron first visited Nainital sometimes in March 1839 while he and his fellow companions were on a Shikar trip near Kaladhungi and Ramnagar. It happened that one of his native servants had talked to him about the existence of a beautiful and holy lake that was the haunt of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. While the last time he had walked up from the Kaladhundi side, this time in 1842, he took a long detour via Bhimtal. Robert, our Manager had told me that Barron had, as a punishment, placed a heavy stone on the head of one of the native guides who were not willing to guide him to this Lake of Celestial Beauty. The native had to yield finally and give up. Barron this time had brought along a small boat with a couple of his local friends from Bhimtal.”

“You know; Barron was so ecstatic after he saw the lake and the environs that he said it was by far the most beautiful site he had encountered in the course of his 1500 mile-long trek through the Himalayas.”

Now there was no looking back. Nainital became the Britishers’ favorite town. Even Ranikhet came into existence in 1869. If Lord Mayo had had longer innings and lived a little longer, Ranikhet would have had a railway along the ridgelines following the old cart road from Ranikhet to Ramnagar. The gradients offered no engineering difficulty but the question was, “TO BE OR NOT TO BE”. For poor Shakespeare, it was not to be! But this place fascinated so many great people, like Rudyard Kipling, Eva Shaw, Munshi Premchand, Jim Corbett, etc. The list is endless. They invariably linked a lot of their writings to Nainital. Nainital is a mystic place.

By this time, I was possessed by the voice. I had heard a lot many similar things from my grandfather who was born in 1886 and used to visit Nainital almost three or four times a week on official business as an adult.

The voice went on: “Remember, I told you that no one listened to me, earlier. I vividly recall that it was on the 15th of September 1880 when the rains began. Torrential rains continued on 16th and 17th of September. The Victoria Hotel was almost full. We had about four British honeymoon couples and quite a few soldiers. I also remember that there were about five or six officers who had come up from Bareilly where a Brigade HQ was being contemplated. There were three conferences scheduled in quick succession. The Cricket Tournament was to begin in early October. There were three Balls proposed and several guests were expected.”’

“Brigade HQ at Bareilly?” I asked.

“Yes. Later this was the same Brigade that had its three battalions in Ranikhet and Chaubattia. Don’t forget that the Viceroy had more or less decided to make Nainital the summer capital in place of Simla. Even in those days, a lot of sports activities were organized here. Teams from far and wide came to participate. But no Indian was allowed to play. So much so, that the natives were not allowed access to the upper road. You, being a Fauji, would know, that in WW II, all British colonies in the Far East came under the Eastern Theatre.”

I said: “Yes. But the WW II was fought and won on the power of U.S. Dollars.”

The voice was quiet. “Even in 1962, when the Sino-Indian War took place, Lucknow was the Headquarters of the present Eastern Command,” I added.

There was no reaction. “This town was selected as the summer seat of United Provinces Government way back in 1862. This paved the way for the settlement of all Europeans and natives here. Much later, a Governor’s House was built in the line of Buckingham Palace with double story accommodation having 113 Rooms for the Officials, Staff, and Visitors. It even had a private Golf Course and a Swimming Pool.”

“Yes, the Britishers enjoyed their rule to the hilt at our cost,” I said.

“Your fault entirely, your fault,” replied the feeble voice. “Aren’t you all still suffering today?” I kept mum.

“So it rained and rained and rained. The supplies in the Hotel and other Grocery Stores/shops had virtually finished. There was no electricity. We had big kerosene lamps and there were big gaslights that were hung on all sides of European Accommodation. After all, how much can you do just huddling together in weather like this? It was just like today. It was dark. You are lucky that it is not raining at the moment but imagine 30 inches of rain in almost 40 hours!”

‘That is too much.’ I agreed.

‘The bearers were running up and down attending to the Europeans, mostly children. Visibility was poorer than this. It was the fourth day of intense rain. You call it ‘Jhar’, I suppose’.

‘Yes.’ I said.

“It was frightening. It appeared to be almost the end of the world. And now came crashing down, the entire Alma Dhar. The entire hillside North of Nainital collapsed and it destroyed the whole Victoria Hotel. All the Rooms, the Orderly Room, Soldiers Accommodation, Conference Room, Library, the other houses, hutments, and dwellings all around. Virtually everything in the vicinity was completely wiped out. Even the dwellings and huts made by the natives nearby, including those of the bearer staff were wiped out. It was like a small Nuclear Explosion. The mud splashed into the Northern Right lake-side. The water rose in waves, like a Tsunami with heavy clouds of mud, dust, and smoke. It was a calamity! Forty-three British Nationals and a hundred and eight Indians died in this catastrophe. I reiterate here that no one had listened to me earlier. Had they done so, possibly, all these precious lives could have been saved! RIP all!”

“What should have been done?” I asked the voice.

“Look; this part of the lower Himalayan region is highly prone to disasters of various kinds. Furthermore, it falls in a dangerous seismic zone. Why did they make houses, hotels, and other hutments right under the hill feature where two landslides had already taken place.”

I replied to say that while I had no answer for the question, one basic thing that I learned as a soldier was that no shelters/living places should ever be made in lower heights that are overlooked by weak hill features and never should any camp be sited in/just next to a river/rivulet bed-however small it be.

“Right you are,” the voice said, “flash floods and mud slides are very common in these areas”.

The voice was getting feeble and I asked whether I would be possessed by it whenever I visit Boat House Club. I could hear loud and clear now.

It said, "No. I came to remind you what happened a hundred and forty years ago. That disaster and the Kedarnath Tragedy were both 30:70 phenomena. While 30% was natural, 70% was man-made. It could have been averted had suitable measures been taken at all steps in time".

I said: “Hold on; tell me something more about this 30:70.”

The voice’s parting words were, "If you all did not understand it in 140 years, how do you expect me to explain it in a few words."

I understood then, the underlying theme of the message and our total culpability in the matter.

I suddenly felt someone shaking my hand vigorously. It was Kishan the bearer. He told me that he had come twice earlier and was surprised to see me sitting all by myself overlooking the lake.

”This time I had to see whether you are alright,” he said. Suddenly there appeared Imam Baksh, who knew me pretty well from my younger days. He had moved out from Ranikhet Club in search of greener pastures to Boat House Club. I looked at my watch. It was almost 8 PM. It had started drizzling. I quickly climbed the wooden stairs and made a beeline to the Bar. I asked for two stiff pegs of Brandy. Before the Barman could ask me whether I wanted hot water or soda, I had gulped the Brandy in one go. I put the money on the counter and left for The Hermitage.

As I was ascending the High Court Bend to reach my room and was breathing heavily after crossing the famous Anda Market, I looked around and asked myself the question, “What have we done to Nainital?” A town of pristine beauty has now become a multi-storied concrete jungle. Will the fragile surface be able to take this much of load? What happens if similar ‘Alma Dhars’ take place elsewhere in our hill stations all over India! God forbid it, but will we ever learn lessons from the past? The voice had promised that it shall not return. There was no reply. I was suddenly reminded of the “VIKRAM AUR BAITAL” stories. But there was no “BAITAL” that came to put me wise; although there were enough trees around!

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