The handbook of information for Kasauli Cantonment, 1923, says, “even Nanga Parbat in far off Kashmir, can, in the cold weather, be seen in solitary grandeur, while to the east Kamat, Bunder Poonch, Jumnutri and Gangutri are also visible.”
Today, standing on the lower Mall a visitor would be hard-pressed to see anything substantial beyond the hill opposite on which Lawrence School, Sanawar, is located. The view is punctuated by multi-storeyed buildings and an impenetrable haze induced by construction activity.
Over the past 50 years, Delhi-based Gurdarshan Singh, 75, has been coming to Kasauli regularly. Disappointed as he is by the denuding pine forests and heavy construction, he cannot resist the call of Kasauli, he says. Mesmerised, he looks on at the latest addition to the 174-year-old Christ Church in the heart of the town. A miniature windmill has been put atop to generate 1 KW electricity. “Times change,” he says wistfully as a movie crew arrives to film a Punjabi song in the church compound.
“The sleepy pace of the town has been lost forever,” says Jatinder Sharma whose family has been running a photography shop there since the 1930s. The weather has been the biggest casualty of the unfettered construction boom around Kasauli, he says. “Till 30 years ago, we could not see the sun for nearly 10 days when it rained. Now, it rains all around Kasauli but not in the town. The same goes for snowfall. It hardly snows anymore and the only heavy snowfall that you can see is in the photographs in my shop. The construction boom and indiscriminate felling of trees for the Parwanoo-Shimla National Highway widening project has added to the environmental destruction,” he says.
Kasauli had always been a compact cantonment town ever since the first few houses came up in the late 1840s. Essentially a convalescence depot for British troops, it developed into a quiet getaway at 6,000 ft, as compared to the glamour and glitz of Shimla, that was the summer capital of British India.
Old bungalows that retained their colonial charm and British names — Priory Estate, Rosedene Cottage, Red Combe, Win Haven, Drumbar, etc. — peppered the ridge around which the town came up. Some of these cottages have changed hands over the years and many are in a state of disrepair.
“There used to be only two-three cars in the entire town when we were growing up,” recalls RK Singla, owner of the 135-years-old Hotel R Maidens. Come weekends, there are no places left anymore to park the incoming tourist vehicles from New Delhi and Punjab, he says. Most of the old bungalows on the upper and lower Mall remain empty for the better part of the year, their owners visiting for a short while once or twice a year from Gurugram or New Delhi, says Singla.
Let not the hectic pace of transient activity here deceive you. The population of Kasauli has been on the decline with each passing year. “From nearly 5,000 in the 2001 census it has come down to 3,885 in the 2011 census and is going further down,” says Devinder Kumar Gupta, member of the cantonment board and president of the local Beopar Mandal. “There are no jobs or scope for growth of business. All activity is restricted to the weekend when the tourists come,” says Gupta.
The credit for the protection of Kasauli’s environs goes to some of its late residents. The late Baljit Malik, nephew of the most famous Kasauli resident, the late Khushwant Singh, was one such crusader. Malik’s Kasauli Bachao Andolan managed to keep rampant construction around the town in check till he was alive and in good health. He could often be seen going about town distributing his one-page newspaper made with recycled paper and his vociferous opposition shelved many mega construction projects.
“It was a lovely, quiet place when I started visiting it in the 1950s. My father did most of his writing in Kasauli,” says Khushwant Singh’s son, veteran journalist Rahul Singh. He gives much of the credit for the protection of the town to the cantonment laws. “They have managed to keep the old part of the town in a good shape as compared to the periphery which has seen such rampant and haphazard construction owing to the lapses on part of the Himachal Pradesh government,” he says (In April, the Supreme Court ordered unauthorised constructions to be demolished. They were carried out earlier this month. An assistant town planner lost her life when a hotelier shot her).
Most old timers who lived in these parts are gone. Among them, Khushwant Singh, Rupen Bose (actor Rahul Bose’s father), former diplomat BK Nehru and his wife Shobha ‘Fori’ Nehru. The latter died last year aged 108. The town has also seen former military personnel, including the late Western Army Commander Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh and late Lt Gen ID Verma, settle here briefly after retirement.
Old Kasauli days can sometimes still be relived on a weekday, away from the fast-food joints and shops selling Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar trinkets. The melancholic silence of this part of the town engulfs you on a leisurely walk past the empty cottages awaiting their absent owners. The mood is best captured in these lines from a Thomas Moore poem, often quoted by Khushwant Singh:
When I remember all
The friends, so link’d together,
I’ve seen around me fall,
Like leaves in wintry weather;
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!