Although I’ve travelled the world from Antarctica and Australia to Zanzibar and Zambia I am desperate to visit India, so I’m thrilled that, until my planned trip next year, I can visit vicariously through a fabulous guest post by Merryn Glover, author of A House Called Askival. Merryn writes so evocatively about Mussoorie that I’m there already!
Published by Freight, A House Called Askival is available for purchase here.
A House Called Askival
James Connor is a man who, burdened with guilt following a tragic event in his youth, has dedicated his life to serving India. Ruth Connor is his estranged daughter who, as a teenager, always knew she came second to her parents’ missionary vocation and rebelled, with equally tragic consequences.
After 24 years away, Ruth finally returns to Askival, the family home in Mussoorie, a remote hill station in the Northern State of Uttarakhand, to tend to her dying father. There she must face the past and confront her own burden of guilt if she is to cross the chasm that has grown between them.
In this extraordinary and assured debut, Merryn Glover draws on her own upbringing as a child of missionary parents in Uttarakhand to create this sensitive, complex, moving and epic journey through the sights, sounds and often violent history of India from Partition to the present day.
A Guest Post by Merry Glover
When I decided it was time to fulfil a life-long dream and write my first novel, I knew immediately where I wanted it set: Mussoorie, a hill-station in the Himalayan foothills of North India. It was where I attended boarding school for nine years, becoming a significant home base that I still visit whenever I can. Quite apart from my own history, it is story gold.
Scattered across a steep range at roughly 7000 feet, the busy town started life as a handful of shepherds’ huts in deep forest. During the British Raj, that hill area was seized by the feisty warriors of Nepal, triggering the Gurkha wars that saw the British in the undignified position of needing a large army and several canons to defeat a far smaller force with little more than knives, superior mountain skills and their legendary courage. The upshot was that the Gurkhas returned the land, resisted colonisation and won everlasting respect, being recruited into the British army to this day. The military men who led the victory were given land on the ridge for hunting lodges and thus, in the 1820s, the hill station of Mussoorie was born.
Hill stations developed across India because the high altitudes gave the British an escape from the heat, mosquitoes, crowds and diseases of the plains. They were ideal locations for hospitals, boarding schools and military cantonments and even the whole government of British India, which moved to Simla every summer. And they rapidly became popular holiday destinations, swelling during ‘The Season’ and filling the growing number of hotels, cinemas, ballrooms, shops and skating rinks that sprung up on the steep slopes. At their height, hill-stations teemed with the serried ranks of the Raj, taking tea on their balconies, cavorting at themed dances or parading down the Mall, often in hand-drawn rikshaws. What’s more, with deep forests, cool air, rain and mist, the hill stations were rather like home and nostalgia abounded. Houses were named Scotsburn and Tipperary, Strawberry Cottage and Ivy Bank, and in Mussoorie, a whole string were named after Sir Walter Scott novels: Waverley, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth and Woodstock, which became my boarding school.
Like much of British India at the time, it was a largely segregated world, with only Maharajas and their ilk getting a foot-hold on the social and property ladders, while most Indians serviced the enterprise. All of this was upended with the coming of Independence in August 1947 and the departure of the colonial powers. Since then, Mussoorie has grown and changed and is now as popular with the new Indian middle-classes as it was with the British, though it still carries many vestiges of the Raj in the stone bungalows, the boarding schools, the cemeteries and old shops, and in the quaint traditions still fiercely upheld by older residents, ex-pat and Indian alike. I love discovering remnants of this bygone world: the crumbling grandeur of the Savoy Hotel where a moth-eaten stag glares from one glass eye; an antique shop creaking with Willow-pattern china and rusting snuff boxes; a collection of sepia photographs of ladies in sedan chairs and moustachioed gents trussed up as Egyptians.
Mussoorie in Snow
But what has never changed about Mussoorie is its beauty. Looking south from the hillside, you can see the Dehra Dun plain with the Ganga and Jamuna rivers curving across it like serpents, and looking north, you might see the Himalayas in their jagged splendour. On the hills themselves, the protected forests are cathedrals of life, full of fragrance, wildflowers and small creatures, threaded with the sounds of birds and the wind through pines; and this high up, the air is clear, the sunsets vivid and the nights rich with stars. In the monsoon – a season that inhabits my novel like another character – moss and ferns spring from the ground and tree trunks, and mist moves across the ridges like a brooding spirit.
All of this beauty and history are the stage for A House Called Askival, an epic story spanning 70 years from pre-Independence to the new millennium, through the lives of an American family who, like me, are deeply bonded to Mussoorie and forever changed by it.
(And doesn’t that post make me want to get on the plane to India even more!)
About Merryn Glover
Australian by passport, Merryn Glover was born in a former palace in Kathmandu and brought up in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Her writing has won awards and been published in anthologies, magazines and newspapers and her fiction and drama broadcast on Radio Scotland and Radio 4. A House Called Askival is her first novel and she is currently working on a second, set where she lives in the Highlands of Scotland. Two days a week she works in a high school library where she works hard to get young people and books together. Much of her writing explores themes of culture, identity, belief and belonging.