India's middle-class takes over Himalayan resort

Thursday, May 1, 2003

MUSSOORIE, India -- In the bar at the Savoy hotel, 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.

Once, the drinks flowed freely at the Savoy. A few decades back this was the most popular bar in town, the Savoy was an elegant wooden vacation palace and Mussoorie was a famed 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 gone and Singh often wants a customer. Any customer.

But Mussoorie still thrives.

A few turns away down a mountain road, mothers pull squalling children past whirring cotton candy machines, an avalanche of plastic toys -- from baby dolls to AK-47s -- and noisy video arcades. Families gorge themselves on Indian or Chinese food at the Gluttony Restaurant, and couples hold hands on the town's one real street,

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

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

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 famed as a place where you could bring a mistress and not worry about the gossip reaching home.

Politics, and then economics, changed everything.

After India's 1947 independence, the town went into steep decline, its houses sold off cheaply, its hotels left largely empty. But in the 1980s, India's economy slowly began to gain momentum. Then, untethered from socialism, the nation of 1 billion boomed and the economy grew swiftly through much of the 1990s.

Suddenly people whose parents had never even been on vacation needed holiday destinations, and Hill Stations began to fill up again. The colonial town was overrun by an explosion of real estate development, and the city of 30,000 now counts a staggering 350 hotels.

Ask around, and the stereotypes of India's new middle class spill out: The new people are loud. They're uncultured.

But the tourists will hear none of it.

"Yes, it's ugly sometimes," said S.M. Puri, a businessman who brings his family here. "But it's our town now."

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