I am closing the series about Gulmarg by describing some more interesting personalities I met during my stay there. Firstly, there were the principals of the ski school. These included Colonel Narinder Kumar (the everester), Colonel VPS Chauhan popularly known as Veeru, Commandant YC Khanna, Commandant Ahuja, and Rattan Kotwal. Colonel Kumar was the toughest of the lot.
A very well known mountaineer, he introduced mountaineering in what was basically a ski school. He renamed the school as the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering. He was more inclined to army side and in fact, subsequently he became the Commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School. Thus he had a much longer tenure in Gulmarg than anybody else. His wife Mirdula, was a very good host in Gulmarg and his daughter Saleja, an excellent skier. He worked very hard for promoting skiing in the country. Colonel Chauhan or Veeru was a paratrooper but more civilian than a soldier. Veeru had been known to me earlier also. It was a very polished and civilised family. He was fun loving and we had many jaunts together in Gulmarg during his tenure. Being from Gorakhpur and from a Rajput family, he had a strong aristocratic streak. Commandant Khanna and Commandant Ahuja were from paramilitary forces on deputation. The only civilian was Rattan Kotwal who used to be a Director in the Ministry of Tourism in Delhi. He also belonged to the valley. There were two other people from the Army who impressed me. One was Colonel DN Tankha who was the Commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School when I came up to Gulmarg and the other was Colonel Zorawar Singh, Commandant of the Dogra battalion stationed in Gulmarg. Colonel Tankha was a very positive officer and he initiated the training of local village boys in skiing. In fact, his products are on several jobs in Gulmarg at the present moment. Colonel Zorawar popularly known as Zorro was a loveable personality. He would mix with every body and was always at our beck and call for any assistance which we needed off and on from them. I remained in contact with Colonel Tankha after he left Gulmarg as he was a member of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and was also associated with Himalayan Car Rally. However, I lost all contact with Zorro once he was posted out of Gulmarg.
The most interesting personality of Gulmarg on all counts was Colonel Benjie Nedou, the owner of Hotel Highland Park. In fact, he was an institution in himself and I would have liked to devote a full article on him. May be I will write it sometime later. However, at present his personality merits somewhat longer mention. Benjie had been an officer in the Guards Regiment. He had western upbringing and was in all respects like a European in his tastes and working. This was probably because of his grand father having been an Austrian. Even though he was very modern in taste, yet he was God fearing and had strong faith and would invariably hold some religious ceremonies. He was truly very neat and clean man with a military discipline in all his affairs. He had started the Highland Park hotel in just one hut and now the Hotel has almost 50 rooms and suites in the form of Chalets. Benjie combined all the western comforts with the native heating in winter. The Hotel used to be very cosy during winter with the use of local cast iron fire-wood stoves. He had got these stoves designed specially for the Hotel and there would be no smoke at all. The wood used was chopped into small pieces and the suction in the pipes was such that it would burn without giving any smoke into the rooms. Most of the western tourists preferred this type of heating as it would give them the opportunity to smell burning pine which they missed these days in Europe! The bath rooms had running hot and cold water, a luxury in frozen Gulmarg! The Dinning Room and the main Lounge were very aesthetically decorated and were quite functional especially in winter. It was very enjoyable to stay in the lounge around the warm stoves and chat with friends. Benjie had meticulously put various decoration pieces in appropriate places. He would ensure that the entire premises were spick and span. Benjie had excellent staff and workers whom he had himself selected. He would look after them well. As a matter of principle to benefit the local community, he would buy most of his provisions from the local villages. In that respect, he was greatly contributing to local economy. Regarding his weakness for cleanliness, he once told me that he invariably used to dine in the hotel kitchen itself once or twice a week. He would go there without any notice and ask to be served food there. This ensured that the cooks and other staff kept the kitchen clean. He had great regard for me and would invite me to all the functions and events held in the Hotel from time to time. Benjie’s wife Minoo was a great help to him. However, his son Freddie was a contrast. He was more of a fun and thrill loving fellow. An ace skier, he would often ski down from the top of Afarwatt Mountain. The most hardworking hand Benjie had in the staff was Aziz Bhat. He would be always running after the staff like a Military Commander and would ensure that everything functioned perfectly. Benjie was truly an asset for Gulmarg both in winter and summer. After his death, the Hotel has not been able to maintain the standards fixed by him. His grand daughter Ayesha is now managing the Hotel.
There were two more people who need a mention in my account. One was Nund Bab, a spiritual person. He was like a mendicant wearing a long robe and carrying a long leather whip. Benjie had great regard for him and he would visit the Hotel off and on and would be received there with honour. He would also pay a visit to my hut off and on. The local people had strong faith in his spiritual powers. One day he visited my office in Srinagar during summer. One of my instructors made fun of him. Next morning we came to know that the home of the instructor in Srinagar had caught fire in the night and had been completely gutted! The other person was Shaban Guru, a milk man who had a temporary hut behind the Hotel Highland Park. He used to have his flocks in Gulmarg and would make excellent butter and cottage cheese. Both the items were a treat in Gulmarg. He too has passed away. Let me close the Gulmarg Nostalgia stories with the mention that Gulmarg produces excellent strawberries from the strawberry valley. We used to consume these in great numbers. Next week I will start relating some adventures which I had during my travels abroad!