Be it a sunny November morning, a cool June evening, a rain-laden day in July or a pleasant March afternoon, Char Dukaan, literally meaning four shops, has the same charming effect on you. In fact, for the last few decades, this place near Mussoorie has been the favourite haunt of the young and the old who walk in to binge on mouthwatering snacks over a hot cup of coffee. It is also the place where new friendships are struck and old one’s strengthened. Perhaps the reason why you find cafe owners are extremely friendly here.
To reach Char Dukaan, you need to get to Landour first. Often termed as the “Original Mussoorie”, Landour is around 5 km from the famous hill station.
One can either take a walk or drive uphill the narrow road that passes through the Landour Bazaar as I did. I took a right from Picture Palace, the once popular cinema hall that now stands as a dilipidated structure to get to the marketplace. It was around eight in the morning but the bazaar was surprisingly beaming with people. It can be a challenging task to navigate through the 300-odd shops that sell anything and everything from sweaters to hats to walking sticks at throwaway prices. And then you would spot an occasional cybercafe or a satellite TV outlet, an indication of the fact that information technology and media have entered the lives of the people here.
However, the old and new sit comfortably with each other in this bazaar which forms the lifeline for Old Cantonment spread over more than a thousand acres and its 70-odd houses. At 7,750 ft, Char Dukaan is an oasis of natural splendour as it has managed to stay safe from the eyes of real estate developers by virtue of being located in the Cantonment area.
Incidentally, I arrived in Landour on a Saturday, the day when the students from the nearby Woodstock School flock the bazaar. They are all over the place, indulging in the numerous delicacies on offer — momos, butter chicken, naans, jalebis and corn-cobs. The association between Woodstock and the market dates back to over a hundred years and the affectionate bond between the shopkeepers and the students is quite evident when one sees them interacting with one another. There is a bond of familiarity as the cafeteria staff seems to know what exactly is to be served to whom and often a nod or a cryptic “the usual” is enough to bring out aloo parathas with dollops of melting butter, waffles, milky coffee and flaky patties to their tables.
Moving up the Mullingar Slope, the road gets even steeper. Houses with names that are both quaint and charming — Annandale, Eglantine and the like — appear on the left until one takes a sharp turn to the east from the Trim Lodge. From here, different roads branch off. One deviates to the left, going up past the old rickshaw stand and is the shortest but steepest road up to St Paul’s Church The one to the right, takes you to Nag Tibba.
The view from St Paul’s takes in the entire vista: southward and below lies a cluster of houses and barracks; a few more private houses, the Roman Catholic Chapel of St Peter’s at 7,850 ft, the highest point in Landour; two cemeteries and Childers Castle Lodge and cottages beyond the Cantonment’s northern boundary. To the east lies Lal Tibba at 7,264 ft where you can see more barracks, private houses, and, towards its eastern boundary, the Institute of Technology Management. From these heights, even the Mall of Mussoories seems far below. As I turn away from the view, I face a small park in a large open area near St Paul’s and this is where the famous Char Dukaan is located.
I look for a vacant table, preferably one where I get a chance to bask in the sun. I find that the place is almost full, with a number of people, many foreigners among them, enjoying their elevenses. As it is coffee break time at Woodstock School and Landour Language School, Char Dukaan is the place to be for one and all. I also spot a few American missionaries who are learning Hindi at the language school. Just as I settle myself on the table near the entrance, one of them asks, “Aap kaise hain?” and we exchange pleasantries in Hindi.
One only needs to look up to see a spectacular view of the snow-clad Himalayas, dense deodar forests and peaceful slopes from here. An idyllic surrounding for these four shops that have existed for almost a hundred years is the silence of the long winding road lined by huge walnut trees. Though there are five shops now with a recent addition but the place is still famous as Char Dukaan. And will remain for all time to come, it seems.
The school break is nearly over and the children begin to rush back, pocketing packets of chips or bags of candy. They all run small accounts with the shops and don’t need to pay every time they dart in for a mouthwatering something. As the place empties a bit, I look around. Clearly, Char Dukaan is a world of its own, with its matchless magic, even its own chirpy birds and naughty langurs. And while tourists may come and go, dipping into its ambience for a while, the regulars are its life and soul — the students, the celebs, the groups of friends who meet here to gossip or read newspapers over cups of coffee. Here, after a bun and omelette, they can finish their bank work or visit the post office, both right across the road.
Had it been a Sunday, I could have ventured inside the old St Paul’s Church during the morning service hours as it opens for Sunday service only. The church, consecrated in 1840, was renovated and restored last year by hotelier Sanjay Narang, an ex-student of the Woodstock School. He now owns a house in Landour. St Paul’s is where Jim Corbett’s parents got married in 1859 when Christopher William Corbett was posted in Landour as a postmaster.
I decided to chat with Vipin Prakash, the owner of Tip Top Teashop which was the first shop to have come up here. “My great grandfather, Sibamal, came here as a postman in 1910,” says Vipin as he tells me more about the place. ”Our fifth generation is now living in Landour and running this café,” he adds. His simple, hospitable manner is quite charming and explains why his tea shop is always a trifle more crowded than others. His family members are all involved in the cooking.
Last winter, master blaster Sachin Tendulkar visited Char Dukaan and had bun-omelette at his restaurant. He played cricket with the locals here. He was visiting his friend, Sanjay Narang. “Recently, Javed Akhtar sa’ab and Shabanaji came here,” he said with a proud smile.
Vipin is used to celebrities walking in his restaurant. Famous author Ruskin Bond, the first citizen of Landour, has been a regular at Char Dukaan for decades now. “He has been coming to us almost every day that he has spent in Landour over the last five decades,” he told me.
Travel writer and academician Ganesh Saili, who is Ruskin’s neighbour and an old friend, says he doesn’t hold favour with those who believe that the name Landour is drawn from Llanddowror, a village in Carmarthenshire in southwest Wales, no matter how exotic it may sound.
“Landour probably had humbler origins, having been born in the princely state of Landaura near Roorkee. Landour was home to the early traders who made their way here, following the footsteps of the soldiers heading to the Convalescent Depot at the top of the hill in the days of the East India Company”.
Saili, who is also a regular at Char Dukaan, says he would recommend their French Fries to everyone. “They are crisp, fresh and highly irresistable. I saw this rather plump professor on a lecture tour at the Landour Language School. He was tucking into his fourth plate of cheese toasts at Char Dukaan, muttering to the boy serving his table: ‘I miss my wife’s cooking as often as I can.” Besides Tiptop, Himgiri and Anil’s Café are equally popular. One of them serves non-vegetarian dishes, too.
I watch the children scampering around the lovely park, and find that I have completely succumbed to the charm of Char Dukaan. As I order the popular bun-omelette, I’m asked a few questions: ”Would you like it with or without chillis, with or without onions, with cheese? I reply in the affirmative for all the ingredients and wait with impatient expectation. Minutes later, a sweet buttered bun with red and green currants peeping out is soon served, topped with a huge cheese-filled omelette that smells divine. Its rich golden colour makes it look just a trifle too good to bite into. But the mountain air is sharp and I am suddenly too hungry to continue admiring the look of the omelette. I get down to the job.