Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain Kasauli

Kasauli is almost a character itself in Anita Desai’s novel Fire on the Mountain (1977). We will take a closer look at this admired place in India to offer more context for and insight into the novel.

Kasauli is a cantonment (a military or police quarters) and town in the Solan district in Himachal Pradesh, about 77 km from Shimla (or Simla, as Fire refers to it) and 65 km from Chandigarh. At over 6,000 feet, the climate is temperate, with summer temperatures that rarely go above 89 degrees Fahrenheit and winter temperatures that are about 35 degrees. Most people in Kasauli speak Hindi and English. It has two malls, the Upper Mall and Lower Mall, which were established by the British; the Lower Mall is a popular shopping destination.

Kasauli was established by the British Raj in 1842 as a “hill station,” a town at higher elevation than the plain or valley, intended to be a place of refuge from summer heat. The club Raka visits is the Kasauli Club, established in 1880 by civilians and service personnel as a reading and assembly room, which then evolved into “The Kasauli Club” in 1898. The British Raj had exclusive use of it until 1915, at which point regimental officers could be admitted as honorary members; in 1947, Independence ended the British hegemony of the Club (and the country). Colonel Mohan Ahuja worked to save the Club from being sold to a buyer in Delhi after Independence. Still a popular recreational site, it burned down in 2001 but was subsequently rebuilt.

Kasauli had a history before the British, of course. According to Tourism of India, “During the 17th century, driven by unsettled political conditions, some Rajput families from Rewari (in present day Haryana) fled their homes. They took refuge in the lower Himalayas, finally settling down at a village called Kasul where there was a perennial spring of fresh water. Today, some three centuries later, the spring is the site of a water reservoir and Kasul has grown into the delightful little hill station of Kasauli. But some locals would believe that Kasauli comes from Kausalya, a mountain stream that flows between Kasauli and Jabli. The name might even have been derived from Kusmawali or Kusmali, meaning flower maiden. Given the abundance with which the hills of Kasauli bloom from spring to autumn, this could well be the truth.”

The cantonment is home to the Central Research Institute, which was formerly the Pasteur Institute. Nature provides a brief summary of the Pasteur Institute at Kasauli: “The Kasauli Pasteur Institute was formally opened for the treatment of dog-bite and similar cases in August 1900 under Major David Semple, R.A.M.C. It was the first Pasteur Institute to be established in the British Empire; in the first year 321 persons were treated, and the numbers increased year by year until in 1938 more than 22,000 persons received treatment. During its last year, 1938, 20,377 Asiatics and 1,817 Europeans received anti-rabic treatment at Kasauli and its associated centres, with 73 deaths, a mortality of 0·33 per cent, the lowest figure during its long history.” Monkey Point, which Raka summited, is a popular destination. At its apex is a small temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman, who, according to the Ramayana, stepped on this spot while looking for medicinal herbs.

To conclude, though the characters of Fire on the Mountain undergo their own trials and tribulations in Kasauli, it is nearly universally considered one of India’s most beautiful, quaint, and peaceful sites. As contemporary travel writer Kirti Arora enthuses, “[Kasauli] is unlike any other hill station which I have ever visited - untouched and unadulterated. Since it is a cantonment, certain areas are restricted to visitors, although the pristine beauty, nature views and cleanliness are something to admire.”