By: Ganesh Saili
‘It was the Road which caused the trouble. It usually is the road. That and a reigning prince who declared by his uncle secretly to have sold his country to the British.’ A.E.W. Mason’s book The Broken Road written in 1907, tells the tale of three generations of a family trying to forge a road in the restive North West Frontier region.
Bellevue’s lonesome road cuts across the spur of a balding fifty acres, beyond the Library, to arrive at ruins mocking the breeze. Our first Tassin map of 1831 names a certain Lieut. Fisher as owner; by 1844 it was called Bellevue and soon after the Government acquired it to house the Emir of Afghanistan, Mohammad Yaqub Khan and his entourage. He had travelled outside Jalalabad to sign the Treaty of Gandamak, whereby he ceded his territory to British control, famously saying: ‘I would rather work as your servant, cut grass and tend your garden than be the ruler of Afghanistan.’
Pottering around the ruins, I think of a thirty-something year old, dressed in shimmering white (if you ignore the gold tassels dangling from his epaulettes) chaffing at the bit. While he was granted access to the hot spots, there was always an escort of a detail of troopers from the Northumberland Fusiliers (or the 5th Foot) led by J. C. Fisher, a British Political Officer.
Fisher was foxed at his charge’s habit of suddenly spurring his pony into a gallop, without any warning to his companions. These bursts of speed became more and more frequent but the officer dismissed it as a mere whim.
One day the import of what was happening was brought to bear on him, when he stopped at the fork In the road near the old Library to chit-chat with a friend. In abject horror, he watched his charge hightailing at a gallop down the road to Kingcraig and perhaps to freedom. In hot pursuit, taking many a precarious short-cut, Fisher blocked the escapee. On his return, a detailed report of the incident was made to the Governor-General.
‘Don’t hurt one hair on his head,’ came the laconic reply. And orders were orders! They had to be followed.
History, however, follows no orders and refuses to bid good bye. At most, it whispers: ‘See-you-later-alligator!’ And in this instance, the Alliance Bank put the property on the auctioneer’s block where it was snapped up by the Chamaria family of Calcutta, who renamed it Radha Bhawan as evidenced in the map of 1968.
My late friend, Munna Kabariwala, vividly remembered the old patriarch. I would hear him reminisce of days sieved, sitting beside him in the rickshaw-shed outside Mullingar. That day he seemed particularly rattled by the New Age’s Johnny-come-to-town-lately in oversized SUVs; unable to conceal his contempt, he snapped: ‘Cheap skates! Pimping their faces! Whoring themselves! Make no mistake these chaps are no raeeses! Our last raees was Seth Chamaria! To seat the guests in his nautch-ghar, I made a forty-seer mattresses with satin cushions and bolsters to lounge on.’ He missed the good times, when wafted by the breeze, you caught the scent of the incense and attar of roses, a mile down-stream in Library bazaar.
‘Saili Saab! These fellows flaunt money. But the really wealthy had time! Chamaria Seth had the gift of leisure.’
But who can beat the Sandman? Towards the end of the 1960s, the delicate blue-and-white Cantonese tiles, brought all the way from China to decorate its colonial verandahs, had begun to chip. Vandals had begun to pry them loose. Briefly Radha Bhawan hummed to the looms of Tibetan refuges before they moved their carpet-weaving to Rajpur.
On this mist-wrapped spur, perhaps the Emir, his sirdars and risaldars dreamt of their mountain home in the sun-singed Hindu Kush or heard the muffled sounds of a caravan of wizened traders moving along: some astride camels; some on horseback; some on foot; some with swords; some with spears or rusty flint-locks.
While wintering in the warmer climes of Dehradun, where he had built himself a smaller replica of Bala Hisar on East Canal Road, final release came in November 1923.
This lockdown had lasted forty-three years.
Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.