By Ganesh Saili
‘Too much! You’ve left out far too much!’ said Lillian Skinner
Singh, the hill station’s oldest resident, known for always telling you the truth even if it wasn’t what you wanted to hear. It was my first book – the disappointment was hard to hide – but she was kind and caring: ‘Don’t look so sad Ganesh! You can always fill in the blanks in your next book!’
Though I got my revenge by haunting her; I took to turning up at Sikandar Hall, time and again, or every time I hit a wall. For blessed with a memory that would shame any self-respecting elephant, she would tell me stories of yesteryears, never faltering; never wavering and never failing. Like the time a schoolmate wrote to ask: ‘There used to be a dark lady in a tartan skirt, selling fudge outside Allen school gate. Who was she?’
‘Now don’t you be unkind to their memory,’ she warned. ‘They were good folk: Nelly and her brother Cecil Foster – half Scottish and half Indian – they could have done better, but the turbulent economy of the 1950s swept them away. Or maybe one could blame the white lightning bought in by the doodhwalas in milk-cans. Of course, Maryville or Phooswali Kothi, their homestead fell apart.’
Thus far, my own childhood memories of the Fosters were when they were no longer the sharpest tools in the shed. Yes! They did bend over backwards to make ends meet: Nelly sold fudge and Cecil dug out wild onion bulbs from the jungle, peddling them as lily bulbs to the well-heeled tourists.
About her own family, Lillian said: ‘In 1916, Alice Skinner, my grandmother bought this place to build this house as a summer resort for her lesser fortunate cousins.’ Since then it has remained home to descendants of Colonel James Skinner – the grand patriarch.
Chitchatting over chai and cucumber sandwiches, she chuckled: ‘Granny willed the house to her brother’s children and the Crown Brewery ruins to her husband. She always suspected the old man would travel to Europe and might meet a white memsahib and bring her home. Why should she fund their honeymoon?’
Last autumn, I bumped into her at the School Sports Day to ask: ‘How are we doing today?’
‘Good as anyone in their nineties with a forty-nine-year old pace-maker!” She mocked.
I asked what was her mantra was?
Her answer? ‘If you want to live long, my boy, there are two things: ‘Don’t get bored!’ Adding with a chortle: ‘And don’t get boring!’ She confided: ‘Of course you’ll find no buildings named after me, no statues erected in my memory. But this much I know, I loved my friends as well as all my family. How much more blessed can a person be?’
Last month, at sunset, I heard she had been rushed to the Landour Community Hospital. Huffing and puffing up that steep slope, I arrived even as the doctor felt her pulse. A smile creased her face: “Finally! After all these years, a man is holding my hand- again!’
‘Can’t you stop cracking jokes lying in hospital?’ Nervously I growled.
Beckoning me closer she whispered in my ear: ‘Visitors are always awkward in hospital. Why not put them at ease?’
‘May I get you something from the bazaar?’ I asked.
‘Kebabs! Ah! Get some kebabs!’
And when I did, the next day – the turning point in the decline of her health – I found her sitting in a patch of weak winter sunshine, eating her favourite fish-and-chips. Chancing upon the fact that doctors were suggesting she might need to be put on a ventilator, she murmured: ‘Do I have any say in this matter? If I do! Take me right back home!’ I admit when the final call came, I was in the least prepared for Mussoorie’s greatest story-teller leaving with the last chapter of her life unfinished.
Oh Lillian, my dear friend, you will be greatly missed and fondly remembered by three siblings, two children, two grandchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbours and friends. But I shall miss you knowing full well that even as I write, you must be regaling the angels with your tales.