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Smoke Without Fire

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By GANESH SAILI

Some would call ita hard home-coming. As hard as the wooden bench on which he slept on his first night in Mussoorie. The long journey that brought father here began from our mountain home to end at the bus terminus in Kingcraig. Slogging up the hill, going past Picture Palace, he must have realized, not too soon after that the guest houses and hotels scattered along the way were not meant for him. With empty pockets he knocked on the doors of the Garhwal Dharmshala, on the razor’s edge of Laxmanpuri – that was once the mule breeding depot during the Raj. But that was full. Courtesy, a compassionate night chowkidar, found him ‘adjusting’ on a narrow bench. Many a time when life takes me through its slog overs, I find myself revisiting that long night. The morning after, saw him move into a room, if you could call it that, no larger than a hovel. Never mind. For the names on the neighbouring houses had a reassuring ring: Gopal Dutt Dimri, the veteran labour leader; Rai Singh Bhandari, the Tehri Royal Mail Agent; Khyaat Singh, Municipal Tax Collector; Madhu Sudan Bahuguna, medical supplier and Tejpal Singh Rawat, living in retirement. But a year later, Baba’s decision to move, left a trail of confusion. ‘Kyon Why?’ They complained. Way back in the 1950s, it was hard to understand why someone would move from a secure mohalla to a house in the middle of nowhere. Clutching my ten-month-old baby sister Meera, in my arms akimbo, and dragging Punni, my sibling besides me, we arrived short of breath on the patio. Those hardy empire builders, one could say built with whatever was at hand: beams from the trees; rocks, gravel, and mortar from the lime kilns of Khattapaani and water hauled up on mules from abutting Company Khud. Take Trim Lodge. Was there a Mr Trim lurking around? But the harder I tried, the more it eluded me. After sometime, it dawned on me that probably, the station’s founder Capt. Young, invited a compatriot from the town of Trim, in the County Meath to settle down on his potato patch. That was my Eureka moment. A sort of Quod Erat Demonstrandum! Twenty years into our tenancy, the owners suddenly announced they wanted to auction the property to help facilitate a settlement in their family. And one summer’s morning brought a strapping Pathan who stepped up to our door. His card announced: ‘Niadarmal & Sons, Auctioneers, Begum Pul, Meerut’. Hiring a drum beater, he dispatched him forthwith around the hill station yelling: ‘Property on auction on Sunday!’ Thank God for small mercies in that we were too young to realise the jig was up. But I remember the fleeting trace of panic in my mother’s eyes. Was it? Or was it the smoke from the wood-fire in our kitchen? One can never be too sure. A bright summer’s morning, saw a crowd of eager beavers gather around the house. Soon after a whisper passed around. Something had gone wrong. ‘How can you put it on the auction? It’s a disgrace to the family name!’ Mrs Pathak stomped. ‘Saroj! It’s okay! Don’t get so upset,’ Soothingly he reassured his wife. ‘Let us scrap it!’ Niadarmal relented with a baritone boom: ‘Auction cancelled!’ ‘We will drag you to court!’ Protested a few stragglers. ‘Out with you! Right now!’ firmly said Mr Pathak. ‘Get off my property!’ Grabbing the vocal one by the elbow, he shoved him out of the gate. That was the end of that. Or so we thought. Up until five years later, a yellowing inland letter from Saharanpur, delivered a googly: ‘Saili ji! Why don’t you buy the place?’ That was easier said than done. Scrape, stretch, beg and borrow, we pulled it together stretching over two years to register the papers on a cold February morning in 1980. In celebration, without fanfare I planted a walnut sapling on the edge of the patio. As I look out of my window, I see a strapping fifty-year-old tree, weighed down by walnuts waving at me. Or is it the smoke from that kitchen fire? One can never be sure.