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A Diddle of Dealers

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By: Ganesh Saili

In the 1960s, near the Clock Tower loomed the Topshop, known for its handmade wooden tops crafted by Hukum Chand, now deceased, who was a gifted artist. All you had to do was peep behind the counter to see his homemade lathe: without belts, just string and ropes that he slipped from one groove to the other with a wooden baton like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Think of him as the last survivor of a generation that had large pots and pans, large stoves and larger hearts. Should you show as much as a passing interest in his tops, he would stop midstride to teach you the ‘how-to’ of carefully wrapping your string around its grooves before flicking the top to send it curling through the air and land in a tizzy.

‘Please could you sharpen the nail just a wee bit more?’ I would plead.

‘Will do!’ he said. ‘Though don’t wreck my floor. Go outside and do it on the road.’

Later, much later I found that in those early days, our faith healers and antique dealers were not unlike Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps who while seemingly itching to sell, pretended to show no interest in anything that you might like. If a prospective customer dared to touch anything, he would find it was supposedly spoken for, or sold, or was waiting to be picked up later.

When I try to put a date on it, I remember that our diddle of dealers messing around in old furniture dates back to the day when a funeral procession was wending its way to the stream that flows down below Woodstock. Dumped along the roadside were the remains of an old sofa, falling apart, bleached to the bone by many monsoons. It caught Mohan’s eye. He stopped, struck a deal, and ran down the hill, struggling before finally catching up with us.

A weeks’ spit and polish later, it was restored. Value added, it sold as an original Edwardian sofa for a tidy sum. From that day onwards there was no looking back as he bought junk and sold it off as antique. Remember, those were times you could still stumble upon old sticks of furniture littering the hill station. At the furniture rental shops of Parmanand & Sons (near Jhoola Ghar) and Prem Chand Jain & Sons (next to lower Kwality) were stacked almirahs, desks, rocking chairs, tall Toms and chests-of-drawers. Even grand pianos were available for hire-purchase at William Godin’s Armenian shop along the Mall. Whilst in upmarket Landour, residents and visitors were guaranteed to find everything ‘perfectly fresh and of the first quality’ and shikaris venturing into the interiors could find ‘ammunition, camp chairs and tables’.

Of course Mohan Singh had much more than just chairs and tables stacked up in his musty shop, where on one of the shelves was a piece of porcelain sealed carefully in a Zip lock bag. The shard, no larger than a child’s hand, carried memories of better days with the imprint of a royal blue emblem. Unfailingly, it always piqued the interest of a would-be customer.

‘What’s this?’ they’d ask.
Pat came an answer that has down the years remained the same: “Oh! That?’ he feigns disinterest, before adding: ‘That’s part of a rice plate from a banquet set for a hundred people. It comes from a royal family in Gujarat. I’m awaiting delivery of the rest next week.’

Forty years later, like a dog trying to catch its own tail, he spins out the same old story, dangling it like innocent bait to catch fish. And the story always winds up with the same punchline: ‘It’s just now coming!’

‘So is Christmas!’ mumbled an irate customer in disgust before stomping out of the shop.

‘What’s wrong with that fellow on Mullingar Hill? He doesn’t seem to be interested in selling anything!’ a frustrated visitor complains at Mohd. Faiyaaz’s rag shop near the old Himalaya Club.

‘What shop?’ mocks Faiyaaz. ‘That’s his sitting-room where he likes to live among his relics. Nothing is for sale. He just likes to display his vintage collection! Don’t mind! It’s nothing personal!’

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.