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A Fort For The Powells

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By: Ganesh Saili

Furthering my education in Yousuf’s second hand shop, I chanced upon an old dog-eared book. It was falling apart and to me it looked forlorn and woe begone. How could one possibly walk past it without trying to rescue it?.
‘Two hundred rupees!’ exclaimed Yousuf. Had he noticed the glint in my eye? I wondered.
‘Not more than a hundred!’ I vainly tried to bargain but more by rote. One knew that half the game was haggling. Though one also knew that in this case the game was lost before it began.

‘Saili Sa’ab!’ he drawled. ‘It’s from Powell Sahib’s Fort!’
What could I do? I was born a nostalgia freak.
I knew that this slim volume, Col. A. N. W. Powell’s Call of The Tiger (1958) was out of print. In it he writes: ‘I went up to Mussoorie, that gayest of gay hill stations, notorious for its heart-breaking romances! If a young officer went back to his Regiment with the yarn that he had been there hunting, well, well, nobody believed him!’

Though the author was on his way to Pari Tibba to track down a marauding leopard that was cattle-lifting from the milkmen’s sheds.
The rest of the book is little more than shikar escapades. Hardly the kind of stuff one reads. Reading it took me back to my schoolboy days to the world of Alfred and Arthur Powell, who owned a clutch of houses in Balahisar next to Allen School. A little ways below the school playing field, I met Gerald Powell, a retired physical training instructor from Dr. Graham’s Homes in Kalimpong, who had come home to Wayside Cottage where his mother, Annie, lived. She grew the most stunning sweet peas. Their scent overflowed the garden and reached you before you saw them, all massed up against the trellises on the veranda.

Often we dropped by to see her flowers. Whenever she’d ask Bacchan Singh, her Man Friday to serve us tea in the veranda. Every single time, without fail, he would repeat the instructions to say: ‘Accha, baranda mein?’

‘Did you know that Clement Town is named after one of my granduncles?’ she told me. ‘And that Herbert Powell owned Herbertpur!’

Walking to school, at the gate of Seven Oaks, we would see langra-Powell, as locals called Arthur Powell for a limp he had that resulted from a fall he had suffered as he cantered along the two-furlong Race Course in MacKinnon’s Happy Valley Club. His foot got caught on the railing throwing him off his horse, shattering his left thigh. In those old rough-and-ready days, no one seemed to have time for genteel niceties and it was just too bad if you were afflicted with a visible deformity. I remember It was ‘normal’ to call folks with odd-ball names like Tundey-ki-kothi (One-armed man’s House) or Lalmuhwali-ki-kothi (the Red-faced woman’s House).
Arthur had a vast repertoire of nonsensical bazaar rhymes, which he loved to try on us:

‘Duum duum duum,
Bakri ka duum,
Hum khayein gosht,
Tum khao duum!’

Though what has stayed with me is his chanty on Humpty Dumpty:
‘Humpti Dumpti charh gaya chhatt,
Humpti Dumpti gir gaya phatt,
Raja ki paltan, Rani key ghoray,
Humpti Dumpti kabhi nahin jodey!’

The Powell family’s fortunes began with a grand sire who worked for the East India Company, and floated timber down the Yamuna river from Kalsi. He was doing exactly what Pahari Wilson did in the Bhagirathi valley. With the expansion of the railways, sleepers were needed for the track that was coming up between Calcutta to Delhi. While camping along the banks of the great river, he chanced upon the fort built a few miles outside Saharanpur. Finding the owners in financial trouble, he stepped in and bought the place. The last in line to inherit the fort was Col. A. N. W. Powell in the 1950s.

After seventy odd years, the powers that be woke up. The Lakhnauti fort, built in the reign of Babur in 1526, has been declared a protected monument.
Here’s hoping that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the next freight train coming.

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.