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A MATTER OF INTEREST

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 By: Ganesh Saili

A glance at our chequered history reveals that this was not a healthy place for banks. In 1836, the North-West Bank, a floating treasury of sorts, set up for the convenience of government officers, ran into trouble six years later, when Mr. Vansittart, the Superintendent of the Doon, smelt a rat and ordered an audit. Result? All the depositors were paid, but the shareholders lost a fortune.

After the crashes of the Bank of Upper India and the Alliance Bank, Mr. F. Moss (after whom Mossy Falls is named) built a place to house the Himalaya Bank, during Queen Victoria’s reign. This is reflected in its wrought-iron railings, imprinted with VI (Victoria Imperatrix, Empress Victoria.) However, that too collapsed in 1884, and turned into the Himalaya Hotel, reputedly one of the best in India until 1929, it housed the Imperial Bank of India that in 1955, became the State Bank of India.

How well I know those front steps, where in the good times, when she was fair and I young, we would sit, the two of us, oblivious to the world, watching a season’s parade promenade the Mall. Until the Manager, a damp Mop, asked the chowkidar to pour a bucket of water down the steps in the evenings. We got around it and sat on newspapers bought from Chander Book Depot. That forced his hand to get a welder and fix an ugly gate sealed with a padlock.

Over the years, the bank has had its fair share of colourful characters: some tippled, others didn’t; some left behind tales and others sank without a ripple. In that Burma-teak paneled Manager’s Office, is an Honour’s Board, listing those who once graced that two-sided banker’s desk. Among them I find S.C. Choudhury, Gen. Shankar Roy Chowdhury our 18th Army Chief’s father; Devendra Kapoor, whose wife introduced dainty heart-shaped flowerbeds to plant ice-daisies in the verandah; GMN Khosla, a genial soul, who had spent a magical childhood with the Maharaja of Faridkot; Vishal Ohri a nature-lover whose lunch break mandated bird-watching on Camel’s Back Road, and the Mop, who failed to rise beyond being a pawnbroker with a manicure.

When I last sat there, I could still hear hear my old friend Nandu – once owner of the Savoy – re-tell his favorite story in which the last angrez owner, Cecil D. Lincoln, left his personal effects for safe-keeping in the vaults of the Imperial Bank, hoping to collect them on his return from England. But the ship he was aboard was torpedoed by a German submarine, leaving no survivors or inheritors.

‘Nandu! But the World War ended with Japan’s surrender in September 1945,’ I tried to interject, but he brushed me aside with a wave of his hand, saying, ‘Must have hit a floating-mine!’

After having heard the story innumerable times, I turned to Chatter Singh Negi. If anyone knew anything, he would, after all he had been there for over sixty years, having started life as a teenage ball-boy in its tennis courts. Yes! He remembered Lincoln. ‘His two sons let him down. Damn town-drunks!’ he curses. ‘Broke his heart to sell the hotel. It had been the love of his life until 1946, when he left for England. Never looked back! Never returned!’

However for Nandu Jauhar, it was too good a tale to let go. As owner of the hotel, he had speciously convinced himself that the imaginary stash belonged to him. Every retelling, he embellished the fable with a wish-list getting longer by the day. It included Ming vases, trunks spilling over with Bohemian cut-glass, goblets of gold and valuable silverware thrown in. As time went by it sounded like buried treasure to make any pirate proud. That lasted till the day, the Mop, playing spoilsport, called his bluff. He offered Nandu a peek into the strong room.

‘How can I go in there?’ He baulked. ‘Too much cash lying around. If anything goes missing, I will get blamed!’ Nandu beat a hasty retreat.

In the end, it was one of those perfect stories with no ending. And that, to me, is how a hill station’s legends are born.

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.