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A ROLL CALL OF HISTORY  

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A break in the monsoon. Pic courtesy: Angad Bakshi

By: Ganesh Saili

The fault, if there were one, probably lay in his name –  Sultan – the son of Bundu the tobacconist, had a swagger that could have put John Travolta to shame. Come summer or winter, he was always wrapped in a long overcoat. It lent him a touch of class or at the very least gave him an air of respectability. Well past midnight, he would stagger out of Raaz Bar, along the Mall Road, where four rickshaw pullers waited for him. Barely able to plonk himself on the seat, he landed with a thud and promptly passed out. As the rickshaw squeaked to a halt near his home in Landour, he sat up, bolt upright to settle the fare.

‘What do you like about the Raaz Bar?’ I once asked him, after I heard that it was a rowdy place. Folks said if you hung around long enough, the bottles began to fly.

A dragonfly changes its mind midflight . Pic courtesy: R.N. Parsher

‘Have you ever met the owner?’ Sultan asked. ‘I think I’m in love with her. She doesn’t just drink to excess, she will drink to anything!’

Sultan outlived most of his buddies, most of whom he had painstakingly taught the delights of a drink a day to help keep reality at bay. I wonder if it had anything to do with the metal pans of rough-cut tobacco, as I saw his father pour treacle before kneading the mixture into cricket-size balls. Gingerly he balanced these on each other for sale the next day where they were snapped up by hookah lovers.

No one would have dared snap at Vinod, our roller-skating guru who, it is said, sometimes worked in the Municipal Board office. At dusk, he emerged charged after tippling at the theka in Lavender Lane; you could hear him long before he arrived having helped prop up the lampposts lining the road from Picture Palace to Landour. Lurching past Clock Tower, he found his way home singing a chanty at the top of his lungs with a song borrowed from Radio Ceylon’s famous Binaca Geetmala. He tottered past Rai Singh’s Halwai Shop near the freshwater springs of Baawri – that reservoir filled to the brim, fed by the crystal waters of the underground aquifers of Castle Hill Estate. That was where in the summer of 1852 & 1853, the British Raj you would have met Maharaja Daleep Singh, the son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Lahore Durbar – the last ruler of undivided Punjab. That was where he learned to play cricket; that was where he learned the ways of the white man and that was where his minders, Mr and Mrs Logan, set out to complete their task to create a wog.

Bundu – the tobacconist – in his younger days.

Grabbing a handful of stale pakoras littering a tray atop the glass-fronted counter, Vinod hungrily stuffed a mouthful murmuring: ‘Weigh them later! Today is not your day!’ With the wolves of hunger somewhat abated – puff mode deflated –  his tone changed just a wee bit; the time to sober up had come for home lay a stone’s throw away.

Only a fool would argue with that. Chastened, he snuck down the steps one at a time carefully like a mouse, tiptoeing down the alley that led to his doorway. Behind him in the bazaar, silence reigned except for the loud clatter of planks on the wooden shutters announcing that the day was done and the shops were secure. With Vinod home, all was well and peace finally returned. Tomorrow would be another day.

Anyone could fill reams listing this hill station’s well-known drunks. I remember it was Vinod who had told me: ‘If you were rich, you were an alcoholic; if you were poor, you were just a town drunk.’ This piece is in remembrance of those living in changed times with values of an age that had already gone or at least vanished.

What strong thread yokes them together like the beads in a necklace? They had rejected adjustment or turned their backs as it were on the  ‘give-and-take’ of everyday life.  To them, compromise was an ugly word. It smelt too much of a conspiracy.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.