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A School For Languages

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By:  Ganesh Saili

Our family fortunes began to dry up post-1965, my father having retired from his job at the Landour Cantonment Board. That year I joined a gaggle of greenhorns heading to Landour’s Language School in search of employment. Briefly, let me introduce you to those stellar pedagogues: there was Chintamani Thapliyal, who would walk up the sharp climb and to catch his breath take a break by lying down on the parapet walls; Suresha Nand Dimri from Mahant-ki-kothi in Laxmanpuri, who would zig-zag up the hill and halt at Church Flat; Clarence McMullen who was a second generation teacher at the school and the  handsome Hari Lal Dhingra, who came from a family of cloth merchants in Landour Bazaar. Together they teamed up to teach us first timers Hindustani lessons as they were to be taught to firangis.

On the very first day, I walked into the legendary Rev. Caldwell Smith. Hardly had I opened my mouth when he delivered a knock-out punch: ‘A Garhwali from Chamoli district! You’ve come really far to be here!’ I think his skill as a linguist gave him much joy for he would take great delight in telling each person the region they came from. Maybe it was this gift that helped him develop the famous ‘Hari Kitab’ or ‘green book’ published in 1971.

This school began a hundred odd years ago in 1903, when three places: Deodars in Happy Valley; Dilaram on Camel’s Back and Childer’s Estate in Landour, were yoked together to form the nucleus of the Kellogg Memorial Language School that was set up by Dr Samuel H. Kellogg along the upper ridge of Landour.

To it, over the years, came scholars and students from the Universities of Arizona, Berkley, California, Columbia and  Stanford. In the hundred odd years of its existence sixteen thousand students have learnt to speak Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi.

It is they who give Landour its cosmopolitan character. All you had to do was take a walk around the Chakkar where you would have met an impressive array of characters. Some stand out like gig-lamps in memory: Prof. Zimmer from Arizona was into the drawings of Ahoi, in Saharanpur district; Arthur Lopatin from Columbia University was interested in the politics of Eastern Uttar Pradesh in the District of Balia pre-1947; the intrepid Joyce Burkhalter, an anthropologist is working on the family history of Landour’s shopkeepers; the balding Paul Keupfele’s got into Adwaith philosophy which he assimilated in Ganga Math along the Ghats of Benares, and, believe-it-or-not, I met a linguist studying the whistle-calls of the shepherds in the upper meadows of Garhwal. He had a list with the sounds the muleteers made as they egged their charges through precipice and storm. A pity I missed meeting Daisy Rockwell. Her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi or Tomb of Sand made headlines by winning this year’s Booker Prize a few weeks ago.

Another was Pauline, a summer student, lost in a study on the effects of marijuana on the human mind.

‘How’s the Hindustani going?’ I asked her.

‘Good! Good!’ With a smile that dimpled her cheeks she replied. ‘It’s the people in the bazaar who can’t understand a word.’

I don’t think there were any problems with the grass or her Hindi. The problem was an infamous busybody, itching to play spoilsport. Who but the brain impaired would find the teaching of languages objectionable? After all, it’s no different than the teaching of yoga.

Of course, there was the beautiful Belinda, who had taken to jogging  around the Upper Chakkar in her skimpy bikini – it was so tight, the hillside could hardly breathe. Missing a step one day, she slipped on some oak leaves and slithered down towards the khud – to break her fall she grasped at a supple deodar tree.

‘Our milkman found her dangling from a tree,’ author Stephen Alter remembers. It was the milkman who alerted him, out on a morning walk, of her predicament. Steve, a true gentleman, helped her back to Good old Earth, thoughtfully draping her in his soft velvety jacket. Apparently, altitude does define attitude.

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.