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A Tale of Talking Heads

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By: Ganesh Saili
Twenty years ago, there were two old women living at the opposite ends of the hill station: one we called our Mussoorie Express and the other our Economic Times. Carefully they had carved out their territories, often exchanging notes and turning lawyers, prosecutors, judges and executioners. I preferred the pink newspaper. By the time you had finished reading, the paper would blush red with news of who was making eyes at who, or which Principal has a soft spot for a pretty teacher or who was seeing his neighbour’s wife.

Our Talking Heads remind me of a man and his bhonpu aka the bullhorn of the kind that town-barkers used to use. Throw in Gambhir’s booming voice and he wins by a mile my nomination of being this hill station’s first walking newspaper. During the day, he cruised our bazaars gathering gossip. If your cup was filled up to the brim, your goose was as good as cooked. You were a marked man doomed to spend the rest of your days living under a microscope.

‘It’s public opinion!’ he would say dismissively, knowing that the more you deny a rumour, the more it lingers in the air.

Come five o’clock you’d find him in Rastogi Chowk, Kulri’s town square, where he would spout breaking news, throwing in juicy tidbits scraped lovingly from the bottom of the barrel.

A sampling?
‘Sharma’s skimpily dressed daughter danced the night away in Hakman’s Grand Ballroom.’

‘Gupta thekedar – the crooked one bribes the Municipal Board to get construction contracts.’

‘Bhola, the college Principal’s son, was lying drunk in Lavender Lanes’ gutter.’

‘That hotel is a hotal! It should be declared a flop house!’

And the yellow headlines continued to pour until the day he misjudged the waters to plunge where no man had dared to go before, crossing the line by taking on Bandhu Kotwal whom he accused of spending too much time at Oaklands with Mrs. Hathisingh. Admittedly, the old vixen was no beauty, but nevertheless exercised a weird measure of control over older men. Something was certainly going on.

What followed was a power struggle of epic proportions. They threw the book at him. He was arrested, denied bail and he fell off the radar, never to return. To this day, whenever I think of an old bhonpu, Gambhir comes alive, if only in memory.

‘The Hills’ was our hill station’s first newspapers which began in 1842, when the master brewer John Mackinnon (helped along by other scribes) managed to keep interest afloat until it folded up in 1865. I guess one could not call the ‘Mussoorie Exchange Advertiser’ a proper newspaper because it was an advertising sheet. That lasted till 1872, when a certain Mr Coleman brought out the ‘Mussoorie Season.’ Like sandpaper, it had a knack of rubbing people the wrong way. Whilst reporting on a fete, held to raise funds for a charity, it rashly accused the local magistrate’s wife of spending some of the fete’s funds on ‘pegs and dresses.’

On the following day the offended magistrate, horse-whip in hand, met the libelling scribe, introduced him to the weapon, and left him to more scribbling – not to his usual readers but to his lawyers. Needless to say, it signalled the beginning of the end of the newspaper. Mr. Coleman headed ‘home’.

John Northam’s ‘Himalaya Chronicle’ promised advertisers, ‘a guaranteed circulation of not less than 500 copies twice a week, proved by certificate of the local postmaster.’ Later along came the printer-publisher, Frederick Bodycot who converted the Mafasilite into a printing press and started ‘The Mussoorie Times’ which lasted till his death on May 11, 1929. Around the time, the ‘Hills Advertiser’ of Messrs. Buckle and Co., made an appearance, but it was a promotional medium, with the occasional scrap of news carelessly tossed in.

As I write, there are close to four hundred newspapers, big and small, registered in Dehradun district. And in Mussoorie, every day, our forty odd journalists set out in search of fresh news.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot find a single bhonpu or, as consolation, even a copy of our old newspapers.

Ganesh Saili, author-photographer has written and illustrated twenty books. He belongs to those select few who illustrate their own writing. His work has found publication in periodicals, columns and journals. His books have been translated into more than two-dozen languages.