By: Ganesh Saili
Playing truant from school, four fourteen-year olds, Anmol, Dhruv, Prem and I, whistled all the way home, spanking the earth beneath our feet to the theme song of the epic film The Longest Day. Passers-by glared or giggled as we made our way home from a matinee show at the Capital.
A ten-anna ticket secured a front row seat to the Normandy landings in which twelve countries took part. The German defenders were led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who failed to see the assault coming and had packed up early to take home a pair of shoes for his wife’s 50th birthday. Meanwhile, Hitler overslept in his lair, no one dared awaken the Fuhrer.
I can still hear Robert Mitchum exhort his troops: ‘There are two kinds of men on this beach: the dead, and those who are about to die. So let’s get the hell out of here!’
Try though we may, but none can bring back the past. But the whistling of those four boys haunts me whenever I go past the ruinous hulk of The Capital that seems as if it had been scooped out of The Palladium Ballroom. Who can forget the part-time projectionist Hari Singh, who tried to make things run smoother by squirting grease into the cogs and short-circuited the wiring to herald the end of yet another cinema hall?
On the upper two floors stood Hakman’s Grand Hotel, known in the hill station as a place of fun and frolic, games and laughter, a favourite destination of the not-so-rich or the yet-to-be famous. When Mr Hakman reached the finishing line, he joined the others who had gone before him, to be buried in the family plot reserved in the Camel’s Back Cemetery. Afterwards his widow continued to run a tight ship: a whip in one hand and Cleo, her cropped-ear Great Dane in the other. Old timers tell me she would be awake at dawn to receive the fish (packed in salt and ice) that came all the way from Karachi.
In 1947, our ‘tryst with destiny’ moment saw the Hakman family leave for Germany, having sold the hotel to Begum Zaheeda Khatun, the owner of Lucknow’s famous Wellington Hotel, who, in turn gave the place on extended lease to Delhi’s well-known hoteliers Mr Ram Prasad and his younger brother, Surendra Prasad. Helping them along was Bhola Singh Rawat, who managed the place and took me under his wing. I guess I was handy to proofread the hotel pamphlets and publicity material.
Up until 1970, summer saw Miss Mussoorie and Miss Hakman’s beauty contests still underway. But the stag dancers and the freebiewalas, who often outnumbered the paying guests, sounded the death rattle of all the beauty contests in the hill station.
Later the place was sub-leased to Nimmi Hoon, who brought along with him Capt. Jack Nichols, a genial jeweller’s assistant from Calcutta. He was just one among the scattered seeds of the Raj that were left behind. He happened to be white, blonde and blue-eyed and his nicotine stained fingers stood testimony to his smoking too much, lighting a fresh cigarette from the stub of the last one. Then there was the matter of his cats that swarmed all over the hotel and no matter which way one turned, there was always the fear of stepping on a creature meowing around.
I don’t think he was really cut out for the job of managing a large hotel, not as large as this one anyway. Plus no one took him seriously and one winter’s night, he passed away in his sleep, some say smothered by his own purring felines.
Hakman’s had crossed the point of no return.
And so had the Whistler’s Club. It was time to move on. Life happened. Anmol went off to Australia to retire as the Sydney Railway Station-Master; Dhruv loved flying and joined the Indian Air Force and Prem’s tinkering skills saw him turn engineer.
I guess with everyone gone, someone had to mind the store. I stayed behind to scribble these tales of a world that has long gone and comes alive only in our memories.
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.