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Autumn Weaves



By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

The days are getting shorter, the nights longer.  The stars shine with an icy brilliance.

For a brief moment they will be obscured by a flight of geese, honking and winging their way from the lakes of the Indo-Tibetan highlands to the fertile wetlands of our Indo-Gangetic plain.  No one knows what navigation system they use but it could be a sensitivity to the magnetic lines of force that wrap the earth.

On the 12th of November 1960, we could officially launch our joint byline. We used that byline on the imagery of the flight of the wild geese to write our first essay published in the Christian Science Monitor. Ruskin had, with his usual generosity, given us this contact. We had chosen the metaphor of the flight of the wild geese to describe the amazing escape of his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, from Tibet to India. It is still a mystery how that remarkable feat was accomplished. The determined Chinese Government had decided to hold His Holiness captive in the Potala and issued edicts in his name to control the people of Tibet. And, yet, He and his caravan had escaped to India. No one is quite sure how He did this. In a Tibetan Monastery, not far from the black suture that marks the stitching together of our Indian Subcontinent with the landmass of Eurasia, we heard an unusual story.

Teams of highly trained monks chanted up a dust storm to conceal the Dalai Lama’s caravan all the way from the Potala to India.”  Do we believe this story?  In over 60 years of travelling and writing we have learnt not to disbelieve anything. It is best, and most creative, to keep an open mind to the beliefs of other people. They stir the mind and keep it from congealing into senility. And so, as we look at the sunset over the Doon crystallising into the magic of the Winter Line, we think of the days that used to be; the days when we and the world were much younger, and the slow clock of the seasons could be relied upon to fall with tick-tock regularity.

In the 1940s, when the icy breath of Autumn touched our lungs, we began to prepare for Winter. The begonia bulbs were snuggled into their winter blanket of dried oak leaves and left to sleep in their pots till the arrival of Spring. The other pots were brought into our glazed verandah to protect them from the frost of Winter. The beehives were wrapped in a warm overcoat of straw and, since there were no flowers to provide nectar for the bees, we had to feed our colonies with a sugar and water solution. The poultry were already living in a shed carpeted with a deep litter of oak leaves.  This system, devised in Australia, provided a warm and dry home for the birds and enriched compost for the garden and orchards. Some of the more delicate fruit trees had to be protected by overcoats of straw wrapped around them.

For our own warmth, the chimneys leading out from the fireplaces had to be cleaned of soot and ash by letting down a brick tied to a rope.  Then we waited to hear the call of the Nepalese charcoal burners and the woodcutters. They had taken contracts from the Forest Department to chop branches of trees and sell the trimmed wood to the winter residents of Mussoorie. They also sold panniers of charcoal carefully burnt in slow-fired piles in the forest. Charcoal made from oak wood was particularly valued for its heat giving properties. These fuels were also used to heat bath water in devices called Filters. Presumably they had evolved from smaller boilers created to sanitise spring water to make it suitable for drinking.

Now as the night closed earlier and earlier, we heard the hoot of an owl, the mew of a flying squirrel, the yap-snap off barking deer and the hustle-rustle of pheasants in our oak wood.  Dogs taken out for their evening stroll were always leashed to prevent them from being gobbled by panthers driven out of the higher forests by snow. We locked ourselves in our warm cottages, sat around bright fires in our cast iron grates and shared the magic of memories.

These became the warp and weft of the fabric of our fascinating profession.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.) (The opinions and thoughts expressed here reflect only the authors’ views!).