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Baiting For Good Things

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 By Ganesh Saili

Considering the fact that while I have done quite a crazy wild things in my extreme youth, somehow it has never included angling. Given the advantage of hindsight, I find some have snottily, accused me of getting my facts wrong because they come from ‘pedestrian sources.’ They are easily forgiven. They know not that at day’s end we all have our songs to sing.

On occasion, I have been called upon to identity the odd picture, sketch or water-colour. The other day I received a picture from Rahul and Vinita Kohli – well-known art collectors, scholars and historians, living in Dehradun.

This particular water-colour of the famed Himalayan trout or mahseer has a caption: Save or Sore measuring 2 feet 8 inches caught by a hook out of the Alacananda at Srinagar on 15th May 1808.  It has powerful suckers to travel upstream, leaving the smaller fry to flow with the river.

‘Not quite sure if this is your sort of thing but it is an interesting picture.’ asks Rahul tentatively. ‘I wonder who it could be by? How many travellers could there have possibly been in Garhwal in those days?’

The year 1808, triggers a thought. At that time, the Gurkhas had occupied GarhwaI. But I wonder what on earth was an angrez doing angling in Srinagar-Garhwal?

‘With enough time left over to sit and paint?’ Wonders Rahul. ‘Could he have been an unofficial embassy type?’

Rahul cranks up the search engine like  a modern day Sherlock Holmes with a pencil, a notebook, a small magnifying glass  and the skills of a forensic scientist. Plunging into murky waters, he delves deep into the vastness of Asiatic Researches, and strikes gold instantly.

In Vol. 11, dated 1812  he finds that F.V. Raper had set out on a survey from Haridwar to Gangotri in 1808 looking for the source of the Ganga.  On 23rd  April, 1808 he arrived at the town of Barahat (modern day Uttarkashi) describing it thus: ‘Many of the inhabitants who attended us expressed much sorrow at these events.’

This reference is to a major earthquake that struck the Himalaya early in the morning of  1st September 1803. Its shock waves were felt from the Punjab to Calcutta. Apparently it was strong enough to throw the fish out of water from a tank in Calcutta’s Botanical Garden and damaged the upper part of the Qutub Minar in Delhi and the Imambara in Lucknow . Although in Allahabad it stopped the clock at seventeen minutes past one, but did no further mischief. Closer to home, in Uttarkashi, two or three hundred people were killed and many cattle were destroyed.

‘This is incredible!’ gasps Rahul. ‘It mentions my FISH!’

And sure it does…

‘13th May.. Marched to Srinagar. Thermometer 73. The road consists of several ascents and descents; and in some parts came in contact with the river. We received, and returned, the visits of Hasti Dhal, the former governor, and of Shista Tapah, son of Bhatrao Tapah, who was in charge of the executive government, during the father’s absence at Cangra (Kangra, Himachal).

With great civility the chieftains offered them presents of livestock and other provisions, of which the following find mention: ‘1. A young animal … called Gurl (Ghoral) 2. A species of hill pheasant called Munal  3. Several small, and one large fish, called Soher. The later was caught in the Alacananda … where the species is found in great numbers, some of an astonishing size, six or seven feet in length. The scales on the back and sides are large, of a beautiful green, encircled with a bright golden border, the belly a dark bronze. The flavour of the fish is equal to its beauty; being remarkably fine and delicate.

’‘Considering that I’ve had this drawing for years,’ Rahul tells me. “It never registered it was so accurately dated. Once you mentioned ‘the Gurkha occupation’, the penny dropped and the rest unfolded rapidly.’

Well gentle reader, when all the pieces of Time’s jigsaw puzzle do fall into place, I for one am happy to have been a rainbow, be it ever so briefly, in someone else’s cloud.

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.