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BATS IN THE BELFRY

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By GANESH SAILI

At a watering hole the other evening, a friend and I were sitting around unwinding when a bat, uninvited, swooped in forcing the hotel staff into defender mode: with gloves, broomsticks, baskets, kitchen mops, old tennis racquets and anything-at-hand.

‘Don’t! It’s only a Jharipani bat,’ I plead. ‘At all four inches, it’s the world’s smallest mammal and means no harm!’ said I, quoting from Surgeon-General Edmund Balfour’s three-volume compendium Cyclopaedia of India (Pub: 1885.) That’s where I found out that bats are not blind, and like owls they are prone to blundering around in bright light, preferring the dark to avoid obstacles.

But who was listening?

‘Damn rat-on-wings!’ exclaimed Vineet. ‘What about our traveller reviews – what are they going to look like tomorrow? They will have vampires fluttering around!’

This sure is the path to oblivion: a double whammy for Jharipani, whose dense oak forest sits three miles above Rajpur, and three miles from Mussoorie. Be patient, let me explain how a place that once teemed with wildlife has lost most of it. Records tell us that in 1865, Kenneth Mackinnon saw a mountain quail and so did Captain Hutton, who found them scurrying about his garden. Of course the dubious distinction of being the last person to see them alive goes to a certain Major Carwithen. Unfortunately, he was your shikari-type who shot the female of the pair. Flying lead to the left and lead to the right, any self-respecting bird would have left the area forever. Small wonder that It has not been seen ever since.

The only thing of permanence are the pustahs or retaining walls built of solid rocks hewn from the hillside. This is what the school rests on. No one seems to have kept a list of exactly how many Pathans lost their lives building this edifice.

Though the Principal’s Diaries do keep a precious record of the early struggles of our school that relied on the five springs of Mossy Falls (except during the disruption caused by the Kangra Earthquake in April 1905) for a most reliable water supply.

Of course there was Mr Moss, the Manager of the Himalaya Bank, who while picnicking tried to scramble over some rocks, lost his footing, slipped and anchored midstream, to a chorus of guffaws, unwittingly gave the place its name ‘Mossy Falls’.

A little ways away is the flat where a young Maharaja Daleep Singh, son of the Lion of the Punjab, picnicked. A cloth was laid out over level ground – it did not lie very smoothly, with the grass beneath making it rough and tussocky. When the guests sat down, they joked about the bumps of the board, when the cloth came alive with a wriggling motion: ‘Saanp! Saanp!’ shouted the locals, and chaos reigned. A full grown cobra reared its head from under the tablecloth, hissing in protest at having a salad bowl placed on its head. After it had been dealt with, ‘it took a good deal of persuasion before the ladies summoned up the nerve to sit down to their scattered lunch,’ wrote his mentor Mrs. Logan in her diary.

Jharipani is no place for bankers. There was Namkeen, for instance (so named after the nibbles served with alcohol!) On the day he took charge, the bank had the hill station’s first hold up. And how one wishes his run of misfortunes had ended there!

A few days later he took his pretty bride for a drive in their shiny new car. They were tailended but fortunately no one was hurt. The car? You may as well have written it off.

After a harrowing day, they came home late at night to find their home had been ransacked. The thieves had backed up a truck and taken everything.

‘All gone!’ Namkeen wailed. ‘Everything, except the bats hanging under the kitchen sink.’

If you bump into him, please do not mention the word Jharipani.

And if you are wondering what happened to the batty bat? Believe me, it vanished, never to be seen again. Blundering away, it lives to tell another tale.

(Ganesh Saili born and homegrown 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.)