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Dangling With The Departed

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By GANESH SAILI

Safer, I guess, to plead guilty of dangling with the departed. Rest assured, dear Reader, that though I do rattle old bones (my own!), but rarely do I hold comune with those resting in peace in our Cities of Silence.

This rejig of memory was forced upon me courtesy a friend (whom we call SP) who was staying at Savoy and teased us: ‘Stephen Alter, Ruskin Bond and you are the only living writers on the Writers Wall in the Writers’ Bar! The rest are dead… or have you three come back from the dead?’

This is the story of how we ended up nailed to the wall. It begins almost fifty years ago, when Anand Jauhar, who at the time owned the place, while holidaying in Singapore chanced upon some plaques in the Raffles’ Bar celebrating famous authors like W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Graham Green, who had all been guests at that famed hostelry. For Nandu, (as we affectionately called him) life was never to be the same again. It kindled in him the desire for giving his bar a name.

‘Writers’ Bar?’ mused Ruskin. ‘Where will we find writers willing to let you use their names for free?’‘

There’s you two to begin with! Let’s fish around for others.’

‘The Scott Fitzgerald drunks are out of fashion these days,’ I worried.

‘Come on!’ said Nandu. ‘Not all writers drink triple, see double and act single.’

To put the plan in motion, we began to frequent the bar some more. After all, given a hundred years of history, this place must have had writers who dropped in on a regular basis, even if only for a nimbusoda.

Over the weekend, the plaques were slapped together by Umed Singh, our gifted coffin-maker. They were mounted on the wall to celebrate those authors, both living and dead, associated with this hill station.

To be on the safe side, one began with the Australian author- barrister John Lang, who passed away in 1864 having lived the last five years of his life in these hills and wrote his Wanderings in India for Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words.

Then came Jim Corbett, the hunter-conservationist, with a rather tenuous connection. His father, a widower, was the Postmaster of Mussoorie when he met his second wife in ‘the roaring twenties’ in this hotel’s ballroom. The two were married at St. Paul’s Church, Landour on the 2nd May 1926. Their son went on to write best-sellers like The Man Eaters of Kumaon and The Man Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag.

Philip Mason, a heavenborn (as those in the ICS were called), was an easy choice because he had been Commissioner of Garhwal. He wrote the seminal A Matter of Honour. Another easy pick for the honour was Lowell Thomas, author of India: The Land of the Black Pagoda where he tells us about a hotel in Mussoorie where they rang a separation bell just before dawn ‘so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their own beds.’

Then followed John Masters of the Gurkhas who was in Dehradun during World War II, and gave us Bhowani Junction and Bugles and a Tiger.

India-born Charles Allen’s family had six generations connected with service in the Raj and in his quiver he had Plain Tales from the Raj and A Mountain in Tibet.

Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Laureate of 1931, authored The Good Earth. She was here as Chief Guest at the Woodstock School graduation in 1959. Fortunately Nandu and Sheila had a picture taken with her here. Never mind if she only totalled tea-bags; she never tippled or wrote a word about this hill station either.

In the 1990s, Peter Hopkirk arrived, chasing dreams of Kipling’s Lama and Kim. I remembered seeing him sketching in the lounge. He too did not imbibe spirits.

As for us locals, it’s like Mark Twain’s ‘but for the honour of the thing!’ Left to us, we would rather give the nail on the wall a miss.

If you don’t mind, we would rather be with the living just a tad longer.

(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.)