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Dead Men Do Tell Tales

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By: Ganesh Saili

Our two cemeteries – those dominions of silence – one on Camel’s Back Road and the other above the Upper Chakkar, are still in pretty good shape considering they have seen two hundred monsoons. This is where I met Ranjeet, the chowkidar, whose Rastafarian dreadlocks would suffice to spook any would -be intruder. And then, like me, he too had seemed to have taken the road less-travelled by. On these bumpy, unpaved roads, converse denied with the departed, he had, over the years, perfected the art of talking back to his transistor.

It went something like this: ‘This is All India Radio. Here’s the new read by Devki Nandan Pandey!’

‘Haan! Haan! Aur batao! (Yes! Yes! Tell me more!) Gruffly he would snap. His Franciscan dialogues with the ether continued to the end of his days. I guess they kept him alive living with the dead.

When I look back, how I wish something could restore the warmth of my father’s hand holding mine as we together walked that road which began from the over-crowded Char Dukan; went past lonesome Childer’s Lodge; moved beyond the Cemetery before depositing us back where we began. This is where our tradition of boarding houses began in the 1900s when three bungalows were given licenses to operate as guesthouses. You had Rokeby; a three-minute’s short walk from Char Dukan; Fairview, six-minutes and sprawling Wolfsburn, barely four–minutes away.

These outings on the Upper Mall, or western Circular Road, under a frieze of deodar trees, continue to remain very special to me. Years later, one walk stands out in the diminishing corridors of memory – father and I would arrive at the five-acre spread of Wolfsburn, with a Doric pillared veranda wrapped around it, under the canopy of a thatched-roof. It was home to Mrs. Edith Walsh, the last survivor of an Anglo-Indian family that had been in India two centuries. Quietly, without fuss, she would slip a stick of barley sugar into my waiting hand every time. God bless her soul! Even though it has left me with a sweet tooth.

Luckily while the going was good, she learnt the ropes of running a guesthouse from her husband. Their only child, Peter left the station in search of greener pastures, settled down in New Zealand and never looked back. Bravely she leant to fend for herself, even after a stroke left her like a crumpled bird to be carried around in a sedan- chair by household help. Outside the store under a chestnut tree, to this day, I can still hear her rattling off the list of provisions for the day: ‘Ek chatank dhania! Thora sa haldi! Thora namak! Adha seer chawal!’

Winter saw her move to a rented house – in Dehradun’s Chukhuwala. Wolfsburn? It was left to the ministrations of Kalyan Singh, her faithful chowkidar. Regular as the seasons, this arrangement lasted up until on a cold winter’s night, aged ninety, without fuss, she left for the Land of Eternal Rainbows.

Or so we believed, until one night, the chowkidar, crumpled, disheveled, pale as a sheet, almost knocked down our door .

“Saili Saab! Saili Saab!” the words tumbled out of his mouth, sloshing and bumping into one another in a haste to get spoken. Breathlessly, he stammered: “She’s back! It’s March and Walsh Memsaab is back. I was up all night, the chain rattling on the outhouse door, she screamed: ‘Kalyan Singh darwaja kholo! Kalyan Singh darwaja kholo!”

We never saw him again. Small wonder he left for the safety of his mountain home, breathing fear instead of air, and vanished into the hills.

Wolfsburn was cannibalized and ripped apart. Doors and window frames pried loose, and the ruins palmed off to an unsuspecting Professor Uniyal, retired from teaching in Ethiopia. He restored the little he could and soon after the property was acquired. You will find it in ruins, a saga of neglect. Truly! The more things change, the more they remain the same.

What lasts? Only the love and warmth of my father’s sandpapery hand gripping mine as we walk down the road of memory.

(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.)