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DROPPING ANCHOR

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By: Ganesh Saili

‘Saili must have gone mad!’ our neighbours said, shaking their heads in disbelief. Had my father really lost his marbles? For one had to be slightly touched, at least way back in the 1950s, to move his family from a smug mohalla to a crumbling ruin on the outskirts of our hill station.

‘Haunted house!’ they whispered, rolling the whites of their eyes. My father simply ignored these barbs. And soon after we arrived at a rambling house sitting on a ridge. I remember carrying Meera,  my youngest sister, then a few months old in my arms. How could I have known that one day she would leave us without saying goodbye?

‘Raindrops falling on the right end up in the Yamuna,’ he said, adding ‘while those falling on the left go to Gangaji. They might meet again in Allahabad!’ Perhaps we were too young for esoteric stuff, and found more joy walking on a creaking wooden floor. Old houses have emanations from the past: other folks have lived, loved and passed away under this roof.  Walk along the wrap-around verandah or just brush against the walls to hear the words spoken in these rooms ages ago. Or take that old rocking chair which starts rocking on its own or that Ayes Mirror which swivels to turn into a photo album which reveals reflections of people who had gone from this world ages ago.

Our hillside homes cling on to the mountain as if by sheer will power. They were not always so dilapidated. I prefer to think of them in their prime – spotless and whitewashed; their red roofs standing out amidst green clumps of deodar, oak, laburnum and rhododendron, giving the place an air of tranquillity. Those empire builders repeated the self-same story all over the Himalayan foothills by using whatever was at hand: wooden rafters from the oak and rhododendron trees; gravel, lime, mortar and stones from the kilns at Khattapaani. Water was hauled by a train of mules from the nearby Company Khud springs.

Our home stands at the western edge of ninety-nine Old Grant Term lands and many other assorted leases, liberally distributed to civilians inviting them to settle here around 1828. If nothing else, they gave solace to the troops recuperating here.

Take Trim Lodge for instance, with Trim Cottage and Trim Ville lower down in quick succession. If there was a man by this name, I have failed to find any mention of him. Or was I barking up the wrong tree? Could it have been named after some place in Ireland? But then which self-respecting Irishman would have planted a Japanese spruce in the middle of this patio? It all boiled down to Captain Young, the first commandant of the Convalescent Depot, who probably invited his friend from the town of Trim in the County Meath to settle down on his potato patch. Old records reveal that the last British owner, one Edward Cockburn, willed the property to his sister Ethel, who died intestate and the estate devolved to the Custodian General and was put on the auctioneer’s block.  The Joint-Civil Magistrate (in what could have possibly been a conflict of interest) bought it for himself but never came to live here. When he passed away, his three sons inherited the property.

It is from the eldest that my father rented the place. Across the nullah stood Standish Hall which has all the markings of a church. On Sunday March 8, 1838 Lady Emily Eden, the Viceroy Auckland’s sister, had attended service here.

We tried to play on the nearby Mullingar field but all we got was a yell from the chowkidar Jabbar Singh: ‘Imbeciles! Get lost!’

‘Ghosts will run off with you!’ he warned. We did not believe a word he said – we knew he was just trying to frighten us.

‘He makes all that up!’  said his wife. ‘Come back at night to see Captain Young tie his stallion to the railings before the ghostly parade begins.’

Ghosts or ghouls could wait, but the games of childhood could not. After shifting from house to house over the years, we had finally dropped anchor in Trim Lodge.

 

          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.