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Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers

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By: Ganesh Saili
The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that winning and losing are but two sides of the same coin.

Take Andy Varma, who started La Suisse an upmarket bakery in the 1970s, before he moved to London and started an inflight catering kitchen.

Though our story begins in Mussoorie where two girls from England were staying at his home as houseguests and had chanced upon a glass walking-stick in the bazaar. The shopkeeper wanted a small fortune, way beyond the girl’s reach.

‘Wish we could buy it!’ they chit-chatted over supper.
‘You might if you convert your money into rupees, make a nice fat wad and dangle it under his nose!’ suggested Andy.

And that is exactly what they did. The ploy worked.
And that was that. Or so thought Andy. A few weeks later in London, his phone rang.

‘What are you doing?’ a familiar voice asked him. All he was doing was trying to make sure that he got his orders right. ‘Grab a chair and sit down,’ she urged. ‘I have something to tell you.’

‘Christie’s has just auctioned the stick for fifty thousand pounds!’ giggled the girl. ‘Wasn’t glass after all! Turns out it was pure crystal. Wonder how it came to end up in the hill station?’

Narrating the story a year later over a cup of coffee at the Mudcup Cafe, on a return journey Andy said to me: ‘Don’t whisper a word about this to that dealer – you’ll break his heart!’

Elsewhere, the shattering of glass rent the air. Two bulls jousting in the narrow lanes had backed into a glass-fronted shop. This tale began when Gopal Dutt Dimri, the handsome labour leader, donated a bull, Ramu, to the hill station. The Woodstock children would call him Ferdinand in remembrance of Munro Leaf’s story of a pacifist bull, that preferred the scent of the flowers rather than butting his head around with other creatures. When taken to the arena in Madrid, the matadors failed to provoke him and he ends up peacefully back in his beloved pasture. Ramu, though, was no pacifist. He would grunt, snort, curl his lips in frenetic ardour, scenting the air with his snout.

‘Hysterical!’ remembers Maya Narula, then a teacher in one of our schools. ‘Those in need of his professional services led the way tinkling a cowbell which the bull followed with eager resolve.’

‘Ramu’s got a phone-call!’ giggled the boys knowingly. Nod-nod wink-wink.

The one whose phone never rang was the elegant Mr. Jain, the last survivor of a landed aristocratic family. In his sunset years, he had a furniture rental business that he ran into the ground. Always turned out in his achkan, churida–pyjama, topped with a rakish silk-cap and a silver-knobbed walking stick in hand, he strutted down the Mall with an umbrella to shield him from the sun. Arrived in his late sixties, he watched the place shrug off the air of a fading resort. Trouble came knocking when, without warning, he took to accosting all and sundry: the long, the short and the tall.

One thing is certain, a phone call was the last thing on his mind when I, as a public representative on a house tax assessment committee of the Landour Cantonment Board, chanced to be on the wrong side of the table. He objected to the steep increase in taxes of his squatter-infested property.

‘This is most unfair,’ he wailed. ‘The occupants do not pay me any rent and now you increase my house tax. How will I ever pay it? It will be the ruin of me.’

Trying to be helpful, I introduced myself. That was a strategic error on my part. The years peeled away. I was once again a little boy back in kindergarten where his pretty daughter had once been my classmate. A twinkle lit up his eyes. He sized me up; he looked me up; he looked me down and puffed his chest like a pouter pigeon. “Come to the Manor sometime!’ I hear him say.

I beat a hasty retreat. Safer to run away humming: ‘Finders keepers, losers weepers!’

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.