By GANESH SAILI
It was my fault. When I look back, the alarm bells should have been ringing the moment he tossed his head back saying: ‘You must drop by to see my daffodils’, as he turned his head towards a crumbling ruin. It was a house that was no longer a house, on a flat that was no longer a flat in a hill station that no longer felt like a hill station.
Flats or wide open spaces have always been at a premium in the hills because they are few and far between. ‘Seven flat places or chaans for cattle used during the summers are grounds belonging to the villages of Kyarkuli to which the village of Bhatta is but an appendage,’ according to the land settlement record of August 4, 1828 of F. J. Shore, the Superintendent of the Dun. He warned those who wanted to take short-cuts: ‘No individual has any claim to take possession of it without their leave.’ Insisting on fair play, he forbade the transfer of such lands from the villagers to Englishmen unless accompanied by a pre-registered request with his office.
Two hundred years ago this place teemed with new arrivals reminding one of the influx of settlers to one of the gold fields. Though this time around health, not wealth was the magnet.
Served me right for getting suckered in by badge, blazer and school tie. Together they had me diddled.
‘Hot air! That’s what he’s full of. He could start a hot air balloon company!’ said the bazaar gossip that I had ignored.
At day’s end, any gardener will tell you that it is no joke to coax and cajole even a single daffodil from our calcinated soil.
If the odd flower does surface, it looks like a confused traveller getting off on the wrong railway platform.
‘She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes!’ I hummed, huffing and puffing uphill. There was not a flower in sight.
‘Flowers?’ I snapped at the chowkidar. ‘Where are they?’ ‘Sahib! You are standing on them!’ he said, pointing at my feet where a few wild irises were peeping through a clump of stinging nettles.
‘I could not help sending a man from the plains, who had never seen a nettle, to gather one; he took hold of it, and relinquished his hold instantly in excessive surprise, exclaimed: ‘It has stung me; it is a scorpion plant,’ Fanny Parks wrote in 1838.
W. Johnston’s book Amateur Gardner in the Hills helped local yokels in gardening and became a bestseller. Had our stuffed shirt read it, he would have prepared his flowerbeds, got rid of the weeds, nettles and the dock-leaves and tossed in manure, planted a bulb or two, and watered them. Afterwards, if Lady Luck looked his way, and if the goats and monkeys did not get to them first, he might have seen a few flowers.
Like the prized flowers that once grew in Happy Valley’s Birla House, where in the summer of 1948, you could have had a glimpse of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Iron Man of India, who hosted a conference there.
Or take Phillip Ryper, a telephone operator in the Mussoorie Exchange, living on the Woodlands estate. Like tenants elsewhere, his relationship with the landlady, Miss Doris Garlah, a retired math’s teacher from Railway School, can only be described as stormy. School lore credits her for letting the schoolgirls listen to the radio broadcast in 1960 to hear Princess Margaret say ‘I do’ as she wed the Earl of Snowdon.
‘Old Meany!’ he complains. ‘After pruning her roses, she stuffs the clippings into a cardboard box to dry, just to make sure I don’t use her cuttings!’
‘Poor thing, she’s got arthritis now!’ I say, trying to play peacemaker.
Instead he points to a hammer, saying: ‘That’s her cure!’
Before leaving, I drop by to see her. She too will have none of it. ‘Horrid fellow! Dyes his hair pink, red and purple …and stupid chap tried to kiss me under the mistletoe last Christmas!’
Often, flowers are best only on the mind.
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.