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From Acorns To Tall Oaks

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By: Ganesh Saili

Call it Jharipani; or call it Jhits or Jhids! You will find yourself still in the place. A place that two years ago, gave Uttarakhand at its youngest Mayor, a thirty-year-old. Otherwise there is not much to commend the place.

Elsewhere, at a watering hole, the other evening, a friend and I, were getting a bit of elbow exercise, when a bat flew in uninvited. It forced the hotel staff into defender mode: gloves, broomsticks, baskets, old tennis racquets and kitchen mops.

‘Don’t! It’s only a Jhit bat,’ I pleaded on behalf of the intruder. ‘At four inches, the world’s smallest mammal can mean no harm!’ said I, quoting Surgeon-General Edmund Balfour’s three-volume compendium Cyclopaedia of India dating to 24th May 1885.

But who was listening?
‘Darn rat-on-wings!’ exclaimed Vineet, our genial host. ‘Imagine! Traveler’s reviews will have vampires fluttering around here?’

I wouldn’t argue with that.

In the nineteenth century, Jharipani’s dense oak forest, three miles above Rajpur, and three miles from Mussoorie, teemed with wildlife. In 1865, Kenneth Mackinnon saw the Mountain Quail. So did Captain Hutton, find them scurrying around the scrub in his garden. The dubious sobriquet of being last person to see them alive goes to Major Carwithen. But being a gun-in-hand type, he shot the female of the pair. With so much lead flying around, the bird vanished forever and has never been seen again.

What stands tall and proud is the impressive buildings of the East Indian Railway Company School. It moved from Fairlawn Palace on 1st of June 1888, to the present grounds spread over two hundred sixty-five acres, on the first foothill of the Himalaya. The school is much missed by those who spent a childhood here.

I owe a debt to the late Patrick Corbett, who was a student here in the 1940s for introducing me to a copy of the Principal’s Diaries, a rare record of the early struggles of these ‘Etons of the East.’

Water for Oak Grove came from the five springs that make up Mossy Falls which partially failed after the Kangra Earthquake of April 1905. Of course the story of how the falls got their name is well-known when Mr Moss, the Manager of the Himalaya Bank, while picnicking, scrambled over some rocks, lost his footing, slipped and fell to anchor well midstream, to a chorus of guffaws. Finally lending his name to ‘Mossy Falls.’

At this place, a teenaged Maharaja Daleep Singh, son of the Lion of the Punjab came. A cloth was spread over level ground – it did not lie very smoothly, with the grass beneath making it rough and tussocky. When the guests sat down, they joked about the bumps of the board, when the cloth came alive with a wriggling motion: ‘Sanph! Sanph!’ shouted the locals and chaos reigned. A full grown cobra reared its head from under the table cloth, hissing in protest at the salad bowl atop its head. After it had been dealt with, ‘it took a good deal of nerve of the ladies before they were persuaded to sit down to their scattered lunch.’

Jharipani has never been a place for banks or bankers. For instance there was Namkeen – named after the bazaar-slang for savouries or nibbles accompanying white-lightning. Barely had he taken charge when the branch saw its first bank robbery, albeit with a toy-pistol. Wish it had ended when he took his bride on a drive to Dhanolti and got tail-ended. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The car? It was a total write off.

The couple had spent the entire evening getting their wrecked vehicle towed and arrived home well past midnight to open the door and find their home ransacked. Thieves had been cleaned it out.

‘They’ve taken everything!’ Namkeen wailed. ‘Except the bats hanging under the kitchen sink.’

If you happen to bump into him, please do not mention Jhits. He breaks out in hives.

And if you wonder what happened to the bedeviled bat? It vanished and was never to be seen again. I think it got back and lived to tell the tale.

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.