Ranjit's lifetime was spent in looking after the Landour Cemetery. Pic: Ganesh Saili

By: Ganesh Saili                                                                                                                                        Superb coffee, laced with a trickle of caramel, that continues to tickle the palate long after the cup is empty. It stayed with me as I peered from Maple Haze towards Camels’ Back Road. Below that famed road loomed a property that legend ascribes to having been won and lost several times on the throw of the dice.

The end of the 1970s saw this hillside, once teeming with missionaries, now going home given the new visa regime, we saw departing families selling their earthly possessions in yard sales which were picked clean by second-hand dealers. Briefly we became a kabari’s paradise.

Why you may wonder do I still nurse a soft spot for Munna kabari? Perhaps it is because he passed on to me his love for tattered books and unbeknownst to him at the time, he managed to contribute in no small measure to furthering my education with second-hand books. All of four-foot-nothing he puffed himself up like a pouter pigeon, to transform into the King of Wheeler-Dealers. As I write, I can still see him chatting me up, wrapped in a tired suit – a relic probably exhumed from a grave.


In the background, the Hill of Faries along the
road to Suakholi.
Pic courtesy: Manu Bahuguna.

‘With your talent,’ I teased, ‘you should have been a wealthy man by now!’

‘Belt up! Saili Saab,’ He sighs. ‘Never locked my purse with those four aces looming larger than the mountains you see from Lal Tibba.’

Meanwhile, droves of habitual gamblers still arrive in our hostelries. Barely are their suitcases through the door, they fob off the women with ‘run-along-and-take-care-of-things’ – routine things like checking-in. Briefly, the message is: ‘Leave and let me gamble in peace!’ For them all that matters is gaming. It’s our dark secret that is public knowledge – almost half of Mussoorie knows about it and the other half keep their lips sealed, for this station prospers on  gambling.

Charlie Wilson son of a doting
father Rajah Wilson.

After trawling for junk in the bazaar, Munna could be found immersed in cards. They were like his personal devil’s prayer-book. Sheltered in a corner from the winter’s icy wind whipped around the bazaar like a cat-of-nine-tails, a stool served as a makeshift, albeit somewhat wobbly gaming table. After a thorough shuffle of the deck, the game was on.

Our obsession with gambling is not new. As far back as January 30th, 1858, the Australian-born writer John Lang described in Charles Dickens’ Magazine Household Words a walk to Suakholi, six miles outside British territory, when that area belonged to the Rajah of Tehri. Lang had stumbled upon the largest gambling den north of Meerut, and that is where you would have found Frederick Wilson or ‘Pahari Wilson’ enroute to Hursil along the Bhagirathi river. That is where he had gone phantee or ‘native’ and married Raimata and later on married her niece Gulabi. In the hotels or sarais, nautch-girls would dance the night away as the rich and the famous, safely outside Municipal Limits and the moral policing of the Raj, were busy making nothing out of something.

A hundred years later, the trick or treat carried on at what I, out of politeness, discretion and in the interests of self-preservation can only refer to as Chachi’s house. Amply endowed, chubby, fair and tawny-eyed, she ran an open house for gaming addicts. In the curtained room above her provision store in the bazaar, gamers gathered to make a killing. Glitch was that when she got a bad hand, Chachi would let her pallu slip, distracting the others into losing a perfectly winnable hand.

I was there when she passed away in ripe old age; I was there when two of her admirers cried inconsolably as Chacha cuddled them, whispering softly: ‘Come on! In a few months, I’ll marry again.’

‘That’s all right for you,’ they wailed. ‘What are we going to do today?’

I must admit, I wasn’t in the least surprised when in tribute to her manifold talents the entire bazaar downed its shutters for her funeral.

When life’s loaded dice rolls, sometimes it can be an awfully long wait before the winning numbers show up. As for me, give me a whiff of that caramel laced coffee anytime, anywhere.

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.