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Greeting an Old Friend

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By Ganesh Saili
‘God must be pleased as punch,’ says a friend on hearing that our mutual friend, Anand Jauhar, had passed away, adding: ‘Nandu must be cracking jokes with the Maker… greeting Death like an old friend.’ Forty years ago, when I met ‘Nandu’, little did my friends or I know that a chance meeting would change things forever. The old Savoy became a great watering-hole, where author Ruskin Bond and I met a whole gamut of characters. Among them were film stars, rogues, politicians, business tycoons, fly-by-night operators and some fast fading beauty queens.

Like other sprawling hotels, it had a life of its own. There were rich patrons; usually ex-rulers and landed gentry who, with their retinues, occupied whole wings of the hotel. Then came the civil and military officers on furlough, partying the day away. On my first visit, I found a faint whiff of the fragrant mogras in the air, where guests must have lounged on one-maund mattresses listening to the mujra of Shailja of Benares.

As they say in fairy tales, once upon a time, Mussoorie was “the queen of resorts and the resort of kings”, a gathering place for the rich and the powerful, where you could let your hair down without inviting social censure.

I ask Nandu about the legend of a separation bell. In affirmation he answers: “We found an old, short sighted chowkidar to ring the separation bell at four every morning. to guarantee privacy to our guests.”

At times, guests would stagger at the sheer size of the luxury suites. I’m told, one day, when the hotel was full, an elderly couple was shown the bridal suite. “What will we do with this?” the old man exclaimed. “Sir!’ said the Manager, “If you’re shown the ballroom, you don’t have to dance!”

While on holiday, Rai Bahadur Capt Kirpa Ram, Nandu’s father, bought the property in 1946. He is best remembered for organising the Labour Union in the hill station and letting the rickshaw pullers park their rickshaws before they went home.

A bout of ill-health in 2005 forced Nandu to give up his shares. On my last visit, I finish taking pictures, and bid farewell to the old billiards room, trying to catch some of the spirit of the good old days. I remind myself that the history of Mussoorie must have funnelled through these vast spaces. I walk down the rambling corridors, the sun-drenched lounge, lost in the memory of happy times. Nandu catches up with me. He jokes: “This hotel is so big that by the time you get from the reception to the room, we could have charged you for a day!”

I tear myself away, rushing down those twenty steps, one last time. Suddenly, I hear a shuffling behind me. Is it the ghosts of the past come to bid one last goodbye? Or the wind playing in the gables? Who knows? I move from door to door, from transept to transept, from corridor to lounge, from ballroom to balcony, tracing a century here and a generation there, in pillar and arch, vault and buttress. And I will probably end where it began: at the rosewood entrance which throws its massive arch into a work-a-day world, and inside, hoards a treasure trove of memories.

And, for over a hundred years, emperor and clown have walked up these very same steps, through this very same arch into a magnificent doorway to history.

Born in 1932, schooled in Doon School and at St Stephen’s College, he became the Delhi University Tennis Captain and lived his life to the lees. At eighty-seven, he lived in retirement in the family house in Bangalore, with his late wife Sheila; their two sons, Arvind and Rajeev, and granddaughter Siya. Their daughter, Dr Sabita Jauhar Rathi, lives in the U.S.

He had no regrets and was full of fun, laughter, love and the good things of life. As I bid my friend, I say: ‘Goodbye! Long innings! Very well played!’

Do I hear a chuckle as a new star winks at me? Or, is it Nandu saying: ‘Howdy? I beat you to it Old Man!’

(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)