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Hit By White-lightning

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By Ganesh Saili

It was 2 September 1994. At sunset, a police jeep did the rounds. A place that had never seen even a lathi-charge had witnessed a police firing. Mussoorie was under curfew as the movement for a separate state reached its peak.

Nothing would be hunky-dory again.

Afterwards, I found myself on a peace committee helping restore some normalcy by reopening shops.

‘I cannot see any men,’ complained the Station House Officer. ‘Just hope they are not sitting around planning more trouble.’

He needn’t have fretted. You would have found them lined up in an orderly queue, patiently awaiting their turn to buy booze near the Roxy Building on Camel’s Back Road.

Not much has changed twenty five years later when the same scene repeated itself after the pandemic that hit us. When lockdown restrictions eased, the long row of people again shuffled outside every single country liquor kiosk. Who said the more things change, the more they remain the same?

I find that tippling has been an inseparable part of our hill station milieu and is perhaps a hangover from the days of the early breweries. Who can tell?

Take for instance Ajay Singh, a clerk in Water Works, who you would hear long before he appeared when the Clock Tower struck nine. Staggering past, singing a chanty from radio compere Amin Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala he would say:

‘Bal jab pyar kiya toh darna kya? (When you’re in love then why be scared?)

Halting briefly at Rai Singh’s Sweet Shop, perched precariously next door to the water springs of Bawri, he would yell: ‘Bal Rai Singh! Namkeen kahan hai?’ Grabbing a handful of fritters atop the counter he would say: ‘Paisey kal koh!’ (Payment tomorrow!). Then a hush would descend on the bazaar. With his home only a stone’s throw away, he would sober up, dust his coat, silently slink through a narrow alley, and scurry home as quiet as a church mouse.

But you needn’t despair – there was more to come. Others, like Sultan, a contractor, born with a swagger that would have easily put John Travolta to shame, would come soon after. You’d easily recognise him, come winter or summer, by his one-size-too-big trench-coat. It would have done Peter Sellers proud. He would get sozzled in the Naaz Bar till closing time, totter to the old hand-drawn rickshaw shed, plonk himself in one and pass out. Just before the rickshaw drew up outside his home, he would instinctively return to the land of the living, sit bolt upright, pay his fare and without a whisper make his way home.

Of course he was miles ahead in the marathon to be crowned town drunk, whose unique USP was that he taught a whole generation of youngsters to keep reality at bay by imbibing a few drinks a day.

And it must be said they learnt the ropes quite fast.

Even a hundred years ago, our local breweries ensured that no one died of thirst at our clubs, hotels, or restaurants. Tales survive of an Army Sergeant who took to singing scraps of the most bawdy and indecent songs, rendering himself a common laughing stock by singing: ‘Beer! Beer! Glorious Beer! Fill me right up to here!’ Retribution followed in the shape of dismissal from service.

For most of us, trouble came unannounced, with grief in 1977. Like a bolt from the blue, Morarji Desai’s Government announced prohibition in the hills. It served a dual purpose: like beached whales, we were left quite high, and quite dry.

Of course, we tried ‘everything’, right down to the foul-tasting, alcohol-laced ayurvedic tonic Mrit Sanjivanisura – reputed to bring even the dead back to life. It tasted vile but did go a long way in putting you to sleep. In those difficult times, I must admit, our valiant milkmen were knights in shining armour; they came to our rescue by filling our hot-water bottles with white-lightning from their hooch stills. There were niggling problems though, that always dogged us; the contents tasted of rubber, while at night our beds stank of kacchi.

At day’s end, white-lightning gets you nowhere. But then neither does a cycle on a stand.

(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.)