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HOLDING HANDS IN THE DARK

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By: Ganesh Saili

First a corrigendum: our six cinema halls died, or more accurately five – because the Majestic lived on by turning into the Vasu, later the Ritz and presently into a multiplex called the Carnival. Of our days of wine and roses, of love and fresh air, little survives except memories. Often have I tried to bury them deep but come back like the shoots of the agapanthus topped with camelina blue flowers.

I remember Hari Singh, usher at Rialto, who would guide stragglers with the beam of his worn-out Geep torch. He left in his wake a trail of moans and groans from folks who had been disturbed. Intermissions brought the rustling of the newspapers cones in which were wrapped the gram or peanuts mixture of the channa-jor-garam sellers.

Nothing remains of our first movie hall where Arthur Fisher once worked as a projectionist. I had known him as a little boy while in the Garlah’s Woodland School where he had lived behind the school in the charcoal godown.

‘Where did the rest of your family go?’ I asked.

‘They all vamoosed by the time I came home from the Great War selling Harmony Cottage – our family home – and gone to England.’

‘Did they get in touch?’

‘Of course not!’ he spat. ‘Would you?’

Draw of stumps saw him become helper to the undertaker of the cemetery, that is until he too came to rest to be buried in a pauper’s grave.

Burial would be unfair for Bir Singh, the linesman of the local electricity board and his sidekick when the twain arrived drunk for a matinee show.

The ‘House Full’ sign was up. All bookings had ended.

‘Two tickets!’ they insisted.

‘Can’t you read the board?’ countered Victor Chauhan, the Manager.

‘Slip in two folding chairs!’ mocked the two.

‘Of course I can’t!’ answered exasperated Victor, adding: ‘It’s against the tax rules!’

Bir Singh!’ his affronted sidekick suggested: ‘Go up that electric pole and pull out the fuse!’

‘Trifling with us, are they?’ Bir Singh queried.

And that is exactly what he did. While whistling, catcalls and commotion welcomed the plunge into darkness. Pleased with themselves, our deadly duo strolled off to the nearby Delhi teashop.

‘Refund our tickets’ yelled the crowd.

After much dithering, Victor capitulated by borrowing two folding chairs lying in the veranda of Santokh Singh’s teashop.

Placated, Bir Singh ascended the pole a second time, slipped the fuse into its slot, and the projector jumped to life again. Our deadly duo? They lived to tell the tale.

Further afield at the Rialto a bespectacled Matbar Singh Rauthan would sit at the booking-counter ticking seats against tickets of the seating plan of the cinema.

‘Next time, come on time!’ He admonished but it was not for skipping our classes.

Of course we were on schedule on the day when our school trooped in single-file to watch Cecil D Milles’ The Ten Commandments. Staying with me is the magic of Charles Heston playing Moses parting the waters. Somehow the tipsy projectionist, splicing the reels, got them mixed up. The sea parted but Moses and his followers were stranded high and dry on the beach one more time.

Around the same time, the rosy-cheeked, nimble footed sirens of the Diamond Wineshop on the Mall caused many a ship-wreck, leaving a trail of shattered hearts. It wasn’t the drunkards to blame, for they vanished after buying their quota. Those who did not drink caused the problem – perched on the railings opposite the shop – to get just a glimpse of the owner’s stunning daughters – six of them, each prettier than the other. With the passage of time, the girls settled down, while the eager beavers left the railings. Perhaps Mussoorie’s decline began the day that Wineshop folded up. Briefly it became a store selling woollens – but those glad rags were not a patch on the warmth of the real thing.

‘Wake up Ganesh!’ yells my friend Mayank Negi, ‘It’s the New Age of phones, tablets and television.’

Yes! They have all come together and dealt a death-blow to holding hands in the dark. I guess nothing lasts forever.

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.