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Judging A Book By Its Cover

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By: Ganesh Saili

Thin as a rake, many long years ago, I was pottering around in the garden on a Sunday afternoon tending our sweet peas when a stranger loped through the gate asking me loudly:

‘ Saili ji ghar mein hain?’ (Mr. Saili home?)

In my boxers, digging the garden, I’m not a pretty sight, even at the best of times. Obviously, I could not fault him for mistaking me for household help. Had you seen me, you too would have thought so.

‘Abhi bulata hoon!’ (Will call him just now!) assuring him, I slipped into the house to change into something more presentable. When I stepped out again, briefly a cloud of uncertainty flitted across his face before turning into astonishment. For clothes had finally made the man. He seemed more relaxed, more comfortable and actually brought his hands together to wish me.

A little later, in the mid-1970s, newspapers announced the opening of the Valley of Flowers, in the border district of Chamoli-Garhwal, to tourists, as the Inner Line had been shifted from Devprayag. It was good news for tourism, especially in a cosmopolitan place like Mussoorie. At long last, visitors from overseas could visit these once-forbidden zones.

Some of us decided to go there before it was swamped with people. That journey would mark the beginning of my love affair with the written word, but when I look back, I remember an incident, I have never talked about. After a long trek to Ghagharia, we gave ourselves up to the awesome hospitality of the Sikh community at the fledgling Gurdwara. On a bench outside sat a constable from the Local Intelligence Unit, who had walked all the way from Joshimath to jot down passport numbers and visa details of all foreigners.

Seeing me chatting away in English, his eyes lit up.
‘Passport?’ he nudged me.

‘Mera passport?’ (My Passport?) I was indignant. A Garhwali being asked for travel papers a few miles from his own village?

Cutting iron with iron, I broke into my mother tongue: ‘Mei yakhi muh Sail gaon kuh cha!’ (I’m from nearby Sail village!)

His jaw dropped. You could have pushed him over with a straw.

The self-same song returned to haunt me in another place, another time though much closer to home. John Das, a friend of long-standing, coaxed me into revisiting my old school, St George’s College where I had spent two years of my youth. We went through the now-not-so-little village of Barlowganj, past the old suspension bridge connecting Manor House to St Fidelis, past the TS-11 Iskra aircraft gifted to the school by an old alumnus, to finally arrive and sit in the shadow of the magnificent façade that gives the college its grand appearance with Gothic columns rearing into the sky, dwarfing all else. Atop Brother Phelan’s dream is a clock built in 1938 by J.B. Joyce & Co. that chimes every fifteen minutes. It’s sound would scare away the wildlife prowling around the school’s four-hundred-acre campus.

The story of Mussoorie’s second oldest school begins in 1853 when the brown-hooded Capuchin Fathers acquired Manor House to found St George’s College, with St. Fidelis for orphans and Whytbank Castle (now a five-star hotel) to house parlour-boarders who lived in style accompanied by their staff.

Watching the sports from the visitor’s enclosure, I became a student once again as I found myself cheering for Tapsell’s, my old house. We looked forward to tea time which was announced by the arrival of a portly cook, still wearing his apron, pouring hot tea from a shiny aluminium kettle. Empathising with him as a fellow highlander, I blurted out: ‘Mei tain bhi diya bhaiji?’ (Please give me some too brother).

I almost put off his aim, and he nearly scalded himself. He glared at me. Nothing on either side was said, nor were any words necessary. That scathing look said it all, like the proverbial thousand words: ‘Why are you mixing with the guests? You should be in the kitchen!’

After all who said you must not judge a book by its cover? Everyone does it, in some form or another.

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.