By: Ganesh Saili
All news coming in these days is not good news. This time it is Archana on the line. She is the daughter of my friend of old, Dhruv. She tells me he had lost the battle to the virus last night.
How well I remember him! We were teenagers looking for a bat and ball. Stumps too, of course! but those were easily drawn with chalk or charcoal on a wall; or bricks would do just as well, or when all else failed, cans were stacked upon each other; or an upturned empty wooden crate would suffice.
In our hill station, all the good flats had been taken. Children had to make do with whatever was left over like unpaved streets and the abandoned flat on Mullingar.
Of course Mullingar had seen better days. It was not always so tatty.
In its heyday, it had been home to the founder of Mussoorie, Capt. Frederick Young, who named it after his hometown in Ireland. I find the earliest mention of the place in a letter dated 1847, by Maugher Monk, a teacher, writing to his sister in England. ‘I write from my new house, Mullingar, where I hope I am permanently fixed for the next ten years.’ Or so he thought, but Fate intervened when, neck-deep in debt, fleeing his creditors, Monk passed away and was buried in Meerut on 9th December 1849.
Afterwards, it was variously called the Caledonian, the Imperial and the Oriental – these were no more than a string of hostelries – before becoming the Philander Smith Institute which downed shutters and moved to Nainital in 1905. Later, during the Second World War, it served as sanctuary to army families from Burma, the Andamans and the North East, fleeing the advancing Japanese forces.
When my family came here in the 1950s, the Mansa Ram Bank owned the place. When the bank crashed in 1955, Lekh Raj, a refugee from Sialkot, leased it from the official liquidator to run the Mullingar Hotel with boards advertising ‘Views of a Pine Valley.’ Mind you, there was not a single conifer in sight.
Our Gang of Four set out on hikes around Mussoorie’s environs, with khakhi pittus or backpacks that dented our backs black and blue. Sometimes, over the weekend we walked down the seven mile bridle path to Rajpur or we trekked past Khattapani, Jhudi and Tuneta villages dropping like a plumb line down to the Aglar river that, in its upper reaches, is no more than a ribbon of water.
Cricket remained our reigning passion. All we needed were six stumps, two bats and a ball for our tournament to begin. Leg glances were discouraged, though, for the simple reason that the ball tended to hurtle through the windowpanes of Mullingar Lodge located on Deep Fine Leg. This was home to Janki Nath Sehgal, a retired engineer from the City Board, whose bark was worse than his bite, liberally sprinkled with the choicest epithets that seem to flow so naturally from the tongues of those from the North West Frontier Province, from where his family had come as refugees on Partition.
One day an ill-timed hook shattered a windowpane. We scattered, except Dhruv; he wasn’t one of the lean and hungry types, not really built for cheeky singles. Out came Janki Nath grabbing him by the scruff, yelling:
‘Tera piyo eh nuh teekh kareyga?’ (Is your father going to fix this?)
‘Mein karunga ji’ (I’ll fix it!)
‘Aap kay yahan atta hoga?’ (Do you have any flour?)
‘Oye! Atta sey kya karega?’ (What will you do with flour?)
We handed it to Dhruv for rising to the occasion: ‘Lei aur kagaj sey chipka dunga!’ (Shall stick it together with paper-and-glue!)
Soon after, life happened. Friends parted, to end up as names on phone lists. Our lei had finally come unstuck: Dhruv joined the air force; Prem turned engineer; Anmol emigrated and I stayed on to tell these tales.
We were never to meet again as a group.
Finding me fumbling for words, Archana comes to the rescue saying: ‘Friends never part!.. They say ‘Phir milengay! (Till we meet again!)
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.