By: GANESH SAILI
‘It’s Robert! You have to learn to roll it like the French do! Not a flat ‘Robert’ as Mussoorie folks got used to calling him. That stuck!’ recalls Mohini Ghai, whose family owned the famous Kwality chain of restaurants, now living in retirement in cozy Rajpur.
As a historian, I have often found much to my dismay that oftener than not, it can be very frustrating to find the cart coming plonk before the horse. So has it been with Robert. When I first heard of him, he came to Hakman’s Grand Hotel with a troupe of cabaret artists billed as ‘Robert and His Danish Beauties’. When Mr Hakman’s passed away, his widow ran the place with a whip in one hand and her Great Dane ‘Cleo’ in the other. She appointed him as her Manager.
‘‘More like ‘Vanish Beauties’!’ the late Lillian Skinner of Sikander Hall chuckled. ‘Didn’t work! They were all oldies.’
At the beginning of the War, as a Jewish-Austrian, he had made his way to Paris from Salzburg, Austria escaping the Nazis, who in occupation, had turned his home into the Eagle’s Nest – a holiday resort for the elite SS Nazis – to do the sort of things they could not be seen doing elsewhere.
And whilst here in Jharipani, he met, wooed and fell in love with the pretty Penn-Anthony, who had schooled in Oak Grove, the niece of Mr. K. F. McGowan, later the Principal of the Railway School in 1948 and 1949. Some believe that she had got her skin bleached to be fairer, but the treatment left her vulnerable to sunlight. And so learnt to move around with an umbrella in daytime, preferring to venture out in the darkness of the night.
‘She had a double-barreled name which made her Penny Robert on marrying Robert,’ author Hugh Gantzer tells me, adding: ‘He was a real entrepreneur, who organized our first Autumn Festival – an idea that came to him as he honeymooned in Kashmir during the celebrations of the Seasons.’
But let us get back to Mohini: ‘Robert was larger than life with a heart so big it you could have filled up a barn!
‘Fresh out college, accompanied by Vijay Lamba, my cousin, I was on my way to Cornell University. We had checked into the Mont Jollie, when we walked Robert, who was also staying there. He was helping a cousin set up Gaylord, an Indian restaurant, in Espen, Germany.
‘As young boys, first time outside the whirl of Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay and Madras; we harboured plans of painting Paris. Imagine our plight meeting someone who knew us from the hills of home!
‘Except for hellos, little else was said.
‘Moni! Barked Robert. ‘Tonight you’re having dinner at the Moulin Rouge!’ pointing at the famous eatery, a hundred yards down the street. See you at seven sharp.
‘Out like a witch-on-a-broom went our good intentions of devilry at night!’
‘As a life member of the Moulin Rouge, Robert had the best table reserved for us, where soon after a trolley rolled in with a huge chocolate cake saying ‘Happy Birthday Mohini.’ I lit the candles, the restaurant burst into happy-birthday-to-you. We washed the cake down with many a liberal pouring of premium champagne!
‘For the life of me, as I sit talking to you Ganesh, I have no memory of what was served for dinner that magical night – it’s all went by in a blur of can-can dancers, music and Robert’s booming voice. Though was does sometimes sneak back upon me is that sweet lingering taste of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge – still my favourite champagne!’
What became of the couple? You may wonder. In brief, they returned to Paris, awaiting German war-reparations. In open court, when the staggering amount was announced, it left him stunned and that ‘larger than life heart,’ failed him. After the burial, his widow, Penny returned to the only home she ever had – Mussoorie – where she continued to receive the proceeds of his pension. Her sad tale of loneliness and survival finds its way into the writing of author Stephen Alter. And sometimes of course sometimes by yours truly.
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.