By Ganesh Saili
Way back in 1842, the Mussoorie’s House-Holders Association turned into one of the earliest municipalities in India. Without sarkari subsidies, with revenue all garnered from taxes: you paid a toll of two rupees; paid for electricity; paid for water and paid house tax. Small wonder it soon became a very rich Municipality with over-flowing coffers. Weighed down by funds the town’s Wise Men, in the 1960s, decided to set up a post-graduate college. With a 1:10 teacher-student ratio, it was a great place to finish college for local-yokels like me.
First came the foundation stone. It listed the hallowed names of our city fathers. Walk around town to see similar signs embellishing railings, gates, public offices, shops, stores and often public conveniences. One day, no one remembers when, folks discovered the plaque was missing. The thief was never found. A few months later, I watched with delight some Nepalese migrants living in KIngcraig abutting our college, grinding green coriander-chilly chutney on a flat slab. Who said stolen waters are sweet? Or bread eaten in secret tasting better? Finally someone had added some spice to the staid names of our once-famous founders. After all, fame is a fickle friend, here today, gone tomorrow. ‘Stick your hand into a bucket of water, pull it out. Fast as that dent fills, faster will you be forgotten,’ the Zen Masters tell us.
No one needs to be told of the bend in Upper Landour where tourists expose themselves to a glimpse of the Himalayan ranges. That shores up our economy. And that is precisely where Gajendra or Gajju, a peon in our college, decided to step in to fill the gap. A quick buck was waiting to be made if he were to moonlight as a guide to drag in tow visitors to Mussoorie.
‘Woh dekho! Yamnotri-Gangotri, Badrinath-Kedarnath, Nanda Devi aur dur uskay pechay Kailash-Mansarovar!’ he barked.
Of course the pious genuflected. Gajju grabbed his guide’s fee hastening back to college, to explain: ‘The bank was crowded!’
‘Why do you misguide them?’ I asked.
‘Who I? I don’t lie. What’s behind those mountains? Japan? America? No! Tibet. Isn’t that where Kailash–Mansarovar are?’
Ask a dumb question and get a dumb answer. Royally snubbed, I learnt the value of holding my tongue and let our guides continue to misguide.
That worked perfectly until the day I found him looking glum, muttering: ‘His moustaches! That chaps moustaches haunted me in my sleep!’
Perhaps he had strayed too far – taking a gaggle of tourists to out-of-the-way Kempty Fall. As luck would have it, he caught a glimpse of the moustachioed Chairman of our College out on an inspection.
‘Aaj gaya – finished! Aya suspension!’ Had his sins finally caught up with him? At the crucial moment, Moustaches stopped at a shack to talk to someone, as Gajju crept past. No one had noticed anything amiss.
But one could not help notice Bhagat, who despite his lecherous looks, had acquired the reputation of being quite a rake. Reinforcing this belief was his friend, who arrived in the hills, hoping to get engaged, but had to leave in a hurry when his leave ran out. ‘You go check her out!’ he asked his friend.
Perhaps he took the task too seriously and they eloped. Bhagat had a second wife.
That apart, his other passion was dogs. Or so I thought.
‘A friend of canines if ever there was one!’ I was convinced after seeing him gathering every single stray puppy on our streets.
‘A heart of gold!‘ I assured the Doubters Club. I noticed how lovingly he shampooed them; patted them dry and carried them in a wicker-basket. I caught up with him near the Electric Picture Palace, crying like a circus-barker: ‘Jabberdust pillay hain!’ Or ferocious puppies!
Though each line of work has its own perils, like the time, an irate customer came looking for Bhagat. Poor fellow was convinced he had bought a Himalayan Mastiff for weeks later, the puppy continued to look like a tired sausage, stubbornly, refusing to grow. Naturally, a refund was in order.
Of course, by then, Bhagat had done the Bangkok act and simply vanished.
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.