View from Camel's Back Road. Pic courtesy: Aloke Malhotra

By: Ganesh Saili

Hard up for ideas, I toy with idea of locking myself in the attic. Though I am aware that for a lazy bones like me there will be no  burning of the midnight lamp. Instead, I think of putting together my own Mussoorie’s Book of the Dead, which will in no way be a sequel to those well-known tomes of life beyond the grave like the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In our small hill station where everybody knows everybody, the only time we do come together is in our moments of community grief.

The way we were in the 19th century. Pic courtesy: Philip Thornton

As the night train peeled off from the railway station, I heard peals of laughter rising from one end of the compartment, and they seemed to get louder, fuelled by white lighting replenished from a bottle that definitely held more than water.

‘Get more ice!’ yelled a youngster.

‘Finished!’ the attendant shrugged. ‘Swept away the last chips when we dropped the dead man off at Haridwar!’

An uneasy silence prevailed, the kind that settles when one hears stories of people presumed dead coming back to life. A few years ago, in one of our larger cities, it had come to light that an enterprising hospital mortuary attendant had been surreptitiously selling the used ice slabs. It had raised quite a stink; his rather long list of clients included fishmongers and ice cream vendors – the kind that push around a hand cart.

Sooner or later, we too must all pass through the portals of death. Why speak ill of the dead? One never knows who one might bump into in the hereafter. Who has received a report card on what comes next? Why tempt the gods? If they are displeased we could end up in a far worse place.

‘Ganesh! You must attend more funerals,’ says Mannu Malla, the ex-Chairman City Board, Mussoorie. ‘That way some might turn up for yours.’

An ivy geranium creeper in full bloom.

‘He’s right!’ Manoj Goel, a shopkeeper pipes up, adding: ‘Folks like him have already seen more than half the town off.’

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Mannu is not that old!’

‘Old? Anywhere else he would be classified as a heritage monument. The trees planted in his youth are gone.’

Come to think of it, it must have been expensive to carve the mountain to create the two cemeteries on Landour and Camel’s Back. Those consecrated grounds were reserved for those servants of the British Empire who believed they were indispensable. One monsoon downpour saw me at a burial where our late Padre (peace be upon him and may God bless his noble soul!) through his steamed up glasses, read the Burial at Sea.

Perversely the colonists pushed our cremation ground as far away as they could out of sight, way beyond and below the Remount Depot. Had it been pushed any farther, we would have had to carry our dead downstream to Sahastradhara, in the valley down below. To ensure that all men are cremated equal, our Municipal Council repaired the road leading to the burning ghats. But did not help, for no one wants to take the long walk. They prefer the trip to Haridwar – and to hell with the extra expense.

I remember one such trip, the funeral procession crammed into a bus, dead body on the roof. Briefly we halted at Raiwala, entering a dust encrusted dhaba for chai-samosa before tackling the onerous task at hand. Any bystander could be misled into believing we were  folks out on a picnic. Arrival at the ghats of Khidkhiri, one of youngsters scampered atop the bus to exclaim: ‘He’s gone! There’s nothing here!’

A hush, like a dark cloud, settled upon us. We retraced the road and a few miles away found the departed dangling, stuck in the low lying branches of a mango tree. With reverence (reserved for those who have gone before us) he was brought down. Rest assured he had reserved a place for himself in my Mussoorie’s Book of the Dead.

‘Death is not the extinction of light,’ wrote Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.  ‘It is only putting out the lamp because dawn has come.’

      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.