By: Ganesh Saili

Our economic divide ensures that some are not to the Manor born. You will find them walking six days a week to one of our six vernacular schools sans badge, belt or tie. Dawn catches a fifteen year-old Pushpa flinging open the door of her home near Park Estate facing a perfect white out. But it does not bother her, she knows the clouds will lift.

‘Umbrella!’ she goes through her check-list, preparing for the trudge, a long eight kilometres haul to school. ‘Best not to take chances with the weather.’ she mutters. Her home is set among other derelict dwellings, where she lives with her uncle, who manages to wrest a precarious living from the unyielding soil. Her father was once a chowkidar of a property next to the Arandale Toll, until an illness swept  him away. Come to think of it, although they are so close to habitation, medical facilities remain few and far between. The sick have to walk, if they can, or are carried great distances to get to a hospital. At times, the ailing simply stay at home until they get better or fail to get better.

Down the goat track she scampers, through a thicket of blackberry bushes lining the ridge leading on to the Mackinnon Cart road. Of course it’s true that new roads have opened up remoter areas but large tracts of the hills still cannot be reached, except on foot.

Pushpa’s favourite pastime as she goes to school is looking at the birds.

‘What’s your favourite bird?’ I ask, merely making conversation.

‘The bamboo partridge!’ she smiles. ‘It trumpets a challenge to anyone as if daring them to pursue it to its home.’

 ‘Sometimes I creep up right up to its nest to give it a surprise!’

School though, has no surprises for Pushpa, except there are so many others  like her who have trudged miles to get to school. There’s her classmate Sunita Semwal, who comes all the way from the old Rajpur Toll barrier seven miles down below.  If you are looking for granite, glass and steel – the hallmarks of the richer institutions – the Arya Kanya Pathshala has none. It came up in 1910 and was renamed the Mussoorie Girls Inter College, shifting locations several times before dropping anchor at Kirkland Estate on a five acre spread. Fallen apart, the school building rests on little more than a wish and a prayer. It’s way beyond the band-aid stage now and this old bungalow teems with happy children at play, who have no time to brood. The place has seen many colourful people at the helm, though few could match the redoubtable Mrs Neela Hathisingh, who was not much to look at but still attracted all manner of riff-raff, a gaggle that followed her into retirement when she started a kennel. At one point her new incarnation saw her enmeshed in litigation with a lady from Calcutta, who sued for the sale of a black cocker spaniel that had after a few washes turned golden. Let’s leave that tale for another day.

Blacker than black was the thunderhead that rose between her and my father, who always seemed to arrive to read her electric meter when she was busy. Or had single-blessedness soured her to the world?

Barely touching the latch on her cottage gate would cause all hell to break loose. In frustration, he turned to Ram Krishna Verma, the stoic Chairman of the Municipal Board, who threw the rule book at her. Henceforth she began to loathe all meter-readers.

‘What’s your name?’ she growled. In the 1960s, I was going to school.

‘Ganesh, ma’am,’ I said, adding: ‘Ganesh Saili!’ You could have cut Oakland’s chill with a knife.

‘Are you that Mukand Ram’s son?’ she asked. ‘Isn’t he dead yet?’

‘He’s good,’ I yelled, running down the Bala Hisar slope pursued by demons.

One day she passed on to the Great Beyond when a stranger from Saharanpur turned up, paid for the funeral and simply vanished. It was a no-fuss kind of ending. That was the kind of perfect wrap up she would have preferred.

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.