By: Ganesh Saili
In hindsight, the 1980s were the turning point.
Those were the days when you could still house hop; afford to buy a cottage or rent one without losing both a leg and an arm. A silver tsunami of Grey Heads had broad sided our economy. In Elcot Lodge lived two Canadian missionaries, the gentle Buchanan sisters and Charlotte, the older one carried a bag with three purses: one for chocolates; the other for cash and the last for a measuring tape –the kind that tailors use – with which she measured the girth of trees. She had named the trees. Her favourites? Ram and Lakshman, two large deodars growing close to each other reaching for the sky.
‘Good morning!’ Brig. Hukum Singh Yadav’s voice cracked like a whip.
He and his wife Ann (who had been Lord Mountbatten’s secretary) retired to Inda Cottage. He was the first Indian ADC to the last British Viceroy with a his life that is the stuff of guerilla warfare legends in the army. He took to homeopathy, treating minor ailments on the hillside.
Nearby in Hamilton House you would have found retired Air Vice Marshal P.C. Santra, AVSM and his wife Pritha. He whiled away the hours brewing rhododendron wine, which like him, was sweet and sour. They had rented out the Shanty to Dhiren Bhagat, working on his book. Dhiren’s piece in the Sunday Observer In 1983, had caused quite a sensation – a pre-mature mock obituary of author Khushwant Singh – where he wrote: ‘He was known nationally as a celebrated lecher but for the past thirty years at least it was a hot-water-bottle that warmed his bed.’ In his column With Malice to All, Khushwant had the last laugh, by living exactly 31 years, one month and 7 days more.
When I met Dhiren, he had returned from covering the Pakistan elections.
‘Who’s winning there?’ I asked.
‘Which party is that?’
‘Joh-jitay-oh-dey-naal!’ In chaste Punjabi, he said. ‘No one wants to be a loser – its stick-with-the -winner party!’
Dhiren had everything going. But fate snuffed out a life of much promise, when he was killed in a freak accident on Delhi’s Wellington Crescent in December of 1988.
Back home, the Air Marshal was also writing the story of his life which was published posthumously by Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta. Earnestly his widow tried to get rid of them by gifting them to anyone and everyone.
Later, much later, after Mr Santra passed on, Pritha developed a passing crush on a writer friend of mine. She disturbed him no end. That too was not fated to be. One afternoon, she knocked on his door. Avoiding her, he slipped into his bathroom, exiting through the service door and hopefully to freedom. Or so he thought. For there she stood – a hulking behemoth – blocking all escape. In her hands she carried a parting gift, a broken sauce boat with a wilting pansy.
‘I thanked her profusely!’ he told me. ‘Mumbled something about a meeting a publisher as I scurried through the bazaar, hiding the sauce boat with a pansy nodding around.’
Up at the bank, I was not surprised to walk into Pritha.
‘Hello! You’re out early?’ I teased. ‘Hope you haven’t emptied the bank and left something for me!’
She beckoned me, took a deep breath and whispered: ‘Doesn’t the bank manager looks like my husband? That’s why I have made him the nominee to all my accounts.’
Who was I to argue? But this much I know, a few months later, when she passed on, he cleared the accounts, resigned, left Landour for good. He was never to be seen again.
Finally word filtered in she was unwell. We went to the mission hospital, Victor and Maya Banerjee, and I. The doctors looked very glum. When out of her room tumbled a splitting image of the late Air Marshal – it was his youngest sibling, who grabbed me by the hand chanting cheerily: ‘My name is Santra – addha khatta – addha meetha!’
Yes! Oranges – half-sweet half-sour – perfectly sum up our lives lived here in the 1980s.
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.