By: Ganesh Saili
‘Everyone’s mad except you and I! And even you look a bit strange!’ That’s the kind of place we grew up in.
‘There’s my house!’ the fat man said, his nostrils flaring. They always did when he was lying, which was most of the time.
It was not his house. The place’s Scottish owners had packed their bags and left in a hurry in 1947 for old Blighty.
‘Intestate! A succession without a will!’ shouted the lawyers.
Soon after, it attracted only desperate, woe begone lovers looking for a tryst.
‘Lawyers can do a title search later on!’ said the fat man, his nostrils flaring again. ‘A cottage in the hills must have three things: Location! Location! Location!’ He liked the ring of hotelier Sir Conrad Hilton’s words.
Who could argue with the prospect stretching out before them from the snow-capped peaks of Nanda Devi to Bandarpoonch?
Money changed hands fast. It does when droves of raiders arrive with the same dream of looking for a cottage with a patch of green.
Much later, after they had moved into the old cottage, did the newcomers find out what everyone else already knew – the fat man had nothing to do with the property! As I write, they are still looking for the real owners to register their cottage.
Lack of oxygen had nothing to do with some dear friends of mine who were advised by their accountant to invest their savings in property. Looking for a place, for added comfort, they chose the route of the familiar old schoolboy network.
‘In summer the old chap took us to this vast expanse of land that was flat as a cricket field – with a few trees sticking out of a mound in the middle.
Earnest money given, the deal was almost concluded when, on a lark, during the monsoon they went back to see the place one last time. ‘There was no land there! Just a lake with a tiny mound the size of a small dining table that had not been submerged yet.’
‘Better luck next time!’ They assured each other and found another schoolmate who took them to the top of a hillock.
‘See!’ said the old boy. ‘You could have a fine rose-garden on these slopes!’
As they walked around they noticed shreds of red cloth peppered with shards of lead all over the place.
‘What are these?’ they asked.
‘‘Oh those? They are from the nearby firing range. Don’t worry! They put up a red flag before target practice begins!’
Many in Mussoorie believe that 1983 was the beginning of our troubles that began in the aftermath of the disturbances in the Punjab. The land sharks moved in to turn this place into a parking lot for black money.
It was but natural for our locals to get into the act, to make a quick killing. They made the extra effort in tracking down lost descendants of those who owned abandoned homes, patches of wasteland, and nullah.
Four middle-aged men, gleefully licking their chops after a scalping on a hot summer day, were driving back from Delhi to their homes in the hills.
‘Let’s go through Haridwar!’ suggested one of them. ‘We could take a dip to wash away our sins!’
So, at midnight, with not a soul in sight, they tore off their clothes and went skinny-dipping.
It was perfect until a sudden squall swept by the river, uprooting shacks and shanties. Capriciously, it also took their clothes (with car keys and wallets) and swept them into the river.
‘We stood there stark naked! Frozen and stunned! Everything had gone!’
Cowering behind rags and bags, one of them was nominated to chat up the owner of a shack.
‘I remember the fellow couldn’t stop laughing as he threw a tattered towel my way. Then we found a locksmith to pick our own car-lock and jump started the car.’
‘Silence! Complete silence marked the drive back home!’ he tells me. Adding: ‘Have you ever tried returning home unnoticed when you’re wrapped with only a tatty towel?’
Our raiders of the hill station were finally home!
(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 worldwide.)