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Rattling Old Bones

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By: Ganesh Saili

The other day while walking down the Mall, I found our old Mum and Dad stores had all vanished. As teenagers, I remembered the phase of hiding cigarettes in our socks, and nominated to scout for cigarette-lighter flints, I stepped into Frank & Co Chemists, opposite Picture Palace, Khannaji, the old apothecary recognised me instantly to lisp: ‘Cailey Caab ka ladka hai? Abhi sey ciglette peeta hai?’ (Saili Saab’s son? Smoking already?)

Progress shoved our family-run stores to the edges and extinction. Juneja’s Davey, sold imported roller-skates that took skaters by storm; Rajpal Photo Studio’s black-and-white images of newly-weds set the Mall afire; Sahuji Jain’s miniature rabbit-fur Pomeranians dangling on keychains; Bishen Mohan’s Pooran Chand & Sons displayed 78rpm HMV music records; Dhariwal cashmere blankets; Brindaban & Son’s held Dusshera celebrations; Sardar Kirtan Singh’s Star Walking Sticks; Maula Baksh’s Christmas cakes and Sardar Santokh Singh’s Interval-tea at Picture Palace beckoned us. In their stead are glitzy hoardings on characterless showrooms.

‘Sab chalta hai!’ I am told. ( Anything goes.)
Kulri’s raffish Zephyr Hall masks a similar tale.

In 1982, at the Kutchery a man sidled up to me. His application said: ‘I, as the only son of the late Percy Owen and his wife Anne Amelia Owen, would like to know the detailed Coroner’s Inquest Report on their deaths on 25th July 1927.

‘My sister, then Helen Anne Owen, has never told me anything during my whole life about the circumstances leading to the tragedy.

Poor man arrived fifty-five years too late!
‘A very old case,’ the Magistrate noted. ‘No details are available in this office. Without any particulars, enquiry cannot be conducted.’

Guess no one wanted to rattle old bones. Return home saw me open Charles Williams, Mussoorie Miscellany, published 1936. I struck gold:

Some of our sordid affairs were hushed up or simply brushed under the carpet. But you could hardly have done that with an incident that occurred at Zephyr Hall boarding house. At the height of the season, in the heart of the town, and in broad daylight, there occurred a double tragedy that certainly set the station agog. In a full boarding house, soon after mid-day the boarders were startled when a shot rang out from one of the rooms and a woman screamed. Other shots followed in quick succession. Those in the public rooms, verandahs, or outside, dived for safety into their own rooms and bolted the doors. One unhappy boarder, however, ignorant of where the desperate man with the gun might be at the moment, came around the corner with his arms well above his head taking no chances. As he turned a corner – and as luck would have it, ran straight into the levelled pistol. And even the man who held it and had just killed his own wife, laughed!

‘You might laugh too, but say what you will; it was a delicate situation to face, for even the armed constabulary had to tread warily when they arrived.

‘Mr. Owen had just shot his wife dead, wounded his daughter, and finally shot himself. His was perhaps the first Christian cremation at Mussoorie, performed according to his own will expressed long before his unfortunate end.’

Later Colonel W.C. Cole retired in Pune in a letter to me wrote: ‘The Owens ran Zephyr Hall just above my grandmother’s White house, as a boarding house. On the last Saturday of the month, being teenagers, Basil and I were at the 11am – 1pm session at the Skating Rink. He escaped the tragedy that took place about mid-day, when his father shot his mother and wounded his sister before shooting himself. I am not sure what happened to him but he was withdrawn from Allen School and an uncle took him over.

‘That was not the end of the Owen tragedy. An older sister, in her early twenties, was boating on the river Gomti at Lucknow with her fiancé, when a flash flood took place and the strong current drowned them both.’

Wandering around Camel’s Back cemetery, I found death was not the end. A new red sandstone headstone grabbed me.

‘Anne Amelia Owen. Mother Dear, I’m here. Basil Brian Owen.’
Had Basil finally bid goodbye?

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.