By: Ganesh Saili

Considering the fact that Mussoorie was at one time known as the ghost capital of India, I was not in the least surprised to see a pundit, bag slung over his shoulder, entering the gates of Seven Oaks. He had come all the way from Barlowganj to chase away any ghosts that might still be lingering around after the Powells, a well-known Anglo-Indian family, acquired the place.

‘One can’t be too careful these days,’ said khakhi-clad Colonel Alfred Powell, dressed like a Bwana in Africa. Wrapped by an oak forest, the house below the Wynberg School playing field was to be their new home.

‘This place is blessed!’ intoned the pundit, lost in the light of his own thoughts. ‘Look southwards,’ he rambled on. ‘On your left flows the Ganga; on the right, the Yamuna; in front of you are the Shivaliks and behind you soar the Himalaya. What more can you ask for?’

Blessings would certainly be needed if one were to believe Col. A. N. W. Powell’s book Call of the Wild (1958): ‘I went up to Mussoorie, that gayest of gay hill stations, notorious for its heart-breaking romances!  If a young officer went back to his Regiment with the yarn that he had been there just hunting, well, nobody believed him!’

With a legacy like that, how can one blame the lean and hungry Sewak Lal, who took to stalking the local courts and even began looking like a poor man’s version of Jinnah. He spent his waking hours hanging around the court stealthily hearing litigants before ladling out free advice. Well! Almost gratis!

‘Pass me a cigarette!’ he would say, adding: ‘Don’t you think that’s a great idea? Go! Get me a cup of chai!’

Most of his arguments were too thin to be credible but he brazened it out. At our Kutchery I saw the young Magistrate, almost in tears, begging: ‘Sewak Lalji!  Once your arguments are done, get a lawyer to write them down – at least that way I can understand something before I deliver judgement!’

Looking back, I think he was our canary in a coal mine – a warning of what lay in store for us in the days to come. As luck would have it, his son eloped with his comely classmate, leaving him stung to the quick; he was angry and frustrated and picked up his old shotgun. But like everything else, it was a bluff. Standing in Kulri’s Rastogi Chowk, he accosted passers-by asking after his son’s friend or those he felt might have abetted his son’s peccadillo.

What did he do for a living? To put it simply: he felled trees and sold timber – did not matter whether the wood was legal and illegal –  sell it he must.

One fine day the forest guards showed up at the Hindustani Church. They were there to ask Padre I. B. Das why more trees than those sanctioned had been felled in Cainville Estate (what is now a training centre for the Indo Tibetan Border Police). At the time, the property was owned by the Church of Northern India and the Padre had been asked to keep an eye on the place.

‘Last night more than a dozen trees were felled in Cainville!’ they said.

‘How? What happened?’

‘Your application was for six trees!’ answered the forest guards.

‘What letter?’ asked Padre Das. ‘I wrote no such thing!’

Turned out that someone had forged his signatures on his own letter pad. Slowly, one wee bit at a time, the truth was laid bare – that while he had gone to make tea for Sewak Lal, he had left him sitting at the desk and he had pocketed his letterhead.

‘You can’t trust anyone! One must be so careful these days,’ muttered the Padre to no one in particular.

Sadly, one day Sevak Lal passed away. Almost the whole town turned up to give him a grand farewell for his onward journey to Haridwar. Did I sense a collective sigh of relief wash over the mourners? I am not too sure.

At least it ended his haunting the Mussoorie Kutchery.

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.