By: Ganesh Saili
‘Rickshaaaaw! Rickshaaaaw!’ His teenage voice cracked through on a muggy summer’s morning like a whip, freezing every cycle-rickshaw in sight. Outside Prayag railway station, I stood transfixed. Sudhir Thapliyal was picking us up.
What on earth was I doing so far away from the hills of home? I was clueless, and to cut to the bone, father had brought me all the way here to appear in the Merit Scholarship Exam. He hoped that if I got through, it would see me get half a decent education in one of our better public schools. Of course it was not meant to be. But we shall leave that the road not taken for another day.
We rode through the well laid out streets to Civil Lines to arrive at their home in Holland Hall. Long years ago, his father and mine had schooled together at Mesmore Mission School, Pauri-Garhwal, reason enough, for them to meet and chat about their old mentors: Edgar and Willie Chowfin, who ran the school.
‘You were so good at studies!’ father said to Thapliyal Senior, adding: ‘I? Maybe played too much football.’
I recall Sudhir’s generosity – taking us on a boat ride to the Sangam: ‘This is where three rivers meet and mingle!’ he said with a flourish. A flourish that was so typical of the man.
But life’s orbits flung us on different trajectories. Mine spun me into the anonymity of the hills; his took him places: National Defence Academy; the University Hockey Team; the IIM Bangalore; a Rhodes Scholarship and in Pleasantville, United States, on a Reader’s Digest Scholarship where he fine tuned his writing skills that helped him later write his books.
By the time we met again in 1971, a lot of water had flowed by the confluence, for with him were his wife, the gentle Gavere and their bright girls: Nisha and Tushna. Meanwhile further afield, on our eastern border, war clouds loomed. As a dashing young Sub Editor on the Statesman, he went across the border into East Pakistan to bring back harrowing tales. Somewhere along the way, he acquired a Che Guevera look, complete with trailing mane, scraggly beard and army fatigues. He wore with aplomb the telltale brown boots of the Mukti Bahini. ‘Bangladesh!’ he said, ‘is a reality!’ And if you dared breathe anything else, you risked setting the room aflame. ‘Bangladesh lives in the hearts of its people. But you’ll just have to wait for the christening!’
But there was no waiting at a dinner where a pretty lady walked up to him to asked: ‘Sudhir! Don’t you remember me?’
‘Of course I do.’ Said he without batting an eyelid, adding: ‘How can anyone forget a lovely girl like you!’ Thereby giving her enough reason to blush for a year.
No sooner was she was out of earshot, he asked: ‘Now! Who was that Ganesh?’
‘But I thought you knew her!’
‘Never met her before. But why tell a pretty girl you’ve forgotten her?’
Now who could argue with that?
Given his brilliant eloquence, I’m sure he would have found success in selling fridges to Eskimos or tobacco-less cigarettes to non-smokers! Though this talent came in handy during the heady days of the Uttarakhand Movement. In those choppy waters, many sealed their lips, or tucked their tails between their legs and fled. But not Sudhir, for after the 2nd September Mussoorie Outrage, and resultant curfew, he came into his own, displaying courage, and guts, he turned his home – Cliff Hall – into a beehive of activity. Slowly it began to look like the waiting room of a Media Centre, where milled writers, journalists and TV crews from all over the world. That more than anything else, helped catapult the Mussoorie Shootout on to center stage in our national headlines.
Down the ages, we’ve been told that revolutions devour their own children. And how could it be any different here? By the time Uttarakhand came about, the paratroopers had landed. The foot-soldiers and crusty warriors were flung aside – forgotten, abandoned and discarded. But the good that men do is not oft interred with their bones, it comes alive in memory after they are gone.