By: Ganesh Saili

‘After the age of eighty, one can become a maintenance problem,’ chuckled Cyril, my friend, adding ‘It’s like taking an old car to the garage and saying that the horn doesn’t work only to have the mechanic lift the bonnet and ask where’s the engine?’

When we last met, he said to me: ‘Please, no tubes dangling from me. You may miss me, but let me go!’ Years ago, when he walked into our home, it was the same restless spirit that had caught my eye.

From the family album

‘I was the one who introduced him to Ganesh!’ reminds Norman Van Rooy, a Woodstock alumnus who lived at Spring View. He says: ‘Cyril was wandering around wide-eyed in the bazaar when I met them, him and a friend near the atta-chakki in Landour Chowk. They looked lost and needed lodging, so I invited them to live with me. Soon after, he too settled down in Landour.’

It did not take too long for us to become friends, like family, as it were. Much later I joined the dots: his father Doctor Stephen Raphael and mother Beryl Rose, a gifted pianist used to live in Allahabad where he went to St Xavier’s School. ‘I came home one day to find everyone filling up passport forms!’ In those times Anglo-Indian families were leaving in droves for  ‘home’ in a place none had seen before and all they found was the cold. ‘Just the thought of leaving my friends behind; the lanes and the scent of Allahabadi guavas behind … I vowed to come back.’

One winter’s evening found three of us: the Australian film maker Raymond Louis Steiner, Cyril and I setting off to look for Swami Manmathan, who, we had heard, was setting up an ashram for widows on a ten acre patch of land donated by an army Major in Anjani Sain village of Tehri-Garhwal. Aboard a rickety bus we arrived in the middle of nowhere. The only sign of life was the Swami standing under a banner with Sri Bhuvneshwari Mahila Ashram with emblazoned across it.

Cyril after handing over the SBMA

A few weeks later, turning his back on everything, he cut himself loose by packing all his possessions into two suitcases. That, besides the fire in his belly.

Today, Swami Manmathan is the stuff of legends. Born in coastal Kerala, he had experienced first-hand the grind of poverty while wandering in the Garhwal Himalaya. He tried to help guide people to better their existence. A grassroots movement led to the banning animal sacrifice at the temple of Chandrabadini, followed by attempts to stop the Silkot Tea Estate from obliterating seven hundred acres of prime forest, and then the plunge into setting up a university in Srinagar-Garhwal. The infamous Emergency intervened and he was arrested for having ruffled far too many feathers.

‘Nine months in Bareilly jail, all I had for company in my cell was helicopters taking off and landing at the nearby airbase,’ he reminisced.

Of course, all these charges were dismissed. On his release the struggle for social justice continued until his assassination in 1990. This is the point at which Cyril brought his managerial skills to the organisation, turning SBMA around to becoming the largest NGO in Uttarakhand. At day’s end, however, there are no balance sheets and the only prizes you get are the ones you give yourself. Having largely accomplished what he had set out to do – bettering the lives of the orphaned children under his charge – he was restless. The time to move on was at hand. He had to let someone else with more blood in their trotters take over. That is the way of life – we pass on the baton to the next runner and lope off the field.

‘Don’t be sad for me,’ he said to me. ‘I leave for a better place where I will be understood and loved by spirits that have known me before the beginning of time.’

In my mind’s eye, I can see him exploring new realms right now to regale his new friends with stories from our world. Goodbye Cyril bhai! Here’s remembering you for having taught me that every goodbye can turn into the next hello!

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.