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Third-Time-Lucky

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By Ganesh Saili

Finally, I have done it.
I think finally I have stirred the pot of web-chatter, though most inadvertently by writing about sleepy Jharipani. Understandably, my friend Rajiv Kapoor, an old acorn, now a sturdy oak was not too pleased. An old OG alumni, he had taken umbrage to ‘there isn’t much to commend Jhids.’ Perhaps I should have qualified it with ‘tourists’ not finding enough there.

‘Oak Grove alone had so many distinctions… Cemented tennis courts, squash court and a separate ground for each of the sports, with of course our swimming pool.. There was a library holding books with sepia coloured pages from the 19th century. The hospital was the biggest in Mussoorie. We gave many boys to represent India in the hockey Olympics. We had our own bakery and orchards. One could go on and on…’

In Ontario, with tongue-in-cheek, a twinkle in his eye, Vipin Sehgal, another OG boy chips in: ‘Oh my! Your piece stirring controversy and causing debate?’ He teases: ‘What has this world come to!’

‘All grist for the mill!’ Chastened I murmur. As I look around I find the Queen of Hills is rapidly turning into another Dharavi, with entire hillsides being flattened to clear the hundred square yards needed to build a new house. What shall I write about? Overcrowded buses where almost everyone including the driver is standing? Or shall I scribble about boarding a bus where your clothes get pressed for free? Fortunately, Nikhil Kumar, the keeper of Oak Grove’s history, comes to my rescue, by asking: ‘How come the obelisk in a picture in Bodycott’s 1907 Guide to Mussoorie has moved eastwards?’ Now fact is that five years ago, I had written about our moving obelisk.

‘Probably destroyed in the Kangra Earthquake of 4th April 1905,’ I hazard a guess. Measuring 7.8 on the Richter, it had disrupted the five springs that feed Mossy Falls.

‘There is something extremely melancholic in the desolation of the spot….. to be buried where no Christian ever lived, and none before him died,’ wrote Captain Thomas Skinner who was passing by.

Apparently, Charles Farrington was being brought up the hill to recuperate from his burns and wounds at Landour’s Convalescent Depot. This sad tale begins in the Celtic Sea, one of the roughest waters in the world – in the Bay of Biscay – between northern Spain and the western coast of France. On her third voyage, the ship was loaded with a cargo of munitions with 700 people aboard, mainly soldiers and their families. Buffeted by severe storms, the cargo consisting of hundreds of tons of guns, cannon balls and powder came loose. On 1st March 1825, a fire started in the hold reportedly from an accident with a naked candle when some miscreants, who taking advantage of the confusion, tried to steal alcohol from the hold. The spilt spirit caught fire starting off a conflagration in no time. Many perished in the mishap.

The forefingers of death pounced upon the thirty-five year old army officer in Jharipani. Destiny – deceiving elf – had deemed it so. And as there was no cemetery in Mussoorie (it had just come into existence) he was our first burial by the roadside on the switchback, above Half Way House. My picture taken in 1988 is of the second obelisk built abutting the school gate. That too without warning or as much as by your leave, vanished, was wiped out in a landslip – a common occurrence – in these calcinated hills composed as they are of brittle dark-grey limestone, shale and dolomite and prone to landslides.

‘It’s our ancestors grave,’ a distraught Elizabeth-Bart, a descendant from England writes. ‘What’s happened?’

A couple of years ago, the school, dogged by a rash of ill luck involving an unfortunate accident on the firing range, followed by the school bus skidding off the road, the powers-that-be in 2011, rebuilt the obelisk for the third time on sturdier ground opposite the entrance of H.P.Watt’s Road in Oak Grove. That is where I found it, under the open sky.

Here is wishing that this time around, it will be a case of third-time-lucky.

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.