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Tickling Taste-buds


By: Ganesh Saili

‘There used to be a dark lady in a tartan skirt, selling fudge outside our school gate,’ asked a friend, adding, ‘Who was she?’

In this sideways glance at the world, we forget how our childhood was spent trying to get away from school. We turn into adults who spend a lifetime trying to get back in, to relive that magic one last time.

Looking for answers, I knocked on the doors of Sikandar Hall, turning to Lillian Singh who, before she passed away in her nineties, was blessed with a memory that would shame an elephant.

‘Be kind to their memory,’ she told me. ‘They were decent folk, Nelly and her brother Cecil Foster, whose father, Colonel Foster owned vast tracts of land in the hills and married a girl of mixed parentage. I guess with their dual ancestry – half Scottish and the other half Indian – they could have done better, but in the 1950s a lot of good things had to perish.’

‘Blame the white lightning that the doodhwalas brought!’ interjected Ramesh, her cook.

‘Maryville, their home Phooswali Kothi fell apart,’ recalls Raju Juyal, who lives nearby. ‘The last thatch-roofed house leaked in the monsoon. The doors, windows and skylights were jammed – permanently open or shut. The floor looked as if someone had trawled it with a plough. Something had to give.’

Claiming descent from the Scottish Bonnie Prince Charles, they weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, but nevertheless did the best they could: she sold fudge; he peddled wild onion bulbs dug up from the hillside, hawking them to tourists as lily bulbs.

Still seeking answers I ponder – could it be the bland school food?

‘Food was Pishpash!’ writes Peggy (nee Evans). ‘You either loved it or hated it. Neither-here-nor-there variations of dal and rice – looked horrible, like something to feed the dog. Occasionally, it was rice and meat over-boiled together – flavoursome with cinnamon and cardamoms.’

‘Then there was spinach. If we asked Snotty what’s for dinner, he would say ‘grass’ if it were vegetable. Otherwise breakfast was the same through the year: dal one day, dalia the next spread thinly over a dinner plate. I ate the former and gave away the latter.’

Had they strayed further afield, they’d find Mr Sun (assisted in the stirring of the pot by his little daughter Joyce) creating the famous Kwality’s sticky toffees which generations of Doon boys still lust after.

‘Doing more with less’ seemed to be the slogan at ‘Bellmans’ – so named by schoolboys after the brass bell dangling above Goverdhan Das Sindhi’s Sweet Shop where you climbed wooden steps to the first floor, and induced food coma with choley-poori and sweet lassi!

Ron Way, who studied at Vincent Hill and then moved to the Australian outback, remembered the warmth of the fresh loaves that has stayed with him down the years. ‘Couldn’t resist gobbling one. My mother complained that there was only one loaf while she had been billed for two! Seventy years later I know she strung me along and knew what was really going on!’

Where have all our old bakers vanished? I find that they have left the hills in search of better prospects in the Gulf. They had come from Ghoghas, a small village some forty miles east of Tehri, where their ancestors had arrived in the summer of 1658 with the refugee prince Suleman Shikoh, son of Aurangzeb’s liberal brother Dara Shikoh.

He had come in peace accompanied by seventeen courtiers and servants, aware that the Moghul would hunt him down. He had hoped to go across the Garhwal hills to meet his father in Lahore, travelling from Allahabad to Nagina, in the foothills before reaching Srinagar-Garhwal. Betrayed, he was slaughtered.

Whatever happened to the others? They settled down, leaving their imprints in baking, the making of glass bangles, and three generations of the Garhwal Painting. Only their tandoors went on to flourish and proliferate. Little else remains.

And Nelly Foster? I don’t think she knew that someday a little boy who was drooling over a nibble of fudge would be writing about her.

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.