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Turning Junk Into Antiques

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By: Ganesh Saili

With a battle cry of ‘Teen-botal-raddi!’ the hill station’s kabariwalas were once an exclusive Landour club whose rag-tag army included Neytar Ballabh, Munna, Bawa, Mohan Singh, Antar Singh, Faiyaz and others who had perfected the art of turning junk into antiques.

‘Jao! Jao! Yahan kuch nahin hai!’ (Go away! Go away! There is nothing here!’) Ramoth Burkalter, one of the several missionaries living here in the 1960s, shooed off the scrap dealers clogging the gate of Ellangowan, below Language School.

Jhabbar, a one-tooth-wonder was about to teach Abdul Salaam, his understudy, the first lesson in buying and selling second-hand goods. Pointing to a camera lying forgotten on the window-sill his voice rose above the clamour yelling: ‘Madam! That camera for Rs. 5000.’Of course it wasn’t worth half that, but the offer was a wedge, like a parting present before he melted into the crowd.

‘Jao! Jao!’ she insisted trying to chase all the kabaris away.

But the line had been cast. The bait taken. She had begun to have second thoughts about that silly camera. Little did she know she would be spending the next few weeks in a futile hunt for a man she only knew as ‘an old man with a scraggly beard.’

Meanwhile the wily Jhabbar changed his route while the rest of our wheeler-dealers snapped up whatever they could except that camera. He remains our first Englishman kabari and was so named for his insistence on using the three or four words he knew in English. The one who actually was fluent in English was Dean Spread, the washed up remains of the past; he was the original angrez-kabari because he was white. Sadly he was feeble minded too and could not hold on to a job; instead he took to trawling the hill station for junk, empty beer bottles and old newspapers with the cry of ‘Teen-botal-raddi’. Often the little boys teased him, tugging at the burlap bag drooped over across his shoulder. Children can sometimes be so cruel to those they feel are ‘different.’

‘Those boys are teasing me!’ He once complained to Misraji, my colleague.

‘Which one?’ he asked.
‘That one with in the yellow jacket is a b***d!’ said Dean Spread pointing at a little boy.
‘But that fellow is no b***d!’
‘How do you know?’ asked Dean.
‘I should know,’ beamed Misraji. ‘I am his father!’

However from that day onwards Gaurav Misra ensured safe passage to our Englishman-kabari whenever he did the rounds of the Bala Hisar area.

‘They’re pulling down Baroda house!’ The word spread at the speed of gossip in the winter of 1970 as Baroda House’s Guthrie Lodge and Dunsverick were razed to the ground. A few of the derecognized princes denied privy purses, opted to demolish their summer homes to sell off the remains. I was there the day Abdul Salaam, all dressed up in his second-hand suit, bought two side-tables for rupees two thousand. No one seemed to want the strange mosaic tops. Hardly had the coolie put them down outside his shop’s landing at London house, next to Picture Palace that a man wanted to buy them.

‘Four thousand!’ said Salaam dismissively.

‘Done!’ said the man, peeling the money from his wallet.

‘After the coolie left,’ Abdul Salaam told me many years later: ‘I knew I had missed something and trailed him to Falcon’s Nest, above the lychgate of the Camel’s Back cemetery.’

‘Sa’ab! Let me buy back at least one table!’ he pleaded.

‘You must be joking,’ grinned Robert Manning, a geologist, adding: ‘That’s a closed deal! By-the-way these are the largest pieces of tiger-jasper I have ever seen.’

‘Haath sey nikal gaya!’ (Slipped through my fingers!) Salaam would always lament.

In the end, with eyesight failing, he went back to his ancestral village of Mandawar in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district. He was proud that his village had once sent out one of its sons, Mohammed Abdul Karim the ‘Munshi’, to teach Urdu to Queen Victoria in England.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Agra too had laid claim to the same.
Why break an old man’s heart?

(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.)