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VANISHING INTO THE BLUE

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Hand-painted aquatint of the Charleville.

By: Ganesh Saili

How many of us remember the bistarbundh, which certainly lived up to its name by containing a mattress, pillow, and a quilt? Anyway, all of them came together to keep you as snug as a bug in a rug. I last saw one in 1976 when I was tasked to do a film recce for a Ruskin Bond story called The Blue Umbrella. Thirty years later, Vishal Bharadwaj directed another venture and called it Neeli Chatri. But we were going to Yamnotri, knowing full well that in autumn it was going to be spectacular with the fields of amaranth ripening crimson against the backdrop of the green hillside.

I paced the Library bus-stand waiting for Professor Girdhar Lal to arrive. He was late, lumbering behind a coolie carrying a hold-all.

‘This is supposed to be a hike!’ I muttered snootily.

Though the joke was on me when, at Kharsali, we found that our sub-tropical sleeping bags were not a patch on the warmth of the real thing. Lal Sa’ab was the only one who slept through the night; the rest of us shivered through the chill of a Himalayan night which kept our teeth chattering.

Charlie-Billie Hotel above Happy Valley.

The past forty years have ruthlessly trampled underfoot and tossed aside anything perceived to be slow and ungainly. Anil Goel, Landour’s stationer, laments many things that have perished like the wooden takhti, the clay, and the reed-kalam, saying: ‘The takhti took off with the holder; the ballpoint ruined the fountain pen; and the ink-well and the lantern turned into collector’s items.’ He remembers the thump of the khakhi pitthus while walking to school.

The mobile phone has scuttled over two dozen ‘essential’ things including camera, calendar, compass, computer, torch, mail, and wallet too. Video calls have munched up STD booths, and with alacrity we have forgotten the radio, the transistor, and the radiograms. Want music? Switch on ‘Spotify.’ The Juggernaut of Progress marches on.

 

Memories of a Hold-all at Dehradun’s Railway Terminus

Come to think of it, what use would a hold-all be if you were a guest at the old Charleville Hotel? It is now the National Administrative Academy. By luck I bumped into Rajbala Srivastav, the last Manager’s daughter, who had left the place as a three-year-old in 1959.

‘We lived on the northern side facing the snows. That was Mr. Fonseca’s Office!’ she says, pointing to the Director’s Office. ‘Strictly forbidden territory for us. I remember my elder sister would get a glass of milk, which she hated and promptly chucked it over the railings. That continued to the day Beni, the washerman living downstairs, complained that he was drenched in milk every morning!’

Eyes misting over, she recalls the day she returned with her daughter Nidhi, who was joining as a young officer trainee. ‘Taken me sixty long years to get back to my father’s office!’

To the best of my knowledge, the only other person I have found who has a Charleville connect is Indrani Majumdar Bose who, as a ten-year-old, arrived here in the 1950s. She tells me: ‘Settling us in, father went to Landour, bought himself some walking sticks and returned to Calcutta. Those sticks are today’s treasured heirlooms.’

‘The hotel guests were mostly the Bombay-type, and the hotel would organise events for us like Fancy Dress. It had a card room, a billiard room, and non-stop activities. We stayed away from the Main Dining Room and stuck to the Children’s Dining area.

‘Coming back in 1956 was like a homecoming of sorts. Things were ship shape and the hotel was choc-a-block. Guests were offered fixed menus: continental for dinner and Indian for lunch. The gardens were awash with flowers. After being spoilt by the Charleville’s vast open spaces, the Savoy seemed small and shrunken in comparison.

‘I was unwell in 1952, so I had a basket to carry me on a picnic to Kempty Fall. It was a most child-friendly hotel, and if you were going out, sandwiches were packed, most thoughtfully, to be later adjusted against your lunch bill.

‘Imagine a place with no VIP rooms.’ She pauses, adding: ‘Because everyone was a special guest at the Charleville!’

Now wouldn’t that be called a hold-all situation?

 

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by his own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.