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Walking On Dry-water

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By Ganesh Saili

Arrived in the the summer of 1969, I fished around for a part time job to make the proverbial two pennies to rub together. And that is exactly what brought me face to face with Rev. Caldwell Smith. He was an amazing linguist, heading Landour’s Language School and was able to tell from your accent the place one belonged to. Hardly had I opened my mouth, when he delivered the coup de grace: “You’re a Garhwali from Chamoli!” No wonder, to generations of teachers, his Hari Kitab (pub: 1971) which despite its tacky green rexine cover, has been a guide in language teaching.
Though the school has been around for over a hundred years; this is where I have met students from wide and afar as the Universities of Berkley, California, Arizona, Stanford and Chicago and this is where they learn the ropes of spoken Hindi. In this lifetime, spent in the hills, I have bumped into more than a handful of memorable characters.
I thought I had been there, seen that, until I met pretty Pauline, a summer student, spending a year studying the effects of marijuana on the human mind.
‘How’s the Hindi coming along?’ I ask striking up a conversation.
‘Fine! But somehow folks in the bazaar don’t seem to know what I’m saying!’
How I wish I could tell her that Darji meant a tailor while her Durzee meant nothing to most people.
But the shadow of pronouncing falls around us. Try as hard as we do, some words simply refuse to roll off the tongue as smoothly as children slipping down a slide. Last summer, a pipe in our bathroom needed fixing. Things like that often need help in old homes like ours. These houses that came up in the hill station in the nineteenth century are in constant need of attention. No matter where you look, something needs fixing. This time it happened to be a rusty old pipe.
‘Madam! You’ve forgotten to bring the dry-water! Nothing can be done without it,’ said the plumber to Abha, the Lady of the House, as he rummaged, in a futile search, through the carton of bathroom fittings strewn all over the floor.
Her search for the offending item found her lost in the clogged lanes of Rajah Road in Dehradun. No shopkeeper could help. Everyone shook their heads, unable to figure out what she wanted. ‘Madam! Kabhi suna hi nahin! (Never heard of it!’)they murmured. Up until the time she met this greying Ancient, squatting on a bench outside a shop that sold plumbing accessories. One look told her he must have in the once upon a time days, been a great plumber. Overhearing the conservation, he perked up: ‘Arrey bhai! Divertor! Inhay divertor doh!’ he said, swiveling his hand, left to right and right to left, tweaking an imaginary shower-lever in the air. ‘It diverts hot-n-cold water.’
When I mentioned this to my dear friend, Ameeta, who was into fabrics, she laughed: ‘Happened to me too! Just think, I spent two months looking for a ribble-sibble tape! No one! Nay! No one in the stitching accessory shops lining Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar had a clue. They all glared at me That was up until the time, two months later, it dawned on me that all the tailor was asking for was reversible tape!’
Now that brings me back to the times when our hill station was small; our population eight thousand; and our landlines phones totaled a mere fifty. On a loose end, one afternoon, a bunch of us school boys thought of sneaking off to a matinee.
‘Ring them first!’ someone smartpant suggested. ‘Find out what’s showing?’
Soon after, the phone lines sprang to life. It was Matbar Singh Rauthan, the Booking Clerk at the Rialto Cinema, answering the call: ‘One-minute! Hold on just a minute!’
‘Koi film lagey hai! Ajeeb naam hai!’ (There’s a film showing! But what a weird name!)’ he mumbled, adding: ‘Hmmm! Kya naam hai? Faint Your Bay-gun!’
Of course Paint Your Wagon turned out to be that memorable western musical starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood with the lissome, American actress Jean Seberg.
And that definitely involved no walking on dry-water.