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Watchmen On The Prowl

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By: GANESH SAILI

I think the fault was squarely ours: my friends and I. We had no business arriving unannounced at Abu Tripathi’s summer home, Mont George, in the middle of winter.

It’s just not done. We should have warned their watchman. On that lazy afternoon, we found an orderly queue of locals patiently awaiting their turn to get to the back veranda. There sat Madan Singh, skilfully ladling out hooch that had been brought in from the nearby villages in a plastic jerrycan, into gaping glasses.

‘What’s going on Madan?’ I ventured to break the ice. ‘What does it look like?’ he replied. ‘It’s party time!’ On other occasions, my friends would ask him to clean the yard. Madan found this most offensive. ‘Please!’ he pleaded. ‘Explain to Mem Sa’ab what salary has to do with work?’ His logic was irrefutable. His task as a watchman was to keep an eye on the place. Sweeping or pottering around the garden wasn’t his job.

It must be said that he worked there till age caught up with him and he retired to his home in the hills. However, there was no home in the hills for Ranjit Das when he came here to move into an outhouse inside the lychgate of the Landour cemetery. Rumours swirled that a tiff with his wife saw him walk out and turn his back on the world. Growing dreadlocks, he took on a job few wanted: he became a caretaker of the dead. Just one look at him would scare intruders away. With converse denied, he took to spending his waking hours chatting to the ‘snowing’ on the screen of his old black-and-white television.

Over the years, I was given to understand that he had once been a cook with a padre in the plains. ‘Why did you give up your job there?” I asked. ‘Ah! I was an expert baker. My favourite was the half-side down pineapple cake (sic)!’ he said with a gleam in his eyes, adding: ‘What got to me was the padre. He always spoke ill of his friends behind their backs.’ Having had enough, Ranjit waited for the summer when his employer would organize a grand feast for his friends and acquaintances on the hillside. As the guests trickled in, they were treated to the spectacle of Ranjit seated at the head of the table.

And instead of saying grace, he gave them a sampling of the choicest pick of what their genial host really felt about them!

‘Yanking the table cloth, scattering everything, I stormed out and never saw the fool again.’

The ‘never to be seen again act’ repeated itself in one of our newer schools going through a rough patch where, living on his own, the twinkle-toed Principal had a glad eye for one of the pretty teachers. A sticky dispute with the kitchen staff escalated out of control largely due to the fact that the night watchman knew what no one else did. He had seen the Principal slink towards one of the cottages in the dark.

Late one evening, the disgruntled workers decided on a raid that would have made Che Guevara proud. Stealthily they surrounded the oak tree fringed cottage and knocked on the door. No response. They knocked again. Again no response. At which point, the fat cook, a tub of lard, impatiently pushed the others aside and lunged at the door. The bolt snapped and the crowd poured in.

The Principal had vanished. ‘Let’s search for him’ someone said, and that’s what they did. They looked for him everywhere, from bedroom to bedroom, bathroom to bathroom, from veranda to under the kitchen sink and even the store but he was nowhere to be found. As they turned around to leave, one of them, purely on a whim, decided to fiddle with the handle of an old steel cupboard. The door clanged open, revealing the Principal contorted in a posture that would have done any yoga guru proud.

‘What a great ad for steel cupboards!’ insists my friend, author Bill Aitken.

The Principal? In disgrace, he left town the next day before the crack of dawn.

(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.)