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Wordsmiths on the Prowl


By Ganesh Sail

Dodging scooters hurtling through the bazaar, I wend my way home. In winter the sun sets early and in that dark moonless night I think I see this prim and proper wannabe author lugging a sack of unsold books. I walk a little faster, trying to put some distance between us, for the way things are going, the chances of getting clobbered over the head by him are pretty high.

Let me explain: while by now one has got used to the fact that there are many authors amongst us, especially if you add a 1070-acre Landour Cantonment to Mussoorie’s 19 square miles, an unfortunate side effect is that every other person you meet in the bazaar seems to be planning to start a novel.

How I wish it were possible to have you meet some of our authors.  We could have started with the first of our four Padma Bhushan awardees, Rahul Sanskritayan, who, in the 1950s, lived in Happy Valley’s Herne Cottage. Later, I saw my first copy of Fanny Parkes’ In Search of the Picturesque when I bumped into the quiet, reclusive Esther Chawner. She had retired from the British Council Library and would often come up to Mussoorie’s Macquarie Cottage, where the YWCA was housed in the late 1960s. I used to find her under a magnolia tree annotating those bulky journals. Inexplicably, Chawner’s Indian publishers decided to publish it from Karachi. It is almost impossible to find a copy.

Close to the YWCA, next to the old Cainville School, stands oak covered Ockbrook, the pretty home of the doyens of travel-writers: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer.

Gentle Reader, please hang in there. It’s not possible to list all the could-have-been authors lurking around.

To this day, I cannot figure out why our famous authors waste so much of their time lunching with their publishers. Come royalty time, I know it is easier to wrench the tooth off a gorilla than to get them to loosen their purse strings. No wonder many a newcomer turns to the shortcut of vanity publishing in Noida, Okhla or Daryaganj. It ensures the book is out in half the time. For a book release you find an out-of-work politician (and there are plenty hanging around); look for a halwai for the usual chips and chai. Anything more elaborate may be hazardous to one’s wallet. Sadly, slog overs always come after the good times. In the end, even you are sick of seeing cartons of books cluttering your home.

‘Can’t sell a darn copy!’ complains our genial bookseller. ‘What a waste of shelf-space!’

Our sweat soaked wannabe-author hawking his books reminds me of the Fosters who once lived in Barlowganj’s Maryville Estate. They claimed descent from Bonnie Prince Charles, Scotland’s tragic king and an Indian mother. In their old age, they had fallen upon hard times.

‘Would you like to help an old man?’ Foster would plead, shuffling around in a large, ill-fitting overcoat. ‘Buy some daffodil bulbs?’ You were not supposed to mind this slight shuffling of facts: after all, a bulb is a bulb is a bulb and wild onion bulbs too deserve space in the garden. While you sorted out the difference, he had slipped away, his grin lighting up the country liquor shop on Camel’s Backs’ stinky Lavender Lane.

That self-same grin is what I saw on the face of an out-of-work actor I bumped into at the Goa Literary Festival.

‘How’s your book coming along?’ I asked politely.

‘At least I’ve got the title – Famous People Who Have Met Me!’ he says. Of course, he didn’t write another word. When I last heard of him, his publishers were desperately trying to recover the advance.

What with letting out so many of our hillside secrets, I am chary of trouble. Not the kind of people you should mess with, and definitely not the type you’d like to come across in our dark, narrow lanes!

Be warned! There are many new wordsmiths on the prowl.

(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.)