Given the primitive mode of transport in 1950s, the 50 kms from Dehradun to the family farm at village Shyampur near Veerbhadra in Rishikesh appeared more like 250 kms. The first decade or two since independence had not seen much development and means of travel and communications were still rudimentary. We led a primitive life at the farm, living in thatched straw huts, using kerosene oil lamps for light and wood for cooking. Yes, life was tough but enjoyable. We fished in the river Song, flowing close to the farm. Cousin Dhirendra sometimes entered the forest with his shotgun and often returned with a boar or a kankar (a species of deer) or some other game and the family had a feast on such occasions.
I, a young teenager, was schooling in Dehradun. I would travel to the farm for festivals and holidays. The summer vacation would naturally be spent at the farm. The mode of travel to the farm was the Nahan-Haridwar bus, the only direct bus available. It arrived at Dehradun every evening and took nearly two hours to the farm.
During one of my vacations we planned to visit Haridwar, reaching in the evening and returning late at night. We spent a leisurely afternoon fishing in the river and repaired to Sitaram’s tea stall just outside the neighboring Satyanarain Temple in time for our evening cuppa. He cleaned our catch and converted it into delicious fried fish for us. All five of us, my sister Manorama, cousins Asha, Dhirendra, Narendra and I were still hungrily digging in when the bus arrived. We rushed and boarded the bus which rattled on.
A few minutes and maybe three kilometers later, cousin Dhirendra suddenly asked, “Where is the gun?”
“At Sitaram’s shop.” Trembling in fear, I replied.
The cousin simply stared at me. Gratefully, I thanked my lucky star. It was premature, as it proved in a moment. He blew the lid. I still shudder to recall the way his tongue lashed at me. Suffice to say that I wished the ground, in this case the floor of the bus, to part so I could bury myself. My offer to get down, walk back to Sitaram’s stall, recover the gun and searchlight, walk to the farm and try to sleep was scoffed at and summarily rejected for fear of I would end up as dinner for a panther or two. I was told in no uncertain terms though, that because of my criminal negligence, my cousin was likely not only to lose the gun, but his arms license as well which he would never get again. Cousin Narendra tried to perk me up by telling me that Sitaram was no stranger to us and that he would probably return the gun. It did help, but not very much. I had not measured up to the responsibility given to me.
You see, I had been pestering my cousins to teach me to shoot and, after a lot of begging, I was finally recruited as a gun bearer. A gun bearer’s duties included, I was told, to carry the gun and the searchlight while the gunner walked along carrying nothing. To me, the job was like that of a bus cleaner who would clean for ages before he graduates to drive. I also suspected that I was conned into carrying the gun so the cousins did not have to carry the weight. I was given instructions in how to carry a gun -“carry it in your right hand with the barrel always pointing to the ground, never point the gun at anyone” etc. I was also told in no uncertain terms that I should not let the gun go out of my possession. It was a twelve bore double barreled gun. The searchlight, attached to a twelve cell battery pack, could be strapped to the forehead and threw a powerful beam. It was a powerful contraption, I thought.
The bus duly delivered us at Haridwar, one of the holiest cities in India. The first thing cousin Dhirendra did on arrival was to buy a six cell torch to compensate for the searchlight I had managed to leave at Sitaram’s tea stall. Liquor and non-vegetarianism do not go hand in hand with our tirthasthals. Haridwar is no exception. It is another matter that both are openly available within striking distance of the town.
Har-ki-Pauri, the main ghat on the bank of Ganges is dotted with a number of temples crowded by devotees offering pooja to the god of their choice. Each temple has a priest overlooking the ceremony. We spent some time with our kul-purohit (family priest), Pandit Kabool Chand, who presided over the rituals in one of the temples. Hindus also perform the last rights of their dead after cremation at Har-ki-Pauri. The sadhus, with their long matted hair and ash smeared bodies, and pandas looking for prospective clients are seen everywhere.
The weather at Har-ki-Pauri, even in the hot summer months, remains pleasant with a cool breeze blowing across the icy water of the Ganges. After spending a few pleasantly cool and peaceful hours it was time to head back home. It was past midnight and no bus would be available till after daybreak. However, a bullock cart, plush with mattresses and pillows and cushions was already in position waiting for us. It was earlier dispatched to Haridwar to carry us back. We climbed in, made ourselves comfortable and began a slow journey homeward. The pace at which the cart was moving, we did not expect to cover the thirteen kilometers before sunrise.
Trillions of stars could be seen in the cloudless summer sky. Nobody had heard of pollution in the 1950s. I was too excited to sleep. Cousin Narendra seemed to know everything about the universe, its galaxies and stars and solar systems. Not being an awfully bright student of astronomy, I fail to recollect most of what he taught me that night. I do, however, recollect the anecdotes and legends of the area he regaled us with.
The story that comes to mind is of the 19th century Garhwal ruler who, defeated by the British, was trying to escape with his family. He carried his treasure consisting of silver, gold, diamonds and other precious stones with him. Hotly pursued by the British and finding himself surrounded he put the treasure in the barrels of several cannons, put them in a cave near Bhimgoda, Haridwar and sealed the mouth by cannon fire. He had the men killed to keep the location secret. He was captured by the British in the battle that ensued. Later he died, and the secret died with him. The treasure still lies buried in an unknown cave somewhere in the hills of Himalayas near Haridwar. Or so the legend goes. Fascinated with the story, and with vision of acquiring great wealth, much later we armed ourselves with a metal detector and scoured the hills around Bhimgoda, hunting for the treasure. Regretfully, our search came to zilch.
Once in the dense forest, my two cousins kept pointing to the shrubs on both sides of the road where brightly shining eyes of wild animals could be seen. Every few minutes both would repeat in accusing tones, “So much game today and we are without our gun”. I wish I had the wit and courage to tell them that the game was there because we did not have the gun.
None of our group could sing. Yet our two sister kept singing all the while with my cousins and I joining them at the top of our voices. The din we created must have scared the poor panthers away. We did not see any.
I heaved a sigh of relief when a sleepy eyed Sitaram, rudely awakened from his well earned beauty sleep, handed over the gun and the searchlight. The only fallout was that I never learned to shoot.