Onial Mausaji had a remarkable memory – for places, events, people – all of which he could summon up at will into elegant speech. He was a person of impeccable courtesy, and always seemed to have time for people. It stemmed from the enormous interest he had in the world around him.
It is exactly a week since Mausaji left this world.
And about two weeks since I last saw him.
Two days before that, I had the good fortune to again witness the play of his memory and his conversation – neither of which had been dulled by his long illness. He was full of questions about our visit, earlier this summer, to Naintal. It was a place deeply familiar to him, and as beloved as the other parts of Kumaon, where he had spent an idyllic childhood that combined tracking tigers in forests with testing his reflexes in tennis courts.
“How is the Tallital market? How much has the level of the lake dropped? Did you eat fish there?”, he asked me, as a prelude to telling me about the days of the British, when people would put out fishing lines in the night, not nets, and have fresh fish for breakfast.
I mentioned the quaint little vegetable-mandi at Mallital. It immediately made him recount with characteristic glee the ‘khatarwa’ festival held annually in front of the Temple, which he had been told as a child, celebrated the defeat of the invading Garhwali King by the Kumaonis. He and his siblings, would ask to be taken there by their servants, from their sprawling home called ‘Cement House’(“the only other building in Nainital apart from the Viceroy’s to have a pukka roof, not a tin roof”, he told me). In typical Mausaji-fashion, our conversation of about fifteen minutes leap-frogged across continents, meandering literally in an Alice-in-Wonderland way, through 'cabbages and kings'. I told him that we had managed to track down Gurney, Jim Corbett's House in Nainital, and that put him in mind of an anecdote noted by Jim Corbett, related to a visit of Queen (then Princess) Elizabeth of England, to the Treetops Safari Lodge in East Africa.
Unusual in many ways, not the least in his love for Kumaon, Mausaji was completely Garhwali in his allegiance to Dehradun and Mussoorie, which he had walked through and knew intimately. He enriched and extended our understanding of Dehradun beyond the innumerable houses of our grandparents, aunts and uncles, by taking us for drives and walks to discover for ourselves, what he called the unique loveliness of Doon - valleys nestling within valleys that revealed unending vista upon vistas, replete with bird and animal-lore and histories of place-names.
He told us how the British were so enchanted by it, that they wanted the Doon Valley for their own even though it was not part of British Garhwal. The King of Tehri Garhwal readily – and foolishly – parted with it. “Doon belonged to them, and the only remaining trace of them left is the name ‘Tehri House’, marking their property of 20 bighas on Rajpur Road that the IAS has built their colony on”, he remarked with acerbity, at the end of our conversation that evening.
Like the open bighas of Tehri House, much of the beautiful valley of Doon that Mausaji loved, and conjured up through his stories and memories, has been flattened into sites for ungainly buildings.
It seems to me that for each of us - who were fortunate enough to have known him and his gentle wit, his consideration for everyone he met, his unfailing humour (recollected earlier in this blog), his attention to detail, his impeccable sense of personal grooming - the best way to remember Mausaji is to try to cultivate these qualities - and look beyond ourselves so that that the wooded, winding grace of the Dehradun he knew and loved, is not completely lost to crass commerce.