There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.
~ Aldous Huxley
Vincent was very happy. The hotel chain he worked for in Mumbai wanted to buy a property in Mussoorie. His boss had called and asked him if he would want to go for a site visit. He said that there was no point going into legal verification or price negotiations unless they were sure that the property was worth it. For Vincent, it was as if a wish had come true. He told his boss –
“Sir, I would go even if the company doesn’t pay for the trip.”
“I thought Mussoorie was just another crowded hill station. Never knew someone could like it that much. Anyway, you enjoy – Your trip is all covered.” His boss was laughing.
Vincent smiled back and kept quiet. His mind was already making plans.
Vincent was just 4 years old when his Grandfather passed away but he had very fond memories of him. His parents had told him that his grandfather was quite a free spirit when he was young and had founded a school in the hills near Mussoorie. He had always fancied a young Desmond Golmes in the Himalayan town living up his dream. He had faint recollections of visits to his grandfather’s house in Dehradun but unfortunately he had no pictures of either the school or his grandfather in those days which could help him recreate the adventure. Growing up in Mumbai Vincent had always wanted to visit his grandfather’s school at least once in his life.
He flew down from Mumbai to New Delhi in the evening and took the Shatabdi Express next morning to Dehradun. The journey from New Delhi to Dehradun was comfortable, taking him through the lush green plains of the Ganga. It was October and after the rains everything was fresh, green and teeming with life. The fierce heat which had given way to sweaty monsoons had now begun to show signs of pleasant winters ahead. Apart from Goa, Vincent had only been to Lonavala and Mahabaleshwar so the plains of UP were quite different from the sea and mountain landscape he was used to seeing on excursions. To soak in the sights and sounds he got down from the train twice – once at Meerut Junction and next at Haridwar. He was amazed how people were so different from Mumbaikars. The influence of UP on Bollywood had clearly created an image of UP which made it familiar to him and yet he found it strange in an unknown way.
The train was on time and Vincent reached Dehradun at 12:43. The 6 hour train journey had stiffened his limbs a little but he was quite fresh and full of energy. He had just one stroller case with him so he walked out without any fuss looking forward to the onward journey. The company had arranged a ride for Vincent and the driver with a placard and a wide grin was waiting just outside the station. He was a proverbial Sardar ji dressed in a greyish “safari” suit and had the proud demeanor of a working man that Sikhs have usually. He was quick in his step and had a very pleasant bearing unlike the cab drivers of Mumbai who always seemed to be having a bad day. Vincent handed over the luggage to the driver and asked :
“Do you know where we have to go?”
“Yes Sir, madam told me we have to go to Mussoorie”
“But do you know where in Mussoorie?
“Sahab, Mussoorie is not like your Mumbai. Only about thirty thousand people live there. You give me the address and I will know where it is” said the driver adjusting his turban in the rear view mirror.
“Shall we go then?” he added.
“Yes. Let’s go but I am feeling very hungry. Do you know a decent restaurant in Dehradun where I can have lunch?”
“There are not many good restaurants but I do know one that will be up to your standard”
“Hmm my standard” Vincent mumbled to himself and asked a bit loudly as the car’s diesel engine was quite noisy.
“What is your name?”
“Ji myself Balvinder, Balvinder Singh”
“Balvinder Ji. Have you heard of Seven Hills School? It’s an old school somewhere near Mussoorie. Actually my grandfather established it so I would love to have a look. May be I meet someone who knew him, if I am lucky”
“There are so many schools here Sahab. Most of them are from the British period. But I think I have heard this name before and if I am right it’s not in Mussoorie but near Dhanaulti”
“Will it take us a long if we were to visit the school after we finish work in Mussoorie?”
“Sir ji Dhanaulti is just 25 Kms from Mussoorie on the Chamba route. So it should not take more than two hours to go and come back. And you are staying back tonight so we have time”
Vincent was quite thrilled. He patted Balvinder and said “Thank you. I will be very glad if we are able to make it”
Balvinder, however, was a bit puzzled about the eagerness of his young passenger but he feigned his enthusiasm to keep the possibility of a “baksheesh” at the end of the trip alive.
Dehradun was a small town when compared to a megapolis like Mumbai. The new founded glory of becoming the capital city of Uttaranchal contrasted curiously with the days of British Raj when Dehradun was probably a small army cantonment with bungalows and bazaars. As the car moved ahead from the railway station into the Doon valley, Vincent was reminded of the book about Mussoorie he had picked up at the A.H Wheelers stall at New Delhi railway station. Turning its pages he was fascinated to know that Musoorie was set up by the British as their summer capital to escape the heat and dust of the plains. Every summer hundreds of Sahibs would throng the hill town of Musoorie to restore their health and recreate their spirits. More than a hundred years back many had made it their permanent address and had bought properties they could afford – bungalow, cottages, farmhouses and orchards. There were other tit bits of information about the various schools, the three graveyards and the famous Mall road but with close vicinity to New Delhi Vincent wondered if the same old world charm would still be there.
As it would take an hour to reach Musoorie, Balvinder suggested Vincent to have lunch at the ‘world’ famous Gaylord restaurant. The restaurant belonged to a Punjabi family which had migrated from Pakistan during partition. From the menu it looked like their food was a mix of north-west frontier and Pahadi cuisine. There was Murgh Peshawari and Nalli ka salan along with Kasuri, Phanuk and Jahngore ki kheer. Vincent ordered a military mutton curry, Phanuk, Rotis and rice and to be geographically correct some Pahadi Kheere ka Raita. The food was sumptuous for which Vincent tipped the bearer handsomely and was ready for his short and beautiful journey up the hill. The traffic en route was more than he had expected but it was nothing compared to the jams on Mumbai’s western expressway.
They reached Musoorie in about an hour. At the very first instance, Mussoorie was just another crowded hill station but a closer inspection revealed it’s very British past – the mall road, library, post office, bakeries, churches, rose garden, cemetery, clock tower and the boarding schools for well-heeled Indian kids. Vincent wondered if it had been a profitable venture in those days for his grandfather to have opened a school that catered to the middle class local population. Then he thought that may be his grandfather did not want to make money and wanted to give middle class children the same quality of education that rich kids used to get. Any which way, the important thing was that he was an entrepreneur who had the conviction to do what he thought was best for his life and living.
The property he had come to visit was in Landour, just 6 km uphill from Musoorie. It was a 5 acre plot with imposing cedar and graceful chestnut trees and had a superb view of the snow-capped mountains on the far side of the entrance. An old and rickety cottage stood in the middle of the property which would have to be restored entirely. But it had a nice feel and being nestled at the end of town away from any ruckus, it could be marketed as a peaceful dwelling in the lap of nature. The owner Mr. Sethi was a Punjabi business man from Delhi who had bought the property few years back from one Ms. Emily Stevens who had lived in the cottage for more than half a century. As she grew in age, it was getting impossible to maintain the place. Moreover, she was old and infirm and needed a good amount of money for her medicine. Sethi had seized the opportunity when his “chowkidaar’ told him about Ms. Emily and the cottage. After Ms. Emily moved out to be with her younger cousin in Kasauli, Sethi had not even bothered to get the cottage painted or to get the grounds cleared.
“Mr. Sethi are you sure that no ghosts live here? It looks pretty haunted to me. “said Vincent.
“Ha Ha you must be reading a lot of stories by Mr. Bond.”
“Oh Yes I loves his stories. And specially the ghost stories.”
“You must be loving the ghosts too. That’s why you asked if we had company.”
“Well, as long as they are sweet and harmless I don’t mind supernatural attention.”
“By the way he lives close by. His house is opposite Domo’s cafe. It’s called Mint Ivy cottage or something like that. In case you want to knock on the door, I’ve heard he doesn’t like visitors that much.”
Vincent noticed that Mr. Sethi was a bulky man with most things about him being circular right from his puffed cheeks to his round belly. He was wearing suspenders to hold his trousers in place and his shirt must have been bespoke as you don’t get that kind of sizes readily. But with his rimless branded spectacles and colonel moustache he looked quite the elegant moneyed man from Delhi.
“Mr. Vincent you can have a good look at the property. The watchman can give you a tour of the cottage and show you nearby places so you can assess if this would be a good place for your venture”
“Sure. Are you not going to come with us Mr. Sethi?”
“I would have loved to but since I plan to go back to Delhi tonight itself I was thinking of saying hello to some friends here. I thought someone senior will be there for negotiations so I came all the way from Delhi. But never mind I had the pleasure of meeting you.”
“Oh I am sorry to have disappointed you. You can discuss with me, no problem.”
“No, No it’s OK. I will call you once you are back in Mumbai. The deal will take a long time I know it.”
In a very sophisticated manner Sethi had said that he did not want to deal with a rookie like him.Vincent understood and he also knew that he was not the decision maker.
It took them another half an hour to have a good look in and around the place. The property was quite good and if the price was right the company could well give it a thought. Vincent came back to the car and asked Balvinder to take him to the school. Having woken up early in the morning he drifted into a peaceful reverie as soon as the car started moving.
After about an hour Vincent was woken up by a sudden halt of the ambassador. When he opened his eyes he saw that Balvinder was looking a bit puzzled.
Vincent asked him “Are you not able to find the Seven Hills School?.”
With a lost look on his face Balvinder replied “It should have been here”.
Vincent got a little edgy “What do you mean- It should have been here! Are you sure we are on the correct route”.
Balvinder explained that he had never been to the school himself but had heard about it so he did not know exactly where it was although he had an idea. He started looking for someone to ask for directions when they saw a man in his thirties approaching them. He stopped and parked his bike next to the cab and looked at the driver. He had a friendly smile on his face but it looked like he was from a bygone era – as if someone had applied a nostalgia filter on him. He was wearing Khaki trousers with a loose fitting white linen shirt and was sporting a leather messenger bag which looked more like a fashion accessory than actually something of use. He had brown Gumboots in which he had his trousers tucked in. His bike was a 1956 Matchless in faded military green color but was shining and very well maintained considering that it had been in use for about 50 years now. Interestingly, the man looked quite familiar to Vincent but as no one from his family had visited Mussoorie for decades now, they had to be perfect strangers.
“Are you looking for Seven Hills School?” The man on the bike asked Balvinder glancing over Vincent.
“Yes, but how do you know?”
“If you would ask me the directions to the Mount Everest I won’t be able help you my friend. Seven hills is the only place you have in 5 miles in any direction so I guessed.”
The conversation was getting curious. Vincent jumped out of the ambassador and shook hands with the man on the Bike.
“Hi, I am Vincent Golmes. I would like to visit Seven Hills school.”
“Sure. Follow me” said the man with the bike and started walking towards a clearing which led to a small road. Vincent asked the driver to stay with the car and followed him. They had walked a few yards when a large wrought iron gate appeared in front of them. There was a marble plaque embedded in the stone boundary wall which read “The Seven Hills School Estd. 1950”. He could now see why they were unable to place the building from the road. The building was hidden from the view as it was on a low lying plateau downhill from the road at a slight bend. The path inside was neatly lined with beautiful flowers of different kind – Geraniums, Petunias, Magnolias, Roses and Marigolds. There was even a lovely pond with red Water Lilies just before the building’s entrance. Vincent thought how wonderful it would have been to study here compared to the listless grey and white building of his school in Mumbai. The main building itself was straight out of fairytales. It was made up of mountain rock and stones cemented together and was painted in brick red color. The doors and windows were perhaps Sal or Sheesham wood and were polished impeccably. There was a large playground on one side of the building with football posts and a half court for basketball. The other side had a small vegetable garden with tomatoes, bottle guard, chillies and lots of spinach.
“Beautiful. Isn’t it?” said the stranger as if reading his mind.
“Yes, very beautiful indeed. I had always dreamt of such a place. My grandfather used to tell me of such a place in the mountains” said Vincent in a soft voice.
“Come let me show you the whole place” said the stranger pointing towards the building entrance. Vincent followed him as if mesmerized by the whole ambience. It was so surreal for him – he felt as if he has been here many times but how could that be?
“On your left we have the classes for the Kinder Garten up to the Primary and on your right are the higher classes from class sixth to tenth. In the Middle is the Principal’s office flanked by the staff room on one side and the accounts office on the other. There is a small infirmary next to the office.”
They went to each and every nook and corner of the school – the playground, the games room with carom board, chess and TT tables, the Badminton court, the water tank which got its supplies not from the Municipal Corporation but from a waterfall up in the hills. Surprisingly, there was no one in the campus except him and the man who was showing him around with the excitement of a child.
“Where is everyone?” asked Vincent
“It is June. Summer vacations, remember?” said the man adjusting his messenger bag.
“But how do you know so much about the school? Have you studied here?”
“Well you can say I have been associated with the school”
Vincent wanted to ask what does he mean but then let it be. May be he had failed and was thrown out. They chatted for a while. Vincent told him about his family in Mumbai and the purpose of his visit to Musoorie but carefully avoided the reason for his visit to the school. He was not sure of sharing his emotions with someone he didn’t know. The man informed that he had lived in the hills and was ‘associated’ with the school for quite some time. He had moved to the city for a better life but then he realized that the mountains were his calling and had come back for good.
By the time they came back to the car and parted company an hour had passed. Balvinder was peacefully sleeping on the front seat. Vincent decided to soak in the sights and sounds of his long cherished dream. Perhaps he would never come back again. He leaned back on the boot of the car thinking about his grandfather and lit up a cigarette. Usually he didn’t smoke but kept a packet in his bag for some special occasions. This was certainly something to be celebrated.
Just then he saw an old man pedaling towards him on a bicycle. He was perhaps in his early sixties and was dressed in a “khaki” uniform the kind that an office peon would wear. Seeing Vincent standing alone he stopped and asked
“Are you looking for someone?
Vincent thought to himself. How much time do these guys have? In Mumbai if you stand in the middle of the road your whole life no one would bother even if you were contemplating a suicide. He was not interested in making a conversation but then something struck him.
“Do you work there?” He said pointing towards the school.
“Ji Sahab. I am the Peon and the caretaker of the school. We are having summer holidays as of now. No one is there so I had gone to Dhanaulti to get some supplies.” He was looking enquiringly at Vincent.
“If he had been here all along then he must be knowing my grandfather” thought Vincent.
“Actually I am the grandson of Mr. Golmes who was the first Principal and founder of Seven Hills School. Do you know him?”
The man immediately jumped from his bicycle and grabbed Vincent’s hand. He started shaking it vigorously.
“Oh what a pleasure to meet you Sahab. You look quite different from your Grandpa so I could not make out, I am sorry. How can I forget Mr. Golmes?. He was the one who gave me this Job and since then I have been here. He was a very kind man otherwise who would have thought of opening a school in this place. The school has not only given education to kids but employment to local people like myself.” He told gushing with genuine exhilaration.
“Come let me show the place to you”
“I have already seen it. A gentleman on a bike was passing by and he showed the whole school building to me while you were away”
“How could he possibly do that? I have the keys. Look!” he said pointing to the bunch hanging from his hand.
“I must have forgotten to lock it once again. This old age makes you forget things so easily. But please don’t tell anyone. I will lose my job”
“It’s Ok it happens all the time with me. I am much younger than you”
“Did you see the picture of your grandfather in the Principal’s office?”
“No. I don’t think any of the rooms were open”
“I never forget to lock the gates. It is an old habit. It’s good that the rooms were locked. What would anyone steal from the garden anyway? Come let me show it to you.” The old man carefully put the chain around and locked it on one of the bars so he does not forget to lock it again when they went out.
The principal’s office was closed and it took a while for the peon to find out the right key. The keys were all similar and perhaps he could not read the numbers on them.
“The keys are usually with the principal” he explained.
The door opened with a creek. It was a dark inside. The old man reached the switchboard to switch on the lights. By now Vincent had walked in and was looking around.
The old man pointed out to a framed black and white picture on the fireplace mantle behind the Principal’s chair.
”He is your grandfather Mr. Desmond Golmes, founding principal of The Seven Hills School”
It was the picture of a man in khaki trousers tucked inside his Gumboots wearing a white shirt with a messenger bag around slung across his shoulders. He was standing next to a Matchless motorcycle with his hands on the handle bar and a foot on the gear paddle leaning slightly on to the seat. He was smiling. It was not a fake smile that you put on your face for the photograph but a smile that comes from the heart when you love life. For a minute Vincent just stood there – still and in complete silence. He was trying to absorb what had just happened. The peon was staring at him waiting for a reaction.
“Can I take this picture with me?” he asked the peon.
“But what would I tell if someone asks for it”
“Don’t worry I will get a copy made and send it back to you. Here is my number” Vincent pulled out his business card and gave it to the peon.
Walking back to the car, he was filled with remorse that he could not recognize his grandpa.
”Sorry Sir I fell asleep the whole time. Did you meet someone who knew your grandfather?” Balvinder said getting ready for the journey back.
“Yes I did meet someone” said Vincent in a choked voice, clutching the picture tightly to his chest as the cab took a turn and headed towards Mussoorie.