Saturday, June 23, 2007
The old man and the rum
Many years ago, an old man took the above path, one moonless night, in Lansdowne. He was going home, after visiting a friend’s place. It was quite late in the night, and the man had had a bit too much to drink. After all, his friend, who happened to be an ex-serviceman in the Army, had become a grandfather, recently, and it was, indeed, a special occasion for him. And in the hills, if you refuse a drink in a soldier’s house, you immediately run into the risk of being dubbed as a ‘traitor.’
Now this man kept on walking, while keeping a watch, from the corners of his eyes, at any leopard who could have been on prowl that night. But more than the animal, it was the fear of a ghost that created butterflies in his stomach. Not very far from where he walked, unsteadily due to the spirits, which he had consumed a little while ago, a young British Lieutenant had been pushed over from a cliff by his fellow officers after a drunken brawl. Though the incident was said to have happened almost fifty years ago, it was rumoured – and such rumours are taken quite seriously in the hills – that during nights, particularly on moonless nights, the officer could be seen walking with a short cane stick in his hand; the one which he took along on evening walks along the cemetery road.
It was at a bend on this road that the old man’s worst fear came true. Blocking the road in front of him, he saw this fair young man in tattered uniform, of the Royal Garhwal Rifles. He was laughing – laughing, the man recalled later, as ghosts were supposed to. The man had worked with the English, during the last days of the Raj, and he knew a little bit of their language. “Excuse me, Sir,” he addressed the officer, who, the old man noticed, was carrying a cane stick under his armpit. “I am a poor man, and I have just consumed alcohol that is worth a week of my pension. It would be unkind on your part to make my feeling of intoxication vanish in thin air. So, would you be kind enough to spare me?” The officer stopped laughing but still would not leave the road. The old man noticed that the officer’s gaze was fixed at his bulging pocket. Ah, then he remembered. He took out the bottle of military rum from his pocket and offered it to the officer. The officer disappeared after clicking his heels, and saluting the old man. From there, till the safety of quilt in his room, the old man just ran, without looking back, or offering a sideway glance.
Today, the old man is no more. He is probably sharing a drink with the officer, up there. It is midnight, as I come out of Colonel Rawat’s house, after proving my ‘patriotism’ by gulping down extra-large pegs of whiskey. As I shake hands, no body notices the bulge in my pocket. In case I meet the officer on his evening walk, I don’t want to be caught off-guard. Moreover, who would mind a salute from a British officer?