The legacy of 'Gora Sahib'
It was one of those slushy days in August in the Shimla hills when we found ourselves, umbrellas in hand and satchels slung on the shoulder, at the familiar plank-and-tin gate of that quaint, grey cottage amid the pines. A servant, looking grave as he approached us, beckoned us in. Gurinderjeet Singh writeschandigarh Updated: Oct 24, 2012 10:23 IST
It was one of those slushy days in August in the Shimla hills when we found ourselves, umbrellas in hand and satchels slung on the shoulder, at the familiar plank-and-tin gate of that quaint, grey cottage amid the pines. A servant, looking grave as he approached us, beckoned us in.
"Doctor Sahib came this morning, but told us nothing," he said, leading us across the verandah, his cold, granitic eyes revealing momentarily a trace of moistness.
We felt deep down that the worst was possible. We were ushered into a modest bedroom, elegant but simple with an exquisitely carved walnut table lamp of Kashmir vintage near the bed. We did not know much about his personal life for he rarely talked about himself except that it was said by villagers that he was once an ambulance driver during World War II and found it hard living in England on his paltry pension.
"Gora Sahib," as the locals called him out of endearment, lay under a faded, satin-lined quilt. He was our guide and philosopher in times when our near-monasterial life at school appeared to be "unfair" to us. "Whimsical Old Man Life doesn't stitch made-to-measure suits; take it as it comes," he used to say solicitously.
He half-raised his hand and smiled in an inscrutable, paternal sort of way, the electric lamp light giving a palpable stress to his thinning hair as well as to a black-and-white photograph of British soldiers lying on an oak table. "Sir, how are you feeling?" I asked, trying not to violate the stillness in the room. He nodded vaguely, but we prayed in our hearts that he would come through. "Darkness vanishes, as it must, like a vapour at the mouth of the cave," came his comforting baritone voice from a distant interaction at his home.
He made a feeble effort to say something, and we bent closer to hear. "Here... given by a medicant at Badrinath. Brings all good you desire," he said, handing over a one-rupee coin to me.
We drew aside the curtains and the pale light of the monsoon morning fell on his face, exposing what seemed to be a state of trance.
To the sensitive "Gora Sahib," the war, when casualties were just icy numbers on the radio, had perhaps metamorphosed him. It was LIFE in billboard capitals that mattered. Death, he used to say, was "merely sleep sans a period on the banks of life's river that flowed by in all its magical, undefinable, chaotic harmony". Every moment lost standing on the banks without taking a swim was like a "millennium gone -- forever".
"Place my body on Python Hill for the birds and animals. Tell your father, no ceremonies, please," he said simply. I put my hand on his as if in solemn assurance as he looked out the window at the "wild, madding hills" he had fallen in love with.
Three days later, we read in a local newspaper that Sergeant James F. Morrice (retd) had left us. It was a real downer for us. Mourners in hundreds, most of them poor, perhaps indebted to the good-hearted man in their own way, walked in silence up the winding, kutcha road to the nearby cliffs. His body, attired in his tanzanite-coloured blazer, smoky flannels and panama, was carried on a brand new charpoy by the villagers and placed in an open space amid the rocks. Just as he had wished.
As bubbly schoolboys he had perhaps taught us a few lessons of life that we cherished even on growing up; and the gift, the silver coin of 1912, I have come to believe, may have inexplicably altered the course of events when life tended to be less beautiful than it ought to be.
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