A saga of old tin roofs

A saga of old tin roofs
As I write, hail-stones are rattling on the old tin roof of Ivy Cottage. The roof and the old stone walls have been through hundreds of hail-storms, snow-storms, monsoon downpours, gale-force winds, and hot summer sunshine. I like the sunshine most of all — but best after a shower, when the earth gives out a scent of its own, dusty leaves and grass are washed clean, and the cloud shapes keep changing, so that the light from my window arrives on my writing-pad in various shades — bright marigold yellow to pale nasturtium and balsam tints.

The raindrops settle on the window panes, and the sun striking through them converts them into beads of bright topaz, effervescent jewels meant only for a few moments of reverie.

We came to this old building in the autumn of 1980, after some wandering about in search of a suitable home. The flat near the Mall, where we moved after leaving Maplewood, was too public. The house we moved to next, on the summit of Landour — Prospect Point — was a good 1,000 feet higher. The views were magnificent — a chain of Himalayan peaks etched against a sharp blue sky. At night the heavens brimmed with stars, and the Valley below with the twinkling lights of Dehra.

And here, at the top of the mountain, I acquired (for the second time in my life) something like writer’s block. Maybe it was too pretty up there, too relaxing; and those Himalayan peaks made one feel rather inadequate.

There was certainly no incentive to write, though there was enough reason to. The family was growing. Rakesh had started going to school, Mukesh, his new infant brother, was a few months old. Money was in short supply and royalties practically non-existent. Our landlord was a rapacious old man who kept thinking up new ways of extracting money from us. And the neighbours were not exactly friendly.

These consisted mostly of Australian or European hippies, most of them on drugs; they had taken the place of the more sedate American missionaries who had once proliferated in Landour. There were also a few Brown Sahibs, retired brigadiers, air-marshals and their memsahibs, who looked on us with some disapproval. What was a bachelor-writer doing, living with a Pahari family who would normally be working as domestics for the high and mighty on the hillside?

There was only one walk, around the ‘chakkar’, encircling the higher reaches of the mountain. The view was splendid, provided the weather was clear. On misty monsoon days, all you could see were crosses rising from a gloomy old cemetery. No one seemed interested in rising from the dead.

At one time the area had been a convalescent station for sick and weary British soldiers stationed in India and Burma, but even before Independence, the British had stopped using it for this purpose. In the 1950s the Indian government had taken over the hospital and other buildings for ‘the defence institute of study work’, and the area had been revived a little.

There were a number of residences, most of them old houses, but they were at some distance from each other, separated by clumps of oak or stands of deodar. After sundown, flying-foxes swooped across the roads, and the nightjar set up its ‘tonk-tonk’ chant, and leopards circled the houses with dogs — one night, walking home, I saw a mother leopard jump over a parapet, with two cubs scurrying after her.

We shared a large building with several other tenants, one of whom, a French girl in her thirties, was learning to play the sitar and played it badly. She and her tabla-playing boyfriend would sleep by day, but practice all through the night, making sleep impossible for our household. Even a raging forest fire, which forced everyone else to evacuate the building for a night, did not keep her from her sitar. Mercifully, her stay there was brief. The hippies who came and went, sometimes laughing through the night, high on marijuana, were far less trouble; many of them were gentle people.

The friends I had were all a thousand feet below Prospect Point — Bill Aitken, the Maharani of Jind, Ganesh Saili and his wife Abha (who once shepherded me home after I’d had a few bhang pakoras at a party!), and Nandu Jauhar, who owned the iconic Savoy Hotel. The Savoy, where ancient bearers and sundry ghosts outnumbered the guests, became my favourite watering hole for some years.

But most of my time was spent with the family. Early morning, I would accompany Rakesh down to the little convent school, St Clare’s, at the end of Landour Bazaar, about two miles distant. I would take a light breakfast before setting out; but by the time I returned, struggling up that steep mountain, I was ready for a second breakfast. Despite all the walking, I began to put on weight, and I haven’t stopped since.

On the way to school, Rakesh would often ask me to tell him a story, preferably one about animals. So I made up a man-eating leopard, and every day it would snap up and devour one of the residents of Landour, much to Rakesh’s amusement and my own satisfaction. Brigadiers, naval commanders, the odd missionary, and our greedy old landlord, all fell victim to the marauding leopard. Finally, when we left Prospect Point, the leopard had to die, presumably of acute indigestion.
Our fortunes changed when we moved into Ivy Cottage. In spite of rumours that the ground floor had once been used as the morgue of a local hospital, the building brought no ill-luck. On the contrary, I found myself writing regularly again, and stories, essays, poems and novellas rained down upon my desk.

It may have had something to do with the little room. A ‘real’ writer should be able to write anywhere — on board a ship, in a moving train, in a prison cell, in a hospital bed, in a five-star hotel room, or in a dingy attic — and I have written a few things in several of these places; but over a period of time, it helps to have a permanent abode, a familiar room, and above all, a window from which to look out upon the world. It gives me the sky, clouds of every description, mountain ranges, several roads, red tin roofs in masses of green trees, and a garbage dump as a reality check. I have no garden outside the window, and no walnut and maple trees, but the window-sill affords just enough space to grow geraniums in old tins and small plastic buckets.

I have lived and worked and loved and grown old in this room over thirty-six years, and I now wear it like an old suit, a little frayed but still comfortable. The house has more rooms now, and has been repaired and reinforced piecemeal, but in the early days, the walls were weak and the windows rattled, and on one occasion the roof blew away.

Built at the very edge of a spur by missionaries in the late nineteenth century, the house had received the brunt of wind and rain that swept across the hills from the east. We’d lived on the top floor of the building for over ten years without any untoward happening. It had even taken the shock of an earthquake without sustaining any major damage.

The roof consisted of corrugated tin sheets, the ceiling, of wooden boards — the traditional hill-station roof. It had held fast in many a storm, but one night the wind was stronger than we’d ever known it. It was cyclonic in its intensity, and it came rushing at us with a high-pitched eerie wail. The old roof groaned and protested at the unrelieved pressure. It took this battering for several hours while the rain lashed against the windows, and the lights kept coming and going.

There was no question of sleeping, but we remained in bed for warmth and comfort. The fire had long since gone out, the chimney stack having collapsed, bringing down a shower of sooty rain water.

After about four hours of buffeting, the roof could take it no longer. My bedroom faces east, so my portion of the roof was the first to go. The wind got under it and kept pushing, until, with a ripping, groaning sound, the metal sheets shifted from their moorings, some of them dropping with claps like thunder onto the road below.

So that’s it, I thought, nothing worse can happen. As long as the ceiling stays on, I’m not getting out of my bed. We’ll pick up the roof in the morning.
Icy water cascading down on my face made me change my mind in a hurry. Leaping from my bed, I found that much of the ceiling had gone too. Water was pouring onto my open typewriter — my trusty companion for almost thirty years! — and onto the bedside radio, bedcovers, and clothes cupboard.

Picking up my precious typewriter and abandoning the rest, I stumbled into the front sitting-room (cum library), only to find that a similar situation had developed there. Water was pouring through the wooden slats, raining down on the bookshelves.

By now I had been joined by the children — Rakesh, Mukesh and Dolly (born the year we moved into Ivy Cottage). They had come to rescue me; their section of the roof hadn’t gone as yet. Their parents were struggling to close a window that had burst open, letting in lashings of wind and rain.

“Save the books!” shouted Dolly, and that became our rallying cry for the next hour or two.

I have open shelves, vulnerable to borrowers as well as to floods. Dolly and her brothers picked up armfuls of books and carried them into their room. But the floor was now awash all over the apartment, so the books had to be piled on the beds. Dolly was helping me gather up some of my manuscripts when a large field rat leapt onto the desk in front of her. Dolly squealed and ran for the door.

“It’s all right,” said Mukesh, whose love of animals extends even to field rats. “He’s only sheltering from the storm.” Big brother Rakesh whistled for our mongrel, Toby, but Toby wasn’t interested in rats just then. He had taken shelter in the kitchen, the only dry spot in the house.

At this point, two rooms were practically roofless, and the sky was frequently lighted up for us by flashes of lightning. There were fireworks inside too, as water sputtered and crackled along a damaged electric wire. Then the lights went out altogether, which in some ways made the house a safer place.
Prem, always at his best in an emergency, had already located and lit two kerosene lamps; so we continued to transfer books, papers, and clothes to the children’s room. We noticed that the water on the floor was beginning to subside a little. “Where is it going?” asked Dolly, for we could see no outlet.

“Through the floor,” said Mukesh. “Down to the rooms below.” He was right, too. Cries of consternation from our neighbours told us that they were now having their share of the flood.

Our feet were freezing because there hadn’t been time to put on enough protective footwear, and in any case, shoes and slippers were awash. Tables and chairs were also piled high with books. I hadn’t realised the considerable size of my library until that night.

The available beds were pushed into the driest corner of the children’s room and there, huddled in blankets and quilts, we spent the remaining hours of the night, while the storm continued to threaten further mayhem.

But then the wind fell, and it began to snow. Through the door to the sitting-room, I could see snowflakes drifting through the gaps in the ceiling, settling on picture frames, statuettes and miscellaneous ornaments. Mundane things like a glue-bottle and a plastic doll took on a certain beauty when covered with soft snow. The clock on the wall had stopped and with its covering of snow reminded me of a painting by Salvador Dali.

Most of us dozed off. I sensed that the direction of the wind had changed, and that it was now blowing from the west; it was making a rushing sound in the trees rather than in what remained of our roof. The clouds were scurrying away.

When the dawn broke, we found the window-panes encrusted with snow and icicles. Then the rising sun struck through the gaps in the ceiling and turned everything to gold. Snow crystals glinted like diamonds on the empty bookshelves. I crept into my abandoned bedroom to find the philodendron in the corner by the bed looking like a Christmas tree.

Prem went out to find a carpenter and a tin-smith, while the rest of us started putting things in the sun to dry them out. And by evening, we’d put much of the roof on again. Vacant houses are impossible to find in Mussoorie, so there was no question of moving.

But it was a much improved roof after that, and we looked forward to approaching storms with some confidence. And now, as I give the final touches to this autobiography, Rakesh and his wife Beena are having the roof raised and reinforced, so another generation can live here, safe from storms and ill winds of every description.

In 2002, as my financial condition had improved somewhat, I was finally persuaded by my family, and Ram Chander, our landlord, to buy Ivy Cottage. Fortunately, it only cost a couple of lakh of rupees, and for the first time in my life I became the owner of a piece of property.

I became old and found myself in demand. People started recognising me and asking for my autograph (sometimes on books written by Mark Twain, Mark Tully and Rudyard Kipling). I suppose if you keep at something for fifty or sixty years, you will have produced so much material — pictures or cuckoo clocks or monkey-caps or books — that people will begin to take notice. Perseverance does pay. Men who work steadily for money get rich; men and women who work day and night for fame or power reach their goal. And those who work for deeper, more artistic or spiritual achievements will find them too. What we seek may come to us when we no longer have any use for it, but if we have been willing it long enough, it will come!

I have never desired fame, and I have never wanted to be the lone, loud man on the summit. I no longer scorn money, but wealth doesn’t interest me very much once my needs and the needs of those who depend on me have been met. I’m happiest just putting pen to paper — writing about a dandelion flowering on a patch of wasteland, and a stunted deaf and mute child I fell in love with; writing about the joys and sorrows and strivings of ordinary folk, and the ridiculous situations in which we sometimes find ourselves. I’m lucky that many readers, both children and adults, have enjoyed what I’ve written.

Some of them come up to Mussoorie to see me. They expect to find a recluse living in a cottage full of eccentric birds and animals and surrounded by trees, and they are surprised by this little flat right at the edge of the road. Sometimes they find a grumpy old man in pyjamas whose sleep has been interrupted; more often someone from the family will meet them at the door to explain why a family needs privacy and a writer needs time alone to write.

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