Mr. Dean was a friend of dad’s. He was a professor of mathematics at the prestigious Birla Institute in Pilani, Rajasthan. For an Indian to have a surname like Dean there was either some Anglo Indian blood in him (I doubt it), or he had taken on a Christian name when he became a Christian, perhaps even the name of the person that led him to faith. That was not uncommon. We had a carpenter that worked for the mission named David Swynenberg. Now where in the world could he possibly have come up with a name like that back in the hills where he was from?
The winter of ‘67 Professor Dean invited us to come visit him and he said he would take us up in a glider, owned by a club he belonged to. We would not have needed any other inducement. But dad said there was some good hunting along the way and we had never been to Rajasthan before, so it did not take much to persuade us. Mom decided to stay home.
It was a day’s drive to Delhi. And it was a day’s drive to Pilani. But dad wanted to see Jaipur so we stopped there for a night and toured the place the next morning.
Our six seater Land Rover had a rack on it for the luggage. We strapped everything down. On the front bumper there was a metal mesh basket about 18 inches wide that ran the length of the bumper. Dad had seen someone with this contraption and he thought it would be convenient to put things in when traveling or to put vegetables in when coming through town. Inside the Land Rover could get a bit crowded, but we would rotate at intervals. Two to three people in the front seats and four people could sit in the back comfortably; the seats were facing each other (about 6 could sit there uncomfortably and often did). The problem was you were facing sideways and had to turn your head to look out the front. It did not take long to develop a crick in your neck. That is why we rotated.
Down the hill we went. At the bus terminal near Picture Palace there was a guard gate. They took down our car license number (you es quoo, ek sau das, i.e. USQ 110). We stayed there until they let us go because at that time the road from this point to Kin Craig was one way–a line of cars would be coming up or a line would be going down. We always thought this was patently ridiculous because the road from Kin Craig to Dhera Doon was no wider than this portion and it was two way. Dad knew all these guys and they knew the car well because he was through this gate all the time to go to work over in Happy Valley.
Some of my very fondest memories are traveling in that Land Rover on trips we made all over North India. We made most of these trips during the winter, which, as I have explained elsewhere, was when we had our vacation from school. That is probably one of the reasons why they are fond memories–no school! The few trips we took during the summer through the sweltering sun or hot humid monsoons I would just as soon forget (unless they ended up in Kulu or Kashmir).
Once we reached the plains we would buy half a gunny sack of roasted peanuts. This to snack on. And, as we traveled along if we felt the urge, we would stop off at a sugar cane field and help ourselves to a couple of canes. Stealing? Nah. There was so much of the stuff growing throughout that area everyone just helped himself. The way we would eat sugar cane was by taking our teeth and pulling off a section of the outer sheathing . This left a succulent shaft of fiber and sugarcane juice. Take a bite, twist the cane sharply downward and a bite-sized chunk was in your mouth ready to chew. Chew it, suck out the juice and spit out a wad of fiber on the floor. Every now and then when we stopped for gas we would sweep out the peanut shells and sugarcane detritus.
You are probably thinking that we were first class pigs, peanut shells and chewed sugarcane cud on the floor. Not really. Your Land Rover, say the new Discovery, is related to the Land Rover we drove about like an elephant is related to a hyrax (yes, they are related). Your Land Rover today is quiet and has air conditioning. Ours had air conditioning all right; you opened the windows and the vent above the dash and tried to drive a little faster. And it was about as quiet as technology allowed then–a tin can with wheels. No insulation anywhere. The only padding or vinyl in the whole vehicle was the seats. There was no radio and even if we had one we would not have been able to receive anything because there were no local stations, nor would we have been able to hear it above the din within. So, there was no carpet on the floor and it was no big deal to clean it out with a little whiskbroom we carried with us for that purpose.
So we passed on through Delhi and we stopped in Jaipur, really one of the more intriguing and interesting places we had seen. Massive forts on the hill, stunning palaces below. One of the Maharajas had converted his palace into a hotel (nope, that was not even a remote possibility as a place to stay). And one palace was a museum, with what I consider one of the most fascinating collections of weapons I have ever seen. Jaipur is in a desert area, and the pink sandstone buildings contrasted nicely with the terracotta colors of the area.
And then on to Pilani. We had never been in a glider before. We had never even seen a glider before. And no one had to ask, “Are we having fun yet?”
We passed through an area where there were, we were told, a lot of chinkara (a type of antelope) and nilguy (blue bulls). We made note of it and stopped here on the way back to go hunting–where I got my first nilguy and Gordy got several chinkara.
About fifty miles out of Pilani we happened across a number of peacocks beside the road. This was a rural area with fields but no sign of habitation that we could see. Out came the .22 Gordy stepped out from around the vehicle, lined up on a large cock and fired. The shot appeared true; the peacock folded into itself and lay there. The thought was to pick up a fowl for the pot–give it to Mrs. Dean as a gift to make curry with. The timing was perfect. We would be there in less than two hours, and the meat would be fresh.
I got out and picked up the gunnysack that no longer had peanuts in it. As I stepped off the road the dead peacock got up and started to run, one wing dragging. Gordy up and fired and missed. The peacock made it over a little knoll and disappeared. We both took off after it, running as fast as we could.
When we topped the knoll we gasped. Just below us was a quiet little village with the wounded peacock staggering right through the middle of it. The peacock was slowing down. There was nothing to do but dash after it and grab it. We finally caught up to it and with a lot of flapping and flailing and feathers flying we rung its neck and threw it into the gunnysack. We had bagged a semi-tame village peacock.
The villagers stood there in shock. Here two white kids were charging down main street after a wounded peacock. Everything froze. Hell was going to break loose very, very soon.
We made it back to the Land Rover, hopped in and said, “Go dad, go!” He did. Now, peacocks were actually something we were not supposed to shoot. They were the national bird. Not that they were endangered at all, just not to be shot. But anyone who had a gun, given the opportunity, would and did.
The Deans had arranged for us to stay at the Dak Bungalow, a guest house for forestry officials, but available to others by reservation. We had stayed in many of these bungalows on our travels and while hunting, but this was the very first that we had stayed in that was located in the middle of a town. It was roomy and comfortable and had its own kitchen. Between cooking our own breakfasts, eating out for lunch and spending evenings with the Deans, our needs were met.
When we pulled into the driveway of the Dak Bungalow the chowkidar (caretaker) came out to meet and greet us. Sharp fellow, in a khaki uniform, trim, and with a flowing mustache, a type common in Rajasthan. He wanted to help us unload. We didn’t want him to help us unload. We had the peacock in the gunnysack and it simply would no do to have the forestry department’s chowkidar know what was in that bag. It was getting dark by now (it was winter and the sun sets around 6PM) and we waited until it was dark to bring that thing in.
While Dad, Gordy and Vernie set up for our stay, Norman and I plucked the peacock. We took it to the bathroom, plugged the drain hole with a wad of newspapers (this was just a hole in the wall to the outside) and proceeded to pluck the thing, saving, of course, the magnificent long tail feathers. Once we had it plucked and gutted, we gathered up every loose feather, all the entrails and every scrap of what might be incriminating evidence and bundled it all up into a plastic sack. The newspaper in the drain hole prevented a single feather from seeing the light of day. Or night, as the case may be. I have learned that even just a mildly guilty conscience and the threat of discovery makes for energetic diligence. The tail feathers were placed in a cocoon of newspapers and tied up nicely and hidden. We disposed of the bag of feathers and guts at the Deans later that evening.
Mrs. Dean was thrilled with the fresh meat we brought her. It made a sumptuous curry.
The next day Mr. Dean took us around Birla Institute. The name Birla in India is like the name Rockerfeller in the U.S. This family had set up this technical college, which was in India what M.I.T. is in the U.S. We boys were a bit impatient. We did not really care for the tour of classrooms and halls. We wanted to fly like a bird, glide through the air like a lammiegar, a type of vulture that we would see floating by us back home in the mountains, rising on thermals, sailing miles each day with seldom a flap of the wings.
Finally, in the afternoon we got to the airfield. Actually, afternoon is a much better time, he explained, because things had heated up and it was this heat that created updrafts and would keep us afloat longer. The glider was your basic two-man glider. Down the field a thousand feet away was a large winch. When everything was ready Mr. Dean gave the thumbs up and a helper nearby waved a small white flag at the winch operator and the winch cranked up. Everything looked like it was in slow motion. The glider went from standstill into the air in about fifty feet and at that point rose slowly to the full length of the cable, which Mr. Dean then disconnected. I wondered what would happen if the cable did not come loose. I wondered what would happen if the electricity went off and the winch went dead when you were half way up. I hoped it wouldn’t. On me at least.
The most striking feature in all of this was the lack of sound.
Dad went up. Gordy went up. Then my turn. I suppose we were up about fifteen minutes or so and it was heaven. Smooth. Quiet. Clear. All Pilani spread out below in miniature.
When you were a kid did you ever have anyone very gently run their fingers over your bare back for a couple of minutes? Did it feel good? Kind of gives you goose bumps. Leaves you feeling strangely euphoric for a while. That is what the glider ride did for me. I wanted more. But that was not to be.
We spent the next day in Pilani as well. And the day after that we left. After breakfast, we bundled everything up, lugged it out (this time we were willing for the chowkidar’s help) and lashed it all down on the rack. The three nights we were there had already been paid for and the only remaining thing was to tip the chowkidar. Five rupees was more than a day’s wages. A five rupee tip was, at that time, rather generous we thought. Dad handed me a fiver and asked me to take care of it.
He was standing off to the side, watching us get ready to go. Gordy checked the radiator and the oil and closed the hood. I went over to the chowkidar and thanked him for our time and handed him the five rupee note.
He took it and looked at it without saying anything. There was a pause. I fully expected something, “dhanyawad” (thanks), “bhahot achcha sahib” (Very good, sir), something. Nothing. The pause continued. Something was amiss. I was totally unprepared for what he said next.
With due respect, but with a twinkle in his eye he said, “Dekle sahib,“ (Look, sir), and then (also in Hindi), “for another five I won’t tell a soul about the peacock.”
He got it.
They say that in India that there are no secrets.