Letter from the hills: Pack of fifty-two

By the turn of the 1970s, our hillside was a secondhand dealer’s paradise. Departing memsahibs had yard sales which were mopped clean by those looking for a deal. Looking back, I always had a soft spot for the king among these wheeler-dealers. At four feet nothing, wrapped in a tired suit – no doubt a relic exhumed from the past – meet Munna kabari.

‘With your talents,’ I teased him. ‘You should have been a wealthy man by now.’ ‘Belt up Saili Saab!’ He snapped: ‘It’s the curse of all card-players – we spend our lives in a futile wait for three aces to turn up!’ Today, there are hostelries in Mussoorie to which head the gaming addicts of northern India. Once arrived, there is no break after the ladies have been shooed away with a ‘run-along-and-take-care-of-things’. The message is loud and clear: ‘Get lost!’ For our lusty specialists want a killing on the green baize.

There’s a secret here. Only half of Landour knows about it, while the other half keep their lips sealed. This hill station thrives on gambling. Anyway, after having finished trawling for junk, you would have found Munna lost in a game of rummy, paplu or seep in the bazaar, sheltering from the icy wind near an up-ended stool that served as a table – precarious as a house of cards. A quick shuffle and the race began. Just like it had on January 30, 1858, when the Australian author John Lang writing in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words, describes a walk to Suakholi, six miles away in the Rajah of Tehri’s territory, when he stumbled upon the largest gaming den north of Meerut: ‘In the hostelries or sarais, nautch-girls would dance the night away,’ as the rich and famous (out of Municipal Limits and the grip of the British Raj) gamed fortunes away.’

A hundred years down the road, the game continued at what I, for reasons of politeness and discretion, must only refer to as Chachi’s house. Amply endowed, chubby, fair, tawny-eyed she ran an open house for lovers of the pack of fifty-two. In a curtained sitting room above her provision store in the bazaar, where gaming lovers of all descriptions would gather hoping to make a killing. Only one problem though: whenever she got a bad hand, Chachi’s would let her pallu slip, distracting the players into losing a perfectly winnable hand.

When she passed away of ripe old age, I’m told, two of her admirers were inconsolable. Chacha puts his arms around them, tried to console them, whispering: ‘Come on! In a few months, I’ll marry again.’ ‘That’s all right for you,’ they cried, adding: ‘But what will we
do today?’ Later, I must admit that I wasn’t in the least surprised when in tribute to her manifold talents the entire bazaar downed its shutters for her funeral. Usually in life, after the last card is dealt, it can be a long wait for the three aces.