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A Whispering Mosaic

The Bridge on the River Song and Other Stories from Garhwal by Ajay Jugraan is a collection of 23 tales set in the scenic landscapes of Garhwal, which, like brushstrokes, paint vivid portraits of the people in the region — unravelling the simplicities and complexities of their existence

In this fine potpourri of twenty-three tales, narratives, and fables from the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people of Garhwal, we get a kaleidoscopic picture of life in the region. As Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain, a second-generation officer of the Garhwal Rifles says, “there exists in Garhwal such a labyrinth of anecdotes laced with little fantasies and many a tale of heroism from the frontlines of the nation ... which reflect the Garhwali spirit and rural folk culture of Garhwal as never before”. Each story is a delight in itself, for it tells us something about the times Ajay (and this reviewer) grew up in – this was a time when Doordarshan had only one evening channel, and life was all about reading to oneself and to each other, when siblings, cousins, and friends moved into and out of each other’s houses as a matter of right, rather than grace, and about the great transformation that has taken place from the world of Murphy Radios to that of ChatGPT!

While each of the 23 stories is ‘independent’, they are also connected on the spatial and temporal plane – starting with Karnavati: the queen of Garhwal who displayed brilliant military tactics by letting the Mughal army come right up to Laxman Jhoola and then encircling and beating them back using guerrilla tactics. We learn from thist story that there were the jealous kings of Kumaon and Sirmaur who ganged up against Garhwal by taking the support of the Mughal army, and there were Muslim commanders in hers. The quest for power knows no religion — and the binaries that we create in our minds are not supported by empirical facts. We also realise that we know so little about our own local histories, so obsessed we are in recording who held the seat of imperial power in Delhi.

The next three stories: ‘Be Resilient as a Cockroach, A small Price to Pay’, and ‘Fearless Mahipal’ have breathtaking photographs by Sanjay Nainwal, and as they say, “a picture speaks a thousand words”. ‘Paradise Calls’ is a narrative of Covid times – it’s about despair, hope, and rehab. ‘Bouquet for a Florist’ was certainly written before demonetisation, for it mentions a thousand rupee note — and the illustration by Meena Kothari is an apt tribute to the florist our muse loved once! ‘The Choice of Love’ is an ode to all lovers to never stop hoping. Point Sudha Ju and Only Three Bad Habits are anecdotal family recalls which will do any Jugraan proud, and the Apola Princesses, Pratiksha and Samixa help recreate the Doon of the seventies and early eighties. ‘Tapka’ is both about the mangoes and the calf, and the challenge of picking up the “ripest and the most delicious mangoes”.

The huffing and puffing of a motor car on the hill tracks has made news for over a hundred years, and even though the roads may have improved, the bends and the landslides continue to pose a challenge, and the local legend is often invoked to ensure that the motor car moves on the Musical Mountain just as ‘The First Car Uphill’. Then there is the story of how a ‘goddess’ is born, how gullible people are, how sex and blackmail are intrinsic to the ‘cult spaces’ and how even after years of false assurances, Chamna Devi’s daughter tries to replicate the same model. The human propensity to seek a shortcut to everything, and the belief that even divine bliss is available on payment, as if it was an expensive physical possession, was the reason for the flourishing ‘spiritual’ enterprise.

In sharp contrast to this is the story of the ‘Scrap Dealer of Dalanwala’ in which Akbaruddin raises his family out of the quagmire of poverty by the dint of sheer hard work and determination. Everyone in the family works hard, and finally, the daughter is admitted to the LSR, and the son finds employment in the National Institute of Visually Handicapped. ‘The Don’s Big House’ is a reminder that wealth acquired by foul means leads to a macabre end, and that in the final analysis, it is better to have a loving family than a sprawling building. Jugraan may be a lawyer by profession, but he is a keen observer of the human condition and a poet at heart. His writing flows effortlessly as he tells you about his father and his grandfather, both survey veterans, and how they braved all odds to map the farthest frontiers of the land. The word play is perfect – as for example, the Preface is, it is not the author’s pen, but the den! Enter into his world, and enjoy each story with relish... it is as they say, “value for money”.

The writer, a former Director of LBS National Academy of Administration, is currently a historian, policy analyst and columnist, and serves as the Festival Director of Valley of Words — a festival of arts and literature.

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