Letter from the hills: Go for broke

“Oye! Paise dey!” (Hey! Give money!)

Withdrawal bharo!” (Fill a withdrawal!) muttered the cashier without even as much as an upward glance.

“Oye! Paise dey!”  Insisted the gruff voice.

The teller looked up – straight into the barrel of a gun. At the other end of the gun stood a man in goggles, hat and trench coat. He looked as if he had stepped out of a B-grade film.  Our local bank branch was having its first hold up.

One look at the chequered history of the years sieved by, reveal that these hills were no place for banks. It began in 1836 with the North-West Bank – a floating treasury of sorts –  was set up for the convenience of government officers and their families.

In 1859, came the Delhi and London Bank; followed in 1864, with Mr. Hobson’s Masuri Savings Bank. Hardly had the heat and dust settled, when the crashes of the Bank of Upper India and the Alliance Bank raised more than dust. Small wonder they said in the old days: “Bank managers were no more than pawnbrokers with a manicure!”

But a manicured dandy had nothing to do with it.  In Jharipani a splash was enough to christen Mossy Falls. Mr. Moss, the banker was out on a picnic when he missed a step, slipped and fell into the gurgling waters.

Of one of the early banks, it was said that those ‘in the know’ were not aware of a new client they accepted at so precarious a time. But to the everlasting shame of another bank, on the eve of its collapse it accepted the life savings of Rs. 64,000/- of an old man, causing him to die of a broken heart.

I am pretty sure my father’s heart was not broken, with the failure of the Mansa Ram Bank in 1955. Not if you go by the stub of his old cheque-book. Balance? Rs. 30.

Lucky him! Luckier than the banker, Seth Chander Sain, who died of heart failure, days before his bank collapsed, saving him from certain ignominy.   Unblemished from 1921, survives the Imperial Bank, a forerunner of the State Bank of India. Set up in 1955, it was housed on the Mall in the Himalaya Hotel. Look closely, you will find the perimeter fence has the legend BUI, when it was the Bank of United India Ltd. But the first floor railings are imprinted VI (Victotia Imperatrix or Empress Victoria) brimming with memories of the Great Delhi Durbar.

And what happened to our bank robber? Well!  Loot in his swag bag, he jumped into his hired taxi, to be driven to the motor-road where he waved down a bus trundling to Dehra. Predictably, the local taxi-driver zipped straight to the nearest police station and the wireless started humming.

To this day, old timers at the toll-barrier will regale you with tales of the police waiting, convulsed with laughter as the bus arrived to disgorge one dumb fugitive.

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