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Memories Of A Lost World


Puppets There was a bloody battle between Amar Singh Rathor and Prithviraj Chauhan on board. Sri Devi danced and the Russian magician performed. Quickly the floor was cleaned of the blood and colour, and all were bundled into Birju Ranaji's bag.

Puppeteering has remained in Ranaji's family occupation for several generations. Every Friday he boards the train with his nine-year-old son to perform a puppet show in the library. Rajasthani folklore weaved with Hindi film songs formed his standard storyline while son Vicky played the tabla. By now, we even had a new guide, Shri Ram who remained with us for the next four days.

Junagadh.Garlands, tikka and bugles. It was a traditional Indian welcome to the city whose last nawab wanted to secede to Pakistan after Partition. The Darbar Hall Darbar Hall museum houses some poorly displayed priceless artefacts. In a gallery hangs the portrait of the last diwan of the princely state, Shah Nawaz Bhutto. The name, which over five decades would remain intimately associated with the Islamic republic of Pakistan.

Mahabat Khan's Maqbara Mahabat Khan's maqbara and the Ashokan edicts circa 250 BC were fascinating. Though not very well maintained, the mausoleum retains its architectural charm. "The Archaeological Survey of India does not have the funds for the upkeep of such monuments," explained Shri Ram. There lay a surrounding calm around those Ashokan edicts. Looking back, I think it was the several millinneia between us and those relics that brought about a brief moment of reverance.

After several rude jerks that sent things flying off the dressing table and woke us with vibrating abdomens, the overnight halt at Veraval was too tranquil. We had grown to enjoy the rhythm of the train. "He was a goods train driver. I had to get off the train in the night and tell him to be careful," Gupte clarified about a particularly rough stretch a few days later.

Gir Sanctuary We reached Sasangir at dawn on Saturday. A cold and bumpy ride took us to the Gir lion sanctuary. The tinted glass windows, not the most ideal of devices for viewing lions in their natural habitat. But the prospect of encountering Asiatic lions proved far too exciting than mulling over the failings of an automobile in the middle of a deciduous forest.

Through brooks, past teak trees and the guide's account of the Maldhari cattle community living there, we moved on, peering in the bushes to catch a glimpse of at least one of the reported 304 lions in the sanctuary. We soon realised predatory attendance wasn't so easy. "It all depends on your luck madam, last week also we saw nothing," quipped Shri Ram.

Gir Sanctuary In the midst of chanced encounters with pea hens, antelopes and blue bulls, Marilyn and Ollie told us about their plans of writing a book. Dating after 55. "We feel there is enough for youngsters, its the elderly that get more lonely," said Ollie. Dr Raj Kumar, Chandra's husband, had already thought of another title. "Ollie, how about 55 not out?" Tuned into American football with rudimentary interest in cricket, Ollie prefered sticking to his title.

After losing their respective spouses, Great Expectations, a dating agency, brought Marilyn and Ollie together two years ago. Today, two rulers with rueful ends in world history are etched on the couple's rings. Czar Nicholas II on Marilyn's ring and the Shah of Iran on Ollie's. "These used to be gold coins," revealed Ollie. What followed reminded me of snatches from a Jeffery Archer paperback.

January 1, 1924: Ollie's father fled from Communist Russia and trudged two hundred miles across Siberia before making it to the nearest railway station in China. His mother left a day in advance on the pretext of seeing her sister who was a ballet dancer in Shanghai. After battling with the bitter Russian winter he met his wife in Shanghai. They began life anew and two years later Ollie was born to them. In 1939 the immigrants arrived in America, a country which would be home to them for the rest of their lives.

"I still have those boots my father wore on his journey through Siberia," Ollie recalled his father's torturous journey many, many years ago. A Professor Emeritus at Stanford University with as many as 40 students completing their Ph d under him, Oleg Sherby himself had come a long way since the day he arrived as a 13-year-old in FDR's America.

Marilyn Marilyn served as a nurse at the US army hospital in Teheran for 20 years before returning to the US a few years ago. "When I was there I wore the hejab, spoke Farsi and wore contacts because I didn't want to attract attention. But now things have changed and most of my American friends have moved," she said.

"Shh...quiet everyone..." We didn't realise the bus had halted quietly and sauntering a few metres away were two lionesses and a cub. The tinted windows were tugged open, cameras went berserk, Ollie and Marilyn kissed and our guide breathed a sigh of relief. A dramatic end was thus brought to a four-and-a-half hour bus ride. "Khuda Hafiz.With Marilyn's polite farewell to those queens of the wild, we made a quiet exit from their territory.

Lions and tigers dominated the conversation on our return from the reserve. Amidst references to the Sunderbans, the Corbett national park and lions in Iran from across the Hindukush, we made our way back to the Sasangir station. The timetable at the platform indicated that only three trains halted there. "As this is a forest area, lions are likely to venture onto the tracks, so no trains cross this station during the night," revealed the station master.

Inside the Royal Orient Returning to the train after a tiring excursion was always a pleasure. Usually a short nap followed a meal at the restaurant a few carriages away. The food was a combination of Continental, Chinese and Indian cuisine. There always was a mix of four to five dishes at every meal. Sweet corn soup, garlic chicken, haka noodles, vegetable Manchurian served with fish masala, alu-gobi, chapatis, pickle and papad.

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