As I loped down the winding pathway to Ockbrook, home of the Gantzers, I felt a little light-headed and not because of the thin mountain air. I felt a little light-headed and not because of the thin mountain air. I was reminded of reporting for my first date a generation ago albeit this time it was in broad daylight. There is something splendid about meeting somebody you have for very long very much wanted to meet: it is, as The Alchemist says, the outcome of the coming – and conspiring – together of many things on a cosmic level. It is sort of soppy in a happy way. The swoon, if some groupie memoirs are to be believed, is sponsored fanfare largely induced by powdering the nostril; I was just giddy in a its-finally-happening way. After 30 years.
It was in 1985 while on annual vacation in India, in an effort to hone my language skills – which was later revealed as an attempt, among several misfired ones, to springboard me into the ‘administrative services’ way of life – that my dad one day thrust The Hindu newspaper at me. He followed it with a threat that questions from the editorial would be forthcoming. However, the sesquipedalian pieces, staggeringly informing I am sure, unfailingly rendered my brain sclerotic: as I nodded off I had visions of my neurons voluntarily leaping off the deep side of the lobes, in hordes. It was thus frantically searching for something to bury my head in that I came across a travel story by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer. Ten years old at that time I don’t remember which place or people, sight or ritual it was about but recollect being hooked by a whole new kind of writing hitherto unknown to me – newspapers were all about political events, air crashes and new movie releases as I had gathered from the most animated discussions around me. Over the next yearly sojourns in my hometown Pala, I would spend hours in the stuffy basement of the Municipal Library among man-high stacks of mouldy dailies fishing out old editions of The Hindu, religiously catching up with the Gantzers.
Now they stood with wide welcoming smiles and sturdy handshakes on the gravelled path with Colleen’s potted garden, trimmed hedgerows and wall mounted bird nests that led to a cosy, dainty porch with a birdhouse and more plants.
“Hope it was no trouble finding the way,” Hugh said, every bit the gallant naval officer he was once, as he led me in.
Around a kilometre from the landmark Library Junction of Mussoorie, soon after the bus depot, you have to take a right for Ockbrook. Though you cannot see the house itself from above because of the forested canopy there are other houses flanking the path soon as you pass the gate whose residents seem rather chuffed giving directions to visitors to their famous neighbourhood. The way down the built-up dale is non-motorable from this approach but is broad and concrete. There are balustrades too which Hugh said was put up for his late mother. ‘I’m only 85, don’t need them,’ he assured me.
Early travels, writing
It was during the early 70s when Hugh was posted in the naval command in Kochi The Gantzers began their travels. Before coming to Kerala they were in Delhi and Mumbai for many years. Kochi was a sort of sensory break after their stints at the bustling metropolises.
“We just loved Kerala,” Colleen looked back fondly. “The place was so lovely – I still remember the kettuvallams that used to go past right outside our windows. ‘We might never come here again,’ we thought and decided to make the most of our stay.”
“So we bundled our little son Peter along with some baby provisions and clothes for a few days onto our Vespa and trundled off to Kanyakumari,” Colleen continued.
“Did you say Vespa?” I blinked.
“Yes, I think around 300 km.”
This time I just blinked. And Hugh noticed.
“It was one of the few original ones that reached India in the 60s,” he said. “I still have it with me, right here in this house.” I told them about my dad’s Chetak – which I keep in running condition despite having to bid a chit fund each time I am home. Anyway, another bond was forged.
Khushwant Singh who was at that time the editor of Illustrated Weekly got in touch with them for a series on the India nobody knew of and the Gantzers wrote their first ever travelogue – on Kerala.
“During those days state tourism bodies and star hotels didn’t run ads on television like they do now and the only way to get any exposure was through articles by writers like us,” says Colleen. “Soon after our outing with the Illustrated Weekly we were invited by the Tamil Nadu tourism department, Femina magazine and the in-house magazines of the Taj and the Oberoi Groups to write for them.” Once Hugh retired from the Navy they started their regular columns with The Hindu – which, though beyond the ken of a 10-year-old, gripped him nevertheless and probably spurred the travel writer romance in him.
We settled down for a sumptuous lunch of pulao, rotis, chicken curry, salads, several vegetable preparations, pickles and chocolate ice cream and fruits for dessert. I embarrassed myself by mistaking the turmeric pulao for chicken biriyani; Colleen cheerily resolved it by passing me the chicken curry with a chuckle. We all had a good laugh. I wanted to tell them that I loved them already. But Hugh went first: a strained back as a result of a recent fall for which he had been on painkillers hadn’t apparently bothered him since that morning or since I passed through the gate.
“Maybe we will build an annexe and set you up here,” he offered none too flippantly. Such kind of warmth only serves to bring out the trencherman in me; I sat at the table for a long while, all the dishes were now arranged around or near me. I even shamelessly asked Colleen for a third helping of the dessert which made her place the ice cream bowl too in front of me. I noticed Hugh was quiet on the annexe-front post-prandial. We stepped outside for a short walk around their cosy little cottage and garden and birdhouse and I needed a smoke. I asked the hearty Hugh for permission to light up. He had no problems – till he was 45 Hugh used to smoke 60 cigarettes a day. That was when Peter had an accident and Hugh swore off cigarettes in return for his well-being. A worthy quid pro quo.
“We usually go for long walks after breakfast and lunch especially when we are working – that’s how we sort out our fights. Right, my love?” Hugh asked Colleen with a crinkly eyed smile.
Now that was something I wanted to interrogate them about – all their travelogues, articles and books are ‘By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer.’ Which was Hugh and which was Colleen? I knew writers who go all snarling and gnarly at publishing houses for crediting them ‘main contributor’ despite being the sole contributor. Surely one of them, at one point would have felt the other wasn’t doing enough? The Gantzers guffawed.
“We take turns in writing the article – sometimes Hugh has the first go and I sit on it with my notes and inputs. Other times I write the first draft and he works on it later.”
“Colleen makes her own notes and I make mine when we travel. And never once do we compare notes.”
Stay relevant. Stay curious.
It is not always ‘Hugh and Colleen Gantzer’ anyway.
Colleen is probably the only travel writer in India who is also a member of the professional travel agents association: she attends their meetings and presents points of view pertinent to the travelling community. Hugh is a member of the monitoring committee appointed by the Supreme Court to keep a tab on the mining activities in Mussoorie. In fact his mother – whose tumulus stands next to the birdhouse – was quite active in Save Mussoorie, an organisation which went hammer and tongs after the miners who tried to carve the hill station. Preservation is a battle still in fight – while mining activities have been curtailed, sneaky encroachments and haphazard constructions are the order of the day. What is left of Mussoorie may not make a bard of a Dothraki but is thankfully a distant cry from the unseemly sprawl of Dehradun less than 40 kilometres away.
“We are part of these organisations not only because we believe in the work they do but it also helps us have an ear on the ground,” Colleen remarks and happily admits that ‘it takes a lot of juggling as these are in addition to our column commitments with newspapers and book assignments. We are more busy today than we ever was – too busy to even grow old.’ The Gantzers have recently brought out a coffee table book on the iconic Ashok Hotel in Delhi and a four-part series on ‘Intriguing India’ for the ITDC. Unlike many travel writings we come across today, even by known names, their stuff is not warm pop with reams of secondary data but actually brim with atmosphere. Like the story on Pushkar Mela I found on the Incredible India website while researching them before the meeting. The eye for detail and the breathlessness in the narrative I found quite contemporary. Despite gathering chevrons in the trade they spared no effort.
“It is very important to stay curious, to ask questions, to find out why and how,” Hugh shares his belief. And with good reason: “When you ask the right questions – and get the right answers – you can bring to your reader something they have never heard about or seen before. It’s magic.”
“The same effort you take to make your story intriguing and interesting you should take to make it credible too – never let your reader down with incorrect information,” Colleen adds. “Not once in our writing careers have we been pulled up by anybody for being factually wrong.” I thought about a prominent writer-blogger who, in one of her recent articles, brought alive Sonabai, a popular folk artist from Chhattisgar – only that Sonabai had passed away in 2007! Entire encyclopaedia sets and other fat reference titles from science and art, engineering, astronomy, human body and relationships and history radiated in all directions from their work station. Old ways are sometimes the best.
Warm hugs and promises to meet again later I lolloped up the slope. Halfway I turned back to look – The Gantzers were still standing by the porch, watching and waving.
How would it be living in an annexe, I wondered in passing.