Meet Canteen Majid, The Memorykeeper Of McCluskieganj

The thin and wiry Majid Ansari, called Canteen Majid after the canteen he once worked at, is a storyteller of McCluskieganj. Not all his stories can be verified because there aren’t many who can remember.

(Left) Canteen Majid in his younger days; Canteen Majid now

Some evenings, Canteen Majid walks along the narrow road to the place where Mrs Kearney is buried along with others. Only he can tell where she lies. The little alcove across the other graveyard has amalgamated with the forest. A small stone marks the grave. Majid, a thin wiry man, is a storyteller. Not all his stories can be verified because there aren’t many who can remember. Who can trust memory if not memory, what else is worth anything in a place like this where many graves have no epitaphs.

Canteen Majid’s father, a daily wage labourer in those days, had come here to work in the coal mines and then found his way to Mrs Kearney who employed him as a housekeeper. She and her husband had taken over the Highland Guest House near the station and she had opened a bakery where she baked bread and cakes that Majid’s father, along with others, would wrap in newspapers and deliver to the houses in the area. Canteen Majid began to write a book about McCluskieganj but in the notebook, the pages are full of stories about a parrot and a king. Is there any Gunj there? He says not yet.

“That’s a tough one to write,” he says.

Majid, the caretaker, now works as a guide. The bungalow where Mrs Kearney lived is now inhabited by his two wives and their many children. The walls have been painted in green. New furniture has replaced the old.

Majid Ansari spends most of his day at the railway station close to his house. That’s where the tea stall was. That’s where the canteen had been set up. That’s where the prefix of his name came from.

In the 1950s, Mr and Mrs Kearney, an Anglo-Indian couple ran the canteen at the station. They had been among the first settlers and after her husband died, Mrs Kearney continued to run the canteen. Then Majid took over but the Railways decided to build a new one and Majid didn’t get the allotment. Business had already declined because the halt time for the trains reduced to two minutes. That’s how the end began.

Majid, the keeper of memories, knows that stories can survive time. That’s why he wants to write a book. After a film crew visited the Gunj, he is hopeful they’d make a film based on his story. But the Gunj is a trap in that sense. Invariably, the stories of the old homeland dream of the Anglo-Indians¬—the stayers-on—start forming. Like bubbles when you heat up water for a long time.

In time, newcomers like Raj hope that some erasure will happen. They call it the colonial hangover, a convenience of narrative, an indulgence and a reductive rendition of a place so evocative of its past that the future seems like an impossibility. Yet there are settlers like him who insist that the Gunj is no longer the shrine of a homeland for a group of hybrids who held their legacy, the one Independent India had thrown off, the ones who were discards because the British won’t take them along and the Indians thought of them as a reminder of the Raj.

Majid knows that time is running out. It always does in the Gunj.