MARCHING AHEAD…ON LONELY ROADS
From My Childhood Stories In Shimla
Choosing Cart-Road over others
In the evening after the school, we could either take a cold, dark, desolate and scary Cart Road or bright, sunny and populous Ridge/Mall Road. You might think, why should one choose a circuitous, lonely road over a bright and sunny road? but boys always have a deep purpose behind what they do. Their effort may not fructify, they might end up getting switched, but they don’t do anything without a purpose. So, what was our purpose? Though Cart Road’s name has been retained but now no carts ply on it. It is the only road on which motor vehicles were allowed in those days. It’s the main arterial road circuiting Shimla and the only road joining upper parts of Himachal to the Northern plains.
Pitiable condition of Cart-Road ( Now called Circular Road)
Now a days you find everyone who is a VIP of some description driving on the mall, and those who can’t drive on the mall, drive up to it. You now see all roads leading to the mall choked with parked vehicles but in the days when I was a child, I remember even the President Mr. Rajendra Prasad’s was driven over the mall in a Rickshaw pulled by four men. The only Jeep that crossed the mall in those days was of GOC in C of Western Command. Handsome Sardar in a stiff, starched uniform driven in an open jeep by smartly dressed up driver, left us awestruck every day. Now if you go to Shimla, you don’t get a place to park your vehicle, but in those days we would not find even more than three to four vehicles on Cart Road during our forty five minutes, walk to our homes in Kaithu. Our hopes rested on those rarely seen vehicles. We would expectantly raise our tiny thumbs to every passing vehicle in a hope that driver will take pity on small school children with heavy school bags and give a free ride. We had never heard of any stories about the children being drugged and kidnapped and so we were not even afraid of any such incident.
Some of the drivers (mostly truck drivers) did take pity once in a while on us and gave us the thrill of a few minutes and that hope was our main reason of choosing that desolate road over bright and sunny ridge and the mall teeming with blooming young girls in their school uniforms, returning home.
The long stretches of our walk on the road without interruptions, gave our imagination time to soar high as our harangues, spiels, gossips and hyperbole could go on and on without even being disrupted by beautiful distractions like those of a bevy of girls walking back and coyly looking at us blushing boys and then giggling on being caught in mid acts, when the gazes met for brief moments. As we all know such allurements can throw the thoughts off the course by miles and recourse to them is circuitous and fraught with danger of being lost in the maze of other imposing thoughts that keep impinging upon the minds of young children with ever increasing regularity like the rain drops that precede the downpour.
It was dangerous to take this route to school in company of the friends in the morning, because the children lost in the thoughts lose all track of time and sometimes even the whole purpose of attending the school is lost to them. It was impossible to take this road in the morning when alone because firstly one should have the guts of facing the possible encounter with a chudail, who driven by hunger might be staying awake in the early morning hours, in the hope of catching a prey walk its way. It was a very convincing thought that played on our minds ( my mind for sure) because at night someone had to be out of his senses to decide to take such a road for walking back home unless, he was so despondent as to see this road as the end of the road, literally.
But on the days when one was late for school as was generally the case with me, taking the steep Kalibari road was not the option. In such circumstances one was left with no choice but to take this godforsaken road because the fear of being followed by floating apparitions, speeded one up and it being fairly flat path, one could even break in to short runs over darker stretches. Secondly, there was a secret track on the hill on which the school was located. This path was known as ‘chor rasta’ in our parlance. It met at the corner of fencing of the school play-ground, where the steps leading to the classes above broke from it. The school wasn’t a girls school anyway and because of it sitting on a hill sealing it all around was a tedious task. There were big gaping gaps, all around the periphery of the school, from where the boys could freely sneak in and out. Whether the school authorities were not aware of those or they intentionally let those escape routes be there to let the boys have the liberty of bunking, is a moot point, that I plan to raise during our next old boys meet.
Forgetting about the other secret paths let me tell you that the one coming up from the Cart-Road was a perfect one as I had tried many times. One could simply sneak in and join the rows of boys standing in the ground for the morning prayer. Whereas if one entered the school from the main entrance, he was sure to get his share of punishment of two strikes of cane on his open stretched out palms as that was the maximum extent of his criminal liability. However, if one would be so late as to reach the school after the classes were dispersed after the assembly, he was in a great danger of coming across the P.T. teacher Mr. Soda Singh, conducting the P.T. class. In that hopeless situation one was sure to get a few slaps from him, because he was a strict disciplinarian and thrashing the boys was his favourite pastime.
There was also another reason of choosing to take this road for going to the school. Feeble though, the hope, but it certainly was there and that was of coming across Mrs. Breg. She was English or maybe an Anglo-Indian or of mixed origin, we presumed because she had an English sounding name. We had heard that she was an ace Ice-skater and wife of an Army officer. She would come to drop three girls at the gates of Loretto Convent or Tara Hall as we would call it. Many times we would find her reversing the jeep after dropping the girls. We used to expect her to take pity on poor boys briskly walking towards the school as we would get in to the act to impress upon her our urgency and then we would suddenly stop and stretch our thumbs asking for a lift, but she never cared to look at us, our antics didn’t melt her heart. Perhaps it wasn’t her nature to give lift to the boys. We would sigh and continue.
Girls were the subject of our discussions those days but they were not the objects of our interest. Sometime ago I read that in Europe even today PC games rank much higher as the first choice of the boys. Alas! If girls or for that matter women could understand men, life for us men could become so much simpler. They want them around but they don’t want them around all the time. Hahaha..breathing down their necks…Kind of being seen but not heard, but it is the other way round at home…Hahahaha Compartmentalized thinking or daring to catch the “cow” by the horns.
Our subjects of discussions were far more interesting than the girls of our age. One of those of course was always ghosts and chudails (female ghosts). Wonder why there is no gender specific word for ‘she ghost’ in English while I am sure they out number male counterparts ten to one. Perhaps the English women while living torment their men enough for the God to exempt them of this duty in their after lives.
Cart Road goes all around Shimla. From Kaithu where we lived via Lakkad Bazaar, where our school was situated to Sanjauli, if you drive one way or via Victoria tunnel through Bus Stand and Chhota Shimla to Sanjauli if you take the other route.
St. Bede’s College, Shimla
When I was a child, I never went to Chhota Shimla via the Cart Road, I never could have dared to, because the road to Chhota Shimla was the fondest haunt of the ghosts and the chudails as the legends go. As if that wasn’t enough there was St. Bead’s college somewhere there. St. Bede’s College is a girl’s college and Preeti Zinta was once a student there. You might wonder why a college that has such beautiful damsels as its students should be a cause of worry for the growing up boys. The truth is that it was said and believed by the boys that young men (read boys) are lured by the ‘hungry’ women who squeeze the life out of them in their greed to satisfy their insatiable hunger and the poor pubescent, juniors who get lured easily meet the fate like that of the male species of black widow spiders, at least metaphorically. So, it was wiser to be ‘Aatm Nirbhar’ and we all there was no argument to that.
It was said that some who wandered up the dreaded paths leading to the temple of doom were never ever seen again as they could not see the light of the day that dawned after their demanding ordeal. What can be the fate of an uninitiated boy among lusty nymphs? Allah bachaye ‘naujavaniyon se’. I don’t even till today know where exactly St. Bede’s is. What better proof can there be of me being a “Seedha Sadha”
Breaking the Lamps on way
We would pass by many lonely houses known to be confirmed dens of the wandering spirits and the whole walk (which often we had to undertake because of not getting a free ride) would be frightful. We would aim stones at the bulbs of road side lamps and break them in sheer frustration when the passing vehicles refused to take us. That activity would keep our minds off the imposing thoughts of ghosts.
Old lamp post- Not exact but we had similar lamp post along Cart-Road in Shimla in 1960s
In those days the Lighting poles on the Cart Road were long erect wooden logs on which lonely incandescent lamps were hung high up and they were protected from rain by a hat like shade which served the dual purpose of acting as reflectors and of protecting the bulbs from hailstone falling from above, but the planners in the electricity department had not provided the poor bulbs from the stones coming from below, maybe because they never thought that such things could happen, but boys can do the impossible. Aiming stones at those forlorn bulbs hanging from their holders some 30 feet above the ground was not an easy task, but not impossible either. Sometime the impact would to be so hard that it used to turn the shade to a strange angle. It wasn’t a thrill that one could routinely enjoy because the Electricity department wasn’t very prompt in replacing the bulbs, so bulb or no bulb, even stubs and distorted shades used to bear the brunt of our fury when we used to get disappointed on being not taken onboard by the trucks we asked for the lift.
Later, some wise thinking among the Electricity department resulted in employing a protective net made from steel wire over the shade. This infuriated us, but it made our task all the more easy, because now, we didn’t need to take an aim at a small target, but instead a whole bulbus net encompassing the bulb and the bonnet was available to us, so in place of a small stone, we used to take a bigger one instead and throw it with a greater force, such that the impact would dent the cage and crush the bulb. Looking back, nearly sixty years down the line, I feel bad for our mischiefs and today as a responsible citizen, I would like to apologize to Shimla Electricity Department, at least for those bulbs that I broke.
With the sun setting behind the crests of the dark mountains that would appear foreboding and the disquieting silence accentuated by the eerie shrill of the cicadas we often whistled, sang songs loudly or just roared to hear assuring echoes falsifying the presence of other living beings nearby. Kaithu was on the sunny side of the hill and a brilliant setting sun, greeted us as we crossed the last bend in the road such that, to me that last stretch of the road looked like a graphic representation of a motivational poem.
A girl’s convent named Tara Hall stood at the junction where Cart Road met the steep road coming down from the mall. It would be like coming alongside a busy port after a horrendous sea voyage. Sometimes we indulged in a thrilling game of rolling stones down the edge of the road. The stones would gain momentum while speeding down the steep and bounce wildly. We would hear some shrieks of poor, surprised villagers coming up the hilly paths when they would have miraculous escape from sudden unexpected rain of stellar debris.
Once in a while when a young couple passed us by, we between us exchanged naughty glances saying much of the unsaid.
One day as we were walking Jaikishen suddenly became silent as often he would when in a pensive mood.
“What happened”? I asked
“Can you march like a soldier”? he said
“Yes Of course I can”, I said
“Then do, saying left, right, left, right out loud”.
Suddenly, I was transformed in to a soldier and I paraded
Left, Right, left, right… left, left, right,
I saw a man emerge out of a deserted house. He started descending the stairs that led to the Cart Road where we were. He showed out a fist to us and mouthing abuses he headed for us.
“Run, run for your life”, yelled Jaikishen
We bolted like colts panicked by a gun shot.
We ran till our breaths ran out. The man who had chased us a few yards had long left the chase and gone back.
“He is a mad man”, Jaikishen told me once we had regained our breath.
Why didn’t you tell me before, I protested?
“I had only heard of him, but had never seen him before”.
“I had heard that he gets very angry when he sees someone marching like a soldier”. “His son had died in a war and since then he has lost his mind”.
“Today my doubt has been confirmed,” he said concluding the dialogue.
“I would have got killed in your experiment”, I said complainingly.
“People lay down their lives while seeking truth”, he said like a blasphemous preacher.
“Their lives”, I said grinning and not of their friends. We both laughed and continued our walk home.
We didn’t have a way to confirm this story about his son but Jaikishen’s information about a mad man living in that desolate house turned out to be correct. It further strengthened our belief that such lonely looking houses, house mad desperate, dispirited people or spirited spirits as they were fit dwellings only for the unfit.
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