STORIES FROM SHIMLA OF MY CHILDHOOD
My mother taught me Hanuman Chaleesa or did she, I don’t remember but I remembered it all by heart. I had too, for Hanuman jee is supposed to protect one from ghosts. It is clearly stated there in Hanuman Chaleesa
“ Bhoot, pishach nikat nahin aanvein,
Mahavir jab naam sunavein.
Nase rog hare sab peera.
Japat nirantar hanumat beera.
It says that Ghosts and Chudails (she ghosts…my favourite) don’t come near you, when you chant Mahabir’s name. All misery and disease vanishes from his life who chants your name, O Hanuman the valiant.
I believed in it’s efficacy and it worked for me as you can see that I have lived to tell you the ghostly stories of my childhood town that was favourite with them. I don’t know if their ‘ghopulation’ (what other word can you use for ghopulace?) has increased over the years or not but in those days they outnumbered us children ten to one. In those days there were many unoccupied, crumbling, desolate and dilapidated mansions which these extraterrestrial beings inhabit as they have no money to hire decent accommodation and who in his right senses will rent it to them? I think they had a collective “phantom limb” (…I couldn’t think what should I call a ghost’s hand which is a hoofs instead) in forcing (scaring) the British leave this queen of hills and they deserved to be knighted (given knighthood) but since that couldn’t be done they tormented the kids at ‘night’ wearing shrouds with hoods. If government of India had declared them as ‘free doom blighters’ (freedom fighters) they wouldn’t have leashed their ire on us children.
There were tall “cheed” (Himalayan Cedar) trees aplenty then, where they would sit in wait of their prey. Though Hanuman Chaliisa had the power to keep the evil spirits at bay, it could not drive them out of my thoughts. In my dash from one dimly lit roadside lamp post where I stood to catch some breath to another that seemed half a kilometer away, I would chant furiously and often fumble the lines. I would then worry that Hanuman Jee would teach me a lesson for trivializing his “Patth”( prayer) Hahaha… but all Gods are forgiving and he forgave me, always.
My father would sing Bhajans in the morning and read or rather recite Ramayan. Many of those Bhajans got unknowingly written on my heart. Though over the years I have become an apostate, yet I involuntarily seek solace in His name when in distress for example while walking alone on a dark, lonely road Hahaha… it may be a matter of joke to you but to me it isn’t, it never was. I was always scared of those things floating around, tumbling things and stirring curtains, making the cats cry and the dogs howl. I remember my mother was an active member of her ‘Kirtan Mandalee’(group) and years later when I found a diary in which she used to write the Bhajans she created, and copied, I couldn’t stop my tears from spilling over. I want to bring out a book of her Bhajans but like many times before, this wish will again be forgotten after moistening my eyes.
Today, I am going to tell you about an incident that occurred when I was so vulnerable that I didn’t even know Hanuman Chaliisa to fend me from the chudails stalking me. I can tell you the date of the incident even. It was 22nd February 1958. I was six years old then. Hmmm..that means I was in second standard. Incredible memory isn’t it? I can also see the day. It was bright and sunny but cold. In winters these spirits remain active until late morning hours perhaps to catch some warmth before retiring for a day and they do catch some young kids for a quick breakfast, if they venture out alone or trespass the desolate houses where they stay. It was around nine thirty in the morning.
Now you might be wondering how can I be so sure about the date. Well, I remember that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had died that day. I have taken the help of Mr. Google to know about the date. I remember as clearly as the day of my Mundan sanskar (head shaving ceremony) which was performed on 12th January 1957, when I turned five. Unbelievable you think? Ok, then wait because I have a good memory of many days before that too and I will write about some interesting incidents but writing here about those will amount to digression. Suffice it to say that I started going to nursery after we shifted to this house in Upper Kaithu and I have some clear memories of the days when we lived at “Ruldu Bhattha”.
I was late for the school as usual. I have resolutely retained this habit of being late for the event, appointment or occasion throughout my life. As you can see and appreciate that I acquired this habit of getting late for the school very early in life. My elder sister was such a studious type that my uncle (we called him Sat Chacha Mr. S.P. Bakshi, the most illustrious among all the brothers) who was the principal of Modern School Delhi for more than two decades had nick named her Kitabi Keeda (book worm). These padakoos (nerds) have different mindsets. They enjoy course books. My site manager ( I wrote this story sitting in the office 7-8 years ago) is a Naval Architect from IIT Khadakpur. He has been a ship designer all his life and he breathes design, dreams design and I swear, I can see web frames and stringers floating in his grey matter as his bald pate has become almost transparent. It’s not that all IITians are passionate about the subjects of their interest. Our previous site manager too was ex-IIT Naval Architect and a class mate of the present one but in comparison, he knew so little about the ship that he could tell the fore of the ship from the aft only by guessing and his guess would often be wrong.
I studied in Lady Irwin school which was a girls school but it took boys up to the fourth standard. The school was opposite my father’s office. There were two possible routes one could take for reaching our school. One was shorter, a combination of a flat stretch and a steep uphill path and the other one was a continuous uphill path and circuitous too, because one had to go North towards the Kaithu Bazaar first and then turn towards East. We would choose steep, circuitous road to school over straight short road simply because it had no known haunted houses on way. Many curious people who didn’t believe in the existence of ghosts and had foolishly taken straight path to prove the wise believers wrong had ended up on the dinner ‘gables’ of the specters. Stains of their blood and cold creaking window panels with broken glasses were stern warnings to the fools contemplating adventure. One building stood a few steps away from the lamp post that stood at the junction of the two roads. It’s this very lamp post where I often stood catching breath before bolting down the dark cavernous road with tall cedar trees. The mention of this lamp post is there in many of my posts because, I used to stop here for mustering courage and catching breath before making a dash no matter which way I had to go. There was sprawling darkness, uphill, downhill, ahead and behind, the domain of the wraiths. Running from here to the distant next pole was like crossing the “Bhav Sagar” for reaching God. How could a frail child do that, without your help Oh, God? I would often ask Him.
My sister wasn’t bolder than me, but children find a lot of ‘strength in union’. Well that day I was bereft of any union and any strength. She had left for the school with her friend. Since I was already late, taking the steep circuitous road was out of question but taking one infested with the ghosts was impossible. I stood there by the lamp post waiting for divine help. I saw an office goer (or was he a godsent angel, I wasn’t sure) walk up. I waited for a while and followed him, walking a step behind and yet keeping a safe distance because, I knew that the ghosts too could take any form at will. My first worry was to pass the first haunted house which almost spilled over the road. There were other haunted houses too on way but they were not as close to the road as this blighted one was.
The last and the most dangerous was a huge deserted mansion which was later was bought by some non-believer and converted in to a hotel “Tashkent” sometime after January 1966.
When we ( I and the stranger, I was following) reached right opposite the haunted house, someone hailed. I stopped and looked up at the house. The man ahead of me looked down. The hill paths cut the inclines of the hills and the houses jot the slopes. The friend of my companion was sitting outside his house, sunning himself. They exchanged greetings. I stood by the stranger, shivering and continuously looking back and waiting for him to be done with his untimely tete a tete. The one down there told the moron who had started off without even bothering to listen to the morning news that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had died and official holiday had been declared. Suddenly the man down the slope asked the stranger next to me… “Ye bachcha tumhara hai?” Is this your child? “Bachcha? Kaun bachcha? The fellow on whom my life depended then wasn’t even aware of my existence.
“Nahin”, No, he said and then asked me.
“Kaun ho tum bete aur yahaan kyon khade ho?
“Maine school jana hai”, I said. I couldn’t tell him more about my reason of standing by his side.
“Jao Jao ghar..aj koyee school nahin hai aaj chhutee hai”, he said. (Go back home, there’s no school today, it’s a holiday today).
In those days we would get a holiday when some national leader died and during my childhood they died fairly regularly.
I ran back home like a gazelle. I was furious with my mother for sending me to school on a day when such an important person had died. I didn’t know who he was though but I was happy that he was important enough to get the kids a much needed holiday. My mother told me that the holiday had not been declared and was upset with me for finding reasons for skipping school. Mr. Azad might have been a leader of some repute but wasn’t important enough to earn the children a full day off. My mother was right because my sister didn’t come back home until afternoon. The schools were closed for half a day as a mark of respect. Today, I don’t understand why when the leaders die should the schools and the offices be closed? Do people need a holiday to mourn the death of a leader or the Indians express happiness and grief by striking down work?
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