The High Grounds Of Chail : Recollections From The Past

Image Source: Wikipedia, Sandeep Brar Jat

Image Source: Wikipedia, Sandeep Brar Jat

It was about twenty years back when we visited Chail for the first time. It had always been Shimla before that. We were kids then and I remember the attempted trek to the Chail cricket field, the highest one in the world.

“It’s about 4 kms uphill saab!”, came a quick reply from a passerby, to my father’s little query.

The prospect of walking another 4 kms seemed very alluring to us kids and we awaited the impending adventure but the ladies of course had something else to say.

“4 kms!”, exclaimed the ladies who accompanied our little party to Chail. Their hands immediately rushed to cover their mouths whilst their necks turned left and right, in quick motions.

“Bhabiji, I am wearing heels! How will I walk?”, said Pammi aunty to my mother.

“I can’t walk either”, said my mother much to the relief of Pammi aunty.

The plan was immediately dropped, much to the disappointment of us kids. Of course we were treated with sweetmeats purchased from the nearby bazaar. The disappointment persisted nevertheless.

Not having been able to see the cricket field  live, we kids bombarded the elderly folk with a million questions on our way back to Chail Palace.

As we sat for our evening tea in the lush green lawns of The Chail Palace, Sharma uncle decided to put an end to our interrogation. And he began…

“In 1891, Lord Kitchener, barred the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh from visiting the Shimla, the summer capital of India. Raged and angered, the Maharaja vowed never to set his foot again on the soil of Shimla and promised himself his own summer capital. It was another thing that The Maharaja had eloped , with the daughter the British Viceroy and was thus refused entrance to Shimla…or so say the rumours…

Well! thus spawned Chail, amongst the mighty Pines and Deodars , a summer retreat about 45 kms away from the hustle bustle of Shimla. It was in 1893, Chail’s cricket field, the highest one in the world, was constructed by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, to enjoy cricket with his British friends. The ground doubles up as a Polo field too! This very Palace where we are staying right now, was built by the Maharaja himself.”

“What about the ghosts of The Chail Palace?’, asked Pammi aunty, opening her small eyes to the fullest.

“Ghosts!”, we kids exclaimed, losing all interest in the cricket ground and Maharaja’s escapades.

“This hotel? Where we are staying?”, we muttered.

“Shut Up! Pammi! , don’t scare the kids”, snapped Sharma uncle at his wife.

Pammi aunty turned her face away with a little jolt and the half dead Rose adorning her head,  popped out from her bun and fell on the ground.

“And so I was saying….”, continued Sharma Uncle.

“All the buildings constructed by the Maharaja were later given to The Government of India”, he said as my father called him from a distance.

A certain situation required him and Pammi Aunty to meet mother immediately.

The evening was becoming darker and the Pines and Deodars casted long spooky shadows. As we children sat huddled up by the table all we could remember was….Ghosts of The Chail Palace….. and Pammi Aunty’s Rose was nowhere to be seen…

 

Image Credits: Yadwani

Image Credits: Yadwani

 

 

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KANHA EATS MUD

“The fruit on those trees is ripe and juicy”, said Balaram, pointing towards the ripe plums in the orchard adjacent to their house.
“Lets pluck them and relish their delightful taste!”, he said enthusiastically to his playmates.

Everyone was excited at the prospect of having ripe plums and followed Balaram to the garden where the divine fruit grew.Krishna followed them too.  

“Why are you following us? You are too small to climb trees Krishna”,said Balaram.  

“Yes, you are very small Kanha”, said another boy ,suspecting Krishna would alone eat all of the fruit.  

“I want to come along Balaram!”, pleaded Krishna.  

“Well only one condition! “,said Balaram, “Kanha, you will only collect the fruit we pluck from the trees.”
“You will not climb the trees nor will you eat any fruit alone. We will distribute the fruit equally and eat it later”, summoned Balaram.  

“Ok, I will do that! “, said Krishna smiling mischievously.  

“Come along then”,said Balaram.   The boys reached the neighbouring orchard and climbed the plum trees while Krishna waited below. They started plucking the savory fruit that bedecked the branches and started throwing the fruit down,  onto the muddy ground.  

Krishna picked up the mud laced fruit and instead of collecting it started gobling it. His speed was great because he gulped it down as soon as the fruit fell from the tree.  

One of the boys looked down and saw what Krishna was upto. “He is eating all the fruit by himself! “,he shouted pointing towards Krishna.  

Balaram and all the boys got down and encircled Krishna. “Wait I ‘ll take you to mother and tell her you have been eating mud!”,threatened Balaram.  

The boys then took Krishna to Yashodha and narrated Krishna’s mischief to her. She looked at Krishna aghast. His face was mud laced with one streak of mud running crisply from below his left jaw, crossing the nose and culminating just below his right ear. Fruit pulp drooped from the sides of his mouth and added colour to his face ,painted brown in mud.  

“You mischievous little boy! You have eaten mud again. Open your mouth!”,she told Krishna, angry at his doing.  

Krishna smiled at Yashoda, gesturing her whether she really wanted to see what was in his mouth.  

“Open your mouth! You naughty little boy!”, she told Krishna.  

Krishna opened his mouth and Yashoda was surprised to see what lay inside. She saw the entire universe, the sun ,the stars, moon, planets, the earth with its mountains, oceans, land, rivers and the entire creation. She even saw herself standing looking into Krishna’s mouth.  

Her head whirled and she felt dizzy. She shut Kanha’s mouth and looked at him wondering about his divinity. She had been worried about a little mud when the boy had inside him the entire universe.  

“Who are you? Who are you?”, she asked Kanha, as she carried him inside kissing his forehead.
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THE FORBIDDEN HOUSE

There was, a girl,

so tall, so dark, so thin,

Her name,  her name

Her name, they say was ginnnnngeerr…” ,echoed their voice as they leisurely strolled their way back home from market. The pleasant weather and the gentle cool breeze had refreshed their minds.

The road sloped up and took a sharp turn to the left.

her name,  her name, her name, they say was Ginger” they sang loudly as they walked past the curve.

Perched on the top of this slightly elevated ground was a queer looking house. The strange looking building had an eerie feel to it.

“What an odd looking house!”,commented Anish breaking the rhythm of the song.

“Bimla mentioned it’s haunted!” ,he told Suhana, who chose to ignore his little brothers fictitious stories.

“Suhana! I am talking to you!”, he appealed, stopping  and stamping his foot firmly on the ground, desperate to get attention from his elder sister.

“It’s just an old, abandoned building Anish”, she explained to him, “It’s just desolate! That’s about it! No ghosts! ”

“Don’t believe Bimla’s stories” ,said Suhana who knew Bimla’s story telling skills.

Bimla, the housemaid, loved reciting dramatic stories to Anish. She narrated her stories in all hush-hush, ‘do not tell anyone’ tones with fully animated hand and facial gestures. All this resulted in making the fallacious, cooked up stories sound real.

“Look at it Suhana, it’s a ruin! No one dares to go in!” ,appealed the boy.

“That’s because no one has any business of going in” ,said Suhana, as she started walking again.

Anish started walking along, unable to seek any attention.

 

The house, Bimla had mentioned,  belonged to a wealthy, Bengali family. They had been cursed because they refused to entertain a certain  ‘swamiji’ who appeared on their doorstep one fine day. The swami had asked for food and shelter for the night. The family refused taking him in, taking him as an imposter. The swami’s  anger killed everyone in the house and the swami is sometimes seen there even today.

“Whosoever tried taking shelter in that house was hurt badly or never came back” ,Bimla had told Anish opening her big frog like eyes smudged black with kohl. “It’s the haunted,  forbidden house, Anish baba!”, she had said.

Bimla’s story was a typical case of Chinese whispers. A story that had visited many ears and passed on many a lips.  It had left an impression on Anish though and he thought about it sometimes. Maybe, he believed it too.

 

A couple of days went by and Anish forgot about the ‘Forbidden house’.

One gusty evening,  when Anish was returning from his evening games along with Ajay, his playmate, they happened to cross the Forbidden house once again. Anish narrated Bimla’s story to Ajay, who unlike Suhana, proved to be a keen listener.

“You mean the swami’s ghost? He is still there?” ,asked Ajay inquisitively.

“That’s what Bimla told me!”,replied Anish.

The two boys exchanged glances. They wished to unfold the mystery but were too scared.

“Does the swami eat young boys too?” further implored Ajay.

“Bimla did not mention that” ,answered Anish.

“Then we can go and find out what’s in there!”, said Ajay , a little thrilled at the thought of an impending adventure.

“Oh no! If ma finds out, I won’t be allowed evening games anymore!” ,said Anish, a little disappointed with his own detrimental answer.

Oh! Come on! She will not come to know. We will be back in no time! “,said Ajay, this time pulling Anish by his arm.

Anish did not resist and they walked towards the house.

An unkempt cobbled pathway led to the strange house. The iron gate was rusted, weak , battered and locked.  The two boys wiggled from in between the vertical bars into the compound.

“Hurry up!” ,called out Ajay.

The boys ran past the wild lilies and wedilias onto the strange looking porch.

“Oh let’s go back!” ,appealed Anish who wanted to flee from the morbid looking place.

“It’s getting dark and cloudy! Let’s go back”, he begged Ajay, who by this time climbed up the window and disappeared into the darkness.

The winds grew fierce and violent. Thunder struck and suddenly violent rain lashed out.

” Ajay!  come back!”, he shouted from outside the window.

“Ajay! Ajay!”, he kept calling,  determined not to go inside the house.

There was no response from inside and Anish started to panic now.

“Ajay!” ,he cried out, as he heard a loud thud from inside.

Anish ran out in the rain. He thought he would get some help but the street outside was bore a dark and deserted look. He ran shouting for help but there was not a soul on that street.

Anish ran back home. On his way he met Suhana,  who was out looking for him.

“Where were you Anish? “,asked Suhana. ” Mother is worried! ”

“Suhana,  Ajay is trapped in the haunted house!”, blurted out Anish, trying to fight his tears.

“We must help him!” ,he pleaded.

“Why did you go there Anish? I told you not to!”, scolded Suhana.

“I am sorry! “,pleaded Anish ,”But we need to help Ajay. The swami’s ghost will kill him.”

“There is no ghost Anish”, said Suhana as both of them walked towards the forbidden house.

The storm grew violent and the tempestuous wind lashed angrily. The children quickly walked past the cobbled pathway holding the umbrella tight. Anish was glad that Suhana had accompanied him. He felt a little confident with her being around.

On reaching the porch Anish showed Suhana the window that Ajay had climbed.

“This is the window!”, said Anish, pointing at the half open window.

“Let’s go inside”, he told Suhana.

“Not through the window, it might be dangerous. Let’s check if this door is open? “, said Suhana, feeling the door with her hands.

“It’s locked from inside, we had checked”, replied Anish.

“It’s not locked!  Just jammed”, said Suhana as she pushed the wooden door open.

The door creaked open and it was pitch dark inside. Suhana pressed the torch button on her wrist watch and a faint beam of light illuminated only the very immediate surroundings.

Slowly they walked past the door of the forbidden house. The silence inside was deafening, broken only by interludes of the howling wind lashing on the windows.

Anish and Suhana, held each other tight and slowly walked past the gloomy unlit lobby.

“I heard something Suhana! “, shrieked Anish,  gripping his sister’s hand even tighter.

“Where ?”,asked Suhana, a little scared herself.

“There, towards our right !”, said Anish, almost in tears.

There was something there definitely. A very dim, misty yellow light emerged from one of the rooms.

“Someone is there!”, whispered Suhana to Anish.

Slowly the children walked towards the spooky frightening room.

“Ajay are you there?”, said they both together.

Their voices wouldn’t come out of the parched throats .

“Ajay”, they attempted again as they drew nearer to the mysterious room.

“I am scared Suhana!”,said Anish with big tears rolling down his cheek, “Ajay has disappeared.”

“No he has not!”, came a warm voice from the room.

As the children hurriedly entered the room they were shocked to see what lay inside.

Ajay lay prostrate on the floor below, his forehead was painted green and a small clay lamp meekly flickered some yellow light on his expressionless face.  Suddenly a shadow cast forward.

“You children shouldn’t be out so late!”, said a man stepping forward, all dressed in ochre robes.

“Swami’s ghost!”,squeaked Anish, petrified.

“You killed Ajay!”, said Suhana, mustering up some courage.

“Oh no! He is just unconscious”, said the swami, in his voice, deep and warm.

“What have you done to my friend? “,asked Anish, “Why is his forehead painted green. ”

“Oh that is a herbal balm, your friend tripped on the staircase and banged his head on the wooden chest below. I have just applied balm”, said the swami calmly, “He will be conscious soon, don’t worry.”

There was silence for a while. Anish and Suhana still held each other’s hand.

“Are you the ghost swami?”,asked Anish hesitantly.

“Do you think so?”, asked the swami bringing his hand close to the children and letting them feel his flesh.

“If you are not a ghost what do you do in this ruin?”,asked Suhana, feeling his frigid hand.

“This deserted house is not visited by a soul, I can meditate here in peace”, replied the swami, withdrawing his hand and moving backwards.

“Anish, Suhana where are we?”, asked Ajay waking up .

“Ajay you are fine! Thank God! You got hurt badly!”, said Anish happily.

“Let’s go home!”, said Anish hastily, forgetting all about interrogating the swami further.

The swami showed the children the way out and they thanked him politely for his courtesy.

The sky outside was very dark and so was the ‘forbidden house’ but for the swami’s eyes that glinted green, as he saw the children wiggle out of the iron gate.

THE DAY SARA TASTED THE CHOCOLATE MACAROON

Sara had just fought with Sammy. He had pulled her hair and she had pushed him in return. Angry and  fuming she came out and  sat aloof in the daycare backyard, sulking,  on the merry-go-round.

Mrs. Lucy, the daycare in charge searched for Sara everywhere and  came out looking for her.

“I have been searching for you everywhere Sara, its nap time!, You should be in your bed. What are you doing here?”, said Mrs. Lucy, finally having found Sara.

“Sammy fought with me again Mrs. Lucy! He pulled my hair yet again! I don’t want to go inside. I will wait here till mommy comes to pick me up”, replied Sara, frowning,” and I am going to tell my mommy what Sammy did because he does it every day!”

“Sara, it’s going to be awhile before mommy comes. She is at work now and won’t be here till six in the evening. Come inside, it’s so hot out here”, persuaded Mrs. Lucy.

“No!”, said Sara, folding her arms and frowning even more. She had decided she would sit here till her mother came.

“Well, it’s up to you then darling. Just to let you know that there will be chocolate macaroons served  with milk ,for the  evening snacks and only for those who take their afternoon nap will get to eat them!”,said Mrs. Lucy, leaving Sara on the merry-go-round, watching her through the corner of her eye.

‘Chocolate macaroons!’, thought Sara. She loved them. For a moment she thought of going inside so that she could have them later during the afternoon,  but then decided against it.

She remembered the first time she had macaroons.  Aunt Kelly was visiting them then with cousins Ryan and Ben. Aunt Kelly’s husband could not accompany them then,so Aunt Kelly had travelled alone with her boys.  It was especially for Sara’s birthday that they had all come and they had celebrated it in the countryside,  by the river.

The countryside was so beautiful and that small family picnic was perfect! She could still smell the grass by the riverside and feel its soft blades on her palm. She ran carelessly in the tall grass and it brushed softly against her cheeks. Ryan and Ben ran behind her trying to catch her. There had been so much laughter, it still rang fresh in her ears.

“We are coming Sara!”, she could still hear them say.

“Sara! Come here , we are waiting for you to cut the cake!”, mother had called from the clean patch, behind the tall grass. The blue river glistened in the beautiful afternoon and the sound of flowing water was the perfect music for the setting.

“Coming mother!”,she had shouted back from the grass, laughing loudly because she could see Ben right behind her.

“Caught you!”,shouted Ben, embracing her from behind. Ryan had come too and embraced her.

‘What fun it was!’, she thought.

She, Ben and Ryan ran to the clearing where mom dad waited with Aunt Kelly. The spread was perfect. A beautiful cake sat right in the center with small cupcakes on either side. Mom had fried a few chips,  prepared delicious sandwiches and brought cola along. Mom had  lit the birthday candles and handed her a beautiful knife to cut the cake.

Happy Birthday to you,

happy birthday dear Sara,

Happy Birthday to you!”, they sang together.

It was time for presents soon.  Aunt Kelly had gotten a beautiful doll house for her and Sara had loved it. Cousins Ryan and Ben had gotten a book of bedtime stories. Dad got a small bicycle. Sara had been so excited.

Just then mom pulled out a box from behind her. The box was packed beautifully and decorated with frills and ribbons. All yellow, just as Sara had liked.

“What is in it mommy?”,Sara had asked, excited.

“It’s a special something I baked for my princess!”, she had told Sara, handing her the box.

Sara had grabbed the box from her mother and opened it hastily. On opening it she had found something that resembled biscuits   laid in it, beautifully. She had picked up one of them and asked her mother, “You baked biscuits for me mommy?”

“No Sara, these are macaroons! , a nicer version of the regular biscuits that we eat”, her mother had told her, “taste it!”

She brought the macaroon close to her mouth and took a small tiny winy bite. She was delighted and gulped the remaining macaroon instantly .The macaroon had just melted in her mouth. The crisp crust held in it the mushiest chocolate filling she had ever tasted. Sara relished the macaroon with closed eyes, shaking head and her tongue licking her lips! The beautiful riverside backdrop was all forgotten,  all she remembered was the heavenly flavour of the chocolate macaroon.

“Sara!”, called her mother, shaking Sara out of her reverie.

Suddenly Sara realized that she was in daycare. The taste of chocolate macaroons was fresh in her mouth and she was now salivating.

“I am coming for the nap, Mrs. Lucy!”,shouted Sara as she left the merry-go-round and ran indoors for the afternoon nap.

FLOWERS OF GULMOHAR

It was a fortnight into May and the tree’s vivid vermilion flowers and bright green foliage made it an exceptionally striking sight. The gulmohar, in its full bloom, stood proudly, in this Vasant Vihar bungalow’s compound.
“Caught you!” ,shouted Sanju, as he tiptoed quietly from behind the mighty tree trunk and leaped onto Radha.
“Sanju! you scared me!” ,gasped Radha, who was busy gathering the wilted gulmohar blooms.
“Why are you collecting these Radha?”, questioned Sanju.
“These flowers for my scrapbook. Don’t these look like fireflies! ” ,she said, raising one of the biggest and loveliest flowers and bringing it close to Sanju.
“Oh yes! They do!” ,said Sanju slowly, gazing intently at the flower.
” How come I never noticed it before?” ,said the ten-year old, turning to Radha and filled with wonder.
“Because you never get tired of your hide and seek games! ” ,replied the elder and wise Radha.
“Let me show it to maa” ,said Sanju as he hastily seized the flower from Radha and ran indoors to the kitchen, where Shiela was.
Warm sunrays filtered through the ornate stained glass window into the spacious, prehistoric kitchen. The gulmohar, peeping through the kitchen window, rendered a beautiful vermilion hue to the setting.
“Maa! Our tree bore fireflies! “, said Sanju panting.
He bent on his knees, trying to catch on his breath and brought the wilted bloom up close to Sheila’s face.
“Ah! The flower of Gulmohar!” ,said Sheila rather delighted, as she applied pudina chutney onto a slice of freshly baked bread.
“I can see you are as pleasantly surprised as me maa?” ,said Sanju happily.
“It’s because the tree holds a beautiful story behind it Sanju. ” ,said Sheila putting the chutney jar in the fridge.
“A Story?” ,repeated Radha, appearing from behind.
“The story of a little boy and the flowers of Gulmohar! ” ,responded Sheila. Her hands rested on the kitchen shelf and she stood facing her children, smiling.
” What is it? We are eager to know!” ,said both the children unanimously.
” Hmmm …. ” ,began Sheila
, as she seated herself comfortably, on the old teakwood breakfast table in the center of the kitchen. She poured tea for herself and passed on sandwiches to the children.
” There lived a boy, in this very house along with his parents. His mother affectionately called him ‘gopu’ , ‘the naughty one’ ” ,spoke Sheila, slowly sipping into the steaming hot tea.
“Gopu, was ten at the time of this very interesting incident. The summers that year were particularly harsh and the scorching heat had made it impossible for even a soul to venture out in the afternoon” ,said Sheila, animatedly.
“Now Gopu was on his way back home from school. The sun was searing hot and the streets wore a deserted look. The asphalt road shimmered in the baking sun and the prospect of walking further seemed very tiring.”
“A ‘kulfi-wala’ who stood at a little distance caught Gopu’s attention. Gopu felt his pockets and found loose change. He swiftly ran towards the kulfiwala and bought a kulfi in exchange of the coins.”
“From somewhere, blew a whiff of cool air that brought along with it a few red blossoms. The fiery red blossoms brushed against Gopu’s face and the cool breeze gently stroked his hair. It was very intoxicating. The boy relished his kulfi sitting under the shade of an adjoining large tree. Tired as he was,
Gopu fell asleep amongst the scattered red blossoms. ”
“His mother, meanwhile grew restless and anxious at home. Disturbing thoughts, of any harm coming to her son caused her to venture out, looking for him. She traced the way back to school and came across the kulfiwala.”
“Very worried and anxious, she enquired about her small school going son.”
The kulfiwala, pointed towards the boy sleeping under the tree shade and said “Baba was very tired. He instantly fell asleep under the tree, after having the kulfi he purchased from me. I did not want to wake him up from his nap, so I stood here and kept a watch on him.”
“She heaved a sigh of relief on seeing Gopu who by now was cozy under the vermillion blanket. Wrapping her arms around Gopu she hugged him tightly. Feeling crushing encumbrance around his chest, Gopu woke up from his siesta. He was happy on having his mother close by him and narrated the story of him being very tired and finding some rest under the huge tree.”
“His mother looked up and saw the gulmohar
smiling at her. She thanked the tree for having provided shade to her son when he was tired and weary and also for keeping Gopu safe. She thanked the kulfiwala too, for keeping a watch on the boy.”
“Together the mother and son walked back home. That night when Gopu’s father came home, Gopu’s mother discoursed the days happenings to him. Gopu’s father was worried on hearing the incident but he thanked the tree in reverence. ”
“Next day, it being a Sunday, Gopu’s father took him back to the Gulmohar tree. The hot summer breeze had scattered the gulmohar flowers, along the road and sidewalk. Amongst these dissipated flowers, lay the gulmohar pods. These were dark brown in colour and some of them were even two feet long. Gopu’s father collected some of these pods, exchanged greetings with the kulfiwala and headed back home with Gopu.”
“What are these dad?”asked Gopu enquiring about the pods, curiously.
“These, Gopu, are Gulmohar pods which contain the seeds of gulmohar in them. Soon we shall plant these and have our own gulmohar ” ,answered Gopu’s father.
“Really!” ,screamed the boy unable to hide his excitement.
“And it will have those beautiful red flowers too!” ,he continued, delighted at the thought of having his own gulmohar.
“Oh yes it will!” ,replied his father happily.
“That day went in preparation of a soil bed for the gulmohar , soaking its seeds in water and finally planting the seeds in the prepared ground.”
“Day after day, Gopu watered the seed. Soon a sapling emerged from the ground. But there were no flowers yet. The boy was discouraged, for he had thought it would flower immediately. Nevertheless he never forgot to water the plant. ”
“The rains came and now there was no need to water the plant since mother nature was in charge and soon Gopu forgot all about the Gulmohar.”

“Years passed by and the Gulmohar continued to grow unnoticed amongst the other plants in the garden. The young Gulmohar would shed its leaves many a times and then again small little leaves would crop up. Gopu was oblivious of all this but his father kept a watch. ”
“Gopu was now fifteen. One afternoon when Gopu walked out in his garden , the warm summer breeze blew one large red flower at his feet. He picked up the flower. Thrilled he ran indoors.” The gulmohar has bloomed! ” he shouted full of enthusiasm.”
“Since that day, he never forgot about his gulmohar, an offspring of the tree that gave him shade and shelter. Often he would lie under the tree for a siesta and sleep in peace amongst the flowers of the gulmohar ” ,said Sheila finishing her story and sipping the last of her tea.
Sanju and Radha still sat there, enchanted, with a million questions bustling in their tiny heads.
“So maa, where is the boy who planted the gulmohar in our garden”, asked Sanju.
“Did he and his parents go somewhere else?” ,joined in Radha.
“Do you know where they are now?” ,questioned Radha and Sanju.
” Well…… the boy, Gopu, still lives here, in this very house, with his two beautiful children” ,winked Sheila as she left the kitchen.

SERGEANT GRANNY

It was one of those quiet , summer afternoons, during our summer holidays when granny walked in unannounced. “I thought I will surprise you!” ,she said plonking her luggage on the sofa.

Mother was very happy to see her because granny always got with her a lot of cheer and entertainment. “It’s good you came. I have just prepared nimbu pani!” ,she said offering granny a glass of chilled nimbu pani.

“Granny, I missed your bed time stories!” ,I said, squeezing her tightly  and pressing my cheek against hers.

“Grandma!” ,screamed Radha as she ran down the stairs and landed right in granny’s lap.

” Memsaab! Somebody stole our guavas again!” ,Shanti came running to the kitchen to inform mother of the guava robbery.

“What!” ,shot back Radha instantly.

” But we trimmed the branches that fell outside the compound!” ,continued Radha. 

“Granny someone steals all our ripe guavas before we even get a chance to taste them.” complained Radha, looking at granny.

“I can’t believe it! Tired of this frequent robbery,  I got the branches cut !” ,said mother, sadly.

“Someone’s stealing our guavas! ” ,exclaimed granny.

“We sure have to find out and punish the robbers” ,said granny animatedly and we all broke into  instant laughter.

But Granny meant business.

Next day, granny caught hold of me and took me to the guava tree for site inspection. We looked around for clues and upon careful examination found a small blue handkerchief, stuck on a nearby bush.

” That’s our first clue!” Granny told me.

“The branches that fell out from the compound have been cut. The compound wall is ten feet high. Its impossible for someone to climb in” ,thought granny aloud as she inspected the area carefully. Then she turned towards the adjacent wall.

She studied the wall very carefully.”This is the wall we share with the Verma’s” she said looking at me. “I see who is stealing our guavas! “said Granny , folding her arms and raising one eyebrow.

“Oh no granny, they wouldn’t steal! “,I said quickly.

“Mother always sends them a basket full of these delicious guavas! ”

Granny looked at me again. As we exchanged looks, granny saw Raji, as usual loitering around the neighbourhood.

“Raji!” shouted granny.

Raji, on hearing granny came running.

“I heard of your bravery with the cobra!” ,said granny as she bend towards Raji. “You are a brave boy!” ,she continued praising Raji, as she pat him on his back.

Raji, who always craved for limelight, was very pleased. He would have done anything for granny now.

“Raji, It’s time to put end to this guava robbery and we need your help!” ,she continued trying to take Raji in confidence.

“What do you want me to do Grandma? “,replied Raji, all spruced up.

“I want you to fetch that  wooden staircase from there! ” ,she said pointing towards a staircase, that lay carelessly outside the kitchen window.

“Sanju! Go help Raji!” ,she said, as she put us boys to work. Meanwhile she scrutinized the wall.

“Where do we put it Grandma? ” ,I asked as we pulled the staircase.

“Here! Against this wall!” ,said Granny guiding us to the common wall.

Raji, instantly climbed the staircase after we placed it against the wall.

“Now what?” ,he called from the top.

“Give me an assessment of that side!” ,granny said pointing towards the Verma’s.

Raji climbed on to the wall and peeped into the Verma’s compound.

I was feeling a little ashamed. Peeping,  I was taught was bad manners. However, unable to convey this to granny I remained silent.

“Their grounds are higher than ours!” ,screamed Raji astonished.

“Sshhhh!” ,Granny gestured Raji.

Raji climbed down and faithfully reported all he had seen to granny.

“The ground is much higher than ours. From their side this ten foot wall is not more than five or six feet. They have ample loose bricks scattered on the ground and a broken concrete bench by the wall too!” ,revealed Raji.

“That means the thief comes from that side”, she said murmuring to herself. “And he is a small guy!” ,she said looking at the handkerchief.

“The task for today is done!” ,she announced as she  walked back into the house. I too followed granny after I  bid farewell to Raji, who sensed some adventure and promised to be back next day.

That afternoon, when we were about to retire into our rooms, for our little afternoon nap, granny sat in the kitchen with a pair of binoculars. “I need to keep a watch!” ,she said.

” Shanti will stay up with me!” ,she declared, not bothered of whether Shanti wanted to or not.

“Take some rest maa!” ,said mother, trying to persuade granny.

“Oh no Sheila!  It’s our house! We need to safeguard it!” ,she replied, determined to stay up.

Unable to persuade granny, mother went to her room whilst Granny , sat with the half dead Shanti in the kitchen. I joined them since I wasn’t sleepy and Radha wasn’t home to chit chat.

“You lazy bundle of bones!” ,granny would poke her whenever she fell asleep.

That afternoon ,was uneventful, as the thief did not make an appearance. Perhaps, he was waiting for the new lot of guavas to ripen.

The next couple of days passed quietly too. Raji came around a couple of times inquiring about the matter but returned disappointed.

One afternoon, when I idled my way into the kitchen, I heard a rustle of leaves outside. There was some activity near the guava tree. I ran and informed granny.

She instantly picked up her binoculars and we rushed to the kitchen. I climbed onto the shelf near the window and granny leaned right next to me.

Two young boys had climbed up the common wall. “None of them looks like Manu, our neighbours son!” ,I said.

“You know them?”, asked Granny poking her elbow into me.

“No !” ,I replied.

The taller boy, helped the smaller one climb onto a nearby branch. The smaller one, swung across like a monkey and began plucking our guavas.

“A robbery in front of my eyes!” ,said granny as she threw the pair of binoculars on the nearby table and steadily walked outdoors.

“Hey! You two, good for nothing hooligans! How dare you steal from my house!” ,she shouted, as she steadily walked  towards the guava tree.

The smaller boy dropped all the guavas he had collected in his shirt and swung across the tree on to the wall.

“Sanju catch hold of these mischievous little thugs!”

,shouted granny, picking up a fallen branch and aiming it towards the boys standing on the wall.

I ran towards the staircase, inclined by the wall and quickly started climbing it.  Just then I heard Raji shout from the gate ” Sanju baba! I’ll help you!”

I was glad that Raji came.

By the time I reached on the top of the wall, those two boys ran along the wall, jumped on the bench on the other side and slipped out of the Verma’s compound, through a big drain hole which lay hidden under a lot of dry leaves.

Raji swiftly ran outside and nabbed the robber duo at the opening of the drain.

Amongst all this commotion, mother got up and came out running. Radha followed too.

Meanwhile,  I got down from the staircase and ran outside to help Raji. Together, we managed to get hold of the boys and presented them before granny.

“We are very sorry! Please don’t call the police !” ,the boys kept on repeating.

“Why did you steal fruit from this tree?” ,questioned

granny, angrily.

“We initially stole one or two guavas from the branches that drooped outside the compound! ” ,began the taller one.

“We relished the fruit and it was very sweet! “, he continued.

” Then it occurred to us, that if we sell it, we can make some money! So we started stealing more fruit by climbing on to the tree. On discovering that the drooping branches have been chopped we had to find another way!” ,and he narrated the entire story of them discovering the drain and sneaking in quietly during the afternoons when the Verma’s slept.

Granny was furious,  so was mother.

“These boys ought to be punished! We need to report them!  ” ,granny declared aloud, raising her hands in the air.

“Oh no madam, please forgive us!” ,squeaked the smaller one.

“These boys seem to come from a good family! ” ,observed mother.

“And they retort to such things!” ,said granny, pulling them both ,by their ears.

” We are sorry!” ,said both the boys together,  wiggling in pain.

“Forgive them granny!” ,appealed Radha.

” They seem to be really sorry!” ,she said.

” On one condition! “, began Granny.

“You boys promise me never to steal again! ” ,she said.

“We promise! ” ,they said, feeling very ashamed.

” Now pick up this scattered fruit from the ground and go away!” ,said granny, gesturing them to leave.

The boys picked up the dropped guavas and left.

A couple of days passed. The doorbell rang one afternoon. It was an odd time for someone to come.  Granny, who was sat reading newspaper, got up and opened the door.

The small boy, from the other day,  stood at the door. He wished granny and  handed her a small glass jar.

” What is it?” ,asked granny, bending towards him.

“Guava Jam!” ,he said as he kissed granny’s hand and left.

Of Rain Frogs and Snakes

The July rains brought relief from the blistering Delhi heat. I sat on my window as the rain dripped from the ‘chajja‘ above. At times I would stretch my hand out and let the rain wet it. Other times I just sat and watched.

The faint smell of wet earth had travelled with the blowing breeze. “It is going to rain soon!” ,mother had said yesterday only.

Rain had changed the entire landscape. Everything appeared so fresh, new and sparkling .Everyone loved the rain; but the maybe the frogs loved it the most. Suddenly there were a large number of leaping frogs in the garden. Whether it was the cooler environs of the outside or it was their desire to mate, they were certainly rejoicing in the rain. Snails too came out, perhaps they were sticky and sweltering and wanted to wiggle in the rain.

“Sanju the pakodas are ready!” ,called mother from the kitchen,”Get Radha too!”

The smell of hot onion pakodas sizzling out from the kadhai ,accompanied by ‘imli‘ sauce and the sound of rain on the roof made the entire mood very indulgent.
Shanti, the housemaid had gotten her seven-year old son Raji with her that day .Usually, the boy loitered around the neighbourhood whilst the mother worked in houses, but today, the incessant rains had compelled her to bring Raji along. Raji, dressed in a white shirt and khaki shorts sat on the porch making paper boats and leaving them in the steady waters flowing from the drain pipe into a shallow nallah running by the porch.

A high-pitched shriek from the bedroom upstairs startled everyone. Mother rushed upstairs, only to find Radha standing frozen by her bedroom wall. Shanti, me and Raji ran up too.

There on Radha’s bed lay a curled up snake, its head stood upright. He was as amazed to see us as we were to see him.

“Cobra! Cobra!”, shouted Shanti pointing at the snake. For some reason she thought that every snake was a cobra. Radha freaked out more on hearing that it was a cobra. Big tears rolled down her cheeks and I thought she was about to faint.

Raji ran down instantly and came back with a stick. “Come Sanju baba we ll scare it away!”, said Raji who did not waste a moment and repeatedly hit the stick on the floor in front of the bed.
I don’t know whether that scared the snake or it got plain bored but the snake slithered its way out of the bed and perched itself on the window. From there it did not move despite of our best efforts.

Mother grabbed Radha out of the room and locked it from outside.

We all went back to the kitchen table and began to console Radha who refused to leave mother. Raji meanwhile got applause for his display of bravery and presence of mind. Now Radha though elder to me was scared of reptiles. Lizards had her running for her life and this was a snake.

“Snakes usually don’t come out in the rains. They love basking in the sun!” ,began Shanti.
“The heavy downpour must have flooded his hole, that’s why he came out! That cobra!”,continued Shanti, who by this time had left all the house hold chores and was comfortably squatting on the floor below.

“It was not a cobra Shanti! Stop scaring Radha!”, said mother getting irritated.

” Why don’t we kill it!” ,said Raji fresh with the enthusiasm gathered by his recent act of bravery.

“Oh! no Raji! Misfortune befalls on people who kill snakes. It’s very inauspicious!” ,said Shanti warning her son.

“But we can’t just let it be there!”, replied Raji, displaying unhappiness with his mother’s decision.

Now in India, snakes are worshipped as they are associated with Lord Shiva and Vishnu. Killing them is supposed to bring bad luck.

“We will call a snake charmer!” ,said mother settling the argument.

She quickly got up to get her telephone diary. She rang up Mrs. Sen, whose maid’s husband knew a snake charmer and requested that he be sent soon.

It was not even an hour after the conversation with Mrs. Sen, that the snake charmer arrived ,despite the heavy rains. Dressed in a saffron kurta, white dhoti and a bright red turban he called for mother.
“Memsaab!” he called out loud from outside.

Shanti got up and opened the door.

The beads around his neck clinkled as he walked in. The snake charmer was a man of a pleasant disposition.”Where is the snake?”, he enquired smiling.

“It’s in the bedroom upstairs” ,said mother as she lead him upstairs. Raji and me followed mother. Radha, preferred to stay down with Shanti.

The snake charmer pulled a flute like instrument from his cloth sack and began playing a tune. Simultaneously, he removed the lid of a small basket that he had placed in front of him. As if drawn by the tune the snake left the window and came down to the floor, very near to the snake charmer.

Raji and me exchanged surprised looks. We both were witnessing this for the first time.

The snake continued to wiggle for a while before he crawled into the basket. The snake charmer sealed the basket with its lid and slid it in his cloth sack.”It’s done!” ,said he as we witnessed the drama close in front of us.

We all went down. Mother offered him a little money in return of his services which he politely refused.

As he prepared to leave, mother asked him, “Which snake was it?”.
Cobra!” he replied as he disappeared in the rain.