Walls and doors covered in mirrors and chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the middle, high above the floor. Fading sunlight streaming through the windows to the west and everything had a warm orange glow including the chandelier with a patina of dust aged to perfection for about 50 years or so. The ceiling was real high from where I stood, in the middle of the room and from my four-feet-above-ground eye level everything looked monstrously high. That is the first thing I remember and the mirrors. I could see myself reflecting from every wall of the ‘room’. I twirled and the 50 odd me twirled with me. The ‘room’ was a 50 x 30 ft. space of pure bliss. Welcome to my grandfather’s ‘house’.
My grandfather worked for the railways and from the size of the ‘house’ that housed his office and residence one could safely assume he was at the top of the railway ‘babudom’. Mom and I were visiting along with my brother who was all of four months and whom my grandparents were meeting for the first time, the purpose of our visit. My grandfather was posted in Kanchrapara, a ‘mofussil’ town 80 kilometres from Calcutta, whose only claim to fame was and still is, a large railway workshop set up by the British. On a sultry August afternoon, we arrived at Kanchrapara, on rail, from where we were ferried in my grandfather’s old Austin which was rather crammed with all of us packed like sardines on the back seat and the spilled over luggage from the boot filling every left over inch of space in the car. My brother who was other wise a peaceful soul chose that moment to wake up and greet the world with his ‘baritone’ which later ofcourse stood him in good stead in his ‘band’ days in school and college. I would guess he was suitably overwhelmed by the abundant attention my grandparents were showering on him and ofcourse Sitaram my grandfather’s driver cum orderly cum everything else, who continued to speak with me in bhojpuri with total disregard for the fact that I had no comprehension of either the language or the man. The heat, the sweat and the well timed wails were all that I remember of the journey. We went passed the gates and drove in on the pebbled pathway for about 100 meters till the main door of the ‘house’.
The ‘house’ was a grey coloured stone and wood ‘bungalow’ with two floors covering 4000 square feet of the 2 acres compound and was built around 1870. The main door bore my grandfather’s name and what I assumed his ‘rank’. His office was the entire right hand portion of the ground floor and had wooden benches for the visitors. In one of the bigger rooms was his massive desk covered with various colour files and paper and ofcourse a bell and a telephone (a black contraption that could easily replace a dumb bell with its weight and aesthetics). The residence was on the first floor and the wooden staircase creaked loudly with the collective weight of several feet and tons of luggage that was being hauled upstairs. Across the glass panel of the staircase, I saw a fleeting shadow and heard an owl screech and fly pass with a whoooosh. My grand mom’s hold on my hand tightened and she gave me a quick glance and I kept wondering why.
Upstairs was made up of several rooms that could shelter at least 50 homeless families comfortably. We settled in a relatively smaller room next to my grandparent’s bedroom. Every living soul was busy fussing over my brother and his rather urgent needs which were many. The long stemmed creaky fan had to be switched on, the bed had to be readied, the diapers had to be changed and so long and so forth and there was a cacophony of the maid’s singsong bhojpuri, my mother’s pleasantly urban Bengali and my grandfather’s allahabadi hindi.
I slipped past the commotion and went downstairs. Towards the left of the staircase there was a huge dusty door, which though shut was not locked. Slight push led to my ‘glass room’. The ballroom that held the pride of place in British social calendar had been converted into a railway file ‘godown’ with some of the mirrors cracked and everything covered in generations of dust and held a dull sheen of neglect. I ofcourse took to the mirrors and the chandelier and everything else faded away in the amber afternoon glow….Sitaram called my name (for some reason he decided to call me ‘baby’…..I wonder if I was ‘baby’ then what would be my brother….but ofcourse Sitaram rose to the occasion and christened him ‘shaheb’ which suited his plump rosy skin, red lips and curly brown hair just fine…) grabbed my hand and from his tone I figured that he was not pleased at all. He told me in no uncertain terms that I should never enter the room again and then shouted at the ‘choukidaar’ to lock the door immediately.
Night arrived soon and if you have lived in a ‘mofussil’ town you would know that human activities faded quickly along with the sun and dinner in my grandfather’s ‘bungalow’ was at 8pm and the orderlies and maids left us to ourselves by 9. Only Radha remained in the house and her sole purpose was to execute my grandfather’s many unbending principles. One of them ofcourse was to ensure that his granddaughter never saw ‘nightlife’ beyond 8.30pm. From then on, the only sounds were the creaking fan, my brother’s timely noisy demands and my mother’s and grandmother’s cooing which was aimed to quieten him and meet his input and output demands. So I was left alone with eyes wide open and my mind racing to piece together every sight and sound captured through the day. It is then that Radha took pity and broke one of my grandfather’s rules and told me a story. A story she heard from her grandmother or so she told me. A story as old as the ‘house’ itself. It was to do with my ‘glass room’. She put her calloused hand on my forehead and urged me to close my eyes and she took me through time gone by, a time when the ‘bungalow’ was not used to electricity and had real ‘engrej shaheb’s and ‘mem’s and the revelry lit up the bunglow like a jewel in the night. Her bhojpuri laced bengali forced me at times to ask her to repeat certain portions of the story and as she tried to repeat she would invariably add some colourful details that escaped me earlier. She ingeniously weaved me into her story as it meandered through folklore and reality. She caressed my hair she promised to make ringlets in the morning just like those fair ‘mem’s in her story. She told me that my stray strands of gold brown hair was good enough to make me a pucca ‘mem’ of some obsolete nobility and that my hair was God’s sign that I was meant for extraordinary things. Though my life has proved her wrong several times over but somewhere in my ordinary life I am unable to shake away her fascination for my slightly odd hair. But then for a five-year-old, left to her own means and asked to keep out of her busy family’s way, she was godsend. Somewhere in the night, the story got over and I fell asleep with dreams of my ringlets reflecting across the ‘glass room’. Predictably, in the morning, my mother would have none of my talk of getting Radha to make ringlets and told me that someday I would be thankful that I have not inherited her own dreadful curls.
The mornings passed with sundry household activities and lunch was an elaborate affair everyday. My mother was her father’s pet and looked forward to these lunches and they would discuss music and politics like every bengalee’s birthright. I would try to follow snatches of the conversation and learn that communists were not radically different from communalists and that America was the ‘neo Britain’ and would enslave us in the future. What I looked forward was the post lunch siesta when life came to a standstill on the first floor and my mother and grandmother, tired from my brother’s antics, would retired to their respective bedrooms and so did the workers to their quarters. My grandfather would be in his office downstairs and since Radha loved to sleep in the hot and humid afternoons I was by and large left on my own. My interest was the first floor balcony, with its wooden railing, that ran the entire length of the building and had a swing on the far end. The swing was broad enough for four adults to sit comfortably in pairs facing away from each other. It was low enough to allow me to climb on it and sit with my legs folded. It swung gently and even the crows considered me harmless enough to come and sit on the railing and some brave ones would even come all the way inside, a few feet away from the swing. I would watch them endlessly and grew to respect their social order. When the time came which almost always coincided with Radha’s coming to fetch me, one crow, who I assumed was the leader, would fly away and in a military fashion the rest would fly one after the other in rapid succession but never all at the same time and they always gave me a backward glance.
One exceptionally hot afternoon Radha found me asleep on the swing and when I woke up in her arms as she was carrying me inside, her dark face was drained of colour and her large usually friendly eyes were fixed with a strange expression and even her gaping mouth forgot to chew the ubiquitous ‘paan’. As she carried me inside she called loudly for my mother and grandmother and the din brought the rest from every part of the house. I ofcourse was unaware of the reason for her hitherto unforeseen behaviour, since Radha in her excited state was speaking bhojpuri fast and furious. She quickly laid me down on the bed and one of other maids gave me water to drink and another fanned my forehead. Suddenly like the ‘mem’ in my dream I became the center of attention with my mother holding my hand and caressing my forehead and everybody staring anxiously at my face and stealing glances at my hair. My attempts to know what had transpired were met with stiff resistance and I was told never to ask such questions ever again and my grandmother hugged me and made me promise I would never go to the balcony and specially the swing alone again. Years later, I heard from my grandmother the incident that led to the ‘unhooking’ of the swing.
Radha as usual had come to take me inside. What she saw was me asleep on the swing and swinging with abnormal force with no apparent breeze in the stiflingly hot afternoon. According to Radha, she even looked up at the trees, that surrounded the compound, to check whether the leaves and branches felt any breeze. But no it was not breeze that swung the swing that afternoon. Then when she looked at my face she saw my hair had turned into ringlets. Acting swiftly, she picked me up from the swing, which was not easy since the swing continued to swing despite her attempts to stop it. It swung gentle enough for me to lie on it without rolling off but the force was strong enough to make it difficult for her to pick me up from it without hurting her or me.
Come evening, the entire incident, with certain obvious embellishments was narrated to my grandfather. Thankfully, my grandfather, like his principles, had several believes and ‘supernatural’ was not one of them. He dismissed the idea and sat me down on his lap and told me the story of Joan of Arc (and that she was born in January as well) while he sipped his perfected-after-several-trials tea. But in my grandfather’s absence, my grandmother ofcourse instructed everyone to never leave me out of sight.
After that incident many advised my grandfather to shift residence and the railway authorities had sanctioned another slightly less grand premises for his residence but he insisted that there was nothing wrong and stayed on until his own health deteriorated rapidly with a mysterious, what then looked like a skin allergy, from which he never recovered and passed away in a Calcutta hospital a couple of months after our visit to his ‘bungalow’.
I of course never felt any different except for developing a slight dislike for curly hair.