Stitching, sensuality and middleclass sensibility…in Simla of the Sixties

Stitching, sensuality and middleclass sensibility…in Simla of the Sixties

Stitching didn’t require any special training for the women folk of my humble mohalla. Every home had an ever faithful Sewing Machine….a part of dowry of every single matron! Amma had her Usha Sewing Machine…others had Shan, Ritu…or so many others. What’s in a name; sewing machine called by any other name would do the same work. Stitching clothes was a normal occurrence. All it needed was some cloth, a thread, a pair of scissors, a measuring tape and the sewing machine!

Though all our dresses were stitched by Amma but sometimes Amma, too, would like to pamper herself and got some of her ‘Bahar wale’ suites stitched by a Massi living in Laddakhi mohalla. It would be a very exciting day for me when we had to go to Laddakhi mohalla. The entire path from Lower Bazaar to Laddakhi mohalla opened up new  experiences for me.

Sometimes we would go from Ganj Bazaar to the Cart Road towards near to the Ghoda Hospital or sometimes walk down the stairs from the Purusharthi mohalla….all the way down to the Cart road. The only problem that Amma would feel was about a “Desi Sharaab ka Thekka” at the path going  from Cart Road to the Laddakhi Mohalla had. If there would be some customers standing there we would walk on the Cart Road towards the Bus stand and take another way to the Mohalla through houses of the residents. I learnt that men at the “Sharaab ka Thekka” were to be avoided.   
“Why?” We never asked!

Once in the house of the Darjan massi…we would.  feel safe. She would take measurement of Amma for her kameez- salwar and then very swiftly write it down in a diary which had many measurements scribbled on the pages.
There would be stacks of cloths, in vivid hues and shades, neatly kept in one corner. And there would be shredding of leftover pieces lying in and around her sewing machine. I would be watching and waiting for her permission to take a few…. These would be Terylene and Rayon and Tissue cloth pieces…making a rustling sound when rubbed against each other and sparkles of light would emerge, seen only in the dark rooms!

I loved florescent pink, yellow and green Terylene cloth and wanted to have a Frock of that material but Bauji would not allow for it. Those days kerosene stoves were much in use and these cloths caught fire, so Bauji was deadly against those. Even Amma could never get one. She could have glazed cottons, poplins, crepes,  Chenille and taffeta but never the much dreaded Terylene one! And whenever I would hear about someone dying in stove bursting accident and how the Terylene cloth stuck to the body…. I  would be so relieved that Amma didn’t get Terylene suit.
We would leave the cloth to be stitched and walk back to our home.  I would take as many “Leers” as I could for my doll. Perhaps it was a good riddance for Darjin Massi as she had to dispose of all those in some other way.

I wondered why Amma had to walk to Laddakhi mohalla taking all the trouble of crossing the wine shop… Why didn’t she go to some other tailor shop which were so abundant in the Lower Bazaar and Middle Bazaar? I learnt it eavesdropping on gossiping women of the mohalla when they heartily talked without inhibition when men folks were away to work!

Many other women of our neighborhood would have their fine suits stitched by a tailor but it would preferably be a woman tailor. If somehow, sometimes, someone would go to a man tailor….all those Massis of my mohalla would be so inquisitive to find out how closely the tailor put his inch-tape to take the measurement of the upper part of a woman’s body….the word used was “Chhaati” a neutral word for chest of a man or a woman!! And all those Massis would giggle in a mischievous way if someone said, “Minjo badi sharm aayee!”

I grew up learning that there was something to be ashamed  of having a grown bust and to have a tailor master take your measurement was almost sacrilegious.
But then all the tailoring shops on the posh Mall, the humble Lower and Middle Bazaar had men as tailor masters. Not only this, all these shops, very proudly, displayed at a prominent place, a number of blouses hung one over the other in a way that displayed the upper portions to full glaze of everyone!  Some were sleeveless, some with deep plunging necklines and almost a strap at the back!!!

I would wonder how do they stitch these blouses to give such a bust-like shape to a soft Rubia material or do they stuff the blouses with something to give it this full appearance? Apart from that I would wonder about the bodies, with utmost feminine grace, which would adorn those blouses! And the how’s of the measurements taken for stitching those!!!

As almost all the tailoring shops were small with so many tailors sitting inside a small space, there would be little space inside the shop for the tailor master to take measurement for a stitching assignment.

And watching women who stood there putting there dupattas on one side and the tailor master taking the measurement would make me remember all those giggles of those Massis in the humble mohalla of Lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties! I would think…”These are the women going to the Greenroom, the Davicoes, the winter carnivals and the beauty pageants….wearing those blouses with matching chiffons, georgette or silk sarees….soft and satiny to touch!!!

Growing up in this way where one would become conscious of ones body …not even our own body but that of other’s as well…we, the kids of Lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties developed our own concerns regarding sensuality and sexuality.  When on one hand I would be finding nothing unusual in women of my humble neighbourhood avoiding a tailor master as he happened to be a man….on the other hand a few stairs up…the Mall opened up the vistas of a free and open world. ….a dream world!

The black and white photographs of beauty pageants, the photographs of carnival, the dancing couples in the Davicoes that we only could imagine of, if we could peep from the gaps in the curtains….. But this world of sensuality opened up an image of a world…different yet exciting…..that we, the kids of Lower Bazaar, dreamed of and attained,!!!

We were not a part of this world but there was nothing to stop us from accessing that world… If only one wanted to….one day!!! That was the beauty of growing up in the narrow lanes of Lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties…..for a dreamy eyed girl!!!

C for Car….C for Chaura Maidan and C for Clock….life in Simla of the Sixties

C for Car….C for Chaura Maidan

C for Car….C for Chaura Maidan and C for Clock….life in Simla of the Sixties

Simla is a Walker’s paradise. Everyone must walk…some, the so-called-elites, stroll on the Mall as a ritual  and stroll is a leisurely walk for the Mall and others walk because they have to, runing for banal everyday errands. I belonged to the second category but when I came of age…I, too, learnt strolling or Malling!!!

I waivered between both the categories… …walking because I loved it and strolling when I had to act like a lady! And between these two was snother option…. enjoying a ride in a car like a real sophisticated lady!! But when even a bus ride was a once a year ritual and train ride a dream….a pleasure ride in a car was blasphemous to even dream of for us!!!

Cars, as such,  were a privileged breed in Simla of the Sixties and people owning or enjoying a ride in a car were all the more rarer. But dreaming of a car ride, especially for us,  ….the Lower Bazaar kids, was dreaming of unattainable!!

I used to look at cars plying on the Cart road when I happened to go to the Coal companies or sometimes to Laddakhi mohalla. Rather it would a day of exciting outing for me as I could see many vehicles on the Cart road! Or sometimes when I went to Ripon Hospital or the Bus stand I would ogle at cars. From some strategic points I could see cars plying on the Cart road  near to the High court and these looked so  wonderful! As my kindly sojourns were not permitted beyond Lower Bazaar and the Mall I would be so excited to look at a car anywhere.   Only the Governor’s car with the national insignia would ply on the Mall road and that, too, once in a blue moon…else I was happy watching the red coloured fire brigade vehicle or the ambulance with a big red cross at the backside or the humble Dak gaadi plying on the Mall. No other vehicle was allowed on the Mall.

But we enjoyed watching cars in movies which were telecast by the Sound and Drama division in different localities. I remember the scene from Dil Ek Mandir where Rajendra Kumar and Meena Kumari ride a big white open roof car and sing a romantic duet…. how ecstatic I felt not because of the romance in the air but the white big open roofed car!!! The scene stayed in my memory because of that car!

So when we got to live in a big house, the first floor of Chaura Maidan Post-office building….more than the big house it was the plying of cars on the road that made up for the loss of maddening  humdum of Lower Bazaar in  my life. I could watch cars from the windows of the house. But by this time I had lost my interest in cars though the feeling that owning a car was beyond my wildest imagination and dreams, was still strong and firm.

But my brothers were barely 7 or 8 years old  and it was their love for cars that was much obvious. The open space near the Post-office building, on the left hand side of the road to Ava Lodge always would have a car or two parked there. Some official vehicle it was! An official vehicle, during those times, used to be a very prestigious one!! Especially if it had the red beacon….on a white ambassador!

This place became the most favourite playing space for my brothers as they got an opportunity to get a view of a car from such close quarters as well.  Bauji would not allow them to go near to the car as he always thought it unethical to even remotely touch someone else’s car. And this was an official vehicle! Ambassador car!
Once he scolded both Bittu and Palu, my brothers, for playing cricket near the car.  And even said, “Get your own car if you can!” I knew that owning a car was not within their dreams as well and getting an official vehicle was much beyond their imagination. He was harsh to them but perhaps that was the only way he could keep them away from the car. And Bittu Palu would stay away from the car but would take a ride in the Mail vehicle sometimes….

Many years later….it was 2009 or 2010 when I was at Advanced Studies Simla and had a house of my own in Curzon Cottage near Boileaguegunj. Bittu had become D.S.P. and had come to Simla. He was staying with me that evening. We were so near to Chaya Maidan and missed the good old dsys. We talked a lot about some incidents happy or not-so-happt and then sat silent, each immersed in one’s own thoughts!! It has been about twenty years that Bauji had left us. We were staying so close to Chaura Maidan and all those memories were overwhelming us both. I was thinking of how worried he must have been when I was doing so bad in studies!! My brother say deeply immersed in some thoughts.  Suddenly Bittu said,  “Didi…let’s go out for a while!”
I was surprised but both of us went down to Boileaguegunj. Bittu moved towards his official vehicle and said, “Come, let’s have a ride!” Without saying a word, I sat inside. He drove silently and stopped at Chaura Maidan Post-office! Looking at the first floor which, once upon a time, in early Seventies, had been our home, he said, ,” How I wish Bauji would have been here…with us!” His voice choked and I said, “He is there…up there, watching us!” I thought of him watching me from behind the clouds when I walked everyday to my Study in the Advanced Studies and today he must have been watching us from up above and blessing us!!!

I thought of the early Seventies when I flunked my Chemistry paper when Bauji was dreaming of his daughter becoming a doctor. I thought of his admiration for the elderly lady, a Fellow at Advanced Studies, while talking about her and his wistful look at me!!!

Bittu must be thinking of his own struggles at competitive exams and Bauji leaving the world before seeing him succeed!!! We both stood still, the clock on the green walls of the Post-office was making a Tik-tok sound…the same clock…the click that ran our life long back. The clock that had seen our failures….the clock that saw us laugh and cry when I gazed at the world standing hidden behind it.  It seemed to say….Cheer up….you have done well…

I thought of so many things….the mixed feelings of what could have been but didn’t happen made me sad but what happened later  made me happy as well. Some cherished dreams…a few wishes….a little unspoken feelings….are all that we want our parents to see us achieve but only when they are gone!!! 

Life at the periphery… Growing up in the lanes of Lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties

Life at the periphery… Growing up in the lanes of Lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties

Simla, it was believed, was an “English production designed by Sahibs for the Sahibs, without reference to any other consideration…not even Maharajahs.” Where even the Maharajas didn’t count how would the children of the lesser mortal stand a chance of taking any part in “English production” called Simla.

Was it not correct, in this context, for Kipling to describe Lower Bazaar as a “rabbits-warren at an angle of forty-five”!!! And this epithet for the lower Bazaar stayed ever since in the memory of everyone connected with Simla.  Not even in the memory of anyone who had the least idea about life in the Lower Bazaar but honestly speaking….I, too, though t the same when I became conscious of the big living quarters of some of my friends!! The description “rabbits-warren at an angle of forty-five”  found its way in the official document of the Raj period, the guidebooks and all other descriptions where the Lower Bazaar had to be referred to.

No one thought of knowing anything beyond what was popularized through all this “description” of the native quarters.

But the truth must be told about the loving community of people who lived in these narrow lanes of the Lower Bazaar. I can look back and reflect with love, longing and gratitude of a life lived in these lanes amongst people where love came unasked, care and compassion were extended to one and all….

Amma was heavy with a baby….a son that she so much craved for…Shiva had been merciful and had listened to Bauji’s prayers… We, the daughters of the home, were ecstatic waiting for a Murphy baby calendar like Chhota bhaiyya in our home!!!

And finally, in March, 1965, Bittu was born….this name was a very popular one at that time and we loved to name the new born baby Bittu!! But he soon fell ill….jaundice… Amma was frantic. Bauji was much worried and we were perplexed! Bittu was born after nine years after my birth, and a baby boy, so he was a very precious child! Doctors, Vaids, Hakeems and Pandits…all were consulted! Bauji went all the way to Totu to a soothsayer who would predict whether the house we lived in was good or was shadowed by some misfortune!! And he told Bauji that the house needed to be cleansed of some bad influence and the baby boy needed to be shifted to some other place till a Yajna was performed in the house.

And the Lower Bazaar homes, in our humble neighborhood, the so called “rabbits-warren at an angle of forty-five” came up with all possible solutions. Leela Bhenji, our immediate neighbor, offered one room, which had entrance from outside, as a makeshift place to live for Amma with her newborn baby!!

What magnanimity the residents of our loving neighborhood displayed. Amma shifted to a room in Leela Bhenji’s home along with the infant son cuddled to her bosom. It was just not that Amma had shifted….we, too, would be all the day there with Amma. The midwife would come to massage Amma and so would the elderly women of the neighborhood!

Being much greedy I would wait for the mohalla Massis to come with a lota full of thickened milk, simmered for hours on low heat….turning creamy in colour and texture! The softened dry fruits with the desiccated coconut would make it better tasting than Nathu Halwai Barfi that I so loved! I would wait for them to depart giving a lot many directions to Amma….and would put my finger in the lota, lick it to taste the Rabri like feel of the milk.

The room would be kept warm… and it had become a home to us. Meanwhile at our home…the yajna would go on…cleansing it of any negative influence. The crux of the story is that I never thought of much at that point in time of the magnanimous offer made by Leela Bhenji’s family. I never thought of the inconvenience that the entire family must have gone through. I always thought that their house was big. But later on when I would visit their home and would look at that small room in that house, I would be wonder how could anyone offer a room to your next door neighbor for around a month!!!  Isn’t it what love, compassion and empathy is all about! These were the terms which we had not listened to when we were small….leave alone knowing the spellings of these words except “Love”! But these were the terms that we experienced in those small houses in the narrow lanes of Lower Bazaar Simla in the Sixties!!

So, when I read about Rudyard Kiplings to describe Lower Bazaar as a “rabbits-warren at an angle of forty-five”…. and the Angrez log to smirk at the natives living a wretched life in those cubbyholes….I thought of the love, compassion and benevolence that ran freely in those narrow lanes!! What a life it had been but I am appreciating it more being much distant in time and space while decrying and despising it much when I was immersed in shallowness of pretensions and snobbery of young age!!

Tired feet, hot water and humble Chalaa….Simla in the Sixties

Tired feet, hot water and humble Chalaa….Simla in the Sixties

I am wavering between two extremes….these days….both poles apart!! The bathroom fittings are at final stage and we seek our kid’s suggestion regarding what else they want in the bathrooms!! Perhaps no one….not even I thought about. “What do I want?” This house would be a home to me, rather is a home to me right now but my mind travel backs to the small “home” in the lanes of Lower Bazaar in Simla of the Sixties!!! And the real life in that beautiful cozy home!

Amma would make us soak our feet in hot water….every single night, before going to bed. She would say, “You are on your toes for whole of the day. ..and your feet sure are tired!” and would make a wry face adding, “and stinking!”

There used to be a humble Chala…a rectangular place  with an outlet and a raised boundary to sit upon. Amma would clean utensils here and would swipe it clean with the short and sharp bristles if the broom, kept in one corner of the Chalaa.  This was the place I would put the chilamchi on, put a lota or two of hot water from the Tarmehra resting on the simmering heat of Angithee, gradually pouring more of hot water on my soaked and relaxing feet.
Amma would say, “Take jhamva, the pumice stone, and scrub the heels hard!” I would, sometimes, scrub my feet in the rough cemented floor if the Chala and the soles of my feet would be new like a baby’s!!! I would rub my feet on the bori, the jute sack, kept near the chalaa and jump to the safe haven of area around Angithee!!
Amma would ask us to dry our feet putting them before the Angithee and then rub a little of Kaura tel…just a little….so that the bedding didn’t get a smear of Kaura tel!!  What a relief it would be!

These days I walk all the day….going up and down nineteen stairs…from kitchen to the first floor and my feet are tired by the evening. There are geysers in the bathroom but no space to sit on a Patda, the wooden one, and soak my feet in hot water…or to rub the soles against the rough concrete acting like a pumice stone!! The antiskid floor tiles are no good as compared to the much used and rugged concrete of my dear Chalaa! And no jute sack to rub dry my feet before putting on my house slippers!! And then the constant fear of leaving water drops on shining marble stone and to slip on that breaking my old bones stops me from as far as trying soaking my feet in hot water!!!

I simply rub them clean on the soft rug under my bed and try to give rest to my body, soul and of course my feet!!! But mind waders off to much distant past!!

But luckily we have put rugged and uneven slates on the open courtyard and the verandah opposite to it is at right height to sit and rub my feet on the slated courtyard. So whenever in the evening, I have time, I sit on the verandah, dangling my feet down and washing them in cold water….rubbing them hard against the rough endings..drying them….and then putting in my house shoes!! I don’t dare to apply Kaura Tel lest the marble would soak it and would be so difficult to clean the smear! There is no rough bori to rub the feet on to clean them of any moisture!!

And then my kids call and ask me, “isn’t the new bathroom so comfortable!!!!” Like all generation Z kids they believe that bathrooms need to be theist relaxing space in the house! I agree with then as I think of the humble Chala with a little raised platform to accommodate soap, Jhamva, lota etc. and a humbler bori down on the floor to rub dry the feet….and the dying heat of the Angithee to warm my feet before hopping in the bed…till next morning when my feet would be ready and excited to jump up and down the stairs from Lower Bazaar to the Mall….without an iota of tiredness!!! All thanks to hot water in a tasla, a Chala and the Angithee!!!! And then we say that we have come a long way!!! My kids ask me, “What else do you require in the bathroom….” I quietly say ..nothing! 

Tatta pani….what splendid childhood I have had in Simla of the Sixties

“We are all connected to everyone and everything in the
Therefore, everything one does as an individual affects
the whole.
All thoughts, words, images, prayers, blessings, and deeds
are listened to by all that is.”
– Serge Kahili King

Looking back I am so grateful to Life for being so good to me… and whatever I experienced, it seems, looking back, could never have been any any better!! Though at that point of time, I rued it…felt miserable and much less privileged than many others I, foolishly, compared my life with! But looking back with nostalgia…..nothing could have been any better.
Amma was exasperated। We would pester her to take us anywhere during winter holidays but she had my kid brothers to take care of and wanted us to stay st Simla only. And I wanted to fly away only of I could. But where to go?
One of Amma’s distant cousin was manger at Oldage home at Basantpur. This Mama ji used to come to our home whenever he had any official work at Simla and stay with us. He had no kids of his own and lived at the old-age home along with his wife. It was, by chance, at this time when he visited Simla and I cried, wIlef, beseeching him to take me to Basantpur with him. To cut the story short we were packed and sent with Mama ji to Basantpur. As he lived in the accommodation on one side of the old-age home and had his office in the same building….it was a treasure house of information collection for me. All oldies were having separate rooms, a common kitchen with a cook and come caretakers….I would roam from one oldie to another talking to them all the time. In the office of Mama ji was small copies, each having detailed description about all available information about the old men and women. I devoured all those written accounts about each and every old person residing therein. It was the first time that this old-age home had started and the concept that old people are left amongst strangers was something very new to me. But life was not bad there.
Mama ji was extremely religious and a staunch follower of Radhasoami sect of Beas….so mornings and evenings would have Bhajan sessions with all the inmates participating. I, too, would sit patiently waiting for the prasad which would be distributed at the end!

I was waiting for him to take us to Tatta pani as he had promised us. So one fine day we started for Tatta pani. On way we stopped at Gumma where Mama ji had a friend. And as his friend, like him, was more interested in philosophical talks, I would find little interest in it. But to compensate for it we were taken around the big pumphouse where I saw huge solid pipes…and when I was told that these carry water to Simla…I felt like getting inside one and go to my Amma!! But the magic of Tatta Pani with its hot water springs was a deterant.
We relished a cup of tea at Gumma and started for Tatta Pani. What I remember is that we walked all the way to Tatta Pani because the only memory which is deeply etched in my mind is Mama ji showing across the road towards the bank of Sutlej river and exhorting us to walk a little more. But where was the choice than to follow him. So we just went on!
Radhasoami Mama ji, as we called him, was a deeply religious and spiritual man. Perhaps being childless had made him more connected to higher realms of life than the mundane ones that ordinarily followed by most of us. He had friends amongst ascetics, gurus and anyone who would indulge in any spiritual talk. Walking on a road parallel to the river and crossing over a bridge we reached at the bank of Sutlej river. There were small tents and Mama ji escorted us to one. I was so curious to go inside the dwelling place of a Sadhu. I had never seen a Sadhu’s abode from inside….suddenly all my tiredness was gone and curiosity took over me. We sat quietly alongwith Mama ji and my eyes scrutinized every nook and corner of the small space inside. There was fire burning in the middle keeping the small but warm. While both the elders immersed in talks we went outside to explore. There were small holes dug in the sand and hit water sprang out from them. We washed our hands and feet in hot water which smelt like eggs to me. It had sulphur in it, I was told later on, something very good for skin problems.
When we went back to the small hut….we were offered another glass of tea. That Sadhu had just one bowl which served him for cooking, making tea or khichidi or dalia etc… an all purpose utensil!!!!

While the baba and Mama ji were having their own little talk we were collecting beautiful round stones in the sand….the very next stone I would get ….would outsmart the earlier ones!!! Each was a small Shivalingam for me….some with two or three stripes like the holy thread around them!!

But by this time we were tired and wanted to have a round of the small market of Tatta Pani and then to get a bus to Basantpur. So finally walked to Tattapani market….and Mama ji bought us deep fried Pakoras for having walked so much…
And then back to Basantpur in a bus….amongst all the oldies who wanted to hear about what excitement we experienced in the small town.

As if this was not enough… Mama ji made us walk to Durgapur orphanage where we stayed for the night on our return journey to Simla. As he had some official work there…and the sweet pea pulao made by some young girls was the best that I ever had.
In the morning we got a bus for Simla getting off at Sanjauli and walking through Lakkad Bazaar to home! I remember buying a small blue coloured wooden toy truck for Bittu, my kid brother, paying five rupees….the five rupees that Mammi had put in my small palm when we took leave if her!! Though I was expecting ten rupees but Mami, very wisely, put five each in our hands…both my sister and I.
What a beautiful stay it had been….
In the year 2010, Sanjeev Sharma, one of my students, working as Director UNDP, India, during his visit to Simla, asked me to come with him to Tattapani. That was my last visit tothe town. Much had changed. I tried finding the small rounded stones in the sand but there were not any, anymore! While driving back we passed through that old age home while returning from Tattapani and in an impulse asked my friend to stop as I wanted to revisit my childhood. The rooms were good…the old people residing therein and when I entered a room, an old old woman folded her hands in Namaste…mistakenly taking me for some welfare department officer on inspection…. I hugged her as she started saying, “Sab achha hai!!!”

I wished ” Sab achha” and “Tagre Raho” for everyone as I, too, was approaching the age when one needs support and love…..but “Dil to bachha hai” especially in the group memories of Simla!!!

Nani KI Kahani…..From Simla in the Sixties to Simla of 2010

Nani KI Kahani…..From Simla in the Sixties to Simla of 2010

I was a wanderer….a child who would always be on the move….and no one ever stopped me since I would be back home in time and moreover I always, invariably, topped the class!! Amma rightly called me a “Rakaat”!!! Though she would have respite with me away on my daily sojourns but at times she would be worried too. Simla was the safest place to be…. for everyone! Amma would scare me with the stories of “Jhole wala Baba” who carries children to the distant plains…. but I would not listen to or would believe her. Simla taught us to trust everyone, love everyone and be on our own….in and around Simla….at least this is how I spent my childhood! 

But then there was a pretty horrible story doing the rounds, perhaps, to scare away us the kids. It was about some secret underground chamber, much hidden from where the Angrez log would take the kids to!!! Now this was really scary. Amma had heard the story and she would relate this to us. Even the know-all Bhenjii had shared the same story with us. What I remember about the story is that the Angrez log needed some fluid which could be extracted from the brain of a child ….a loving child…hung head down from the ceiling of dungeons of these chambers. The head of the child was shaven…a hole penetrated in his skull….and the child would die a slow and painful death while the fluid from his skull, dripping down, was collected!!  Amma would say that when it rains heavily and there is darkness surrounding whole of Simla…the young, unescorted, kids get picked up!! As per the story a very young child was caught… his head shaved off… but somehow he ran away and it was this child who told about the secret underground chambers of the Gaiety theater!!!

I don’t know whether there was any grain of truth in the story or not but when I roamed alone and if the weather turned stormy and gloomy…..I would run back as fast as my feet could carry me!!! Once I would reach the safely and security of stairs leading to any corner of Lower Bazaar…..I would heave a sigh of relief!

The story haunts me even today… especially when I sat outside the stairs to the Gaiety Theater building with my grandson Aarush when my daughters were having a hair cut in the saloon opposite to it! Once again, I was reminded of the horrors of the story….the story that would make me run away from the Gaiety theater vicinity during rainstorms!!!

But I shook my head off those horrible thoughts and reminisced about the good old days when we would walk to the Gaiety theater for participating in group song representing the cultural society of Postal department. When on the days of final rehearsals I would run around whole of the theater!  Sometimes I would sit on the gold and gilt covered box meant for the Viceroy and the Vicereine…. wherefrom they could gaze doom on all those who were present in the theater!! Sometimes would drape the deep maroon heavy curtains, with gold sashes,  around my petite body and bring out my face to look at the empty chairs of the Gaiety theater….and sometimes would run from one door to another in the background partitions, But if I had to go to the rooms at the back where the artists would get ready and it would be lonely out there with everyone in the theater….I would run back still shivering about some skeleton from the dark to pounce upon me.

But sitting on the stairs of Gaiety theater with my grandson I thought of new stories…stories of bravery, courage, faith and love, that we the Simlaites are famous for, that I would share with him!! He has to listen to a new story of heroism that Simla has witnessed in struggle for freedom, equality for women and where I dared to dream and chase my dreams!!! Sulman Rushdie has rightly said,

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, to rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.

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  • Vimla SharmaSame stories we heard in our childhood1
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  • Savita SharmaBeautifully narrated 😍1
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  • Rakhee SoodLoved every bit1
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  • Sanjay Sofraरामतेल निकलते थे ऐसा सुना था।1
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  • Ramesh KumarA horrible story to say the least . The venue was perhaps reported as dungeon below the Ridge. Many a hapless person was reportedly taken unawares for being subjected to the torture . Wish it were a fiction through and through containing not even a grain of truth. But as kids we believed this to be true .1
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  • Paramjit KaurYes it was told by my father that fluid was used to heal the wounds fast of white ( english ,angrej,gorey) warriors of world war . And yes few years ago the torture cell was unveild for public for few days.i went to see that torture chamber with my fa… See More1
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  • Vijay Bhushan SoodGood description of ur those days and most important u put ur feelings and memories so beautifully1
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  • Rashmi SobtiGot shivers while reading Saroj hi 😱1
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  • Ravi Kaushalये कहानी बचपन में मैंने भी सुनी थी। हालाँकि उतनी प्रचलित नहीं थी तब।इस विषय पे लिखूँगा रात में 😄 आपने अपने क़िस्सों के साथ मेरी भी एक याद कुरेद दी 😊❤️🙏1
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    • Jiwan KumarRavi Kaushal जी इंतजार रहेगा आपकी कुरेदी यादों का1
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    • Saroj ThakurAuthor+1Sach me intzaar rahega….subah uth ke dekhungi jaldi se!!! 🙂
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    Write a reply…
  • Surinder MohanNicely written,but this is the First time I have ever heard of this story in Giety or outside.
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  • Surinder KarolSaroj ji u r human Robot. Blessings2
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  • Mahesh Sharma1970 के दशक में मेरे बचपन के दिनो में भी बच्चों को उल्टा लटकाकर खोपड़ी से नारायण तेल निकालने की कहानी भी प्रचलित थी।1
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  • Hemendra Kumar TewariIt was a common concoction from the fake factory going on when we were children.No truth at all. But the post is interesting .

  • Vinod SharmaAn interesting write up !!!1
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  • Aditya KumariMy maid used to say they take out Ram tel from children. The same story.3
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  • Monika MakkarLovely write up ❤❤1
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  • Arvind UpretiAdmin+1What a captivating horror story . 😃But one thing I will say Ma’am , not going into the truth or false of the story , few grandma tales , hearsays have been handed down the generations without ever getting documented , and these are the forums like F… See More1
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  • Akshay Bhardwajwell well…the famous dumgeons of gaiety..n i used to think it was fiction…however when i was a young kiddu a verry old man in my village recited tha same story….n it wasnt just children he said he himself had survived the ordeal..narain tel..he s… See More2
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  • Anita MathewGreat writeup…mix of reality and fantasy woven so well.1
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  • Nandini SharmaWell true or not,I got goose bumps. Kudos to stylish narration by saroj ji.1
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  • Pamela LyallLovely read. Never heard this macabre tale but what an interesting story. Love the didactic quote from Salman Rushdie and am amazed at how you end all your little stories with such flair. BTW I looked up Combermere bridge on the web the other day an… See More2
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  • Romi MittalI was so enchanted by your write up, when I had read it first ( was it last year ?)I had to read it again..The enchantment was the same, dear dear Saroj … See More2
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    • Saroj ThakurAuthor+1Dear Romi you are right …I wrote about it earlier as well. It was Arvind’s post and the picture of my grandson with me that set the ball moving, once again!!! Hugs dear!
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      • Romi MittalSaroj that is what connecting threads is all about.Sharing and re -sharing , telling and re-telling of wonderful stories, builds bonds between like minded people. Haina ?Loads of love, dear 😍

Multi-hued sippies weaving dreams of sea in Simla of the Sixties

Multi-hued sippies weaving dreams of sea in Simla of the Sixties

It must have been early Sixties when I noticed the enigma of a life beyond our beautiful Simla.
I would dream of life away from Simla…. wide plains and beyond….a world much beyond my imagination and reach.

When someone would say that there are no mountains in plains….my imagination would fail visualising a world bereft of mountsins. It was like life without breathing the mountain air. I had never travelled beyond Solan so jow could I think of vast plains of India….full of heat and dust!

As Amma and Bauji didn’t have much of a social life, rather had none to speak of, so their small little world revolved around us…their two daughters…. Bauji would read to us stories st jome and when we would be taken for a long evening walk…he would tell simple stories that he knew of!

They wanted to give us the best they could in their own little way. Raat ka khaana would be an early affair and after that we would be taken for a long evening walk. I would wait eagerly for this walk as it would open up vistas of new worlds to me.

Sometimes Amma and Bauji would sit on the green wooden benches on the Ridge and we would be free to explore on our own the wonders that the Ridge offered. The oldtimers would remember that there used to be stairs leading to the foot of the statute of Mahatma Gandhi and we could easily walk up and down. Behind the statute was small space to play by jumping up and down to reach the water cascading from above…. this was the spot thst I loved to be at. There were sea-shells or what we called “sippy” on the wall through which water would flow down. These sea-shells, pearly in colour, would reflect so many shades of different colours….just like a rainbow! I would try to scratch a sippy from the wall to hold in my hand and then to hide in my school bag. There were few spaces in the wall from where some sippies were missing, perhaps taken away by some more enterprising kids. I could not detach a sippy from the wall but it’s memory is still fresh in my mind.

I wanted this sippy so badly….it was so creamy white to look at, smooth in touch and reflecting do many colours in the light of the bulbs and tube lights. Bauji had read to us a story from Jawahar Lal Nehru’s book “Letters to my daughter” where he had talked about the making of earth…and the sand which we found in abundance at some construction site.

While looking at those sippies I would think of parts of our big mountains flowing down with water….and turning into sand at the shores of ocean where these sippies would wash away to sandy shores. How I wished to see a sea shore….to walk in the sand and collect a lot many sippies from the sand.

We, the Pahadis, could only dream of going beyond Solan or Kalka…when journey by train was well neigh impossible gor us. But call it destiny, Providence or the quirk of nature that in mid Seventies I travelled with Bauji in sleeper coach… first ever journey by train, if I don’t count ride to Taradevi by train. And going to the Marina beach, walking barefoot on the sand….when ocean water washed my clumsy feet….and searching for Sippies in the sand!!!
How could my dreams turn into reality…. And nothing…no journey to any part of the world later on could snatch the enigma of watching the multi-hued colours of Sippy on the Ridge….searching for Sippies in the sands of Marina beach….holding hands of Bauji when waves tried to sweep off my hold on sand!!

Poster colours that filled the Canvas of my life with colours in Simla of the Sixties

Poster colours that filled the Canvas of my life with colours in Simla of the SixtiesI am surrounded with colours in all shades and hues….not just in my present surroundings, my memories of the past, the pallet and on the canvas….both the painting Canvas and the canvas of life.
These days I am indulged in painting and am surrounded with various hues and shades of colours on one hand and beautiful memories of Simla engulfing my very being on the other hand… could the relation between the two would not resurface to the fore!!!
Today when I purchase whatsoever colour catches my fancy…the brushes of finest sable hair and the canvas or the board of any dimension or material….I go back to my first “canvas”…my first set of colours…..and all the love accompanying them.
And nothing….nothing whatsoever could replace or diminish the feeling of acquiring the first set of poster colours for my first attempt at painting in Simla of the Sixties!!!It happened long back yet it is so fresh in my mind as if it happened just yesterday.
The year must have been 1967 or so. I was in sixth or seventh class. The school had decided that in order to develop some new vistas to the personality of the girls, some hobby classes should be run in the school itself. Some of the teachers had volunteered to teach whatever they were good at. There were embroidery, cooking, knitting and painting classes that the teachers had opted to take on the afternoon of Saturdays. Everyone was so happy and eager….anythibg our of the routine was a much welcome attraction for us. I, too, was much ecstatic. I had opted for painting classes. The teacher had asked us to bring a pack of Poster colours, one or two brushes and a clay plate to begin with. I bought two brushes from a stationery shop in the Lower Bazaar and went to Ram Bazaar almost tramping with joy. There was a shop deep down, in the lane opposite to the Shahi Theater that had all clay items. And buying an earthen plate was easy. Our art teacher had asked to put a layer of white base on it otherwise the pores would soak in the colour. For that I used the very fine “Golpo mitti” that Amma used to smear the Angithee with. The earthen plate, my canvas, was ready and I was armed with two cheap brushes but the problem was to buy the colours.It was the Saturday, the last Saturday of the month, perhaps. I had heard Bauji and Amma to talk about coming first day of the month….the much awaited “Pehli Tareekh” when Bauji would bring his salary home. I knew it was not the right day to ask for money. Even as a small girl, I could understand that it was not wise to ask for money from my Amma at the end of the month and buying colours always came as non-essential item, at that time. So, I had not asked Amma to give me money to buy poster colours and had walked to the school thinking that on the next Saturday I would bring the colours and that day would learn only to draw. How wise a small girl becomes when she knows and understands the situation of her family, courtesy the small houses where no secrets can be kept if you have kids with sharp ears!I went to school without colours. Perhaps the teacher, too, was not very enthusiastic to teach us painting and instead asked us to get the colours and was liberal enough to allow girls to bring it during the recess period if they lived nearby and could walk to their home and come back. To get such an opportunity during the school days was manna from the heaven…a godsend gift! As many girls opted to walk home, I, too, decided to go home during recess and get money from my Amma to buy poster colours.That fifteen minutes walk is deeply etched in my memory. Some of my school friends accompanied me to my home. It was the first time in my life that I felt under pressure. I was worried, worried that if my amma would scold me before my friends, I would be feeling so humiliated and disgraced. I was wiser for may age, you become wiser when you know that how the money comes to your home and how is it spent. There was nothing that was hidden in our home. I knew that spending money on colours at the end of the month was not wise but there was peer pressure of going home and getting money to buy colours. I prayed and prayed to gods to help me. I silently made a prayer to Kali maa to help me, to help me save my prestige. If Amma would become angry with me, scold me before my class mates, I would be so humiliated before my friends!That day the distance from my school to my home was the longest distance that I remember to have covered. When all other girls were so happily chirping and walking as if floating in air, I was just dragging myself along with. We reached the stairs leading to our home. I wished and I prayed hard for it that the bevy of girls would wait at the foot of the stairs when I go to ask my amma about money. But I was shocked when all of them walked with me to our home. I was doubly worried, one for they would see our small house and second that Amma would not only refuse to give me money but would also give a piece of her mind for being callous and self centered about catering to my whims and fancies only knowing well it was the fag end of the month!Meekly I asked her to give me some money to buy Poster colours. “How much?” she simply asked me. “Five rupees”, I replied. I knew the dam of her patience would burst open. But very gracefully and graciously she got for me five rupees and handed those to me. My small hand was moist because of the sweat, the moisture in my eyes was because of the gratitude and love I felt for my Amma. This was a communication which only the mother and the daughter were privy to, all others present were unaware of what transpired in those few seconds between two of us. Grateful and elated, I, along with all the girls, rushed down the stairs, straight to Gian Bhandar Book Depot to buy colours. Amma had filled my small fluttering heart with colours, the colours that would never fade away from my life till my last breath!Even now when I play with colours, I am playing with and reliving all the love of my Amma that I felt that day and ever in my life….while growing up learning life lessons in the narrow lanes of Lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties!!!

When Ghughu monitored Clocks, Watches and life in Simla of the Sixties

When Ghughu monitored Clocks, Watches and life in Simla of the Sixties

How simple life was in Simla of the Sixties when everyone enjoyed a laid back attitude…
There was nothing to rush about except to the office and the school, opening of shops…..and a light conversation that marked the start of the day. And above all it was the sound of Ghughu that would monitor the so called morning rush which by today’s comparison was a laid back affair.

Wrist watches, these days, are conspicuous by their absence as the life of generation X is run by smart gadgets….every gadget…be it the mobile in our hands, the laptop on our desks, the TV on our walls, notifying time! The irony is no one seems to have any time for the simple laid back life though every gadget has a clock displaying moments slipping by from our life!

But during our childhood days in early sixties….we were in love with and in awe of the gadget that notified time. The “badi sui” and the “chhoti sui” were so important for us. And so was the pendulam that would be constantly in motion, tirelessly, to move those two needles! How magical it was for us. The Sood family next door had a beautiful wall clock with brass pendulam and the digits. It would announce time by producing sound every hour….we would wait for the chimes of the musical sound it would produce and to count it to know ” Kitne baje hain!”

Today’s generation would find it hard to believe that many a times we would run to a neighbour’s house just to inquire, ” Time kya hua hai?” And would run back if we had to set time in our clock that might have stopped Tik-tokking! And the Massis would never mind it…..they would very magnanimously tell us the time looking at the clock on the shelf.
Running to a neighbourhood house to know about “Kya baja hai” was as common as running to have a katori of sugar if the sugar can was empty and you were about to prepare tea….no one was embarrassed of it!

We had a simple mechanical clock at home which had to be winded every single evening so that it might run without a break for the next 24 hours. The clock enjoyed a much respectable place on the mantle covered with white casement cover. Not to forget the flowers embroidered on the cover. Every evening, before finally calling it a day, Bauji would wind it, without fail. It would go on non stop Tick-Tock-Tick-Tock for the entire 24 hours…. Sometimes we would be allowed to wind the clock….ah…what a feat it would be. You had to know exactly when to stop winding it. There was another winding key…which was for setting alarms. We would have so much fun winding the alarm key and setting the alarm time and to listen to the shrill sound which seemed musical to us. It sounded shrill only when Amma would set the alarm for early mornings for us to get up and prepare for school examination.

The radium dial would glow in the night…the glow seemed like sparkle of diamonds to my little mind. It was such an enigma for my little mind that digits could shine so brightly in the darkness. How I wanted to rip open the clock and see for myself the enigma hidden behind the clock. Sometimes we would take this clock under the quilt and to look at the glowing digits. And we woupld open sometimes the back steel cover by disentangling the two winding keys…one for alarm, another for winding it for running smoothly and two others for setting the time and the alarm. No big deal….these simple keys ran our life.

Only Bauji had a wrist watch in the house….which would be ceremoniously put, every evening, alongwith the clock on the mantle. My sister got her first watch when she was married off….but I was lucky to have my first wrist watch when I was still in college. Those days confiscated watches were sold at the Naya Bazaar…. How excited I was when I went up three or four wooden stairs leading to Naya Bazaar where wrist watches minus the strap were sold. Mine cost only Rs. 70/ and how happy I was to have it. A strap befitting the Phoren made watch made me to have it on my slender wrists.ot is another matter that the goal was big enough to cover my thin wrist but finally I carried a gadget on my person that would help me run my life!
But nothing could take the pride of place for the simple Ghughu that we waited for every single morning. Since we lived in the Galli No. 2, quite near to the Telegraph office, the sound of Ghughu would be at its mightiest self for our ears. Everyone in the mohalla would be in a hurry waiting for the Ghughu to announce 10 O’ clock in the morning. Bauji would rush to his office before the heralding of Ghughu sound….we would be off to school…. Everyone would be speaking the same sentence, “Ghughu bajne wala hai!” The anticipation of “Ghughu bajne wala hai” would hurry up every activity in and around our mohalla. The Clocks and the watches would be set to the minute by the sound of Ghughu. This was the morning Ghughu that heralded the start of a workday in the life of everyone but come evening and the same Ghughu would connote the end of all office work for office goers, play time for us, the kids, and starting of evening meals preparation for Amma and other women of the mohalla. ” Paanch baj gaye” would mean so much, in a different manner, for everyone. The evening time for a vast majority of office goerrs would be a time to have a round or two on the Mall before going home with a jhola full of vegetables fetched from the Sabzi Mandi. But there were others, the fashionable, the elites, the whoswhoes of Simla who would wait for the religiously followed evening walk to the Mall. They went there to see and be seen. It was almost a fashion parade for them to display their clothes, hairstyle or anything which they wanted to make others envious of….of course people of their own type!!

During and after the Pakistan war in 1965….Ghughu developed a new connotation for all of us who tried to find a meaning in the variation of sound that it produced. It had lost its routine and would blare at odd hours in a dreadful manner putting all life to a halt. With abated breaths and praying hearts we would pray for another sound of Ghughu heralding the out-of-danger signal. The kids born just before the war were so afraid of the sound of Ghughu that many a mothers would scare them off by saying, “Ghughu aa jayega” and the poor kid would hide and be manipulated to behave properly.
Since we were the kids burn in the Fifties and were young enough to understand the Ghughu sound of the war time….our live for the Ghughu sound was not faltered in any way and today the mere look at the big click at the Taarghar
and the sound of Ghughu or the mere memory of its sound fills my mind with a laid back life that we enjoyed while being raised in Simla of the Sixties!!!!

Maasi, Bua and Bhenjji…..the politics of nomenclature in lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties

Maasi, Bua and Bhenjji…..the politics of nomenclature in lower Bazaar of Simla in the Sixties

What a close-knit big family it was…the whole of the neighbourhood. There were a lot many Maasis…rather every elderly woman in the neighbourhood was a massi to us, the kids. The prefixes like Patiale wali Massi, Bijli wali Massi, hotel wali Massi, Kothroo wali Massi, Rooin wali Massi were added to distinguish one massi from the another. My Amma was Dak khane wali Massi to all others in the mohalla! Still more elderly women, mothers-in-law of these “Maasis” were addressed the same way as the Massis addressed them….Bijjees, Chaaies, Mata jeees etc. There were no Aunties and uncles though we, the kids, wanted so much to call “Massis” and “massads” as Aunties and uncles. We did many a times before our sophisticated school friends but would resort to the same old way very soon!!!
How endearing and living the word “Massi’ is… If we segregate the word Maasi in two parts we come across two meaningful words…Maa and Si….like a mother. And that was what all these neighbourhood Maasis were to us. We, the kids, were raised like a community raising the children, sharing responsibility, where each elder of the mohalla had a natural right on other kids. And we, the kids, on our part were morally bound to obey and respect all the elders of the mohalla. The good old days!
Bua ji was another epithet that we used for one elderly woman, most dreaded and respected at the same time. We were as afraid of this Jagat Bua, and why would we not when even our mothers were. She was such a bulky old woman….and had her permanent seat at the window of her room facing the entry point to the mohalla. Every single moment of the day dhe would be guarding her territory like the most committed sentry on duty. As these stairs connected, through other studies, to the Mall at many points, some outdiders, too, would take this shortcut but Bua kept them all at bay… If some guests would visit any house in the entire mohalla….the poor woman of the house would owe complete explanation to Bua regarding the entire antecedents of the visitors. And God forbid if a boy would follow a girl of the mohalla through these stairs, Bua would reprimand the girl in no uncertain terms to behave herself.

Those days hand knit open cardigans called “Koti” were much in vogue, to be worn over tight shirts. And one of the girls of the mohalla came out wearing a very tight shirt with ewually tight chootidar and putting on front open cardigan over it. No dupatta! And Bua was all rage personified…telling the poor girl in no uncertain terms that the purpose of cardigan was to keep her upper body covered demurely and not to expose it for all to see!!!! Bua had, thankfully, not heard of the song ” Chunri ke peechhe kya hai?” And all of us, the young girls, on the threshold of youth, becoming aware of our growing sensuality… learnt the efficacy of demarcating a very thin line between sensuality and sexuality.
Bua had no children of her own. Whole of the mohalla was a big family for her. And even though she was shrill, direct, and rough in her remarks…her intentions were always good. But after that whenever we would try some fashionable outfit….we eoukd be wary to walk at the extreme corners to avoid hawk eyes of Bua!

Bhenjji was another one in the mohalla everyone loved and was also afraid of at the same time….it was a fear grown out of respect and regard. Bhenjji was married in a home in the Middle Bazaar but decided to move to her natal home as her father died leaving behind a young widow with two very small sons. She had to be strict to manage the whole family. Bhenjji, too, got her own child very late in her life and for her all the kids of the mohalla were like her own. I loved her a lot for so many things. And would hear stories of her childhood spent on the Nathu Halwai stairs much before we got freedom from the Raj. The stories she would tell would bewitch me…. Her father was a leading advocate of those times and the family was quite rich. I asked her once, “Why didn’t you finish school despite having all the resources?” And her reply made me sad. She told me that when she got admitted for continuing her education she was already betrothed to a handsome boy living in the Middle Bazaar. The bridegroom-to-be could not finish college….and Bua, sitting on her throne, commented in a sarcastic manner, “She would become a vakeel…when her laadoo is not even graduate!” And that put a stop to the educational aspirations of a very promising girl….
I wonder why Bhenjji would have been so hurt by these remarks….why didn’t she continue her studies? Only if the Bua had not uttered those avid comments…..only if Bhenjji would have been thick skinned… would have been different. But that is what you got in strange mix….if you are raised in a mohalla of Lower Bazaar of Simla!!!