Shimla for me stands for, among other things, old buildings that seem to carry a story in each of its nooks and corners. You name a building and a story associated with it would be relayed to you by some one having some association with that part of the town. And these stories are deeply engraved in my mind. Today, when I walk past the once known Snowdown Hospital which has been renamed as Indira Gandhi Hospital, I am reminded of the several commanders-in-chief of the British Indian Army, including Lord Kitchener, who stayed in this building. The new Hospital building might have added a number of things so far the facility is concerned but has definitely taken away the charm and magic of the old building.
It was such a beautiful building. I remember it as it was a place where I lived for almost two months during my childhood when I had fractured my pelvic girdle! The building comprised of two parts—one the main building that housed the in-patient wards, the end of it being the children ward that had small beds and my Maa would sleep, during the nights, on a bed made of stools held together and the other part had a canteen as well as the mess. It also had the testing and diagnostic center. I think that this part housed the servant quarters of the British commanders-in-chief.
The beauty of the building was enhanced manifold by the direct sun that illuminated and warmed it during the days and it soothed the visitors as walking past the Water supply tanks always made everyone shiver with cold. It was a spot where the snow would not melt even with the advent of the summer. The flowers that bloomed around the beautifully kept flower beds were a sight to behold.
But come night and everything would suddenly become awry. The ghost stories that related to a beautiful nurse who would come and give medicine to the patient if the duty nurse dozed off, made me wonder and question whether the nurse who came on call was the real one or the ghost? And I would wonder how to differentiate between the two or even more? Don’t they all look alike in their white uniform? Their uniform was another thing that needs to be mentioned. Stark white starched skirt—tight and shaped with white nylon leggings and not to forget sandals making tip-top sound on the wooden flooring of the hospital. I was afraid of all beings in white as I had heard that ghosts too wear white especially a ghost nurse! How afraid I was of a nurse in white with a syringe in hands ready to inject something in my veins, that would make me a ghost very soon, was a constant fear I lived with during my stay in the Snowdown hospital.
A feeling of pure dread would submerge my being on watching the nurses on duty even during the day time. Who could stop a ghost nurse from joining them during the day duty, was my constant worry. An old uncle used to tell us the story about the regal past of the building when all Indians walking past the official abode of the chief of the British Army, would have to bow his head to show his respect towards the English masters. This would bring in me a strong sense of abhorrence for the British. But I wondered who would be watching the people walking past all the time and the uncle would tell us about the guards on duty all 24 hours of the day to march past the gates of the building. The guards who looked ferocious enough with a countenance matched along with the imposing uniform of the Army guards. And my little mind would start believing that many of those very guards have now turned into ghosts taking the form of nurses to keep watch over the people having negative thoughts about British masters.
Drenched in cold sweat, I would look for my mother who would be sleeping in a bed made from all the stools put together to give a semblance of a bed. Bone tired of the household work and numerous walks to the hospital, she would be peacefully immersed in sleep. As I didn’t want to wake her up from her hard earned sleep, but unable to sleep myself, I would keep a vigilant eye throughout the night for any ghost nurse that may come to the children ward. Amma had told me to recite “Om Namoh Shivaya” during such a time and I would recite it with a fervour that I lack today.
But in spite of the feeling of reassurance generated by the reciting of Mantra, I would be wondering if something happens and I would have to take care of myself, how would I run away as one of my leg lay hanging upward, tied to a rod, with a weight of plaster and God knows what else!
How I wanted to go home where I would be safe and secure with my Bauji to take care of me, was the feeling that constantly gnawed me. And the day I was relieved from the hospital was the day I remember being very happy. My leg was still plastered but at least it gave Amma some relaxed moments as my movement, a source of worry to her, were restricted now.
But the uncontrollable source of my energy had to be channelised in some manner as I was becoming restless because of a check on my physical movements. Bauji would recite stories to me fro the Puranas, the Mahabharata. He brought a series of booklets about the Rajput warriors and beautiful Rajput queens and princesses. I was take nto a world of bravry and valour and my mind that was filled with abhhorence for the British would find the escape in learning about our glorious past. I would lament, though, where had all those men and women vanished and where was legacy that they were supposed to leave for us, the Rajputs!
As I wanted to learn more and more about such stories that made me feel confident about the inherent courage that lay deep inside us, I wanted to learn to read. As otherwise I had to wait for the evening for Bauji to come home and then read the stories to me. Though Amma would be doing her job of reading in between but so busy she would be with the household work and looking after two small daughters that it seemed a crime to pester her for more that she could afford.
So it was a time when all my energy was focused on learning alphabets and numbers and this newfound joy in this activity made me explore the world of unknown and I realized that it is the “word” that would make many new things known to me. The stories that I loved to hear from anyone I could catch hold of, would now be available from the printed sources and this revelation made me go for learning like a passionate student.
And this quest for learning has stood the test of time and has become a companion for life just like the old memories that lie dormant in some corner of my being as come up on slight provocation.
Thankyou Snowdown Hospital for not only healing me of a physical ailment but also for being instrumental in my mental development as well. A blessing in disguise, I call this “fractured pelvic girdle” to be!