The Myth of Underground Chamber in Gaiety Theater and the Woman with a Golden Heart!
I feel I was a born a vagabond…all the time on a run…to know more and more. There must be something very wrong in me. Even today when I am almost Sixty-four, I feel like hopping in any bus and to go wherever it may take me! Come By and my wandering self becomes restless, Amma wa so right about me. Amma would call me “Rakaat” as I would run around a lot…all around Simla wherever my tiny feet and slim long legs could take me to. Those days there was nothing to be afraid of in Simla, though Amma would always scare me with the stories of Jhola wale baba who might put the lonely kids, moving alone, in their big jhola, but I could not be scared by those baba logs even. When I would be tired of weaving stories about the Lower Bazaar, my little mind would feel like running to more open space in and around Simla.
I would love to go towards the east side of Simla, till Naaz to see the balloons and other such distractions that I loved so much. And sometimes, if I could muster enough courage to cross the Combermere bridge, till Bindra Studio. The black and white photos of the Raj period, especially of the memsaabs would enchant me to the famous showwindow of the Bindra studio, displaying large life size pictures of English gentry. Though I hated the English men for the stories I had heard about their misadventures in our country, I could stand there for a long time watching and seeping in all the details about the English Mem Sahibs!
Although I was afraid of crossing the Combermere bridge and would never look down, I would not even walk towards the side of the deep gorge for the fear of the unknown lurking down there. And Amma had told me such sinister things about the Combermere bridge as well. But sometimes my ardent desire to look at the pictures in the showwindow of Bindra Studio would overpower my fear and I would, bravely, cross the dreaded Combermere bridge.
Once I thought of hopping till Bindra studio and watching the photos that enchanted me so much. That day the sky was overcast with dark clouds. I was suddenly scared, scared of so many things. I was so afraid of this gorge and the building on one side on the steep slope, balancing on God-knows-what, that housed so many small houses with so many people living therein. The small narrow verandah outside those houses seemed to recline towards the gorge and I would be afraid that one day when the sky would be covered with deep dark clouds, thundering souls from the sky would accompany a tremendous hailstorm, and the entire building would tumble like a house of cards in the Comberemenr gorge! While crossing the bridge towards Bindra Studio, I was assailed by such thoughts and half closing my eyes, not to look at the gorge, sped past very fast across the bridge. But when I half closed my eyes, the thunderstorm and hailstorm brought another sinister memory to my mind…and it was a ghastly story that my Amma would tell me to homebound her “Rakaat“ daughter. She knew well that I could not be stopped by mere “Dos” and “Don’ts” which other kids listened to but she could stop me giving a reference point through anecdotes, the so-called, real tales, which my fertile brain would weave more stories around and perhaps be tamed. “Don’t move alone when there is darkness around,” she would warn me with a concerned voice, “especially when it is raining heavily”, and with almost whispering said to me, “they carry young kids and kill them.” My curiosity was aroused..”who”? I asked. “The Angrez”, with a quiver in her voice she continued, “would carry young kids to the secret chamber,” shivering a little, she said, “to extract a white liquid from the brain of the little kids.” I moved a little closer to her as I was really afraid. “How would they get the white material out of the brains?” I asked. “First by shaving the head of the little child and then by hanging the kid upside down with a hole in her head!” It was really scary! I thought of my plaits which Amma did everyday so tightly to grow my hair. She held me close to her breast as if she really believed that someone would take her daughter away from her. When the emotional reaction was over, my rational self asked incredulously, “But Angrez log have long gone away!” Amma could understand that more input was needed to stop her wayward daughter from roaming around Simla unescorted, so she said in a matter-of-fact manner, “there might be people like Angrez, the cruel ones near us.” Still not satisfied with her philosophical answer, I again put forward my argument,”But where would they do it?” And she replied, “under the Gaiety theatre building…where they have built secret chambers!” I was surprised. I loved the building, the Gaiety theater…could it have secret underground chambers down inside the earth. But I asked again, “How do you know about it?” And she told the story as she had heard. “One of the little boys whose head was shaved and he was about to be hanged upside down with a hole in his head cried a lot…and an Angrez Memsaab taking pity on the small child let him free and he told all this to others. “And after that everyone was careful not to allow the small kids to roam around, alone” and especially, “during hailstorms!”
Clearing my little head of all these stray thoughts, I came back to the bridge and crossed it hurriedly as I had to look at the photo of Angrez Memsaabs at the Bindra studio. Once there, I stood watching all the photos and thought hard about the story that Amma told me about. I started guessing who amongst all the pictures would be those cruel men doing such a bad thing to a child. I looked at a picture of one moustached man, with a stick in his hand, and ascribed all bad deeds to him. Moving my eyes a little away I looked at the photos of the Mem Saabs. I stood smitten by the calm and pretty face of one particular woman that I loved the best of them. Her face was so beautiful and serene, with eyes cast downwards, halfopen, and a faint smile on her lips….Soft silky curls from her scalp were gently covering her forehead… A Look at her scalp and I thought that perhaps she is the woman, the Angrez Memsaab who has rescued the small boy from being hanged upside down with a hole in his scalp! And the more I looked at her, the more convinced I was that she was that woman. I was no longer afraid of Angrez Log, of the secret hidden chamber underground Gaiety theater or the present day Angrez-like-people around me…searching for prey if there are enough women with gentle love in their heart for all kids. I would be so assured of the goodness by the mere glance of that woman’s face. I don’t know about the origin of such a narrative that did rounds in hush-hush tones in all the households to tame young kids from wandering alone, unescorted; but whatever it was, it had the silver lining to the cloud…the woman with a golden locks of hair and also a golden heart inside!