Spongy Gadde of Snowdon Hospital in Simla of the Sixties
Shimla for me stands for, among other things, old buildings that seem to carry a story in each of its nooks and corners. 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 mind of people associated with Simla.
Even today, when I walk past the once known Snowdown Hospital which has been renamed as Indira Gandhi Hospital, I dream of the old building reminding me of the several commanders-in-chief of the British Indian Army, including Lord Kitchener, who stayed in this building.
And I, too, wanted to be born in the Snowdon hospital but as I said earlier Amma walked home that fateful day. I was born in the dark and small house of Lower Bazaar. As I grew up listening to these tit-bits of information, my lament for not having been born in the big hospital went on increasing.
Paulo Cohelo has rightly said, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” And I wanted to have the feel of “sponge wale gadde” on the beds of the Snowdon hospital. So I had a fall….or truelly speaking I w jumped from the window of the house on the upper floor of Himachal Binding Press on those very Nathu Halwai stairs to the Mall. With a fractured pelvic girdle, hospitalized in the Snowdon hospital, I had my experience of lying on “sponge wale gadde” for two long months. It was God’s way to deny me the pleasure of jumping on those mattresses with my fractured leg tied in a plaster. What a pity it was….but I had to pay for my misadventures as my poor Amma had to sleep on a makeover bed made of stools assembled from the ward. The only beauty I could enjoy was the Sunrays peeping in which, I am sure, now have not much space to enter the intricate and modern building.
The old 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 movements, a source of worry to her, were restricted now. And back at home, I would be put at the small window of our home wherefrom I would watch people and weave stories about them and lamenting the loss of freedom to run up and down the stairs. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise which I would write in my next post.