Amma would send us on errands at all odd hours of the day and why she would not as Simla of my days would be such a place where whole of the Lower Bazaar seemed like an extended neighbourhood to us all.
I would love to tread away to anywhere at mere wish of my Amma , her wish would be a command to me, but when she would ask me to go to Pandit Ji’s home, I would be a little hesitant. Pandit Gangasagar lived in the middle bazaar just below the stairs near Beekays adjacent to the Scandal Point on the Mall. Whenever Amma would have any query regarding whether it would be Ekadashi or Sankrati the next day, she would say, “go and ask Pandit JI.” Though I loved to go to Pandit Ji’s home at any time of the day as he would always fish out from hid big Jhola some sweet for me so it was the greed that led me to his home jumping and running but going to his home during late evenings would give a shiver to my little heart. The reason was that I had to cross two alleys to reach his home and just near to the stairs leading to his home from the Lower Bazaar side, there was a dahra (accommodation) for the Khans. As Amma had instilled a fear in my heart that the Khan would pack me inside his big Pheran, I was so afraid of coming across a Khan during late evening hours.
I would be in a dilemma. On one hand the eateries that awaited me at Pandit JI’s home would be a great temptation and on the other hand the similar big pheran of a Khan would be a great detrimental! But greedy as I was, I my salivary glands would win over my adrenaline secretions and chanting Om Namah Shivah vigorously I would rush past the dahra of the Khans. I never treated them close enough to talk to them. Neither did any of the Khans living in a nearby neighbourhood made any attempt to befriend anyone. They were different. I would watch many of them lying in a room that was their night shelter. Many would be sitting outside to have some fresh air as the number of Khans that lived in that small room would not leave any space even for some air! Some enterprising among them would have a transistor and listen to filmy songs on Vividh Bharti. Some would be washing their utensils after having taken their meals. The utensils would be a big copper plate and a big copper bowl. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of very big Chapatis cooked on firewood chulha and some liquid curry in the bowl. I would wonder how many chapatis would a khan eat. The number would be exaggerated all the time when we discussed the same at school.
I would wonder who cooks the food for them when all of them go during the day for the labor work. Pandit JI, the nearest neighbor to the Khans would be our source of information. It would be a wonderful sight to see Pandit Ji in his Dhoti and Janeu, complete with a tilak on forehead, standing at his door and talking intimately to the Khan standing at the door of his dahara. So most of my information about the Khans would come via Pandit Ji. Like all Pandits, he too, loved to talk and talk and found in me a good listener! He would say that these Khans take turns to stay at home and cook. Cooking for such a big number of persons with a very heavy appetite must not have been an easy job.
And sometimes during day time I would watch the Khans on cooking duty busy in preparing the vegetable, The aroma of the cooked vegetable would be no different from the one that emanated from my Amma’s kitchen and I would wonder why would they take me in a back pack if I would be naughty and troublesome to my Amma. I would sometimes watch the by-turn-caretaker to mend clothes with needle in his hand and I would look at his big rough hands, so big that needle would just not suit them! Sometime he would sing in alien language some song while mending his old and torn away clothes. Music does not need any language and the very tone of the song would make me feel close to the Khan. At such a moment, my feminine curiosity and compassion would overtake all the feeling of fear and I would make some small talk about their women folks, who, I was told, live back at home in Kashmir! Pandit Ji’ talk had instilled feeling of faith for Khans in my heart and I could now see them not as someone to be afraid of but someone who had same feelings as we had. But I would be afraid of my Amma finding me talking to a Khan as I was told to keep away from them. Amma had her own fears which I could never understand. And the Khan’s big hands, still bigger feet in sturdy leather sandals would substantiate her fears and mine as well.
But when it was time to get a quintal of coal from coal companies situated near the Bus stand, these very Khans would be the ones to carry our loads and keep the fire burning in our hearth. With sweat drops trickling down his forehead, the khan would bring the heavy load of coal and would take the wage decided upon. I don’t remember my Amma offering him anything to eat which she would offer to other collies when they were hired to carry some other load! Did Amma discriminate? Perhaps she did or to be true the Khans never did become a part of social life that existed between the masters and the coolies in Simla. The Chaudharies, the turbaned and bearded hefty Sardars, monopolized the Gunj market the same way as Khans were the sole coolies of the Coal market. The Chaudharies would load and unload big sacks of grain in the grain market. Speaking chaste Punjabi and wearing a cotton Lungi they, too, were alien to Simla populace but still seemed much closer as compared to the Khans. And the third were our very own Pahari coolies who would love to sit by road sides mostly around the vegetable market waiting for sundry jobs. They would carry much less weight as compared to Khans and Chaudharies.
Khans, chudharies and coolies were so commonplace in Simla of my days that their existence had become a part of life for Simlites. So integral to life in Simla that no one gave them a second look. It is with a sense of shame that I acknowledge today how insensitively we took them for granted, everywhere and anytime!