By Rakhi Pande
The month of May in 1984. Schools closed, scorching summer heat and best of all, the trip to Lucknow, where the family of five went every summer vacation, without question. Riha, all of seven years old, was ecstatic to have reached her grandparents’ house after the two-day long train journey. The house appeared to be as large as a palace to her. Much bigger than their two-bedroom house in Bombay.
That, however, paled in comparison to this –- the most perfect of all homes to Riha’s young eyes. The aangan* in the centre –- bigger than their private terrace –- with rooms all around, a green garden patch with the open water tank, dank, green water whose depth could not be fathomed by her and which, through an unerring child’s instinct, she kept at a safe distance. The steep, curving staircase with treacherous and oddly angled steps leading up to the roof which secretly scared her; which she was vaguely aware she took much longer to ascend than her cousins who lived here. But once conquered, you were on a long roof with a view of the neighbourhood – and the room on the roof. (This was the best of all houses!) Surely haunted, but only after dark as per her childish logic.
Many years later, when she visited the same house in her mid-twenties, in what was to be her last visit to it – she saw the house just as it was – crumbling and old, destined to be pulled down and replaced by a taller, sleeker rectangular block, having permanently divided the family over its sale proceeds. The staircase which had intimidated her as a child was just ordinary. Mixed feelings and some regret – perhaps she would have preferred those childhood memories to the reality of this crumbling, derelict version.
But this story is about one of the magical days from all the summers spent in that city and of only one of those many mornings. A morning from a riotous summer for Riha along with her two siblings, and five cousins that lived here in the hauntingly enchanted city of Lucknow of the eighties as viewed from the vinyl covered cycle rickshaw seat. The driver laboured over the pedals in a mesmeric rhythm, navigating impossibly narrow streets, cows, street dogs, people, the occasional cars, tempos and handcarts and the noise that was always a part of the city – the shouts, honking, bleating of goats, mingling with the call of the azaan*.
Riha was a happy, confident and an attractive child and though she would vehemently deny it later; citing ‘middle child’ as her defence; perhaps a little pampered by her aunts and uncles here. She woke early with anticipation for the promised outing – utterly excited that they were having an Enid Blyton style morning ‘picnic’, complete with a wicker basket full of buttered buns, the sweet milk bread which she loved and a rajai* and a bedsheet to spread on the grass. They had to go very early, to avoid the dreaded loo* and the heat, which didn’t bother her, but which was just a convenient excuse for her elder cousins and aunts to not play catch or hide and seek with her during the afternoon.
That morning they were approaching the gates of ‘The Residency’, in quite a grand procession of two cycle rickshaws hired in addition to the spotlessly clean and sparkling white Ambassador belonging to her ‘Advocate’ grandfather. Riha was sure they would be the very first visitors here as she had awoken at an impossibly early hour, so she was surprised to see a few people already there –- walking about with dogs on leashes.
They walked quite far from the entrance, on wide green rolling lawns, way past the museum and dungeon, quite close to another set of ruins –- just walls with no roofs bordering unkempt taller grasses. The bedsheet was rolled out, basket deployed and after a while as it got sunnier and sunnier, without quite knowing how, Riha had soon wandered into the semi-walled ruins to explore the ground for unusual stones and wild flowers, her younger brother Aahan trailing behind her as usual.
She smiled at the other girl she saw there, enchanted by her blonde hair – “Hi! Are you here for a picnic too?” she asked, arrested by the lovely crisp white lacy and ruffled “birthday dress” the other girl wore. Only birthday dresses were so beautiful! Riha looked down at her own blue cotton dress, which she had worn a lot many times.
“You’re so lucky your mother let you wear your party dress!” Riha said. The other girl looked down at her dress and that’s when Riha noticed the ketchup patch all down the front of the lovely white dress. Exactly where she had once stained her dress while eating pakodas* with ketchup when her impish younger brother had jolted her arm. She felt immediately concerned and sorry for her –- she knew her mother would be upset and if her mother was anything like hers, there would have been good chances of receiving a stinging slap for messing up her party dress like this.
“Is that your brother?” the girl asked.
Riha nodded. “My brother is here too.” Riha moved closer but could not spot the other boy –- hoping he could be a playmate for her brother. He must’ve wandered off.
“Who’re you talking to?” said Aahan. Riha rolled her eyes knowing her brother was annoying her as usual.
“How rude, Aahan!” She looked at the girl, sharing the – ‘younger brothers!’ look. “Sorry about him… I’m Riha, what’s your name and why don’t you come and play with us?” she invited, frowning at Aahan.
“I’m Mary. Look,” she pointed across the greens, “My mother is calling us –- I have to go.”
Riha could not quite spot which of the women in the far distance Mary was indicating, but she was not happy at the thought of losing a newfound playmate.
“I’ll walk with you till you find your mother and we could ask her permission to play with us – we are a big group here,” she confidently proclaimed.
“Okay, I’ll ask her, maybe we can meet near the museum after some time,” smiled Mary.
“Okay, bye!” shouted Riha, happily.
Riha looked around for Aahan but he must have run off earlier. As she left the ruins, she saw her aunt halfway there, calling her to come quickly away from the dangerous ruins.
“They’re not dangerous at all!” scoffed Riha.
“Who were you talking to?” her mother asked. “Aahan said you were trying to scare him by pretending to talk to someone.”
Riha plonked herself down on the sun-soaked sheet and glared at Aahan. Why were younger brothers such pests? Describing the encounter, she couldn’t resist remarking how the other girl had been allowed to wear such a nice dress to a park. “But didn’t you say she’d spilled ketchup on it?” retorted her mom.
With the elders finding it too hot, it was time to leave but Riha insisted on stopping by the museum to say goodbye to Mary and dragged the whole family there. After waiting for a while it was clear no one was coming there and Riha was reluctantly made to leave, with promises of one more picnic there for sure.
Now, years later, sitting on the sagging charpai*, under the bright stars that evening in that old house, the moment triggered a memory of the picnic to the Residency. In her teens she had been quite intrigued by the history of the place and read about the slaughter of the British families including women, children and babies there during the siege of 1857. She remembered quite vividly that evening years ago, cuddling on her grandmother’s roomy lap on the same charpai.
Naniji* had surprised her by asking for a detailed account of the girl she had met. In Riha’s world, that morning was already firmly in the past. Her grandmother was quite interested in the ketchup stain too. Later, she had noticed the elders having a discussion in whispers and looking at her.
Annoyingly, Aahan was allowed to hover around them or perhaps they hadn’t noticed. He had then galloped up to her and shouted in glee, “See, I told you, you met a ghost! That was not ketchup, it was blood!”
*Aangan = an inner open courtyard
*Aazan = Islamic call to prayer
*Rajai = block printed comforter/ duvet
*Loo = hot and dry summer wind
*Charpai = traditional Indian woven bed
*Nani – Maternal grandmother, ‘ji’ a respectful suffix
Rakhi Pande heads the English department at a British curriculum school in Dubai, UAE. She segued into this profession after quitting her erstwhile post as General Manager in the field of brand management in India. Having spent her formative years in Mumbai she has spent a decade in each profession before exploring greener pastures abroad. An avid reader and award-winning educator, while dabbling with blogging and other creative pursuits, she tries to write whenever time permits. Hopefully, there’s a book in her.
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