Not everybody got invited to Meera aunty’s haveli in way up in the Mussoorie hills. We had certainly heard stories of its grandeur during the Raj. Meera aunty’s deceased father had been the Maharajah of Azamgarh in UP. A favourite of the British he had been granted land in the hills of Garhwal. The Maharajah’s wife, who was from Manali, hating the summers of UP, had insisted on building an abode up in the hills and living there. During the icy cold winter when the chill would crawl under one’s skin an entourage from the haveli would depart for Azamgarh.
Meera aunty, having grown up with her two brothers, Anup and Arvind, in Mussoorie, had shifted to Delhi after marriage. Meera aunty’s two daughters – Madhuri and Vidya – were beautiful, ‘like true Rajput princesses’, my mother used to say. Meera aunty wasn’t particularly beautiful, just comfortably pleasant in a plump sort of way. Her other sisters, whom I had never seen but my mother had, were pretty good-looking. So was her father apparently. There was one portrait of Rai Bahadur Chandra Pratap Singh’s – Meera aunty never failed to mention her deceased father’s lofty title – hanging inside Meera aunty’s drawing room. We had been impressed: the erstwhile king’s tall stately presence seemed charged thanks to his sharp eyes that appeared to miss nothing.
The heat in the plains had been unbearable that summer. That is why when Deep, Meera aunty’s eldest progeny invited us – meaning me and my two maternal cousins – to his grandfather’s haveli in Mussoorie nobody had second thoughts.
The descent to Meera aunty’s haveli was quite steep from the main Kulri Bazaar in Mussoorie. It was all I could do to keep from falling off my high-heeled sandals. “Bulbul, how could you be so dumb wearing those!” Roopa, a week younger than me, always liked to imagine herself to be older. I gave her a punch that she ducked in the nick of time.
The haveli – that localites called Rajamahal – looked quite unpretentious from the outside with its stale walls and unkempt demeanour. Stepping inside we were in a different world altogether. Grandiose frescoes adorned the grand archway leading into a wide corridor with elephantine windows gaping at the pristine hillside a-blush with verdant colours. The huge dining hall dripping with chandeliers was flanked by chambers large enough to house two joint families. The dining hall led into the main hall with walls showing off Meera aunty’s proud Thakur lineage.
“It’s a little… frightening, what do you say Bulbul?” whispered Monich. I could see what he meant. Meera aunty’s ancestors stared down forbiddingly making me shrink in my platform-heeled sandals and blue denim skirt.
The enormous chasmal edifice, devoid of inhabitants, echoed like a gigantic pitcher. Meera aunty’s uncles had long gone with their progeny settled abroad. Her brother Arvind Thakur – Deep and his sisters called him Arvind mamasa – had settled in Austria while Anup mamasa had died childless.
The only domestic we had seen was the watchman. Deep had mentioned a rather bossy and hardy charwoman who lived on the premises called Dilu who did the dusting and sweeping. It was Dilu who had opened the doors to the haveli. For a woman her age she appeared surprisingly sprightly. There was also a middle-aged chef called Siddham whom none of us had met so far.
Deep led all of us into the inner chambers. The wine red chintz curtains and baroque chandeliers set against sandstone ceiling walls showing off old portraits and photographs smote my eyes like a flame burst.
“Anup mamasa was the discerning one, the cognoscente, in the family. He occupied this part of the haveli,” Deep indicated waving his hand. And who kept the chintz and chandeliers well-shined like the stars one could see on a clear night atop Mussoorie hills? Siddham did, said Vidya. Siddham had been with the family ever since he could remember. “You should taste his koftas and samosas, they are simply divine,” Deep was saying sending my stomach -growling.
“Hey look at this!” Monich’s attention had been diverted by the life-sized portrait of a moustachioed young man in his twenties with a tendril-like lock on his wide forehead that made him look a tad feminine. But then it was his eyes that caught my attention. They reflected light mischief, rather like the wind playing with a lamb’s fluff. The lashes that touched his eyebrows underlined his masculinity somehow. Artistic license or were his lashes actually that long?
“Who is this handsome dude?” asked Monich staring up at the gigantic oeuvre. “My, what a large mole!” We all stared. The mole at the bottom of his chin was large enough to, according to Monich, “give him a tapering look.”
“Seen this?” I looked over his shoulder. One of the cavernous drawers of the massive oak chest underneath the portrait lay open. Deep was studying a faded black and white photograph of a young woman in ghagra choli, presumably pretty.
“That was his girlfriend!” Madhuri, who was looking over his shoulder, let out a little giggle.
Mussoorie being a town that doesn’t allow one to remain indoors for long we went pony-riding in the Chowk, mounted the cableway up to Gunhill and had lunch at the swanky Kwality restaurant. Returning home in the evening we found the ancient fireplace in the drawing room set alight. Settling cosily into the lush cushions over deep sofa chairs Deep, helped out by his two sisters, treated us to Anup mamasa’s doomed love saga of about half a century ago.
Anup mamasa had been the reprobate, the black sheep of the family. He had fallen in love with a nautch girl, a beauty with a lark’s voice. It was said that the Maharaja of Patiala, a connoisseur of classical music, would visit Mussoorie regularly just to hear her sing. He’d offered land and money to the lady – Sharmi bai – who, rather haughtily, declined his offer. Meera aunty’s father, on hearing that the youngest son wanted to marry a nautch girl, went on hunger strike.
The couple eloped and lived together for a while. Maybe surfeit of love took toll or money ran out but eventually Anup mamasa was persuaded by his elders to return to the haveli. A suitable bride was found and Sharmi bai was soon forgotten.
Till one early summer morning many years later.
The family woke up to sounds of thunderous banging on the buland darwaza or the main entrance door. The liveried guard, who’d been asleep, knocked on the door of Anup mamasa’s bedroom. A fat lady was standing outside the haveli with a boy of about ten, he informed Anup mamasa.
Anup mamasa barely recognized his lissome Sharmi who’d ballooned into a pillow, a fragmented beefy pillow. Blinking at the threadbare patches on her dress cleverly covered with embroidery he recalled how adept Sharmi had been with the needle. When this hideous caricature addressed him for the first time in years he realized he hadn’t heard anything so magnetically husky – like whisky decanting out of a vat – in a very long time. She was staring at him with eyes that had aged thanks to long-standing exploitation and abuse. She did not want anything for herself, her life having been short-circuited by a fatal illness. Her voice was slurring as death hovered near. He would have to look after the boy as… she crumbled silently into a death heap outside her former lover’s door.
What happened to the boy, we enquired, stirred by the bitter-sad love story. Deep and his siblings shrugged their shoulders in unison.
Anup mamasa died soon afterwards, Deep let on after a brief and heavy silence.
‘Bhaiyyaji.’ The haveli cook was clearing his throat from behind a brocaded silk-satin curtain. “Shall I lay out the dinner?”
Roopa dropped a silver tumbler at the dinner table, which Siddham rushed to retrieve from the sandstone floor. Like most enduring domestics Siddham was discreet and deferential, and almost inconspicuous.
“Thank you, Siddham bhaiyya?” My cousin’s childish squeak made him look up. His long-lashed eyes with a hint of mischief appeared old and tired. He pushed away a curly lock falling on his forehead; that’s when I noticed the mole, shining like an eight anna coin, on his chin giving his face a tapering look…