THE DESERTED BUNGALOW Jamila Gavin
When the British, who had ruled India for two hundred years, finally went home, they left behind them hundreds and thousands of men women and children whose lives had loyally revolved round serving them. In all the jubilation of independence, many were heart-broken
They also left behind their bungalows. These bungalows were of a particular British colonial design with very thick stone walls to keep out the heat, steep pitched roofs with insulating space, and deep shady verandas lined with potted ferns and trailing geraniums, where the memsahibs could sit in the late afternoon sipping tea brought to them by their bearers.
Still a child in those early post colonial years, these deserted bungalows became my adventure playgrounds. I used to love prowling through the overgrown gardens, trying all the locked doors, peering in through the cobwebbed windows, lounging full length on an abandoned swing bed which squeaked rustily on the veranda.
One year, we had gone to live high up in Landour, the little place where I was born in the foothills of the Himalayas. The bus arrived in Mussoorie the town which the British had turned into what they called a hill station, at the end of a serpentine ride about six thousand feet up. It nestled in the curve of a wide basin, whose rim was a huge curving range of snow-covered mountains. From there we had to walk, or be carried in a kind of sedan, tossing on the shoulders of four men who bore us up even steeper and twistier mountain paths, till we reached our small modest stone bungalow set among the deodar trees and pines which whined in the high winds of Landour..
There were many deserted bungalows scattered throughout the hills but now they were abandoned to nature and curious children like me, with my prowling sense of adventure.
Years later, as a teenager in London on underground platforms or at chilly bus stops, I often composed stories and novels in my head, and I would remember my Indian life with piercing flashbacks: such as one evening during monsoon..
There was a lull in the rain. My mother had put a record on the wind up gramophone of Schubert piano music. I wandered out alone, noting how the grey, monsoon sky with its billowing clouds, were reflected in the raindrops which dangled and wobbled like huge earrings in the undergrowth. We hadn’t been “up” long, and I was still exploring our environs. I had noticed a heavily overgrown track. With the sound of the Schubert acting as my reins to prevent me from straying too far, I set off down the track.
Round the bend in the grey twilight, loomed an old colonial bungalow. How grand it must once have been. White-armed memshibs in flowery dresses must have sat on the verandas, while their children played among the firs, guarded by vigilant ayahs. Perhaps they were up to escape the heat of the plains, leaving their husbands to toil through the worst of the summer. They would have come with their ayahs and bearers, being borne up the paths in sedans with a parade of porters carrying all their belongings, perhaps to be greeted, at the end, by the chowkidhar – the man who, throughout the rest of the year, would have guarded their bungalow against intruders.
As I got closer to the veranda, the Schubert was barely audible in the distance. Now what I heard was a strange mumbling sound. I crept up the steps of the veranda and peered through the dusty window. I gazed at what must have been the drawing room. In the past, the wide, long, elegant space would have been strewn with rugs, satin covered sofas, comfortable cane armchairs, strategically placed ebony coffee tables, lacquered screens, and walls filled with pictures and hangings. In the winter, the large fireplace would have been crackling with burning pine wood. But that’s not what I saw. On that chilly, grey evening, the room was totally bare; the walls and floors a musty cloud of dust and cobwebs – except – crouched in the very middle of the floor, trying to envelop his body round a thin flickering flame coming from a small paraffin stove, was a very old man. I realised I’d seen him earlier; fascinated, because he was bent completely double with lumbago. He had been shuffling along, his arms slung behind his back so that they didn’t swing helplessly in front, his head raised just sufficiently for him to see where he was going.
He had been the chowkidhar once – the watchman of that bungalow; guardian of that English family and their property. Now they had gone. Although he was no longer needed, he still hung around the bungalow like a persistent ghost, merging into its shadows at night, trying to heat his aching bones by the paraffin stove as he mumbled his prayers among the huge black shadows wavering across the room.
Sometimes stories and novels can be born from just the most fleeting of memories or unexplained encounters. They can roll around the brain germinating for years until the right moment comes, and they find their way into a book.
Now, whenever I hear the piano music, “Moments Musicaux” by Schubert, I become a ghost, an instant visitor back to that bungalow.