There is a whistling sound that wind makes as I run up & down the stairs panting, panicking yet determined to find it. Was it a mirage or was there really someone?
Few hours earlier, I had checked in to the hotel on the mall road of nainital. After some grueling days travelling across dehradoon, mussoorie & landour I had just hoped for a warm bed while looking for even a half decent hotel. Fortunately, I found one right on the mall road called “The Shalimar”
You know, there is a certain charm to travel. You meet people whom otherwise you would hardly cross paths with. You walk down the lanes which thousands have, and many more will do; yet, you and only you have a unique special memory of it. For a moment, that view of a gushing river is yours & yours only. I surely was hoping for a unique memory too.
The moment i stepped inside the gates engraved with the founding year of the hotel, I felt a zing of energy around me. The vibes were old fashioned, the décor was very colonial & even the walls looked seeped in history. I distinctly realized this wasn’t just an ordinary hotel offering B&B. Could it’s corridors have seen the footfall of erstwhile British generals or the viceroys? If walls could talk, i would have surely heard some tales of adventure, stories of the latest sighting of the man eaters of kumaon or the society gossip about the residents of the mall road.
I was dog tired from my earlier travels and wanted a hot cup of tea more than anything. Within couple of minutes, the caretaker subbing as the bellboy too, came up to my 1st floor room with it. I was surprised & said to him, “Babulal, how did you know I wanted tea?”. He laughed, “Sir, you’re the one who ordered it. Didn’t you?”. I was perplexed as I hadn’t but then like I said, I was as tired as the dog who has spent the whole day digging bones in the hard country and figured i might have. So, off he went and I spent the evening with my feet up the mahogany coloured coffee table drinking tea in one of the most exquisite crockery. The lake was just magnificent to look at & the evening breeze seemingly brought with itself faint laughter from around. I smiled to myself knowing someone else also is having a good time.
Later, as I stepped for dinner in the ballroom that also served as the dinner hall, i noticed various reminders of the Raj, of an era firmly gone by. With the murals sourced from across the country adorning the walls, the cutlery was engraved to mark the occasion of King George V arriving almost a hundred years ago! I realized history was not just in bits & parts here, rather it had engulfed and enveloped me into a warm embrace.
As i stubbed the last remaining cigarette of the night, i thought of saying hello to my next door guest. I had heard some music & that faint laughter from earlier sounded like it came from my floor. What’s wrong in making one more friend on my travels? .
Surprisingly, the hotel room was locked from the outside. Maybe they had checked out, maybe they are in a different room. I went to each of the 14 rooms on the floor & found all of them locked except mine. With a huff of frustration & a-tired mind, I picked up my book & got lost into it.
I again heard some sounds from the corridor. Was there some music playing? Straining my ears, I stepped out in the corridor but found only Babulal switching off the lights. I asked him about the guests on my floor and he said there was no one except me. I asked him again if there were any earlier in the evening. “None, sahib” came the reply. I then asked him who was playing the music at this hour. He looked at me how I would look at you when I think you’re crazy. He bid me goodnight before I could open my mouth again leaving me alone with the stillness of the night.
I came back to bed, with sleep waiting for me at the corner of it. Drifting into deep sleep, i felt i was floating on a sea of clouds and then i felt something or rather someone in the room! I remember turning my face to find a beautiful woman of pale complexion, deep dark almond eyes lying there with a hint of a smile. She gazed at me as if from far away, while she was right there besides me. I could hear my heart beating loudly & immediately I sprung up from the bed. With half opened eyes, I peered into the darkness & couldn’t see her anymore! I switched on the bedside lamp, still no one. I was in a state of alarm as I was sure there was someone in the room. I saw the bathroom door closed from outside, so gingerly peered outside from the curtains. The darkness of the night & the whistles of the wind were the only things I could find.
Adrenaline had kicked in out of sheer fear, I was out on the corridors & pacing towards the other end when I heard the same faint laughter from the evening. I ran towards the sound, down the stairs & into the open lawns overlooking the mall road. I was damn sure there was someone playing a prank or something serious was afoot. Looking around, i again found no one. As if that woman had just vanished into thin air. Called out the guard but got no response. Went to the dinner hall but that too was locked. I was shivering in the dead of a wintry night & didn’t even feel the cold. Stood there for what seemed like a lifetime (probably a few minutes) before venturing back up the floor of my room. As the cigarette wavered along with the hand, there was a deepening sense of realization that whatever had happened with me in the last hour was something not normal.
In the morning, I tried to imagine if all of that happened last night was just a dream. Because if it was, there was no way I would remember each bit of it. However, remember I did. Well by the by, the morning of a hill station clocked in and with that came the hotel staff too. I looked for Babulal, but just couldn’t find him. I asked the next guy for Babulal, but was received with a face of disbelief. Babulal, the head waiter as I had assumed him to be, who had brought me that hot piping tea & whom I had seen in the night switching off those lights, was dead for 36 years now. I was laughing hard by the time he told me Babulal was his father. I said to the son, “Boss, whatever it is with you, just cut the shit now and tell me where is Babulal? I am not in the mood of a stupid prank by some random staff of an old hotel and especially with the night I have had. “
The son looked askance at me, “What do you mean by that? Did something happen?”
Me: “Well, it’s none of your goddamn business. Get me the breakfast & make it quick.” As he was walking away, I yelled, “Also, I really need to speak to the bloody owners of this bloody hotel!”.
The son came back with the breakfast spread & I asked him, this time politely as someone who really needed to understand, “Is there anything wrong with this place?”.
He stood there for a minute looking at me as if balancing few things in his mind & then he began.
“This hotel, The Shalimar was built in 1925 by a British Lord-Saab. He was the CO of the local kumaon regiment & was posted here with his family. In due course of time, he took his leave from the army & bought this hotel as those days tourism in the hill stations was quite booming. While him & his sons hated the country for just about everything, his daughter grew to love everything about it. She fell in love not just with India but also with an Indian too. Started running this hotel from ’46 on-wards when it was clear the British were not looking to spend one too many summers anymore in India. That couple had a wonderful family down the years & this hotel is still run by one of her descendants.”
I, finishing up the last of the caviar looked up & asked, “What the hell that has gotta do with me? And that’s not what makes this place weird right?”
The son continued, “Well, you are right. But you know the lady devoted her whole life to this hotel and took care of it as the last remaining memory of her family. Her father & by extension almost everyone else had moved back to Scotland. They entreated her to leave her family in India to go back to a supposedly better one in Scotland. But she just couldn’t. Finally, the family snapped all connections with her, and she was left with this place as the only window into those simpler & happier times.”.
“Pure Nostalgia” I scoffed. “Anyways, what was her name?”
“Well, of course you might say so sahib. But the heart wants what it wants. So, the owner of this hotel decided she’d never leave it and she was here well into her old age. Her children entreated with her to sell it off, move to a better accommodation, maybe to a bigger city, but she steadfastly refused. This is where she always wanted to be, and she still is.”
I almost didn’t catch the last words of the son when I looked up aghast, “What do you mean, “she still is”? Does that mean… is it even possible?”
The son nodded and continued telling me how Babulal, his father, was one last person who always remained loyal to the memsahib. As much as she loved this hotel, so did his father.
They didn’t usually make themselves visible to anyone, so he wasn’t sure why I was the chosen one. But he did mention it was December, closer to the memsahib’s birthday and maybe the old souls just wanted to have some fun.
The cup of coffee in my hand was still halfway to my mouth and it had been there for the last few minutes. I suddenly understood it all. The way Babulal suddenly appeared with that cup of tea & how I could hear music & laughter almost the whole of the evening & night. But still one question remained, Why me? Why now?
Anyways, meanwhile the son was telling me he’d get the luggage downstairs and was asking me about the room number. So, I told him. His face looked ashen with fear and trepidation. He could barely mutter some words before he sank into the chair “… but that’s the memsahib’s room. That’s her room. That’s where she lives. You were not supposed to be there. That’s the memsahib’s room”.
Few hours later, on my way back to Delhi.
I was still processing all the events of the last day when I suddenly realized, I didn’t even know the name of the owner. As I was trying to recollect the conversation with the son, I heard a name. I looked around the train cabin and there was no one. I closed my eyes, tried to sleep when I heard that name again. It wasn’t clear enough in the din of the train so I got up and went up and down the bogie but couldn’t find anyone awake. I went to the bogie’s gate, lifted the window a bit and lit myself a cigarette. With the first drag I heard the voice again, “Catherine, my son. My name is Catherine Scott”.