It was a long weekend. The kind one not only waits for, but eagerly earmarks in the ‘Planner’. Yes it was a bit ‘Prehistoric time – the omnipresent mobile and android handsets hadn’t made their spectacular entry in our lives yet.
Our family had grown. Yes grown beyond normally acceptable norms of the society. But as it turned out Wifey and I were somehow not fully satisfied by having just two adorable daughters. We yearned for more. The hangover of having grown in a joint family, I guess.
So in came Tarzan – our first Boxer pup who grew up to be a non-boxer. Yes, we had been duped, but in the process blessed with an adorable, handsome and rugged companion.
Hey, but family was looking for a pedigreed boxer. So, Phantom arrived. All tiger brindled and with a totally black muzzle.
The greed for their mate was now engulfing the family. So came Delailah, a gorgeous deer red dame.
The family had now grown to seven. And who cares about norms anyway.
Back to the long weekend. The family was raring to go. The ‘Gypsy’ was new and looking for her first long drive. The destination was so tempting. And just waiting for us was our ‘Ancient’ but still well-appointed ancestral cottage in the Queen of Hills – Mussoorie.
The seven of us were snug and comfortable in the Gypsy. Tarzan, Phantom and Delailah couldn’t believe their luck. Soft mattresses and cushions comprised their travel paraphernalia.
We left Delhi at 4 in the morning. Our first unexpected stop was at the U.P. Border. A cop peeped inside the window. But before he expressed himself, Phantom did. The poor cop not only backed off but fell on his broad ample cushion. He dared not to change his relatively safe position with Phantom in a low-growl, Tarzan with bared teeth and Delailah lying in waiting.
The cop gesticulated with a cocktail of fear and politeness. And we were once again on our way.
Reached Belvedere Cottage, my ancestral house in Mussoorie in the afternoon. Checked in and the family slept well.
Three days in Mussoorie were very relaxing indeed. We took the pets out for walks every forenoon and evening. At Kulri Bazaar people wondered with awe at Phantom. His dark tiger bridling and all black muzzle prompted some to comment, “You guys are sure he is a dog?” Phantom became almost a spectacle in the busy Bazaars of Mussoorie.
Time flew, as it normally does during a family holiday. The final evening came. We had to drive back to Delhi by 11 am the next morning. At Belvedere Cottage we were staying in my dad’s suite on the first floor. Two well appointed adjoining rooms with a connecting door. The large French windows afforded a breathtaking view of the distant twinkling lights of the Doon Valley. The only other double window opened to the lawn below with a view of an old tree. Its branches literally threatening to enter through the window. It was around 8 pm and suddenly the weather outside underwent a metamorphosis. Ear piercing thunder, intimidating lightening accompanied by a slanting rain coming down literally in sheets.
Belvedere Cottage is somewhat secluded and at this time there wasn’t a soul around. The only exceptions were perhaps the ‘Spirits’ which found mention in Ruskin Bond’s “Happy Hauntings” At the centuries old Tara Hall below, Sethji’s ravaged cottage above and at a distance of 100 yards the abandoned cottage of film actress Bina Rai. All these came alive with every streak of lightening, the thunder and rain adding further drama. I gulped down two stiff pegs of my bourborne. I was both shaken and stirred.
The lights were switched off and never came on again despite several scared attempts.
At around 3.30 am my wife touched me with trembling hands. I put my hand on her forehead to reassure her. A shiver went up my spine, she was sweating profusely. The distinctly uncomfortable pets were howling, making the entire scene very disconcerting. My wife whispered to me that she was neither awake nor in sleep, almost in a trance and the window overlooking the old tree was covered with frost. Then suddenly, she noticed written on the window “I was burnt to death”. The frost erased it. But again the dreaded sentence appeared.
I told my wife she had a bad dream and advised that we pack up and leave asap.
The family left Belvedere Cottage by 5 am.
Its only when we reached Delhi safely that I disclosed a truth which my wife and daughters were oblivious about.
As a teenager I used to play “Kick the Can” with Jagdish and Ganga – sons of the caretaker at Belvedere Cottage – Atmaram Nautial.
A fire had broken out on the ground floor where the Nautiyal family lived. Jagdish, unfortunately couldn’t pull through and was burnt to death right below the window overlooking the old tree.