While the woman with green eyes garnered popularity, the lady at the Red Fort cut a lonely figure, convinced that her quarters were haunted by royal ghosts, writes R. V. Smith
Just after Partition a lot of refugees from Sindh were given temporary residence in the monument known as Mariam’s Tomb, near Sikandra. However there were some who were able to fend for themselves. Among them was a family that was given possession of a big evacuee property in the city that belonged to those who had migrated to Pakistan. The elder girl of the newcomers was very pretty. Her grey eyes had mystique associated with them. She would stand in a window, combing her hair, unmindful of the stares of passers-by, who started calling her “Grey Eyes”.
Her brother Rashmi (name changed) was a fair handsome boy who was often seduced by the locality’s loafers on the pretext of kite-flying and swimming lessons. Some thought it was their way of making up for not being able to befriend the sister. Rashmi’s classfellows in the Sindhi school where he studied resented this hanky-panky and would pass meaningful remarks against the “sissy” whenever he failed to clear the ball at a football match.
Afterwards, Rashmi would get wild and head-butt them, something at which he was frightfully good. Some of his detractors used to get a bloody nose but that hardly stopped them from teasing him. Rashmi’s elder brother was a school dropout and managed to get the job of a Municipal street lamp-lighter. In the evening he would come with a bamboo ladder, a lighted lantern and a kerosene can with the help of which he would light up the lamps fixed on walls in the galis or lanes assigned to his beat. Rashmi would feel insulted if someone asked him about his “Bro” (brother). Of course nobody spoke to the sister, through everybody admired “Grey Eyes”, with even Rashmi reluctant to disclose her name.
Now after more than 50 years one happened to meet “Grey Eyes” in Lajpat Nagar. She had put on some weight but there was no mistaking that still attractive face and the wisdom of the fabled “grey-eyed Athene” that age bestows. The family had moved to Delhi for better prospects and their hopes were not belied. But they missed “Baitul Aziz”, their erstwhile home in the mansion built by Jeane Bapiste Filose, a 19th Century Italian general of Maharaja Scindia’s Army and later sold to the wealthy family of Court Sahib (Munsif) Azizuddin. “Grey Eyes” (one should in all fairness not reveal her name) had become a grandmother and Rashmi a grandfather, who still pined for boyhood days and his domiciled African friend Salim, adopted by the immigrant Turkish Haji Rasheed Ahmed. That’s how, says Sant Kabir, life brings tree leaves (and people) together before separating them. But then fate probably intervenes and they do meet at least once prior to the final parting.
Like “Grey Eyes”, there was an old woman who used to sit in a window above the Mina Bazaar of the Chatta Chowk in the Red Fort. That accommodation had been allotted in the 1960s (about the time the son et lumiere show was introduced) to an ex-Army officer who used to run a canteen in the fort. The lady kept looking down at the visitors on their way to the Deewan-e-Aam as though envying their freedom. Sometimes she seemed to stare in vacancy, probably trying to reminisce of times gone by when she was young and energetic, participating in the functions graced by Army wives.
One often wondered why she looked so sad. May be there had been a tragedy in her life or she missed her children who had grown up and gone their own ways into the big, wide world. Now time perhaps weighed heavy on her and she really did not know how to pass it after an early breakfast, when the fort was hushed in silence before its gates were opened to tourists.
There was no way of communicating with the old lady and to ask her hail-fellow-well-met husband would have been like intruding into privacy. Also, one felt that it could be only a mundane matter relating to an illness or a deformity brought about by age. Then after some years the canteen closed down and the couple went away just as suddenly as they had appeared on the scene. It was left to Asghar Ali Khan, Custodian of the Red Fort, to clear the mystery. The woman, he disclosed was convinced that her quarters were haunted by royal ghosts. It’s worth repeating that Asghar had, during his nightly rounds of the fort, too reported seeing some of them and a Press photographer had taken photos during a much-hyped assignment. But the negatives, when developed, showed only shadowy figures. The old lady had witnessed this hallucination often and kept worrying at the prospect of facing another night of occult happenings. That she continued to stay put at her O.P. (observation post) so long was another mystery.