THE GALLI KAMRA….. A mystery in Lahore

Not my Grandfathers house a more sparse likeness from Mayo gardens

How many summers does it take to solve a mystery, well not many if that is the only thing on your mind and if time and people are at your command. None of which was true for me as I was an underage female child guest at my grandfather’s home.

It was summer and I was in Lahore again at my grandfathers home.

It was evening and predinner time

“ So….” I sat in front of Shad on a brick in the back courtyard. The fire was blazing, in the choolah ( clay stove) she had just stoked it to get it ready to make chapatis. I loved watching her deft hands and her capable movements of flipping the chapatis that turned out it be the most delicious part of the meal.

“so…… ” I said again, using a different ploy rather than a direct question about the Gali Kamra.” “How are the neighbors?” I asked glancing up at the high wall dividing the back courtyard.

She paused in stoking the fire and looked at me with wise eyes and assessed immediately what direction my questions were taking. 

Shad was ageless actually she was very young when she came to live with my grandmother. Her entire left breast had been burned by an accidental falling of boiling water when she was in her early teens. 

People in the village talked  about her feminine disfigurement and commented that she could never get married and never have children…. Shad had an IQ of over 130 and an intellectual IQ of even higher. My grandmother had taught her and she had passed the sixth grade with ease, and was studying the Quran.

She always treated my curiosity with amusement and gave me enough facts to chew on. She was not one to gossip.

“ Well…..” she said thinning the chapati and putting it on the tawa” you know we don’t have good relations with the neighbors due to the lawsuit regarding squatting on our land” she glanced towards the wall.

That was news to me, hmmmm so there was a lawsuit! I thought to myself.  I knew that my grandfather would go every Tuesday and Thursday to the court for a hearing but I had presumed that was about the 12 or so servant living quarters occupied by the squatters who so far had passed down the free living to their relatives one by one but that is a story for another day.

“Ehhhh….” I pretended to be in the know and prompted her.

She turned the chapati over : “well do you remember the driver’s son who had come to take exams and was living in the non-mahram guest room at the front of the house?”

“Yes !yes !” I said totally nonplussed as I had never met this young man “ well you were not here at that time “ she said as she had a laser-sharp memory.

I did recall my last episode with the driver: Again, it was about the Galli Kamra.

I was in Lahore for the summer and had decided that I was going to walk into the Galli Kamra and that I had no reason to be nervous or feel intimidated, and so I had, entered this time from the door in the living room: I found myself in a curved room, slim but divided by a low wall, a height that a man could easily pull himself over. It must be part of the portico because I could see the magenta crepe myrtles blooming over the wall in the neighbor’s garden and the sunlight shaft beaming onto the dusty tile floor. I had stood there in wonderment, the ambience was sweet, and smelt of nostalgia and times gone by……”

The door had opened behind me and the driver was standing in the doorway his face stern and creased with anxiety.

“Do you need anything Bibi” he asked respectfully holding the exit door wide open.

I felt like I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar but this time I was not going to give up easily.

“ I just wanted to see where the galli kamra led to” I said firmly.

“Please ask Dr Sahib and he will let you know” he said referring to my grandfather, holding the exit door firmly ready to usher me out. He had played the ace card of authority.

I had to leave, I took one last look at the crepe myrtles in the neighbors, garden the short wall and the untold mysteries behind it, and came out of the galli karma with no answers.

“What happened?” I asked Shad, breathless with anticipation. Shad lifted her head to answer, placing the freshly made chappati in the bread basket, as we both heard the footsteps of my Aunt in the verandah as she called “ Shad are the rotis done? Abaji is waiting”

That was the cue for Shad to rush up with the cooked rotis wrapped in a freshly laundered napkin on a flat basket called the chabaa, that is used universally for serving rotis all over Pakistan.

Shad looked at my eyes and nodded…. I could not tell whether it was a promise to complete the story later, or to keep it under my hat,  or whether our conversation was over. One thing I knew about Shad was that she told the truth, was not bashful about it but strictly toed the line of etiquette and totally avoided gossip.

The hot Lahore day had receded into a hot Lahore evening, this is where I sorely missed Karachi. I had been conditioned to think that when evening came the breeze would blow from the ocean and everything would cool down, not so in Lahore, it was an oven in the day and an oven in the night especially inside.

The large pots of food were brought and placed on a low side table and served into fancy china dongas or serving bowls, the salad came out of the fridge along with the cold water which convinced me to earn Jannah and avoid the heat of Naar.

“I made okra for you,” said Shad. I smiled and thanked her “ I love okra I said. “ there is a lot of it that came from the village today but I know if I make it every day you will get tired of it“she said.

“ I won’t” I promised “please make it every day”. My Aunt groaned; she knew my penchant about Okra.

My grandfather sat erect in his chair and ate tidily never soiling his hands. He reminded me of my mother who could also eat with her hands without the food ever touching her fingers.

It is now that I reflect back on this brave erect man in the chair at the head of the table, that I respect his ability to smile at me with humor, to not ever get impatient with my silly questions and at my insistence on going with him to the village twice a week in the killing heat of Lahore.

He never showed his losses, which included but were not limited to :his graceful life in undivided India, his numerous medals in medical college for academic scholarship, his prizes from his marathon runs, his soccer games that injured the knee that would speak of those times at night with pain. The loss of his beloved companion and wife, the estrangement of our father whom he greatly respected, and the sadnesses of the partners chosen for his daughters. He never spoke of grief, he never complained. 

Every morning at 7 he was freshly shaved, in a starched shirt and freshly ironed pants with old fashioned braces holding up his pants he would beat all of us to the breakfast table where he would be reading the last page of the newspaper by the time we arrived.

Nights in Lahore brought out the night life in the form of mosquitos and fireflies. Our charpoys (beds with woven sleeping surface) would be set up in the inner walled Werah or open-air Courtyard. The mosquito nets would be erected on our charpoys and tucked under the bedding to dissuade any mosquitoes to enter the protected area within.

All the men with the exception of my grandfather slept in the outer verandahs and at night the door was locked to the inner courtyard. The wisdom of which did not dawn on me till much later.

After eating Shads cooking and her delicious rotis slathered with butter I would want to lie down immediately. I would watch my grandfather stroll around the courtyard and call me.

He would sit down on his bed and call me to sit with him. “Come! he said one time when I was trying to get into my bed immediately after dinner and trying to beat the mosquitoes from joining me.

“ Come come “ he said, I went and sat next to him. “ You know your stomach is like a small brown paper bag. You have just added food to it, so let it settle down a little bit to the bottom before you lie down and tilt it” He would smile at me with a glint of mischievousness in his eyes and rub my back,’

I could ask him about all things pertaining to the village, but one thing he was very brief about was Partition and the World war. Of course, I could not ask him about the Galli Kamra, that was not an important subject for him. It seemed to be in the domain of the women of the house.

I toyed with the idea of asking my Aunt, but her mood was such that the Galli Kamra was the furthest from her mind.

She was studying “Business administration at  The Punjab University and was facing her own battles against sexism and misogyny from her classmates, and Professors. She was fending off  flirtations and inappropriate advances with suggestions for dating in an era where it was frowned upon. 

My Aunt could have easily passed for Brigitte Bardot if she was slightly slimmer in the waist and a lot more flirtatious and coquettish. Even without those attributes she was stunningly sexy and beautiful and was a man magnet at the University. 

One summer she patiently taught me how to type for which I am eternally grateful. She also loved to go visit friends and family in the evenings thus she opened the door to stories of people both in our family and outside which were candy for a story buff like me.

She was also a silent “helper” i.e., she helped people sometimes for years without anyone knowing thus keeping the dignity intact of the people accepting help. Occasionally we would take something for them and I would know of her philanthropy by the way they loved her and thanked her.

She had no patience with me as in many ways she saw what she perceived as negative attributes of herself in me and did not like the reminders or felt they would not bring success…. I am not sure, which affected her more. she was extremely generous to me but also severely critical.

As I lay under the clear Lahore sky secure inside the mosquito net, I looked at the wall that divided the courtyard and thought to myself. “This is it! this is my last summer in Lahore because soon I will  go to college and then Medical college and that will take over my life.

That morning I stood in the portico, on my right was the half wall that disappeared into the Galli karma, on my left was the ledge of the gothic window of the guest room which had served as a climbing block for my attempt to learn how to ride a bike on one napping afternoon.

Sort of the window which had a ledge for my bike take offs.

 Looking at the ledge I remembered my maiden bike rides on an adult bike twice my height that belonged to the servant. After falling 22 times I finally learned to ride the bike in one afternoon with major payment on my knees and elbows.

My summer was rapidly coming to an end. One day of what I called “the napping afternoons” I stood in the front courtyard and wondered what Shad was doing. Of course, this was napping afternoon the law of “do not disturb” was written in stone.

The driver was the only other one beside me who was awake.

He came walking fast down the drive way……hurrying towards the side of the house and then saw me and turned and came to me.

“Bibi is S Bibi available?”

“Why, I asked.” 

“There is a man at the end of the driveway he said ” an angrez.”

“Ok” I said and started to walk toward the street end of the entrance of the driveway. “ No! no! he said  we have to inform S Bibi; he has been standing there for an hour” just looking at the house”

I was nonplussed…..

An Englishman standing in front of our driveway for an hour and just “looking” that was creepy but intriguing.

I yelled for Shad as I was not going to disturb SK during the napping hour.

However, SK came out fully dressed for the evening but you could see by her face that she had not had time to fix her face and hair.

In the afternoon what crazy person would stand sweating at our driveway and not come in and ring the bell.

I started to walk with her, she stopped and faced me “ you go inside and wait” she said and strode off on the driveway which was a quarter mile from the street.

I went inside but there was no explanation till the evening teatime.

“ Abaji” said Sk addressing him over hot  tea and biscuits in the blistering heat. Perspiration dripped down my neck as I sipped the hot tea.

Once I had asked by grandfather “ Nanaji why do we drink hot tea in such hot weather”

 He had smiled at me with the humorous glint in his eye and spoke in the Englishman’s English.

“When you drink hot tea in hot weather it makes you sweat which then cools you down” he said and took a sip of tea from the china porcelain cup.

Of course, it wasn’t just that I look back and think of it as a family gathering at the table freshly showered and dressed and ready for visitors or visiting, It was also a time to update events like that of the Englishman at the gate.

“ Abaji an Englishman came to our driveway today and was staring at the house”

My grandfather cocked an eyebrow questioningly”

“ He said he used to live in this house before partition…….” and she stopped.

She had the complete attention of my grandfather and me…..

“ I invited him to come in and have tea…..” she paused.

“and ? “ asked my grandfather.

“ He said he did not want to come in,” She stopped again and looked sad.

“ He said he had beautiful memories of his daughter skipping back and forth in the galli karma, it was her playground away from the heat of the outside” 

All of us around the table felt a sadness fall around us which was confirmed by the rest of the story.

“ She died on the ship on the way back to England….” 

“He said that she loved the galli karma, and though he wanted very much he could not bear to see it……” concluded my Aunt,

I realized that I had stopped breathing…… the white girl with the dark brown hair and dancing eyes in the white frock on my first visit to the galli karma……. I was struck silent and have never shared my vision with anyone to this day.

Days passed and I thought I had laid the mystery of the Galli Kamra to rest but there was more to come.

It had become my ritual to sit and sweat with Shad while she cooked the rotis, she never used the rolling pin. She would pull the dough from the large tub, roll it into a payra ( roundish ball) then she would flatten it, and spin the circle thinning the edges with her fingers…… I would sit mesmerized watching her, listening to her, she only let out what she assessed to be beneficial to me at this age.

“ well, she said on my second last day.

“ We had to send the drivers son back to the village”

“Why?” I asked”

Well, he had struck up a relationship (dosti lagai) with the cook’s daughter next door, and used the Galli karma as the secret meeting point till they were discovered by the cook who accused Abaji of harboring bad men under his roof……” she was visibly angered at the thought of the accusation against this gentleman who would not harm a fly.

“ They sent the girl off to her relatives as she swore, she saw a ghost and said the galli karma was haunted by a little girl and became hysterical!” She snorted with disgust.

“It is Just an excuse to cover up her indecent forward behavior” she said with a contemptuous frown “….and then her mother, the cook also left as her daughter became quite out of her mind.” She paused to let me digest that piece of information.

“So don’t you  go to the roof to peek at their part of our house “she said in a proprietary manner.

“and don’t go into the galli karma….”

It all fell into place …. I,  a girl should not be in the galli karma alone as it could be approached from the other side and used as a vendetta for their girl.

No one in my grandfather’s house believed in the ghost…….. and yet I had seen her, even the happy expression on her face as she skipped across the dusty tiles in her white frock. I  kept this story to myself till some of you asked to know more about the galli karma.

I stood in the shoes of the Englishman when I had gone to the interstate marker where Tariq had died, and feverishly sought a sign, a piece of the memory and there was none, and I thought I should not have come here. The Englishman knew better than me. There is no way to tread on memory without scratching the wound of your grief………

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