Felicity Rani sighed and turned to look at guest children playing in hotel gardens. Their parents sat in broad armed chairs reading books and drinking limbu pani and other beverages enjoying final sunlight hours. Soon it would begin getting cold and they’d return to their rooms to dress up for evening walks around viewing areas on the mountain where they could see winking lights of villages far down the mountain side on the pains.
With approaching cold of evening on this hill settlement she could already smell smoke of evening fires being lit to warm rooms in thousands of homes dotting the mountain. It was a familiar smell she’d enjoyed since childhood and she paused to breathe in the early evening atmosphere. She nodded her head in appreciation as she sniffed an equally satisfying smell. It was the evening scent of jasmine mixed with the smell of eucalypt essence manufactured at a dozen sites on the mountain and wafting its way toward her. She loved this mountain. The plains held too many unhappy memories for her and she seldom ventured there now.
As she entered through the service door kitchen staff snapped to attention. She made her way around the cooking area sampling each of the evening menu items while staff looked on anxiously. She smiled at each complementing and suggesting at the same time while they beamed with pleasure. They knew she genuinely cared for them and they responded in kind. She headed in to inspect food bearers and check with house servants to see rooms had been prepared for evening rest.
When she’d first fled from Delhi to this haven of rest after her husband died she’d not been this prosperous. On the departure of Europeans the hotel had barely survived under a series of managers and had even become quite run down during her Delhi years. Tom and Felicity Rani had kept it alive with modest financial support thinking that eventually in retirement they’d spend their final happy years there. But slowly as India picked up the pieces after partition and industrial and business elite grew financially they took over hill settlements previously favoured by the Europeans as an escape from summer heat of the plains. Hill settlements awoke from their lengthy hibernation and prosperity returned.
She stood at the door and nodded to each guest as they entered the hotel and headed for their rooms to dress for evening walks and the late evening dinner to follow. Then she took rest in her favourite high backed wicker chair with its deep cushions and thought about Tom, and her Delhi experience.
They’d arrived in Delhi in tumultuous times. Much of Raj administration was in the process of being handed over to Indian administrators as turmoil of partition boiled around them. Thomas Smith took it all in immediately and decided it was time to reinvent them. He was aware part of his ancestry stemmed from Bengali Bannerji family heritage though he knew circumstances of that birth wouldn’t find him recorded in their family history. So he became Sri Rajan Bannerji and Felicity Rani simply became Smt Rani Bannerji. In the confusion of the times that was a non-event. It was quite customary for Indians to change their names at will so it was a seamless transition.
Railways of North India bore the brunt of carnage and disruption in the aftermath of partition. Rajan Bannerji with his recognized negotiating skills was in demand so was sent in rapid succession to the main centres of conflict in Bengal to the East and the newly established border area at Amritsar to the West. It was on the Amritsar side that trains would commonly enter or leave that border with thousands of refugees dead in carriages, slaughtered in retaliation for slaughters that had occurred before. You could smell hatred in those carriages of the dead. Rajan had to use all his powers of persuasion to get frightened untouchables of the lower castes to clean those trains and dispose of the bodies before they could be sent back to collect more Hindu and Sikh refugees from Lahore in newly created Moslem Pakistan. While Rajan was stoic in execution of duties that carnage made an indelible impression on him.
Rani occupied quarters in Delhi so in between her husband’s trips to the East and West extremities where this mass migration was taking place she had an opportunity to watch a slow deterioration of her husband’s mood. In the middle of the night he’d cry out and jump from his bed, only to realize he was safe at home. He’d sob quietly as his mind turned over atrocities he’d seen on his last journey and Rani would cradle her husband in her arms and let him take time to recover. Next morning he’d be back in command and off to work with his emotions under control. Rani cried each time he embarked on another journey fearing this would be the last time she saw her husband alive.
Then on that fateful day there was a knock on the door. On opening that door she came face to face with a policeman and one of the top railway officials. Both of them looked very uncomfortable for a few seconds. The policeman cleared his throat and spoke softly.
“We regret to inform you your husband was killed at the Amritsar frontier this morning. Arrangements are being made to return him to Delhi.”
The railway administrator then spoke.
“We have come to inquire as to what arrangements should be made for his funeral? Of course Rajan has been a vital help as we deal with this terrible situation. He’s irreplaceable but we’ll have to do the best we can to manage without him. Will the funeral take place here in Delhi?”
Rani collapsed as the awful truth sunk in. When she came too she was being attended by some of the railway official’s wives. They rallied around her and steered her through those mind numbing days ahead. Rani could see the fear in their own eyes as they watched their husbands deal with railway assignments on the new frontiers.
Then it was all over. Rani held an earthen pot with her husband’s ashes and a substantial financial settlement from the railways in acknowledgement of Rajan’s years of service plus free passage to her beloved hills.
On the day of her commencement journey back south she became Felicity Rani Smith again.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2014 All rights reserved”
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