Construction was on in full swing. Rajeev Ghosh checked his diary -- everything was proceeding according to schedule. The men would have finished the renovations of the left wing by tomorrow and the completion of the new sports building. A pleasant faced young man with a short trim moustache in his late twenties -- Rajeev had succeeded greatly in his company, occupying the coveted position of the main supervisor and coordinator since last summer. He had been chosen to head, coordinate and supervise the construction contract that had been leased to his company, ABC Constructions -- to build a new building and design new plans to modernize and accommodate additional manual capacity. Mayfair College for Women -- which boasted of a very good reputation throughout the country, was the social snobbish glamorous hubbub of girls’ education.
Traditionally a church and a mass shelter for the deeply religious constructed by the Missionaries -- it had been converted into an educational institution by the more commercial minded and domineering nuns in the late 1960s. Since then, the College had flowered and blossomed, adding new students to its rolls, expanding physically into new buildings and penetrated every single field of curricular activities- sports; dance; music; drama; art and millions of countless activities. The single building with an enrollment of 100 Catholic girls under the leadership of the stern thin Sister Bertha with a staff of 12 teachers -- in stiffly starched pale pastel brown saris, hair rolled into unyielding buns and a long chain of the silver holy cross hanging around their necks had held sway till the passing away of the rock called Sister Bertha in 1975 and since then she had taken up stance in the central lawn in white marble surrounded by white lilies and blue hydrangeas.
The establishment had then changed hands and passed onto the dynamic sprightly grey haired Sister Vera Ponzo who had rightly made enormous constructional changes. Vera Ponzo had increased the student numbers and abolished the narrow Catholic preference of the College, opening the doors of the esteemed educational institution to all religions and races. The staff had doubled, then tripled and as the College broadened its horizons -- to evening classes, a college hostel and a gymnasium to name a few- the staff size had multiplied. It was at this juncture, Vera Ponzo had again made the right decision -- she realized that the college had to grow in dimension to keep pace with all the growing activity and reputation. ABC Constructions, the respectable old fashioned construction house had been contacted and entrusted with the responsibility of designing and building new modern buildings. That had been the year, 1976, with the gracious Vera Ponzo as the Principal of the Mayfair College for Women.
Now it was the year 1998, with the formidable Sister Prudence in charge and the college had increased in size, reputation and glamour! Rajeev Ghosh stubbed out his cigarette -- two more days to go and then he would be back in his office on the ground floor of the Taj Buildings in the Primrose Street of Dehradun Mall. Rajeev of course knew all this history of the College -- it, being one of the oldest and most esteemed clients of the company. He stroked his black thin moustache and gazed idly at the white dome shaped glass building, finished and completely furnished last week, housing the gymnasium, built on the debris of the old sports hall!
Just opposite it was a single file of flats -- the teachers quarters of two bedrooms each and a girls hostel with four floors- three rooms having four beds in each room, on each floor. The hostel was separate from the Teachers Quarters and only joined by a narrow bridge of steps. Facing the hostel was the Old Wing -- the old Church and home, not in use any longer but preserved and kept for sentimental reasons. If it had been left upto the architects -- the Old Wing would have been demolished and a new auditorium constructed in its place. But the Sister had stood firm, unyielding like the rock of Gibraltar -- she had argued day and night for the conservation of the holy missionary church and finally the architects had admitted defeat -- the Old Wing had been left in peace occupying the centre stage behind the main building, next to the hostel. In front of the hostel, was a mammoth statue of the Blessed Virgin and sheltering it, a huge Banyan tree.
A few paces away stood the indoor swimming pool and the tennis courts for the more sporty students of the college. Adjacent were the drama rooms also used for dancing lessons. Near these was the huge sprawling auditorium where the College used to hold its annual prize giving ceremony, annual college functions and fairs in the lawns behind, these were four in number, spanning upto the back wall where an entrance led to the bus stop and a small cottage for the college gardener. The classes were held in the main building of five floors, two huge libraries and computer rooms. The building was not on ground level but a few feet off the ground, connected by two giant spiral stairways, each on the opposite sides leading to a landing where the right direction led to the Junior College Lecture rooms and the left direction opened in to a red carpeted reception area complete with oak paneling and chests of drawers and writing table. Further beyond lay the dignified elegant offices of the Principal and her right hand- the Vice Principal.
The main building was a maze of stairways, long corridors through which only the students could find their way happily. The statue of the founder of the college, Sister Bertha stood as a welcoming sign to the hordes of parents and visitors who flocked everyday to the College. The statue took the centre stage in the attractive green lawn lined with bright red freshly fragrant roses and yellow daffodils and creepers of dark pink flowers climbing onto the walls all the way upto the reception window. Beyond the lawn were the forbidding, tall brooding silver iron gates intricately designed, perpetually open, but with three powerfully built security guards with long rifles at each end.
“Hey!” shouted Rajeev as a skinny dark man moved in front of the auditorium, “Not there!” Rajeev sighed, painting was in progress and by evening time it would have finished. He glanced at his watch -- it was ten in the morning. He had completed his rounds -- made sure the men were all doing their jobs, had the usual daily chat with the Principal and brought her up to date- there were only two days left counting the present day. And he had fully assured her and another prim spectacled lady in a white sari that they would be finished by tomorrow afternoon and leave the premises by evening. Now he had nothing to do -- he looked about, men in the blue company uniforms were busy painting- just beyond he could see the gardener mowing the lawns. He debated whether to go in and check the canteen for fresh coffee and tomato sandwiches -- but he then gave up the idea- the canteen would be closed and there would be no one to fulfill his demands. He knew that inside the hostel building- spring cleaning was in progression with beds being made, bathrooms being cleaned, rooms being swept and the dining hall being washed!
Rajeev came upon the Old Wing, a one storied structure in washed dirty cream and looked at in fascination. He had actively supported the ideas of his colleagues to demolish the structure but to no avail -- it was a constant source of wonder to him why this modern college had to house such a decrepit building. He remembered Sister Prudence with pinched lips telling the main architect during the meeting, that the Old Wing was a testimony to their ancestral roots reminding them of their goals and convictions all the time. It was a holy place -- a Church -- a place of timelessness -- not to be disturbed.
True, at the entrance was a sign in big bold black lettering, “ENTRY IS RESTRICTED! OUTSIDERS ARE NOT PERMITTED TO ENTER THE CHURCH”
He had been working here for the past two months and had come to know this place pretty well and did not feel like an outsider. Ignoring the sign, Rajeev walked in. A musty smell hung about and he slowly walked looking in amazement at the extraordinarily beautiful painted windows depicting scenes from the bible. The Church was used; Rajeev reflected looking about the clean tiled floor and the piano at the other end near the altar. He slowly made his way forward -- here once a year the girls would meet for the Special Mass and then go back. The rows of benches gleamed in the dim sunlight and he could feel himself transported to the time when this place had been painstakingly built by the Missionaries. He reached the altar and touched the statue of the Madonna in wonder -- no wonder the Sister did not the place demolished -- it was simply too beautiful to recreate.
He slowly climbed and stood in the pulpit, back to the holy cross, speechless and wonderstruck. He touched the gleaming panels of rich walnut in pleasure and then gasped in surprise as the wall near by slid back noiselessly to reveal a secret stairway. Rajeev stared -- he had read about such things in books but this was happening to him in real life. Outside the sparrows shrieked and the dull sound of metal scraping against metal reached him -- he made up his mind and went inside through the wall, down the old creaking wooden staircase to come to dusty room.
“Nothing!” he sighed in disillusionment, in books one always found something if there were secret rooms. He slowly poked around cautiously -- tapping into the wall and then felt a wave of excitement. He tapped again -- no doubt about it -- there was a hollow sound! What was beyond -- another room perhaps.
“This had better lead to something,” thought Rajeev as he pushed and pushed and barged inside a smaller dustier room. He lay sprawled on the floor, covered with dust, an expression of disgust on his face. He slowly got up and looked about. Light came in through where he had heaved and Rajeev could see a small cross medallion hanging on the wall. Curious he went towards it and touched it -- his expression changed- - this was pure gold. Slowly he bent down and examined the wall -- one brick was awry and he set to work. He began to remove the bricks one by one and then when the gap was big enough, he reached out and drew in a fistful of something very hard and solid. He pulled out his hand and stared -- gold coins in his right fist. Immediately, he put in his other hand and drew in other fistful- again gold coins.
Shaking with excitement and nervousness, Rajeev set to work removing the rest of the bricks methodically -- after shoving both his trouser pockets with the gold coins. It was some time later, when all the bricks had been laid aside and he could clearly see -- an open trunk full of shining gold coins! Rajeev laughed, and ran his hands through the pile- he was going to be rich.
“But wait! Maybe the Sister already knew about this and that’s why did not want the place to be torn apart -- maybe this was her cave of wealth,” Rajeev thought panicking – and then slowly began to breathe more freely. Wiping the beads of glistening sweat from his brow, he thought – “No one could possibly know about the treasure hidden in the basement of the Old Church so carefully concealed.” He admired the minds of the missionaries who had been the original treasurers of this gold. He smiled to himself -- this place was untouched, only the outside church was regularly cleaned. He drew in a sigh of relief -- he was going to be rich! But he had to be careful -- remove the gold coins bit by bit lest people got suspicious of his sudden affluence. He replaced the bricks and went out and emerged once more into the pulpit, pushed the paneling and the wall slid back once again. No one will know, Rajeev thought climbing down and going outside “No one should know…his little secret…no one would know, he would make sure of that.”
He walked back, his pockets full of gold coins. The men were still painting. He looked at his watch -- it was now afternoon -- he had been gone a long time and had missed his lunch. But no one seemed to have noticed it. He smiled to himself – a twisted unpleasant little smile, fingering his watch.
Matron, Sue Danely sighed, Sister had told her to change the rooms again, no third year senior college girl was to be sharing a room with first year junior or senior college girls. “Sister,” thought Matron folding up the white crisp sheets of paper on her desk and heaving her stout rotund figure on her stubby legs “was perhaps too strict -- she hardly knew the college hostel girls by name- not like her who was able to reel of their family histories just by looking at their name.”
Naturally, Sister used to stay in the Convent outside the premises, while she, Matron along with Gayatri Raghav, the Chemistry lab Assistant for the Junior College, used to stay in the hostel with the girls! “Sister didn’t know anything -- if the girls wanted to have fun, they would -- never mind if third year final students were paired with second year Junior college students. And now new students -- usually the hostel admitted the least number of Junior College girls, but this time, Sister had relaxed the rules a bit,” thought Matron wrinkling her long thin nose in disapproval. She disapproved of Sister Prudence -- her high handed ways and authority. This time, out of the forty eight hostel students -- twenty five belonged to the Junior College, and then Sister had hired a new young pretty receptionist and increased the fees. In the good old days of Vera Ponzo, this would not have happened. Sue Danely sighed loudly and waddled down the corridor in search of Nandita Sharma, the receptionist. She ran Nandita down in the Teachers Quarters coming out of her room, eating an apple – “much like an irresponsible young teenager,” thought Matron, her disapproval of the attractive receptionist rising higher. Curbing her irritation she said aloud pleasantly, “There you are! Won’t you help to sort out the hostel rooms, dear?”
Nandita smiled -- with dark short hair, a pert nose, brown coloring and a wide cherry mouth ready to break into an encouraging smile always -- she had been hired for the term by the Principal and seemed to have got on the wrong side of the Matron and the Vice Principal, Chhaya Das instantly. “Of course, Matron, I will be happy!” she said fluffing her hair with her free hand, eager to please.
Having finished her apple, and successfully discarded it, Nandita accompanied Matron outdoors into the cool evening air. She rubbed her eyes wondering if she had taken on a very boring job for the next 365 days. She had been in limbo, waiting for an acceptance letter to the M.A. course at the Mumbai University, when her friend had suggested computer and language classes. During one of the conferences at the computer centre, she had bumped into Sister Prudence who like her had been updating her computer knowledge. Talking to her new friend, she had explained her predicament- she was sitting idle with nothing to occupy her mind and day. The lady had at once asked for her resume and then asked her if she would be interested in a secretarial post. Nandita had wavered in the beginning, but after coming to know that the lady in question was none other than the Principal of the prestigious college, Mayfair College for Women, she had agreed. She had been offered board and lodging as part of her contract and then it seemed to Nandita an ideal opportunity to relax and enjoy herself in youthful company. And true to her feelings, she had liked it all -- coming to the College, getting settled and then finally meeting the young handsome supervisor of the construction company who had been doing renovations and construction for the college since two months. The only thorns had been the superior aloof attitude of Matron and the Vice Principal. Nandita sighed inwardly thinking – “Well….she could not expect everyone to like her!”
They came to the main building as the vans carrying the workmen moved out and Rajeev Ghosh raised his hand to her. Matron sniffed and Nandita felt irritated, but did not show it -- after all this was only for a term! She followed Matron down the path and into the main building.
“OK, Lets get started then,” said Matron seating herself into the swivel chair facing Nandita across the desk breathing heavily. A stout woman, with a red face and quick alert eyes, she was the backbone of the college administration and prided herself on the efficient running of the hostel. Nandita drew her chair closer and opening her pen set to work, pairing each child to a room.
“Just remember,” Matron paused midway, with pen in air, “Sister Prudence has laid down these rules- pretty silly, I must say!”
Nandita held her tongue offering no comment and looked down at the sheet of paper Matron had placed in front of her.
1. NO SENIOR COLLEGE THIRD YEAR STUDENT IS TO SHARE ROOMS WITH -
JUNIOR COLLEGE FIRST YEAR STUDENTS
SENIOR COLLEGE FIRST YEAR STUDENTS
SENIOR COLLEGE SECOND YEAR STUDENTS
2. SENIOR COLLEGE THIRD YEAR STUDENTS MUST SHARE ROOMS ONLY WITH --
JUNIOR COLLEGE FINAL YEAR STUDENTS
SENIOR COLLEGE THIRD YEAR STUDENTS MUST OCCUPY ROOMS ON THE FOURTH FLOOR ONLY!
Nandita suddenly felt thankful that had been educated in a co educational college in Mumbai. Nandita silently worked while Matron now transferred her disapproval again to Nandita thinking, “Why, when Sister had told her about her -- she had told Sister not to hire such a pretty young face -- but again Sister had ignored her. Humph!” Matron grunted causing Nandita raised her shaped brows. Nandita shook her head and went back to work. Matron continued her gloomy thoughts, “and now this girl had an admirer -- that silly supervisor boy who smoked so much. Everyday she was wearing flashier dresses and bright make up.” Matron shook her head thinking positively, “but she was a good and fast worker- that’s why her first choice to help her out with the hostel rooms had been Nandita Sharma!”
Matron now turned her attention to herself. “She knew whom to ask and whom to ignore. Now if she had been the Principal, she would have never hired Nandita, never admitted so many new girls and, most important never spent so much on construction. But perhaps she would get her chance when Sister retired. Chhaya Das had announced her retirement in another three months and so the field lay open and inviting for her. But time now to do some serious work and stop thinking about the future,” she ended her thoughts picking up her pen.
Both women worked silently for the next two hours. The blue sky paled and a sudden hush descended upon the buildings. Nandita yawned and said, “‘Finished at last! What a lot of girls.”
Nandita grinned and got up saying, “Time I went and caught supper!”
Matron watched the slim figure walk down the corridor to the back entrance leading to the Teacher’s Eating Quarters. Matron sighed and collected the sheaf of papers, tomorrow she would put up the notices on the hostel board but now, it was definitely time to eat something and then rest.