The Child on the Balcony
by Vimala Ramu
It was known as Officers’ slums, though it sounded like an oxymoron. The old wartime barracks were ready to be pulled down. But till such time as they would be (till the money was sanctioned for it) the barracks, a two storey affair, were divided into household units and allotted to willing officers. Yes, willing. There was quite a queue for these quarters, their USP being the location. Situated on the road parallel to Rajpath, New Delhi, its vicinity to offices, schools, India gate lawns and Connaught Place was something which attracted the officers to occupy them in spite of their ramshackle condition. An added attraction was the National Museum of India right across the road. On our part we welcomed the allotment as all our family finances had been diverted towards building a house in Bangalore.
The hostel (as it was officially known) had all the facilities of the modern gated colonies__sentries at the gate, children’s park, clubhouse with a single TV (Those days TVs had not yet reached our homes), an impromptu open air theatre, a library etc. With plenty of good company children just loved the place. They could even watch the Republic Day parade on Rajpath from the roof.
As for accommodation itself, it was a set of individual rooms connected by a common verandah from which one could carve out their share by blocking with piled up packing cases. Next came a lobby with no door which we had converted to our drawing room. The three big rooms available for each unit were our master bedroom, children’s room and the dining room. The orderly’s rooms were used as kitchen and a store room. The bathroom was spacious with a bathtub of Victorian vintage and dimensions, big enough for my youngest son to learn his first lessons in swimming.
With all these facilities, one thing the hostel could not boast of was privacy. With a flimsy mesh door separating our part of the corridor from outside, any one could walk in. In fact, a dog had sneaked in once, fought with the stuffed fox displayed in our ‘drawing room’ corner and had the poor fox all disemboweled. He left only when he was sure he had vanquished the enemy!
The ladies had formed a club for whiling away their time with cards and mahjong. I for myself preferred to make good use of the library and my neighbour was a renowned painter.
This lack of privacy would lead to embarrassing situations sometimes. One of my neighbours, a college mate of mine and a teacher walked in one day full of righteous indignation. She told me, “Can you imagine Vimala, a child in the opposite row upstairs, had dragged a chair on the verandah and was trying to look down the balcony? I called the housewife out and gave it real good to her. I told her that people like her did not deserve children and it was sheer carelessness on her part to let the child do such a risky thing.” I asked her to cool down and patiently inquired which lady it was and which child it was. Just imagine her embarrassment when she found that the lady who faced her wrath had just been married and had no children as yet. The child belonged to some other family elsewhere in the hostel.
Of course the real parents did need that lecture but certainly not the young lady who was responsible neither for the situation nor for the very existence of the child!