The place was Bangalore….and those were the 90s. December was the best time of the year- the festive mood was infectious and the air was filled with the sound of laughter, Christmas carols, church bells and pop music and ballads playing off the records that people passionately collected. The nights were cold and I loved to be warm and cosy in my bed. But the darkness frightened me. I do not remember which I feared more- the ghosts I had read about in books, or the robbers that I knew were real. Back then, I believed in ghosts. As I lay in the dark, with my eyes closed tight, I was certain that if I opened my eyes, it would be to find ghosts in my room. My heart pounded loud and I was sure that ‘they’ could hear it. I would pray hard and pull the sheets over my head. My breathing was laboured and I would be drenched in sweat. I was certain that even if I wanted to run, I wouldn’t be able to move a finger- I was so frozen. Even if I wanted to scream, the voice would just die in my throat. Long hours would pass in this fear and there were nights when I wouldn’t sleep until the early hours of morning. At other times, exhaustion would take over and I would sleep fitfully. Sometimes, the fear of an intruder overrode the fear of ghosts. I would gaze at the window and let my imagination take over as shadows moved across the window. The stairs to the rooms upstairs were right outside my room and the slightest noise would make me wonder if there was someone at the stairs….what if someone had broken in through the door upstairs and come straight down? Every day, I feared the night and the darkness that came with it.
It was around this time that a new Goorkha made appearance. The colony had a Goorkha, but then he was never to be seen or heard….except on the last couple of nights of each month, when he was to receive his wages for the month. Then we heard him- he would blow his whistle so loud that it would wake us all up. But this new Goorkha was different. He was middle-aged, with twinkling eyes and a silvery moustache. His face was pleasant, but when he smiled, the smile seemed to hide some deeper sorrow.
From then on, the nights were different. This gentleman turned up promptly every night and went about his night patrols dutifully. The sound of his whistle was most reassuring to me. As the sound faded into the night, I would be anxious. But it would return in some time. Around midnight, he would stop his patrolling and take refuge at our doorstep. I would hear him cough occasionally. It would make me feel guilty for I lay in my bed, warm and comfortable. I imagined him at the doorstep- cold and shivering. I shuddered to think of all the potential dangers that lurked in the darkness that surrounded him. But the presence of that human being just outside my window was reassuring. My fears were alleviated and I slept peacefully.
On the days he came to collect his wages, he talked about his family, particularly his daughter. He reminded me so much of the ‘kabuliwala’ I had read. As I thought about him, far away from the familiarity of his home in an alien land….far away from all that he loved and treasured, my heart went out to him.
He was around for an year or two. Towards the end of that tenure, he was increasingly restless and anxious. He seemed eager to get back home. When he finally announced his departure, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I longed for him to be reunited with his land and family. On the other hand, I knew I was going to miss the reassuring presence of this human being at my doorstep every night.
Years have gone by….I am in a different place and time. My fear of darkness is on a more rational note now- it doesn’t give me sleepless nights. But to this day, his face is vivid in my memory. I wonder if he is still alive….if his silvery moustache is all white….if the sadness of his smile has vanished. I wonder if the mountains can echo to him my thoughts and my eternal gratitude to him for the difference he made to the little mind that was terrified of darkness….