Non-fiction

The White Hand
- Samidha Kalia

Memory is a subjective concept and one can’t truly ever rely on memory for facts and figures. It tends to hold something that is not always real; illusions become reality. Recently, I had the fortune to go to Shimla and explore the hills for about three days. I was sitting, sipping my morning chai at India Coffee House, overlooking the vast expanse of the historical and the modern mixed together. I had to buy books and I was a little impatient because I hadn’t found a single bookshop yet. I was aware about the multitude of ghost stories set in Shimla, mostly related to British governors and officers, about ghosts haunting their old villas and estates. Shimla was after all once the summer capital of our country.

While I was sitting in the crowded y coffee shop, an old man came and sat down next to my chair. It was a very informal place. Due to the large crowd and the lack of adequate chairs, anyone could sit anywhere. This man, having failed to find an empty chair, had sat down beside me. I was looking at my phone, noting down the book shops in the vicinity. He must’ve seen me doing this because he asked me where I had come from. I told him I had come from Delhi. We talked about the weather and the atmosphere in Delhi and whether the rains were late this year again. He didn’t follow the news much; it terrified him. 

When he asked me why I was in Shimla, I acted a little foolishly.I told him, officially, I had come for my department trip but, unofficially because I wanted to witness a real Shimla-Ghost. I had expected the old man to at least laugh at me, but instead he gave me a curious look, which made me realize I wasn’t the only tourist who thought this way. I felt I might have offended him, so I apologized. He sipped his tea or a good few minutes, making it extremely difficult for me to get up and leave. Then he looked at me and pointed to the door.

He told me a story, which I am not sure is true. Memory, I say again, is very unreliable. It iscomplicated and becomes an important motivator in people’s lives. I don’t know whether he was making fun of me or if this was a true event in his life. This is what he said: ‘When I was a young man, I used to walk towards the Public Library. You must’ve come across it. It has red brick walls and was made by the British. The one with the ramp, yes? It has one floor which was accessible to college students only. Anyway, I used to go and do some maths there. Yes, it was Ganit. My father was not a very learned man and this was about seventeen years after Independence. The Raj had left by that time, but the conflicts had not.

I was sitting I remember and I thought what fun it would be if I worked in this library. It was almost around 10.00 pm. The library hadn’t closed for some reason. Yes ... because there was an event the next day and they were tidying it....? No, it wasn’t that. It was something else.  Memory fails me now.

 I stayed there till  about 11.00-11.30 pm. Actually, I fell  asleep. When I woke up I gathered the handful of books and put them back into their place upon the shelves. You need to know that coming to the library to study was a common habit with me; I couldn’t get rid of it. I worked in my father’s shop too. It used to be right here, on Mall Road, but we closed it after the dispute. However, that’s a story for another time. I used to go to the library to get the figures straight. I made the charts and divided the money. Not many people were educated, so few went there and that was best for me, because I could easily open the wad of cash I had and settle down to do the maths.  

I was on the first floor on the left side if  you were facing the library. Suddenly, I heard heavy footsteps. The voices that followed were very peculiar. People wore boots, but these were heavy boots and the sound echoed through the wooden floor. I opened the door and knew I was in trouble; waited for a minute just to be sure -- then heard the steps ahgain. The sound was coming from above. Now, like I said, the library had only one floor, so how could the sound come from an upper floor? I thought I was hallucinating. I walked towards the stairs that led to the ground floor. Yes, the voice was definitely coming from above. I waited near the first step. The boots suddenly stopped, right above where I was standing. I didn’t dare breathe.

A very English voice said, ‘No Indians ... filth...full of them... night and studies... barbarians need not  have...’ and then stopped. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what it meant. It was British. Of that I was sure.

There was another sound -- as if a door was opening. I scrambled back to the library. The boots came down some staircase and went passed  the library door, right behind which I stood. Perhaps I saw a shadow too, but I may have been mistaken. There went towards the ground floor. By now I was sweating and my heart was racing.

There was shuffling of feet, more noise and then the sound of steps coming up the staircase. They stopped right outside the door. I stood there transfixed.

‘This library is not for Indians. It was made for us. Run before I whip you to shreds. Last warning. You have till midnight.’

I stood still through all. The door opened a little and I saw a very white hand slip through. It automatically banged the door shut. Then there were more noises of the boots going up. I looked at the clock. The door to the non-existent second floor shut behind them. I grabbed my bag and darted towards the steps that took me to the ground floor and kept running till I was a kilometre away from the library. I looked back and could still see it. I had made it out of there and was here in about ten minutes, but now that I looked at it, all the lights were out, the windows ajar and the gate closed, as if --as if the library was shut. But that wasn’t possible because I had just come from there. I turned around and ran all the way to my house. I didn’t go there ever again and never entertained the thought of being a librarian. Even now I never do. I can’t do it myself, but I would appreciate it if you could go look at the library and let me know whether there are two floors or one. I ask everyone. Each time  the answer is the same.’

I left the table five minutes later. I did go to the library. It had only one floor. And there was no way it could ever have a second floor. I walked aimlessly with the story in my head, trying to find a ration explanation of what had happened. I walked and walked until I came across a book store. Upon entering my eyes found the book that I knew I had to buy immediately. It was called Ghost Stories of Shimla Hills.

BIO:

Samidha Kalia is a story-collector. She studies Literature in Lady Shri Ram College for Women, a fitting course for a story collector. In her free time she reads a lot of fantasy tries to explore the city and groans about wanting to have good food, but being unable to pay for it. Music is her therapy and so is Tom Riley. She also has a blog where she rants about the everyday problems of life and tries to sound creative while simultaneously devouring seven cups of tea.

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Samidha Kalia is a story-collector. She studies Literature in Lady Shri Ram College for Women, a fitting course for a story collector. In her free time she reads a lot of fantasy tries to explore the city and groans about wanting to have good food, but being unable to pay for it. Music is her therapy and so is Tom Riley. She also has a blog where she rants about the everyday problems of life and tries to sound creative while simultaneously devouring seven cups of tea.