I walked down the stairs, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and searching blindly for the loud voice that woke me up on a Saturday morning. I could hear the one-sided conversation, it was time for the weekly call with Baba and Dadi. We would likely follow the call with a call to Nana and Nani. But for now, my curious young mind was piqued. Why was Papa so animated in this call? Interesting news from the tiny village his parents retired to after a lifetime of traveling the world on academic adventures as professors? It seemed doubtful, but Papa was as enthusiastic as when he got to choose the movie on family movie nights. Some were such classics we were ever grateful to be introduced to (i.e., Star Wars, Back to the Future, James Bond) and some were so dreary that even mini-scholar me could not tell the characters apart, much less the storylines (any old war film about elderly white generals). The rest of us went into movie night dubiously, scorned too often by the latter. I maintained the same skeptical attitude as I found my parents in the kitchen.
Papa was leaning against the counter, on the phone. Mama was standing nearby sipping coffee. I proceeded to hug my mom, then dad, a routine pick-me-up in my morning traditions, while mumbling sluggish good mornings to my parents’ cheery ones.
“What does it look like?” questioned Papa to the phone.
“Do you know why it’s there?” he followed up.
I looked questioningly at my mom.
“What is he talking about?”
“I don’t know, ask him.”
“Papa, what are you talking about?”
“Oh, I’m talking to Baba Dadi. They are doing some construction on their house and they found a secret room. Here, talk to them.”
Young me had to know more.
“In Hindi,” corrected my mother, as if everyone wasn’t perfectly fluent in English. In my halting and accented Hindi, I proceeded to greet them and in the most basic terms asked them how they were. Then I slipped hesitantly in Hindi peppered with English which turned into a stream of English. My curiosity was too complex for a foreign language. No reprimands from the parents as I sneakily glanced at them, likely not even realizing the subtle switch since transitioning between languages was so seamless to them it was probably unconscious after over two decades navigating two countries. I launched into questions about my grandparents’ recent revelation.
“How big is it? What does it look like? Where is it?” I was trying to picture wherein the little house could shelter a whole-ass secret room for who knows how long. At least a lifetime. What intrigue for a tiny gaanv, a village that lacked constant electricity and required books and outdoors for all entertainment. This was real-life intrigue, rather than the Bollywood kind that held me to the TV for much too long.
Apparently, it was small, but the floor had perfectly preserved wood. It looked like a dance floor. I couldn’t quite picture where the discovery was, it had been a while since I had visited. They assured me not to fret, they would show me when we visited this summer.
My brother had made his way downstairs and I passed the phone to him. I turned to my dad for the next few questions.
“But like, why is it there? And how could it have been hidden for so long?”
“I don’t know. They put a wall over it at some point and nobody knew until it came down during the renovations.”
A slow nod from me. I just could not accept this simple explanation. The avid consumer of young adult’ mysteries I was, I knew there had to be more. Move over Nancy Drew.
“Spooky, isn’t it? Summer mein dekhenge.”
“Yeah, I’m so excited. This is so cool.”
My brother finished his conversation, handing the phone back to our dad. He put it on speaker, giving my curiosity further room to interrogate.
“But Dadi, why is it there? It doesn’t make any sense for it to be built and then hidden, that’s useless.”
“I think the bandits probably used it to hide stuff. Did you know Baba’s family used to be bandits?”
“Like…gundas?” I questioned further.
Chuckles emanated from the mature adults at my filmy vocabulary to interpret this situation, but the circumstances demanded it.
“It’s nothing like that, you know my family used to work for the British Raj, Jagriti ji.” You could hear the eye roll Baba embedded in that statement.
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“Your family wasn’t so innocent according to what I heard from your mother and uncles. They cleaned up their act by the time you came around.”
Dadi continued, “Yes, beta! Even once before when doing constructions we found gold coins.”
My dad mirrored his father’s eye roll with a smirk, shaking his head at me to signal she must be kidding. Still, 11-year-old me was fully ready to investigate and get underneath this enigma. This was the real-life escapade for which every Harry Potter and Percy Jackson sequel I poured through was preparing me.
As we entered Bahri, the driver navigated the sedan through the narrow streets of the village, too small even for the small car. A scene straight out of the Shahrukh Khan movie Swades. My long term goal was to transition my very normal life into a Bollywood movie. This seemed in the vein of the grand entrances they require, so I was confident I was well on my way.
We parked just inside the gates of the property, in front of my Baba Dadi’s little house, next to a courtyard flower garden they maintained. Dadi liked making rose perfume and Baba was a professor of agricultural genetics so plants were a preoccupation. They must have heard the car coming, or the commotion it caused in town because they opened the door right as we pulled up. Or maybe they just had a sixth sense about their son’s arrival.
Lots of hugs.
“Kitne bade ho gaye ho! How tall you’ve gotten!” exclaimed Dadi to me and my brother. “Are those new specs?”
“Yes Dadi, I got them a few months ago.”
I tried to remain respectful of the family reunion, but like, was nobody as excited about finally seeing this so-called “hidden room?” Clearly not, because we went inside for chai with no mention of it.
I sat quietly sipping my Frooti while the adults drank their steaming chai in the steaming heat and snacking on Parle-G. Why drink burn-your-tongue-hot chai in the Indian summer? The highly scientific explanation I got was that heating up your body to the temperature outside made the weather more bearable. I think this was a cover-up for the real explanation that chai set the mood for the gupshup that gossipy desis couldn’t live without. The heat could not hold a candle to this.
“You still haven’t asked Baba and Dadi about that secret room you were so excited about,” prompted my mom. Finally.
“Yes! Where is it? Can we go see it?”
My palpable excitement led the way around the side of the house to…a huge letdown. This was not a room. It was barely a nook the size of a large flat rate box from the post office. The bottom was lined with the perfectly preserved hardwood floors, as advertised. I tried not to make my disappointment as obvious as my eager anticipation. After a few more seconds of looking, I turned to my dad. He was still peering in and pulled away to ask, “Papa, what’s that hole at the top? Where does it go?”
He had a better view than I did because this observation was not visible to my low stature.
“We can’t tell, apparently we would have to tear down the whole wall if we want to know.”
“I think it’s a pipe that leads to the roof so they could funnel gold down,” interjected Dadi.
“Kya?” my dad and I blurted in sync.
“Haan! Yes, I told you on the phone how Chacha is trying to write a family history. He found old letters that back up what I was telling you about Papa’s family being bandits! So maybe those gundas hid their treasures here.”
So apparently she was not kidding. I guess we were going to have to take these allegations seriously.
Mohan walked up to Kavya’s teeming garden on the same narrow, unpaved streets their great-great-grandchildren would struggle to drive their car down a little more than a century later. She was waiting for him on a bench amongst the pink roses, green chilies, and red tomatoes she planted in front of her parents’ freshly constructed home, courtesy of the governor.
“Mohan, why did you call me here?” Kavya asked in hushed tones in case her parents decided to visit her garden.
“I’m going on another mission,” responded Mohan, matching her volume.
“Oh my god. You’ve done so much already. I thought we agreed we were done.”
“I know, Kavya. But I was thinking, how can we stop knowing we haven’t won? These badmaash, shady colonizers and their bewakoof chamchas can’t take our land and money without even a fight.”
“Shut up, you know you are talking about my father. He is not a lackey and he will call off the shaadi if he finds out. The wedding is in two weeks, do you want to get married, or not?”
“He won’t find out shit, Kavya. Are you in or not?”
“Oh, of course I’m in. What kind of question is that?” Kavya declared, affronted Mohan would presume to question her dedication.
“Right,” responded Mohan with a smirk and eye roll, knowing that questioning her scruples would be the quickest way to move forward.
Mohan explained that the gora governor of Bahri and the surrounding villages kept a stash of gold inside the safe in his office, according to reports from his servants. It was purchased through the taxes he collected from the town. They were going to get it and return it to the people to whom it belonged.
“Okay, but how will we get in?” Kavya was careful, ready to poke holes in any plan.
“The guard has agreed to let us in at 1 AM tonight.”
“And then what’s your plan? Are we going to bumble around his bungalow opening doors until we find the office?” Kavya said, raising her arms in exasperation. She hated Mohan’s habit of giving information in morsels as if there wasn’t enough suspense already.
“Nahi, no, we have the floor plan,” said Mohan triumphantly, laying bare his trump card. Nothing more left for Kavya to question. He had the upper hand, finally.
“How? The servants do not have the kind of education to draw blueprints.”
Mohan had been bested again. Of course, she had another question.
“They are coming from the local leaders of the independence movement.”
“Who? Isn’t that too convenient? Mohan, what if it’s a trap?”
“It’s not, Kavya. You know they can’t tell us who they are. It’s too risky, they could lose their access to the Raj and be persecuted. It would put everyone in danger.”
“Theek hai, okay. What’s my role?”
“Wait for me on your roof. I’ll bring the gold and you will need to hide it in your house until we can redistribute it. The governor trusts your father too much to search his house after he realizes what’s missing.”
“Fine, I’ll see you tonight.”
Mohan tore through the unpaved streets of the village in his flopping chappals with the governor’s son in pursuit, but Mohan had home pitch advantage. The gora didn’t know the town like Mohan. He grew up in British boarding schools, Mohan grew up playing street cricket. He took a sharp left, then a quick right, slipping into Kavya’s courtyard from the small side entrance. Her’s was the only house in the gaanv that was gated. Her father was the tax collector, and for that he was compensated royally.
Devoid of breath, Mohan made his way up the staircase that led to Kavya’s roof and tonight, Kavya herself. This was not the first time he had to make an escape faster than sound, but how had he not heard the muffled and argumentative tones from the top of the house? When he did he was already in full view of not only Kavya, but also her papa.
“I knew it was you she was sneaking up here to see. Beech raat main aise chup chup ke milne ki kya zaroorat hai? What’s the need to meet secretly like this? You’re getting married in a few weeks, aren’t you? Does anyone stop you from meeting all day? Then? As if I don’t have enough on my mind tonight.”
Mohan and Kavya were calcified, jolted back into motion only at the sound of knocking on the front door. All three peered over the side of the roof to see the governor’s son waiting. Now it was Papa’s turn to be petrified. Mohan was confused. What had Papa done wrong that he looked so scared? Papa looked back at Mohan, noticing the large bag on his shoulder for the first time.
He motioned silently for Mohan to bear its contents, putting the pieces together in his mind before Mohan even opened it. Afraid to make the situation worse and convinced Papa would protect him, if only to protect his own family, Mohan opened the bag. Papa took a quick glance to confirm his suspicions and quickly moved to the other side of the roof to move a collection of potted plants to reveal a latch which opened to a coin-sized pipe. He wordlessly instructed the couple to stash the coins down the pipe. Mohan and Kavya stared at each other, eyes as wide as the moonlighting their escapade. Why the hell did Papa have this secret hiding place? As they hid the gold, Papa went downstairs to smoothly handle their uninvited midnight guest.
“What happened, John? My god, how could they? The rascals! Did you see their face?”
A sigh of relief at the negative answer.
“Son, he’ll be long gone by now. There is no point in searching so late at night. Go, get some sleep. We’ll see what to do in the morning.”
CLANK. CLANK. CLANK.
John whipped back towards the house.
“What was that noise?”
Papa’s nails were digging into his palms. As well thought out as his plan for hiding the gold was, there was one key oversight: Metal on metal falling down a pipe makes a very noticeable noise.
Kavya and Mohan paused their activities when they heard the voices.
“Oh, it’s just the servants doing the dishes. You know how clumsy they can be,” offered Papa.
“At 2 AM?” questioned John, suspicions rising, peering over Papa’s burly body into the house.
“Yes, the maid puts her kids to bed before doing the dishes so they are ready for school. I will go reprimand her, she’ll wake the whole house! Anyway go home, get some sleep.”
John backed away, still facing Papa and the house when he noticed motion on the roof.
“Someone’s on your roof, sir!”
Papa bit his lip, trying to calm his irritation at his daughter and future son-in-law’s thoughtless behavior. Who could he blame, she got it from him. His wife never approved of his own involvement in the leading the independence movement either. Her opinion: Why question a good income? For a brief moment, he shared that thought.
“Yes, Kavya and her mother are sleeping on the roof tonight, the bedrooms can get quite stuffy in the summer,” he smoothly countered.
Not an abnormal activity, so John seemed placated. He walked away hesitantly, and Papa did not break his plastered on a smile until John was long out of sight.
Janmashtami festivities were swinging fully, hosted in Kavya’s courtyard by her family. Only they had the space to accommodate the celebrations and related activities. The whole town was crowded into the yard, barely leaving space to move, much less breathe. The governor and his family were situated in a place of honor on the porch, the only guests with seats. Any attempt to rise and serve themselves was squashed by doting villagers with their own hidden agenda. They needed to keep the governor from the real activity.
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On the other side was a nook in the outer wall of the house with a pristine wood floor to hold a large murti of the god of the day, Krishna. While each guest went to pay their respects, they reached into the nook, out of sight of the governor, and pushed an inconspicuous lever, unnoticeable unless previously informed, and out of a pipe fell into their folded hands a single gold coin. Slipped surreptitiously into pockets and purses, the worshippers went on with the day’s festivities with the blessings of both Krishna and Laxmi supporting the entire gaanv’s quiet rebellion.
“Dadi, do you know what the gundas did? Where did they go? What did they steal?”
“I don’t know exactly, beta. The letters were very vague, they probably didn’t want their activities in writing.”
“Well, this is definitely not a room, Papa,” said my dad noting the obvious.
“Ok, I know. I wasn’t sure how else to describe it.”
“You know, Mummy, you could put a small pooja ghar here. A little temple with all the deities. And put in a door so they don’t get ruined out here. It looks like there are already hinges, maybe that’s what this actually was,” suggested Mama.
“That may be true! That’s a really good idea, hai na? We’ll do that.”