The Reflection – A Short Story of the Raj heritage of Shimla – Malashri Lal

Among the many bits of old and discarded furniture that stood against the wall of that old mansion was a mirror that many tourists missed. Edged with a faded gold border, it was designed like a screen inthree folds. It must have been attached to a dressing table once upon a time but now it was just an ordinary piece awaiting attention. I bent and peered into it, and saw….just half my face! Yet the mirror was not a broken one….

 

 

The reflection hardly looked like me as I had never seen before just one eye, kohl rimmed and bleary with travel fatigue, half a spill of long strands of hair, and certainly never one ear with green danglers. Distraught, I rubbed the mirror hoping to take the mist away to reveal my familiar full face. Nothing changed. The mirror was clean enough. But just a gentle crack in the surface scratched the skin on my fingertips.

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A voice spoke up from behind and I almost shrieked. I pirouetted on my heels ready to face some strange figure. But it was only the khaki clad guard of the mansion saying “Bibiji, bahar jayiye, please leave as I have to close the public areas.’ I cast a hasty glance at the mirror which once again seemed to have retreated into its obscure existence amidst grand scale furniture, Flemish tapestry and portraits of whiskered viceroys. My scratched fingertip tingled faintly as though carrying the stamp of another call.  I knew I would be back, tomorrow, earlier in the day…..

 

 

Next afternoon I dressed carefully remembering that the mirror would be my witness to whatever mystery it was hiding and I was to discover. A white kameez matched with a powder blue bandhni dupatta and a plain blue salwar seemed apt. A bright bindi, in red and a new set of jhumka earrings in blue and red, my favorite combination. I reached the public viewing room of the mansion about 4 pm giving myself a full hour to the official closing time. Uncommonly there was a crowd of tourists today, seemingly from Britain and very animatedly enquiring about the historical past of the building. A rather young English guide emerged from the crowd to point them to various artifacts as she focused on the era of Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905. Instead of dry facts, she was elaborating upon the times and capers of the aristocratic women. Her subject really was Lady Mary Curzon of whom I knew only that she had died of a mysterious illness at the young age of 36.

 

 

Tending to eavesdrop on the guide’s account, I caught snippets of gossip, rather surprised that an English tour guide would convey such intimate details of a bygone time. Lady Mary Curzon was Chicago born, an heiress and far more popular than her husband, the Viceroy. Fun loving and experimental in taste, she took to Indian-tailored dresses and made them fashionable at the balls she would host. And yes, some part of this same mansion where the tour was being conducted had a ball room with sprung wooden floors on which glamorous couples would have twirled to the strains of European music. All listeners were intently taking in the vivid descriptions, and I too was absorbed in the guide’s recalling.

 

 

Unexpectedly our eyes met. There was a chilling stare from her, and a shiver in my spine. Because I was intruding into her group? Because I was challenging her assumptions of an unknown history? And then I noticed her clothes and stopped in my tracks. They were a reflection of mine.  A white jacket with a blue silk scarf, dark blue pants, and earrings that were red and blue. We averted our eyes from each other as though denying a recognition of which we knew no origin. Her narrative continued, somewhat interrupted, as though she was carefully choosing her words.

 

 

Lady Curzon, yes, she went for local crafts and fashion accessories too, and of course, she also  wanted to do something for conserving the forest reserves in north India. Was it not Kaziranga that she helped set up, asked one member from the tour, clearly a wild life enthusiast. ‘Maybe’, was the evasive answer from the guide. Her confidence had wavered.  She was looking askance at me, as I too was drawn towards the sartorial resemblance   and an uncanny sense of contact.

 

 

I tried to move away but was stopped by a creaking sound from the corner. It was the mirror, the cracked mirror as I had started calling it in my mind. One of its three panels was swaying in a draught coming in through the open door. It half closed over the cracked panel and opened in the counter breeze a few times as though trying to make words. I wanted to go out, run away from this strange electric field, but the English group was coming my way and I could only move towards the wall. Some questions asked of the tour guide caught my ears…. ‘Mary Curzon threw balls and parties lived a good life… why and how did she die so young? And where?’ The English guide seemed troubled, almost choking over her words…. ‘The vicerene, Lady Curzon contracted a disease, perhaps here, in this terrain… She went to England, for treatment, but her deliriums got worse. She dreamt of…of… the Taj Mahal and wanted a memorial of the same grandeur….she asked, she asked for…. India…..’

 

 

A voice behind all us visitors called out, “Bahar jayiye, please leave as I have to close the public areas.” The guard on duty was the same lad as on the previous day. The group of English tourists obediently filed past, the young tour guide hastily leading the way out with just a last parting shot at me, a kind of strained fear in her eyes. Or was I imagining all of this? I straightened up and sought to complete the task I had originally set in the morning, that is, check out the mirror and verify its odd crack. Being the last person in the room, I bent to take a closer look at the old mirror. To my horror, I saw half my face again… one dark eye, strands of black hair, today’s red and blue earrings. But wait! There was another shadowy reflection beyond the crack. Another half a face…fair skinned, blonde strands of hair, one light colored eye, a different design of red-blue earrings and the  trail of a blue scarf. She was combing her hair, I wasn’t……

 

 

I stumbled out of the room, out of the building and hobbled on to the street beyond. There was no trace of the English tourist group, nor the khaki clad guard… Only the orange glow of the setting sun as it dipped over Summer Hill and centuries of history.

 

 

Malashri Lal is the Joint Director of
the University of Delhi, South Campus
and a Professor in the Department of
English.

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