Culture & Society

Colonel Chengappa's Legacy

Colonel Chengappa and his wife were there to receive them outside their charming, colonial-era cottage, located on top of a hill and only a short walk away from the town.

Sketch of the characters | Illustration: Danesh Bharucha
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The taxi was waiting for them at Coimbatore station for their early morning arrival. The 70 km ride to Kotagiri, located at about 1800m above sea level, offered stunning views of picturesque tea plantations dotting the road on either side, with a circle of misty blue hills wrapped in dense Shola forests enveloping the entire landscape. It is these mist-clad hills that had given the name “Nilgiris” to this range of mountains in South India, since ‘Nilgiri’ literally means “Blue Mountain.” 

Colonel Chengappa and his wife were there to receive them outside their charming, colonial-era cottage, located on top of a hill and only a short walk away from the town. Colonel Chengappa was a tall and sturdy man with an erect posture that belied his seventy-odd years. He sported a thick, military-style moustache under a large, fleshy nose and a high forehead topped with a balding pate with straggly wisps of grey hair on the sides and on his temples. 

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A caricature of Colonel Chengappa. | Illustration: Danesh Bharucha


Standing by his side was his wife, a slightly plump woman in her mid-sixties, with a kindly, smiling face and a pair of glasses with circular frames that emphasized the roundness of her face. The house had a quaintly rustic air about it with its high sloping roof, flower patterned window curtains and red oxide tiled flooring. The two bedrooms had large, brass four poster beds with white mosquito net canopies and the snug coziness of the small sitting room was enhanced by ample leather armchairs around a brick fireplace and hearth.

At one end of the garden was a wooden shed that the Colonel had converted as his study. His study was his own private domain to which no intruders were allowed. The door of the study was kept permanently locked and only the Colonel had access to this exclusive haven where he isolated himself for long hours during the course of each day.

Inside the shed was a large roll-top desk with several drawers and cubbyhole compartments. One drawer was stacked with letterheads, envelopes and blank sheets of paper, whilst another was filled with medals and mementos. The small compartments on either side were crammed with fountain pens, ballpoint pens, pencils, paper clips, staple pins and other miscellaneous stationery items.

Next to the writing desk was a wooden bookcase with a sliding glass door containing row upon row of hardbound books, ranging from classical tomes and contemporary novels to volumes of the Reader’s Digest collection of condensed stories, books on warfare and military strategy, and self-help and do- it-yourself manuals.

The opposite wall was lined with two large wooden stands with several dust-covered shelves piled high with back issues of sundry magazines, sheaves of newspaper cuttings bundled together with string and a large heap of filed correspondence, both personal and official. Two shelves contained an array of sport trophies, collectables and souvenirs gathered from the Colonel’s several trips around the world, whereas the lowest shelf contained several tin boxes filled with old family photographs. 

When they had moved from the city to their retirement home in the hills, the Colonel’s wife had suggested that they clear some of the clutter and get rid of some of the unwanted stuff. But the Colonel had been adamant. He was a hoarder and loathed discarding anything.
“These are my most valued possessions and I would never consider giving anything away,” he remonstrated with his wife. “Who knows - one day some of these items might come in use.”  Knowing how stubborn her husband could be, his wife let the matter drop and the move to the hills was completed lock, stock and barrel, with nothing discarded or left behind. The Colonel’s precious possessions were left intact and found their new home in his den in the converted shed.

One morning the Colonel’s seclusion in his den was interrupted by an urgent summons from the town’s Municipal Council, of which he was an active member. He popped his head into the window to tell his wife that he was going down to the town, and left hurriedly, accompanied by the person who had come to fetch him. Lakshmi was helping her mother in her cake-making whilst young Shruti stood by waiting to lick the leftover batter off the sides of the cake bowl.

Twelve-year-old Aarti was pottering around in the garden, restless and angry with herself for having forgotten to bring along her favourite story books. She stomped around from one end of the garden to the other and stopped before her grandfather’s study. She was surprised to see that the door to the shed, which normally was always locked in the Colonel’s absence, had been left open. She hesitated, remembering her grandfather’s commandment that no one was allowed inside his study. But curiosity got the better of her and, opening the door a fraction, she quietly tiptoed in.
She stared wide-eyed around her in amazement at the wide assortment of objects that crowded the little room. Ignoring the writing desk, she walked towards the bookcase. Should she take one of her grandfather’s books? There were so many, surely he would not mind parting with one of them? She gingerly slid aside the glass sliding door and rifled through the stack of books on the lower shelf which she thought might contain an interesting story book. Her eyes settled on a book with a charming cover of a street scene with white snow-capped roof tops and gentle snowflakes falling on an old-fashioned street lamp. It was “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. She was sure she would like the story and closing the bookshelf she tucked the book under her arm and turned around to leave. 

She passed one of the wooden stands and her eye was caught by a biscuit tin on the lower shelf with a picture of a fluffy looking grey kitten with a bright red ribbon around her neck. Aarti loved cats and this new discovery was too tempting to let by. She crouched low and opened the tin. It was full of old photographs and right on top of the pile she saw a familiar looking picture of a girl around her own age. She let out a squeal of delight as she realised that the girl in the picture was none other than her own mother. She was on the verge of going through more photos when she heard the sound of approaching footsteps on the gravel outside. She quickly shut the box of photos and stood up just as she saw her grandfather enter through the door of the shed.
 
Aarti had been caught by her grandfather on forbidden territory. Not just that, she had taken one of his books without his permission and she would now have to bear the consequences. However, not one to be easily flustered, she quickly gathered her wits about her and faced him boldly:
“Grandpa, I was looking for something to read and since the door of your study was open, I came in and picked up one of your books. I am sorry. I hope you don’t mind.”

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She was expecting to be severely reprimanded but to her surprise, her grandfather just glared at her and said:

“It’s OK. Just be sure you put it back when you have finished reading the book.”    

Relieved, she mumbled a quick thank you and, her heart thumping, she rushed out of the shed and back into the house.  At the lunch table that afternoon no mention was made of the morning’s incident either by the Colonel or by his granddaughter. But later in the privacy of their bedroom Aarti confided to her mother and related to her exactly what had transpired: 

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“I am sorry Mummy; it was wrong of me to have taken the book without asking. But Grandpa has so many books in his study. Wouldn’t it be nice for him to give some of them to us? Shruti is still young, but surely he must know how fond both of us are of books and reading. Do you know, he actually asked me to put back the book after I had finished reading it?”

Lakshmi tried to calm and sooth her daughter:

“Aarti, I know how upsetting this must be for you. But that is the way Grandpa is. Don’t let it bother you. Sometimes people do get a bit funny in their old age.”

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“I understand, Mummy. But in his study Grandpa also has so many old family photographs. I saw a lovely picture of you when you were my age. I would like so much for him to share these memories with us. We could all sit together and enjoy seeing them. I am sure Grandma would like that too.”

“I will speak to him, Aarti, and we will try and get something organized. I know you would love to see some of his travel souvenirs too.” 

Author's Note: 
Will the Colonel be persuaded to unlock his past and share his memories and possessions with his family? You must read the full story to find out. Be prepared for a surprise !!!
(Colonel Chengappa’s Legacy » is available in a collection of 15 illustrated short stories entitled « The Missing Tile and Other Stories » in Kindle and Paperback versions on all Amazon platforms worldwide.)

Bangalore-based writer, Saeed Ibrahim, is the author of two books - “Twin Tales from Kutcch,” a family saga set in Colonial India, and “The Missing Tile and Other Stories,” a collection of 15 short stories. Saeed was educated at St. Mary’s High School and St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and later, at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. His other writings include newspaper articles, some travel writing, several book reviews and two essays for the Museum of Material Memory. His short stories have been published in “The Deccan Herald,” “The Beacon Webzine,” “Bengaluru Review,” “The Blue Lotus Magazine” “Borderless Journal” “Muse India” and “Outlook India.”

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