Rangoon Villa in Patel Nagar has been renovated and one doesn’t see the marble plate proclaiming it to be so but in the third decade of the 20th century there was a bungalow in the Civil Lines, which was referred to as Rangoon House, though there was no such sign outside it.
The person who occupied it was an old Eurasian bachelor, Jeremmy Caleb, who had lived long in Rangoon and was very fond of the girls there and relating his experiences. He spent Christmas in vbut at Easter time he was always in Delhi. And that was also when he held his annual party.
The man seemed to have made good money in Burma, both as a high-salaried officer and also as an amateur treasure-hunter. He was believed to have unearthed hoards of gold coins buried by Burmese kings, the last of whom was exiled to India by the British.
In Delhi, his maternal granduncle had been among the prize-agents, who had collected a lot of treasure from aristocratic Muslim homes in the aftermath of 1857 recapture of Shahjahanabad by the East India Company troops and the consequent harassment of the residents.
Being a widower without issue, Granduncle Kenneth had left all his wealth to Caleb’s mother, after whose death he had inherited the asharfis, silver coins and jewellery.
This is as per the late Mrs Macdonald’s account. This lady used to stay in Kashmere Gate and was close to the Skinner family, one was told by Mrs Winifried Singh, wife of the noted surgeon Dr C B Singh, herself a Skinner relative, who had met the doctor at Thompson Hospital, Agra, where she was serving as a nurse.
Their friendship led to marriage (the second for the surgeon). Well, Caleb was no relative of Mrs Singh but knew her as the pretty girl, who used to live in Nicholson Road in the Skinner Haveli. But, whatever she had heard about him was from her mother Mrs D’Souza, who had attended many Easter parties at Rangoon House, along with Mrs Macdonald.
There were two stories that Caleb was fond of repeating. One concerned an Englishman. That officer was riding to Haflong on the Indo-Burmese border in 1899 or so but got benighted and reined in his horse wondering whether he should continue the journey or return home.
He finally decided to move on as it was a full moon night. As he proceeded merrily he saw a strange sight ~ a pack of wolves and leading them was a wild, unkept woman, hair streaming in the breeze and her naked body glistening with sweat.
The Englishman’s path crossed that of the wild pack and the wolves began to follow him. It was a long chase and finally the horse stumbled and the rider crashed to the ground to be captured by the wild woman, from whose cave he managed to escape after several days. The other story was about the weird sights seen on the Yamuna in Delhi. This is based on inputs by Caleb’s guests before his death in the 1970s.
Lohe-ka-Pul, or the iron bridge on the Yamuna, dates back to 1863-66, a 12-spanned wonder of its time, whose construction began just a year after Bahadur Shah Zafar’s death.
The last Emperor, incidentally, had opposed the East India Company’s plan for a bridge right behind the Red Fort that would bring trains into the city. It was built for a single railway line but converted into a double line in 1932 and reopened in 1934 because of increased traffic on the Northern Railway.
Like that there are many bridges in Delhi but none like Lohe-ka-Pul, emphasized Caleb. The one over the Red Fort moat was constructed in the reign of Akbar Shah Sani to replace an earlier drawbridge to facilitate entry into the Lahori Gate.
The work was entrusted to Robert Macpherson, who was honoured by the Mughal emperor with the title of Dilawar-ud-daulah Daler Jung in 1811. The Mansi bridge, connecting the fort to Salimgarh, replaced the bridge built by Jahangir. The Athpula dates back to Akbar’s time.
The Barapula, south of Nizamuddin station, too came up in Jahangir’s reign in 1611-12. Now it has been renamed by the Delhi government as Banda Bahadur bridge in honour of the Sikh warrior of Farrukhsyer’s time. The bridge near Siri Fort is of the 14th century Khilji times, while the Satpula, east of Khirki village, dates back to Mohammed Tughlak’s reign.
In the Walled City the Lothian bridge was constructed by Lt-Col Sir Lothian Kerr Scott (1861-67). About 300 yards from it is Kauria bridge, linking Old Delhi station to the Kashmere Gate area, opposite the GPO. This bridge had replaced an earlier one built of cowrie shells (hence the name) collected as “tehbazari”, or tax, by an 18th century nobleman, Shad Khan, in the reign of Shah Alam.
The Minto bridge of the Northern Railway near Connaught Place came up in 1933. The bridge on Kamal Ataturk Road was built in the same year. The Kotla Mubarakpur bridge also came up in the 1930s. The Wazirabad bridge, near Majnu-ka-Tila was built in the time of Ferozeshah Tughlak and has been in use for over six centuries now.
But coming back to Lohe-ka-Pul, it was built shortly after the old Jamuna Bridge in Agra (since the railway line from Kolkata passed through that city before extending to Delhi). The East India Company spent Rs 16 lakh (a big amount then) over its construction.
In the 1950s a Sindhi youth and his father alternated day and night as bridge guards. The boy, Kachoo, used to carry a tiffin-carrier with him as he walked all the way to it from his house in Daryaganj. He ate his lunch sitting in a corner of the bridge while his father, Kantilal, had his dinner near the same spot.
The duty of the two, besides guarding the bridge, also included the task of keeping a watch on the river level. In summer and winter that was not of much consequence but during the rainy season it was really hectic. As the river level rose so also the BP of the two since they had to report it every two hours and also note it down in a register.
Standing in the balcony of a house opposite Golcha Cinema, where Celeb sometimes stayed with a friend, he could see Kachoo returning from duty and, while meeting his half-deaf father going for night duty, yelling that the Yamuna was rising menacingly.
Kantilal would hear this with some trepidation and hurry along, sometimes hiring a cycle-rickshaw so that he could reach the bridge faster. Both father and son were great friends of Alladin Bhai, who was an expert at predicting the satta linked to the opening and closing rates of the New York Cotton Exchange market.
They both gambled a bit and usually won small amounts at the rate of Rs 10 for a Re 1 bet and were naturally grateful to the Bhai for his help in guiding them in this sort of gambling. Khooba Teli was the one who accepted the satta bids and sometimes was even arrested for indulging in this nefarious activity but he would soon be back after paying the “hafta” at the police chowki.
Caleb too was among those occasionally trying their luck at Khooba’s joint.
In summer, when Kachoo was not perturbed by the rise and fall of the river level, he would find time to chat with passers-by.
The boy had many tales to tell of bodies being taken to the cremation ghat over the bridge and of how once a child suddenly came back to life, to the great delight of his father. Also the yarn of a woman, who jumped into the flooded river after her husband’s death, only to be saved by a Mallah boatman, whom she eventually married.
Kantilal had even more weird tales to relate. While watching the river at night he once saw a boat in which sat three hooded women. The man who rowed the boat was wearing a turban over a kurta and dhoti.
When the boat reached the middle of the river the four suddenly disappeared and in their place appeared three fairy-like beings, while the boatman, now converted into a young nobleman, caught fish with his bare hands.
He passed them on to the three glamorous ladies, who took out asharfis (gold coins) from their mouths and then threw the fish back into the river, to be swallowed by a gigantic serpent.
“The Yamuna is haunted and such happenings are often noticed,” asserted Kantilal (who used to see a sahib pacing up and down the bridge every night) and the more gullible among his listeners took it as gospel truth. He must be dead now (said Mrs Singh) and his son, if alive, passing his last days somewhere.
But their tales still remind one that the Yamuna (believe it or not) also has its secrets, whether linked to optical illusions or fanciful superstitions, with Lohe-ka-Pul a silent witness, while its contemporary, the London Bridge, has long fallen down and Cleb is no more. “So also the cuckold Khooba Teli, whose servant Buddhi allegedly fathered his children.”
R V Smith