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Palaces under slums

It used to rain very heavily in Mumbai during the monsoon. It still does. But this is from the time I was undergoing my grad studies. From my window in the ground floor of the hostel that I lived in, I could see a couple of tents with dish antennas attached to them. There was a saffron flag that flew defiantly atop a mast on the roof of a single story building. I always wondered if the simple houses and the people hid something mysterious.

One day, I got my rain boots, torch and decided to look what was in there.

The tents were totally deserted, except for a boy in shorts playing with a football. I moved towards the well that I could see from my hostel window. As I approached it, the boy disappeared in the alley before me. The well was strange. It had no water. I flashed my torch and found a flight of stairs going down after about a meter of nothing. I looked around. No one was there. Holding my torch I sat over the well and positioned myself such that I could land on the stairs safely. I held my breath and jumped.

The area was a bit slippery and it was difficult to stand still. Slowly I crouched and crept down, one step at a time. Barely twenty steps later, I slipped and next thing I knew I was tumbling down a slope that carried me down all the way to what seemed to be a bottomless pit. Before I knew what happened, I crashed into a pool of water. That was bad as I did not know how to to swim. I was lucky. It was quite shallow and I found my feet on the ground and the water was barely up to by navel. I looked around. My torch fell from my hand. I was not ready for the grandeur that lay before my eyes.

There was no need for the torch. The pool was a part of a massive garden with lush green fields, flowers in well manicured pots and dancing fountains. Right across the garden was a massive temple in white marble and topped with a golden cupola. Behind it a narrow but empty path wound up to what appeared to be an imposing yet benign palace,the proportions of which defied explanation. Behind me were horse drawn carriages lined up, men, women and children going about their duties. Each one of them were dressed in the finest of linen that one could imagine. It was as if I was dreaming of the heavens. The bells from the temple shook me gently and I walked forward towards it. First hesitatingly, then I gathered speed. Everyone around me did smile at each other but appeared to be in some hurry.

As I came close to the temple, I could see the idol of Goddess Saraswati. Behind it one road went further down while another narrow alley that I saw before went round and up to the majestic palace that shone in an alien source of light. I walked slowly along the narrow alley to the palace, curious to see what riches it hid.  As I came close, the magnificience of the place truly struck me. The pillars themselves were more than at least a twenty story tall building. Above that were cupolas adorned with Gold and white marbles with red diamonds. It was a sight to remember. The doors were huge, spanning the height of the pillars themselves and manned by guards who looked too puny to even notice in comparison. It was the residence of the king and was naturally off limits. I did not test the waters any further and turned back before I gained too much unwanted attention.

I was not sure if I was dreaming. I pinched myself to check if I was. I walked back down the slope and found that it was twilight and dancing fountains had started their shows, apparently automatically. There was an orderly who asked me very politely but firmly that it was time for me to go to the world. I understood what he meant. Perhaps by enquiries ruffled a few feathers. Outsiders were not welcome much, and I must have stuck out as an odd one anyway. He said that I was free to come later but spend limited time lest I decide never to return. It was their obligation to make sure that we don't stay back. He did not give a reason. I did not ask. He guided me to a box that looked eerily like an elevator. Only this had no strings or pulleys attached to it. It was also pretty ornate, designed with what I imagined was teak or some wood. As soon as the guy pressed the button, there was darkness followed by a flash of light. I was beside a well hidden in a shack. As I came out I saw there was absolutely no trace of the guy who was standing right next to me. There was no elevator either. Right across the corner there was the same saffron flag fluttering and  the sun was setting in the background. I started walking towards our Institute's gate and that was a short walk away.The young boy was returning from his football game, full of sweat. He smiled at me and ran straight to the slum without once looking back.


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