The underground shelter

The underground shelter

Today, the air is full of air strikes and missiles. Stories of buildings razed to the ground and families fleeing their homes are strewn across newspapers and channels. Memories of my own childhood surface and I am back in the forties in a British colony which would be the first target for enemy planes. 

The second world war was the deadliest of wars ending with the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  India was dragged into this holocaust because we were loyal citizens of the British Empire. We fought the Germans, the Russians, the Japanese — any country opposed to that small island which ruled the world. We saluted the Union Jack. We sang “God save our glorious king…” with utmost reverence.  

As children, we knew something terrible was happening in the world. And that something became a tangible reality when my father brought home bundles of black cardboard and glue one day to cover the glass window panes. We thought it was fun to cut the cardboard to size and paste the pieces on every window and ventilator. 

The appalling truth hit us when we saw the same exercise taking place everywhere else too. Offices, shop windows and all houses in the gold mining area were swathed in black. Street lights were switched off. An enemy plane hovering above could only see a black hole below.

My father took more precautions after this exercise. He employed men to dig a large pit in our front garden. This was covered with a concrete dome and the inside was lined with a brick wall. There were steps leading to this bunker which would serve as our refuge in case of a military air raid. We children called it "the shelter" and used it as a playroom cum hiding place at other times. 

It was the envy of our friends and neighbours. The bunker was covered with a green lawn and lined with brightly coloured flower pots. It was the perfect refuge during an enemy invasion. Since it was spacious, comfortable and had cement benches all around, we made it into a playhouse, inviting friends from nearby houses.  They spoke different languages, but that did not matter. 

Our neighbour, Chandrappa’s children spoke Telugu like his brother Appaji’s family. The Mascarenhas girls were Konkani. The Lahiri family was Bengali. Raghavan was a Malayali. Shanmugham, a hardcore Tamilian.  The Anglo-Indians living in the Italian block across the road spoke in English. And, of course, there was Yakoob, our Urdu speaking man. The "shelter" welcomed them as one family.

During these pleasant interludes, the war became a distant threat. We remembered it only when the siren wailed and we had to drop everything and run to take shelter in the bunker. Today, after seven decades, the memory of that siren still haunts us who lived through that war. Just like that other memory of children speaking many languages becoming one large family in an air raid shelter.