When I was posted to Patiala in the early 1990's, everybody was against taking my family along and risking their lives because Punjab was grappling with the terrorist problem. Ours is a close-knit family and we were not used to long spells of separation. My wife and kids would not have agreed if I had heeded those warnings. NOr would I be happy away from them. So I paid no heed to attention to the advice of my well-wishers. (I must add that the five years I spent there were the best years of my life, the ones I cherish most even today.)
Thus it was that we came to stay in a well-appointed bungalow in Punjabi Bagh, a respected residential locality. The kids were admitted in the Kendriya Vidyalaya and my wife found herself a job in the Our Lady of Fatima High School and Convent. We were totally new to Punjab, but settled down in no time.
Life was placid, though occasional gunshots and news of violence did wake us up at times. One thing we missed was my friends and relatives in Kerala. We were in splendid isolation. In fact, there were hardly ten Malayali families in the whole of Patiala, not reckoning those in the cantonment who were a community unto themselves.
We were therefore delighted that Ipe would be driving down to spend the weekend with us. Ipe was an old friend and colleague. He was the life of the party. My family had, to borrow a term rom the Theory of Sets in Mathematics, a one-to-one correspondence with his. My wife Bhawani and Ammini were good friends. In fact, they were at the same stage of pregnancy at one time. Which meant that Hari and Miriam were of the same age. Their respective siblings Gautam and Anu too were contemporaries. Naturally, we were all looking forward to their visit.
They arrived in the evening on a wintry Saturday . We had a great time together, a few drinks, jokes, fun, games and dinner.
The next morning, after a late breakfast, we decided to go for a drive in the 'city'. Hari, then 12 years, was eager to be the guide for the 'conducted tour'. As the car traversed the roads of Patiala, he would point out to structures old and new and identify and describe it to the visitors. That is the Moti Bagh Palace' housing the Netaji Institute of Sports, on your left is the Rajindra Hospital, inside that wooded area is the Gymkhana Club, the road on the left leads to the Dukh Niwaran Gurdwara, he would go on and on. My driver, Gurnam Singh, a native of Patiala was there to supplement the information and add some tidbits.
Pointing at an ancient building, Hari exclaimed, 'Uncle, look there, that is my school'. Ipe could not believe what he saw. It was a circular, single-storeyed structure, which hardly looked like a school. 'That is the Kendriya Vidyala?' Ipe was incredulous. 'It looks more like the soldiers barracks!' he added.
Hari affirmed, 'Yes, uncle. It is called the Leela Bhawan Palace. It has 360 rooms!'
Gurnam Singh was ready with more information. 'Yes, sir. Hari-beta is right. It was surrendered to the Government of India after independence. Before that, it was used by the Maharaja of Patiala to accommodate his concubines.'
'I have read The Prince by Diwan Jarmani Dass and know about the colourful life these kings led, but I did not know he had 360 of them,' said Ipe.
'Oh yes, one in each room,' added Hari knowledgeably.
Ipe did a quick mental calculation and asked, more to himself rather than expecting a response, 'How about the remaining five days?'
'Gandhi Jayanti, Independence Day, Christmas, ....' Hari did not know why the remainder of his reply was drowned in the collective guffaw of five adults.