Looking back across the years, I seem to have spent a large part of my boyhood on trains - the small train taking me up to Simla and my boarding school; the overnight train to Dehradun, to my mother's and stepfather's home; or trains along the coast, trains across the desert, trains through field and forest. And sitting on railway platforms, waiting for trains to arrive or depart. No wonder so many of my earlier stories are set in trains or on railway platforms.
Well, this is a new story about my life, of when I was ten and coming 'home' to Dehra for my winter holidays, a few months after my father had been taken from me by Death's dark angel.
And here's the train, chugging through a gap in the foothills, the green-and-gold steam engine giving out a shrill whistle as it plunges into the forest, warning the jungle folk of its approach. The deer and the wilds boars scatter, but an elephant takes up the challenge, trumpeting a response from the shallows of the little Suswa River. The train rumbles over a bridge and a small boy looks out of a carriage window, at the clear waters of the stream and the little wayside station that stands beside it.
The train slows down - there's a rise in the gradient - then picks up speed again and emerges from the forest, rushing past small villages and fields of rice and waving wheat and yellow mustard. A village boy sees the boy at the window and waves to him, and the boy in the train waves back. A bond has been created - if only for a moment in time, but a moment captured forever.
The train moves on, through the rolling pastures of the Doon. Cows graze; buffaloes wallow in ponds; herons alight on the buffaloes. I am the boy at the window; a sturdy boy, but a little pensive, a little gloomy, wondering what the future has in store for me. I haven't seen my mother for over two years. My stepfather I saw only once, in his photo studio, when my mother took me there to be photographed. I remember him only as a thin man behind a mounted camera, and that he had a thin moustache. This was a year or two before my parents separated - before I went to stay with my father in Delhi.
The engine slows down again. We are approaching the Dehradun station, the end of the line. Will somebody be there to meet me? My mother perhaps, and my young brother. Possibly even my stepfather, Mr Hari.
There are other boys on the train. They tumble out on to the small platform to be greeted by fond parents. Hugs and kisses abound; I am the last to get down from the compartment. I look up and down the platform. There are no familiar faces. Perhaps they have sent someone for me. So I wait. I wait for the crowd to thin out, for the clamour to subside. A coolie stands at my elbow, eager to pick up my trunk and bedding roll and earn half a rupee. I ask him to wait. "Somebody will be coming," I say. But no one comes.
Half an hour passed, and I was sitting alone on an empty platform. I couldn't remain there all day. There was only one thing to do - engage a tonga and go to Granny's house, on Old Survey Road. I had the number of the house and a vague idea of the direction in which it lay. I didn't have any other address.
The patient coolie loaded my trunk and bedding roll on to a tonga, and I paid him with
the last of my travel money. If there was no one at Granny's house, who would pay for the tonga? And to make matters worse, I hadn't had any breakfast!
Clip-clop, the tonga pony went trotting through the town, the flimsy carriage rattling and swaying along. I was in the front seat, beside the driver. The pony raised its tail and passed wind. Welcome to Dehra!
Dehradun, the little town famous for its lichee trees. Yes, there they were, surrounding almost every bungalow; neatly spaced out, unlike the tall, spreading mango trees that overlooked them.
We bumped along for almost half an hour, then came to a gate with the number '6' painted on it. I recognised the old railway-style bungalow (built by my grandfather on his retirement from the railways) and, the big jackfruit tree growing against the veranda. The gate was open and we rattled up to the porch. No one seemed to be home.
"Granny, Granny!" I called. "Is anyone home?" All was still. Then, a sudden squawk, and I was almost deafened by a large parrot shrieking at me from its perch above a hanging basket.
"Ring the bell, ring the bell!" it screeched. It had obviously been trained to say this to unwary callers.
I found the bell and rang it. Presently the front door opened and my granny stepped out...
"Ruskin!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm home for my holidays, Granny. Where's Mummy?"
"Didn't she meet you?"
"There was no one at the station. I took a tonga and came straight here."
"They don't live here. Your mother and - and the rest of them - live in Dalanwala. It's strange they didn't receive you."
So she paid the driver his fare and gave him careful instructions as to how to find my mother's and stepfather's house.
We were welcomed by a cook-cum-bearer called Mela Ram, who was surprised to see me.
"They thought you were coming tomorrow," he said. "They are out hunting - shikar - and won't be back till evening."
Afterwards, while unpacking in the bedroom, I encountered three toddlers playing with a train set.
"One is your real brother," said Mela Ram, indicating the boy who looked a bit like me. "The second is your half-brother. And the third is your half-brother's other brother."
Where have all the tigers gone?
My mother and stepfather returned late at night, after we had all fallen asleep, and I did not see them until the following morning. As they had slept late, it was almost noon before my mother came into the large bedroom that I was sharing with my brothers, gave me a hug and a kiss and wanted to know why I had arrived a day early!
For several days I was left to my own devices. Missing my father, I went for long, lonely walks along the little lanes around Dalanwala, the area where we were living.
And so, hands in the pockets of my grey flannel shorts, I explored the roads and byways of Dehra. When my mother gave me pocket money, I went to the cinema. And I discovered a little bookshop - where I bought comic papers and film magazines. There were some books at home - mostly 'Westerns' - and I went through the works of Max Brand, Luke Short and Zane Grey. There was also a copy of Little Women. Although this was considered a girl's book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Quite a reader by now, I was up for reading anything that came my way.
One day, out of sheer boredom, I put the three boys in a pram and took them for a long ride. Down the road, past the house and down to the little riverbed that separated the town from the jungle. Most of the riverbed was dry, full of boulders, but a thin stream ran through it. We were paddling about in the shallow waters, having a great time, when I noticed an elephant standing on the other bank of the riverbed.
Elephants are friendly enough when their mahouts are with them, but this one looked like a wild elephant, separated from its herd.
"Hathi, hathi!" called the children, pointing towards the tusker.
The elephant began to walk into the riverbed, probably in search of water, and I thought it prudent to head for home. I bundled the three brothers into the pram, struggled to climb up the stony bank and did not stop pushing until we had reached the pukka road. Looking back, I saw that the elephant was now in the middle of the riverbed. It was unlikely that it would enter a residential area, but I did not wait to discover its intentions. Helter-skelter, the pram, the children and I rattled along the narrow road until we arrived safely at our gate.
(Excerpts from the book Till The Clouds Roll By by Ruskin Bond, published by Puffin Books)