An enduring bond

An enduring bond

I was thirteen in the year of India’s Independence, and no sooner had the country been partitioned than riots broke out all over Punjab, Bengal and other affected areas. In spite of exhortations from Nehru and other political leaders and fasting by Mahatma Gandhi, the communal flare-up ran its tragic course.Oddly enough, though a white skinned boy, I could roam the streets of Delhi, Simla and Dehradun unharmed and unmolested. Street urchins occasionally directed a colourful epithet at me, and once college students forced my cycle into a ditch, but that could have happened at other times too. My mother and Punjabi stepfather did not prevent me from going to the cinema two or three evenings a week, and after a show I’d walk or cycle home across Dehra’s huge parade ground to our home near the Eastern Canal — that same canal from which, a few months earlier, many mutilated bodies had been fished out.

It was while seeing the film Blossoms in the Dust that the projector suddenly stopped, the lights came on, and the manager came in and announced that our ticket money would be refunded and we could all go home because Mahatma Gandhi had just been shot. It was a week before the cinemas reopened. There were no riots. But a pall of gloom seemed to envelop the nation.

By the end of 1948, most of Dehra’s British and Anglo Indian residents had left the country for the UK. A year later, after I’d passed my senior Cambridge Exam from Bishop Cotton’s in Simla, I was also packed off to England, as my mother felt that I did not have much of a future in India. A long sea voyage and several weeks later, I found myself working as a clerk in the public Health Department in Jersey, Channel Islands. A government servant! My mother’s ambitions for me might have been fulfilled, but mine were only frustrated.

I could have settled in Jersey, I was quite good at my job and popular with my colleagues. In the tea break I’d entertain them with my comic imitations of the great opera singers. But the call of India was very strong. I really did miss my boyhood friends, the Indian countryside, the easy going informality of life in sleepy small town India.  I longed to return. But I wanted to be a writer too. Could I make a living from my writing if I returned?

After a year in Jersey, I threw up the ‘permanent naukri’ and moved to London. There, too, I had to work in an office, for I had no other source of income. For two years I made my living as a clerk, working on my first novel when I got back to my lodgings late in the evening. I was 19 when I found a publisher. In those days an author received an advance of Rs 50 if he was lucky. The fare to Bombay was only Rs 40, so I handed in a week’s notice to my employers, who wished me luck and presented me with a suitcase (that suitcase though rather flimsy, has lasted to this day). A fortnight later I was on board a Polish liner, wasting in the Arabian Sea; but I was coming home to India, and I felt alive again.  

Dehradun hadn’t changed much. Dehra in the mid-fifties was still a sleepy little town where nothing very exciting happened. The postal service was efficient and speedy and I was soon bombarding newspaper and magazine editors with stories and articles. Book publishing in India was still limited to school and college text books, and to make a living I had to write for the print media — that meant several national newspapers, one or two regional papers, and a couple of family magazines. This was before the coming of television, and entertainment in the home was limited to the radio, the record-player, the carrom board, and a selection of magazines. I did write for radio as well, both BBC and AIR; they were great standby.

But what about my relationship with India? Was I happy to be back, or was I disappointed like some others who had returned briefly. I think I was lucky because, for one thing, I hadn’t expected too much, and for another I did not have to look for a job. I could make a living as a freelance.

And I did. And have done so for over 50 years, without ever having to leave the country again. There is so much here that I have yet to discover, to experience, to write about. I know only the hills and the plains of northern India (with brief skirmishes to other parts of the country), but even this takes in a vast expanse of humanity and territory.

“What inspires you to write?” asked a young reader the other day. “People,” I said promptly. “Without people there are no stories.” He nodded in agreement, then almost bowled me with a googly. “Then why do you write so many ghost stories?”
I was flummoxed for a moment, then confessed: “When I run out of people I turn to ghosts! And in any case, they were people once!” But I had to admit that my ghosts were largely fictional.

Back in the 60s, there was a movement to banish the English language from the land. Angrezi Hatao was the popular slogan. Out with the language of the oppressors! Today, there is a scramble to learn English. And I keep coming across young people who are actually reading books. May their tribe increase! Of course, the majority may prefer reading on the Internet, which is fine. And if the Internet can somehow promote all the other Indian languages, that’s fine too. I respect all forms of literature, for literature has sustained me and given life.

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