Cradle of childhood

In the mountainous Dehra, baby Ruskin meets a daredevil playmate in Uncle Ken, and in the port city of Jamnagar, young Ruskin relishes stories from an unlikely source. An excerpt from the book ‘When I Was A Boy’

Raise the curtain!

Himalayas, I look out to a sea of mountain ranges. Like soldiers they march into the distance in the gathering light of a new day. The morning is young, and I can hear the mountain crows caw in their rough, majestic voices. Other bird-sounds, thin whistles and delicate chirrups, rise up in the intervals when the crows pause.

I am now over 80 years old. A very grand age, when I am allowed to sit back and listen to birds, examine the shapes of mountain ranges, and let my mind wander. These days I find my thoughts going back to my childhood all the time. And that is the period I now write about in my books, as in this one. We become like little children when we are old!

I have lived in the Himalayas for most of my life, but my first memories are not of the mountains, but of the sea. When I think back and search for the earliest scenes from  my life, I remember the sea: a vast field of water, and sunny white sails of dhows and smaller boats billowing in the wind. I also remember a forest of nodding flowers and patches of red, yellow, green and blue light on a wall. And I remember a little boy who ate a lot of kofta curry and was used to having his way — in other words, a spoilt brat!

 

These are images from my early childhood in a seaside town called Jamnagar, which is now in the state of Gujarat. But there were days that went before all this, days of which I don’t remember anything. It was when I was only an infant and the first memories  were yet to be formed. But I am a writer, and what is a writer without an imagination? So let me start at the very beginning.

I  was  born a  very long  time ago-in  1934, in Kasauli, which is in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. It’s a pretty  little place even now, and I imagine it must have been even more picturesque so many years ago. My mother had a sister who lived there and it was to her that my mother went when I was to  be born. My mother’s parents lived in Dehradun at the time, not too far from Kasauli, so it is surprising that she did not go to be with them. But the  lives of grown-ups are full of many secrets and surprises. I’m sure there was a good reason for choosing Kasauli to bring me into the world.

I was named Owen Ruskin Bond by my father. ‘Owen’ means ‘warrior’ in Welsh. I wonder what my father had imagined about his infant son’s future character, but I never did get anywhere close to becoming a warrior! So it is a good thing that the name Owen has been forgotten and I have been just Ruskin ever since.

A month  after I was born,  my mother and I came to Dehradun to be with my grandparents. My father had taken up a teaching job in Jamnagar, and we would be joining him some months later. Meanwhile, it was in Dehradun, or Dehra as it was simply called, where I spent the first few months of  my life. What would it have been like, I wonder. I think there were plenty of walks in prams in the pleasant late summer months of the Himalayan foothills. I can imagine my mother and aunts taking turns to push the pram down the tree-lined streets as they walked to the cafes and shops in the centre of the town. Here there were cinemas and clubs and little shops selling aaloo tikkis and chaat, ice cream and pastries (none of which I would have got to eat at the time,  but I made up for that in good measure some years later). There were photo studios too, and my picture was taken by a photographer in one of these. That photo of a fat baby me was sent to my father by my mother and I still have it in my collection.

Uncle Ken

Life in Dehradun must have been made more exciting by my Uncle Ken. He was my mother’s brother and an eccentric man who had  strange ideas for entertainment. Here is an Uncle Ken story from my infancy that could well have happened.

My mother, tired and with a headache from the sleepless nights that a new baby brings with it, had gone to take a nap, leaving my uncle in charge of me. He was not the most reliable of babysitters (or reliable about anything, for that matter) but there was no one else around, and my mother  was desperate for a few hours of unbroken sleep. I had been fed, bathed, changed and I should have been happy and sleepy. But babies don’t follow the normal laws of nature or households. They are ticking bombs that go off according to their own internal baby logic. And so it was that I set up a fuss and a bother soon after I was left alone with Uncle Ken.

“Now, now, hush, Ruskin,” my uncle murmured absentmindedly as the first notes of protest emerged from the bundle inside the cot. His words usually had no effect on anyone — from my grandmother to the various girls he tried to woo — and it wasn’t likely they would make baby Ruskin change his mind about setting up a mighty wail. The small unhappy snuffling soon became a full­ throated howl. Panicked, for he had promised he would try to do at least this much for my mother without  making a mess, Uncle Ken looked around urgently for a solution. The rattle? The little tin drum? The wind-up toy that made a clanging sound? He tried  one after the other but they just made everything worse, and Uncle Ken was sure he was the one getting a headache now. My face was red with anger, and I was getting ready for a long session of complaints.

“Oh  no, oh  no,” Uncle  Ken went into quiet hysterics. And that’s when the brilliant idea came to him. Within minutes he set it into motion. There was no way he was going to be called a good for nothing. In fact, if anything, he was going to be called a babysitting genius. So it was. My mother arose a good  three hours later, rested and happy. She wondered how poor Ken had managed all this while. She should make some tea for him, she thought. To her surprise, the nursery room was empty, as was Uncle Ken’s room. Slightly worried, she now went out to the garden, thinking he was walking me there. But no, there was no sign of nephew and uncle here either. “Surely, he has not gone off to the bazaar with the baby,” she muttered to herself, puzzled. And then she spotted us, out of the corner of her eye, under the big neem tree at the other end of the garden.

Uncle Ken had put that old lullaby with the lines ‘Rock a bye baby on the treetop, when the wind blows the cradle will rock’ to work. He had rigged up an outdoor cradle for me. An old bedsheet had been turned into a makeshift hammock that looped over a low branch of the tree. In the crook of the sheet I had been laid along with all my blankets. Uncle Ken sat under the tree with a string tied at one end to the cradle and at the other end to his big toe. As he sat there, reading the cricket news in the paper, he swung his leg gently and the string moved the cradle back and forth.

Did I look happy? Yes, indeed! Over my head was the mighty green canopy of  the neem. Birds flew in and out, some looking quizzically at this new nest-like creation under the tree. As the cradle  rocked gently, the sky swung in and out of the branches. Green and blue, blue and green. Do babies recognise colours? Perhaps I did and perhaps I liked  what I saw. Or maybe it was the plump squirrel which sat there peering at  me  that  amused  me.  Instead of roars of protest, soft gurgling sounds came from the cradle.

“Ken!’ my mother shouted. “Surely you couldn’t have done this!”

“Indeed I did,” Uncle Ken was jolted out of his reading and surprised and not a little hurt at the tone of my mother’s voice.

You put him in a bedsheet and hung it from a tree? What if the sheet had torn? What if he had fallen? What if...

Uncle Ken raised a commanding hand. “None of  those things happened. We are fine. The baby is fine. I am fine. And did you know, England will surely lose the Ashes this time...”

Uncle Ken looked on in surprise as my mother snatched me up and marched off indoors. There really is no way to understand the workings of a mother’s mind, he decided, lighting up his pipe in relief and untying the string from his toe. Now he could sleep in peace under the tree.

So the months at Dehradun passed. My grandfather had built a house here in1900 and had lived in it with his family since 1905. The house, made of the smooth, rounded stones from the nearby riverbed, was a compact and comfortable place. There was a garden with fruit trees, a neem and a banyan, and flowerbeds that my rather stern grandmother had planted and guarded over.

My grandfather  himself was more fun­ loving. He would disguise himself as a vegetable vendor or a juggler and wander around in the bazaars. One day he fooled even Granny; she had bought tomatoes and onions and was haggling over the price of turnips before she realised the man selling her the vegetables was her husband. He was also in the habit of bringing home unusual pets — owls, frogs, chameleons and, on one occasion, a hyena, which chewed up the boots in the house and had to be released back into the forest very quickly. But I never got  to know my Dehra grandfather, for he died the year I was born. Many years later, I brought him to life in my stories. Some were stories  I had heard from my mother and aunts, some I made up. I also made up stories about my Dehra Granny (making her less forbidding!) and uncles and aunts. They all feel very real now — like an alternative family. I am glad they feel like family to many of my young readers too.

‘Beware of the Lion!’

Soon our time at Dehra was over and it was time for my mother and me to join my family in Jamnagar. Jamnagar or Navanagar  was a little port town in the Kathiawar peninsula on the west coast of India. Steamers plying across the Gulf of Kutch stopped there, as did large Arab dhows, which made a lovely sight with their great white sails. This  part of the country was full of small, independent states that were not a part of British India. My father had taken a job as a teacher with the Nawab of Jamnagar. He started a small palace school for the little prince and young princesses there. This is where I spent  the first six years of my life.

My first real memories are of life in Jamnagar. I remember so many things from those days — the rich yellow of Polson’s Butter; colourful tins of J B Mangharam’s biscuits with cherubs and scenes from Indian mythology painted on them; drives in our maroon and black Hillman convertible; and postage stamps from the Solomon Islands — smokingvolcanoes and cockatoos with big showy crests.

We had a beautiful gramophone, a black, square box-like wonder, which was probably the first love of my life. It was one of those wind­ up affairs, and you had to change the needle from time to time. The turntable took only one 78 rpm record, so you couldn’t just relax and listen to an uninterrupted programme of music. You were kept busy all the time­ changing records, changing needles and constantly winding the machine vigorously so that it wouldn’t fade away in the middle of a song. But I loved putting the records on the turntable and then setting the needle carefully down as the music wafted out.

It is strange that now music comes from mobile phones  and everyone everywhere is walking around with little earplugs that pump the sound right into their ears. Just  the other day, a pretty lady was walking down the road towards me, nodding and bobbing her head and pouting her lips. I was feeling very flattered for having kindled the fire of romance in her even at my age, but then she passed me without so much as a glance and I heard tinny dance music issuing from her headphones. My ears burned with the insult! (I got even with her that night by dreaming of her walking into a large goat and being chased all the way down to Landour bazaar. The goat ate up her fancy mobile and headphones.)

But I am digressing. Let me return to Jamnagar. My parents had quite a collection of records, and among those was a selection of nursery rhymes put to music, bought especially for me. One of them began: ‘Oh, what have you got for dinner, Mrs Bond?’ I delighted in listening to this one in particular, because, of course, our name was part of the song. But also because  it  mentioned dinner — and I was a chubby child, happy to eat whatever was offered to me.


Had Osman put as much spice in his curries as he did in his stories, we would have been a household on fire.

The dinner (and all other meals) came out of the kitchen, from the pots and pans and karahis and degchis under the command of the khansama, or cook. His name was Osman, and he took care of all our meals. I was a fan of Osman’s, because he made the best mutton kofta curry in the world, and told me some very tall tales. Osman and Ayah were my first friends and storytellers. Had Osman put as much spice in his curries as he did in his stories, we would have been a household on fire.

In  the afternoons, when I was usually alone — even Ayah would be outside, talking to my sister’s nanny, or taking a nap — I would join Osman in the kitchen as he boiled or chopped or cleaned the meats and vegetables he would later cook for dinner.

A typical story session would go something like this:

“You see this goat I am going to cook, baba? He reminds me of the great lion of Junagadh.”

“Where’s Junagadh?”

“Two days by foot from this very house, but you can get there in your  motor-gaadi in five-six hours. I worked for the Nawab of Junagadh, who took me along when he went hunting, with 10 elephants, 20 dogs and a shikar party of 56 men — he was a very rich nawab, he would get himself weighed in diamonds on his birthday and give them away to his begums... But I was telling you about the great lion. It needed two full-grown goats or one bull every day. It only ate male animals. And when it could not find goats or bulls, it hunted men. Women were safe.”

“Did the lion come to hunt you?” “No. But it took my masalchi.” “What’s a masalchi?”

“The boy who helped me prepare the meats and vegetables and washed all the dishes. We were part of the hunting party and sharing a small tent. When I saw the boy was gone, I beat my chest and cried all day, till all my tears had dried up. After that I had to sleep alone the rest of the time we were in the camp. I lit a big fire outside my tent to keep the lion away­ someone had told me lions are afraid of fire.”

“Did it stay away, then?”

“No, baba. Lions are not afraid of fire at all. The beast returned and walked around the fire and stuck its head in through the flap of  the tent. I was still in mourning for my poor masalchi, and when I saw the lion which had eaten him up, I was very angry. I picked  up the big iron tawa on which I was making rotis and hit the beast on its nose. The tawa was hotter than the fires of jahannum, and that son of  Satan.”

“What’s jahannum?”

“It is where bad people go after they die and are roasted in big tandoors. Little boys who keep interrupting a story go there too.”

“Sorry.” “So I struck the lion’s nose with my tawa and it let out a roar and fell backwards into the fire burning at the entrance, let out another roar, and fled into the jungle. We heard the beast roaring in agony all night!’

“Did the nawab give you a reward?”

“No, baba. He was a rich badshah, but not a generous one. Not like our Jam Sahib...” I did not need to ask who this Jam Sahib was. He was the Nawab of Jamnagar. Jam Sahib’s kingdom was orderly and life here was good for us. It was here, in the  houses we lived in, the gardens I played in and the walks I went on with Ayah that my first memories were formed. Osman was the first storyteller in my life. He would tell me about man-eating tigers and dangerous crocodiles, ghosts that haunted the highest tops of trees and chudails — female ghosts with their feet turned backwards — who came  floating down to earth to search out naughty children. He had a way of adding masala to anything that happened around us. Events from his past always sounded mysterious and exciting, and I could not wait to hear more and more stories from him. I gobbled his tall tales the same way I gobbled cakes and laddoos and kofta curry.

So much that each time I eat mutton kofta curry even today, I think of Osman driving away the lion by brandishing his hot tawa!

(The book is published by Speaking Tiger)

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Cradle of childhood

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