The Best of Ruskin Bond (4 page)

My First Love

yah, my childhood governess, was my first love. She was thirty and I was six. She was a tall, broad-limbed woman, and in my view extremely handsome. The west- coast fishing community to which she belonged, and the Arab and African blood she had inherited, were partly responsible for her magnificent build and colourful personality. Occasionally when one of my parents’ guests called her ugly without really taking a proper look at her, I would exclaim, ‘No she is beautiful!’ The vehemence of my reply would disconcert the guests and embarrass my parents.

We lived in a small Indian State on the Kathiawar coast, where my father had a job as guardian-tutor for the Maharaja’s children. He conducted a small school in a corner of the palace, and was fully occupied most of the day. My mother would frequently be visiting other Anglo-Indian families. And I, being considered too much of a menace to be taken to other people’s houses, was left in the charge of Ayah.

Most children who saw Ayah drew away from her in fright. Her size, her wrestler’s arms, her broad quivering hips, were at first disconcerting to a child. She had thick, crinkly hair and teeth stained red with the juice of innumerable paan-leaves. Her hands were rough and heavy, as I knew from the number of times she had brought them down on my bottom. When she was angry, her face resembled a menacing thundercloud; but when she smiled with pleasure it was as though the sun had just emerged, lighting up her features with a great dazzle. Ayah frequently beat me, but soon afterwards she would be overcome by remorse, and then she would take me in her strong arms and plant heavy wet kisses on my eyes and cheeks and mouth. She was in love with my soft white skin, and often made believe that I was her own child, pressing my face to her great breasts, bathing and dressing me with infinite tenderness, and defending me against everyone, including my parents.

Sometimes, when my parents were out, I would insist that she bathe with me. We would wallow together in the long marble tub; I, small, pink and podgy; and Ayah, like a benevolent hippopotamus, causing the bath-tub to overflow. She scrubbed and soaped me, while I relaxed and enjoyed the sensation of her rough hands moving over my back and tummy. And then, before she could heave herself out of the tub, I would leap from the water and charge out of the bathroom without my clothes. Ayah would come flapping after me, a sheet tied hurriedly about her waist; and we would race through the rooms until finally she caught up with me, gave me several resounding slaps, watched me burst into tears, and then break down herself and take me to her comfortable bosom.

Ayah taught me many things. One of these was the eating of paan—a betel leaf containing lime, finely-cut areca nut, and some cardamom.

It was the scarlet tinge in the mouth which came from eating paan that appealed most to me. I did not care much for the taste, which was bitter, but I was fascinated by the red juice which Ayah was able to spit so accurately about the garden. When my parents were out, she would share her paan with me, and we would sit in the kitchen and gossip with the cook. Before my parents came home, Ayah would make me rinse my mouth with warm water, and with her rough fingers she would scrub my teeth clean.

A number of snakes lived in the old walls surrounding both our bungalow and the palace grounds. They seldom ventured into the house, but when they did, Ayah was against killing them. She always maintained that they would not harm us provided we left them alone.

She once told me the story of a snake who married a poor but beautiful girl. At first the girl very naturally did not wish to marry the snake, whom she had met in a forest. But the snake insisted, saying, ‘I will kill you if you refuse,’ which of course left her with no alternative. Then the snake led his bride away, and took her to a great treasure. ‘I was a prince in my former life,’ explained the snake, ‘and this is my treasure. Now it is all yours.’ And then he very gallantly disappeared.

‘Which goes to show that even snakes are good at heart,’ said Ayah.

Sometimes she would leave a saucer of milk beneath an old peepul tree, and once I saw a young cobra glide up to the saucer and finish the milk. When I told Ayah about this, she was a little perturbed, and said she had actually left the milk out for the spirits who lived in the peepul tree.

‘I haven’t seen any spirits in the tree,’ I told her.

‘And I hope you never will, my son,’ said Ayah. ‘But they are there all the same. If you happen to be standing beneath the tree after dark, and feel like yawning don’t forget to snap your fingers in front of your mouth, otherwise the spirit will jump down your throat.’

‘And what if it does?’ I asked.

For a moment Ayah was at a loss for an answer; then she brightened and said, ‘It will probably upset your tummy.’

The peepul was a cool tree to sit beneath. Its heart-shaped leaves spun round in the faintest breeze, sending currents of cool air down from its branches. The leaf itself was likened by Ayah to the perfect male torso—a broad chest tapering down to a very slim waist—and she told me I ought to be built that way when I grew up.

One day we strayed into the ruined palace, which had turrets and towers and winding passageways. And there we found a room with many small windows, each window-pane set with coloured glass. I was often to spend hours in this room, gazing out at the palace and lake and gardens through the coloured window-panes. When the sun came through the windows, the entire room was suffused with beams of red and gold and green and purple light, playing on the walls and on my face and clothes.

The State had a busy little port, and Arab dhows sailed to and fro across the Gulf of Kutch. My father was friendly with the captain of a steamer making trips to Aden and back. The captain was a jovial, whisky-drinking Scotsman, who stuffed me with chocolates and suggested that I join the crew of his ship. The idea appealed to me, and I made elaborate plans for the voyage, only to discover one day when I went down to the docks that the ship had sailed away forever.

Ayah was more dependable. She hated seeing me disappointed. When I told her about the treachery of Captain MacWhir she consoled me with the promise of a ride in a tonga—a two-wheeled horse-drawn buggy. Apparently she had a friend who plied a tonga in the bazaar.

He came the next day, a young man sporting an orange waistcoat and a magnificent moustache. His name was Bansi Lal. Ayah put me on the front seat beside him, while she sat at the back to try and maintain some sort of equilibrium. We went out of the gate at a brisk trot, but as soon as we were on the open road circling the lake, Bansi Lal lashed his horse into a gallop, and we went tearing along the road at a furious and exhilarating pace. Ayah shouted to her friend to slow down, and I shouted to him to go faster. He grinned at both of us while a devil danced in his eyes, and he cracked his whip and called endearments to both Ayah and his horse.

When finally we reached open country, he slowed down and brought the tonga to rest in a mango-grove. Ayah struggled out and, after berating Bansi Lal, sank down on the grass while I went off to explore the mango-grove. The fruit on the trees was as yet unripe, but the crows and mynahs had already begun to feast on the mangoes. I wandered about for some time, returning to the clearing by a different route to find Ayah and Bansi Lal embracing each other. Ayah had her back to me, but the tonga-driver had a rapt, rather funny expression on his face. This changed to a look of confusion when he saw me watching them with undisguised curiosity, and he got up hurriedly, fumbling with his pyjama-strings. I threw myself gaily upon Ayah and asked her what she had been doing; but for once she gave me an evasive reply. I don’t think the incident had any immediate effect on my innocence, but as I grew older I found myself looking back on it with a certain amount of awe.

Both Ayah and I—for different reasons, as it turned out—began looking forward to our weekly tonga rides. Bansi Lal took us to some very lonely places—scrub-jungle or ruins or abandoned brick-kilns—and he and Ayah were extraordinarily tolerant of where I wandered during these excursions.

But the tonga-rides really meant the end of my affair with Ayah. One day she informed my parents that she intended marrying Bansi Lal and going away with him. While my parents considered this a perfectly natural desire on Ayah’s part, I looked upon it as an act of base treachery. For several days I went about the house in a rebellious and sulky mood, refusing to speak to Ayah no matter how much she coaxed and petted me.

On Ayah’s last day with us, Bansi Lal arrived in his tonga to take her away. He had painted the woodwork, scrubbed his horse down, and changed his orange waistcoat for a green one. He gave me a cheerful salaam, but I scowled darkly at him from the veranda steps, and he looked guiltily away.

Ayah tossed her bedding and few belongings into the tonga, and then came to say goodbye to me. But I had hidden myself in the jasmine bushes, and though she called and looked for me, I would not emerge. Sadly, she climbed into the tonga, weighing it down at the back. Bansi Lal cracked his whip, shouted to his horse, and the tonga went rattling away down the gravel path. Ayah still looked to left and right, hoping to see me; and at last, unable to bear my misery any longer, I came out from the bushes and ran after the tonga, waving to her. Bansi reined in his horse, and Ayah got down and gathered me up in her great arms; and when the tonga finally took her away, there was a dazzling smile on her sweet and gentle face—the face of the lover whom I was never to see again. . . .

A Guardian Angel

can still picture the little Dilaram bazaar as I first saw it twenty years ago. Hanging on the hem of Aunt Mariam’s sari, I had followed her along the sunlit length of the dusty road and up the wooden staircase to her rooms above the barber’s shop.

There were a number of children playing on the road, and they all stared at me. They must have wondered what my dark, black-haired aunt was doing with a strange child who was fairer than most. She did not bother to explain my presence, and it was several weeks before the bazaar people learned something of my origins.

Aunt Mariam, my mother’s younger sister, was at that time about thirty. She came from a family of Christian converts, originally Muslims of Rampur. My mother had married an Englishman, who died while I was still a baby; she herself was not a strong woman, and fought a losing battle with tuberculosis while bringing me up.

My sixth birthday was approaching when she died, in the middle of the night, without my being aware of it, and I woke up to experience, for a day, all the terrors of abandonment.

But that same evening Aunt Mariam arrived. Her warmth, worldliness and carefree chatter gave me the reassurance I needed so badly. She slept beside me that night and next morning, after the funeral, took me with her to her rooms in the bazaar. This small flat was to be my home for the next year-and-a-half.

Before my mother’s death I had seen very little of my aunt. From the remarks I occasionally overheard, it appeared that Aunt Mariam had, in some indefinable way, disgraced the family. My mother was cold towards her, and I could not help wondering why because a more friendly and cheerful extrovert than Aunt Mariam could hardly be encountered.

There were other relatives, but they did not come to my rescue with the same readiness. It was only later, when the financial issues became clearer, that innumerable uncles and aunts appeared on the scene.

The age of six is the beginning of an interesting period in the life of a boy, and the months I spent with Aunt Mariam are not difficult to recall. She was a joyous, bubbling creature—a force of nature rather than a woman—and every time I think of her I am tempted to put down on paper some aspect of her conversation, or her gestures, or her magnificent physique.

She was a strong woman, taller than most men in the bazaar, but this did not detract from her charms. Her voice was warm and deep, her face was a happy one, broad and unlined, and her teeth gleamed white in the dark brilliance of her complexion.

She had large soft breasts, long arms and broad thighs. She was majestic, and at the same time she was graceful. Above all, she was warm and full of understanding, and it was this tenderness of hers that overcame resentment and jealousy in other women.

She called me Ladla, her darling, and told me she had always wanted to look after me. She had never married. I did not, at that age, ponder the reasons for her single state. At six, I took all things for granted and accepted Mariam for what she was—my benefactress and guardian angel.

Her rooms were untidy compared with the neatness of my mother’s house. Mariam revelled in untidiness. I soon grew accustomed to the topsy-turviness of her rooms and found them comfortable. Beds (hers a very large and soft one) were usually left unmade, while clothes lay draped over chairs and tables.

A large water-colour hung on a wall, but Mariam’s bodice and knickers were usually suspended from it, and I cannot recall the subject of the painting. The dressing table was a fascinating place, crowded with all kinds of lotions, mascaras, paints, oils and ointments.

Mariam would spend much time sitting in front of the mirror running a comb through her long black hair, or preferably having young Mulia, a servant girl, comb it for her. Though a Christian, my aunt retained several Muslim superstitions, and never went into the open with her hair falling loose.

Once Mulia came into the rooms with her own hair open. ‘You ought not to leave your hair open. Better knot it,’ said Aunt Mariam.

‘But I have not yet oiled it, Aunty,’ replied Mulia. ‘How can I put it up?’

‘You are too young to understand. There are jinns—aerial spirits—who are easily attracted by long hair and pretty black eyes like yours.’

‘Do jinns visit human beings, Aunty?’

‘Learned people say so. Though I have never seen a jinn myself, I have seen the effect they can have on one.’

‘Oh, do tell about them,’ said Mulia.

‘Well, there was once a lovely girl like you, who had a wealth of black hair,’ said Mariam. ‘Quite unaccountably she fell ill, and in spite of every attention and the best medicines, she kept getting worse. She grew as thin as a whipping post, her beauty decayed, and all that remained of it till her dying day was her wonderful head of hair.’

It did not take me long to make friends in the Dilaram bazaar. At first I was an object of curiosity, and when I came down to play in the street both women and children would examine me as though I was a strange marine creature.

‘How fair he is,’ observed Mulia.

‘And how black his aunt,’ commented the washerman’s wife, whose face was riddled with the marks of smallpox.

‘His skin is very smooth,’ pointed out Mulia, who took considerable pride in having been the first to see me at close quarters. She pinched my cheeks with obvious pleasure.

‘His hair and eyes are black,’ remarked Mulia’s ageing mother.

‘Is it true that his father was an Englishman?’

‘Mariam-bi says so,’ said Mulia. ‘She never lies.’

‘True,’ said the washerman’s wife. ‘Whatever her faults—and there are many—she has never been known to lie.’

My aunt’s other ‘faults’ were a deep mystery to me; nor did anyone try to enlighten me about them.

Some nights she had me sleep with her, other nights (I often wondered why) she gave me a bed in an adjoining room, although I much preferred remaining with her—especially since, on cold January nights, she provided me with considerable warmth.

I would curl up into a ball just below her soft tummy. On the other side, behind her knees, slept Leila, an enchanting Siamese cat given to her by an American businessman whose house she would sometimes visit. Every night, before I fell asleep, Mariam would kiss me, very softly, on my closed eyelids. I never fell asleep until I had received this phantom kiss.

At first I resented the nocturnal visitors that Aunt Mariam frequently received: their arrival meant that I had to sleep in the spare room with Leila. But when I found that these people were impermanent creatures, mere ships that passed in the night, I learned to put up with them.

I seldom saw those men, though occasionally I caught a glimpse of a beard or an expensive waistcoat or white pyjamas. They did not interest me very much, though I did have a vague idea that they provided Aunt Mariam with some sort of income, thus enabling her to look after me.

Once, when one particular visitor was very drunk, Mariam had to force him out of the flat. I glimpsed this episode through a crack in the door. The man was big, but no match for Aunt Mariam.

She thrust him out onto the landing, and then he lost his footing and went tumbling downstairs. No damage was done, and the man called on Mariam again a few days later, very sober and contrite, and was re-admitted to my aunt’s favours.

Aunt Mariam must have begun to worry about the effect these comings and goings might have on me, because after a few months she began to make arrangements for sending me to a boarding-school in the hills.

I had not the slightest desire to go to school and raised many objections. We had long arguments in which she tried vainly to impress upon me the desirability of receiving an education.

‘To make a living, my Ladla,’ she said, ‘you must have an education.

‘But you have no education,’ I said, ‘and you have no difficulty in making a living!’

Mariam threw up her arms in mock despair. ‘Ten years from now I will not be able to make such a living. Then who will support and help me? An illiterate young fellow, or an educated gentleman? When I am old, my son, when I am old

Finally, I succumbed to her arguments and agreed to go to a boarding-school. And when the time came for me to leave, both Aunt Mariam and I broke down and wept at the railway station.

I hung out of the window as the train moved away from the platform, and saw Mariam, her bosom heaving, being helped from the platform by Mulia and some of our neighbours.

My incarceration in a boarding-school was made more unbearable by the absence of any letters from Aunt Mariam. She could write little more than her name.

I was looking forward to my winter holidays and my return to Aunt Mariam and the Dilaram bazaar, but this was not to be. During my absence there had been some litigation over my custody, and my father’s relatives claimed that Aunt Mariam was not a fit person to be a child’s guardian.

And so when I left school, it was not to Aunt Mariam’s place that I was sent, but to a strange family living in a railway colony near Moradabad. I remained with these relatives until I finished school, but that is a different story.

I did not see Aunt Mariam again. The Dilaram bazaar and my beautiful aunt and the Siamese cat all became part of the receding world of my childhood.

I would often think of Mariam, but as time passed she became more remote and inaccessible in my memory. It was not until many years later, when I was a young man, that I visited the Dilaram bazaar again. I knew from my foster parents that Aunt Mariam was dead. Her heart, it seemed, had always been weak.

I was anxious to see the Dilaram bazaar and its residents again, but my visit was a disappointment. The place had disappeared; or rather, it had been swallowed up by a growing city.

It was lost in the complex of a much larger market which had sprung up to serve a new government colony. The older people had died, and the young ones had gone to colleges or factories or offices in different towns. Aunt Mariam’s rooms had been pulled down.

I found her grave in the little cemetery on the town’s outskirts. One of her more devoted admirers had provided a handsome gravestone, surmounted by a sculptured angel. One of the wings had broken off, and the face was chipped, which gave the angel a slightly crooked smile.

But in spite of the broken wing and the smile, it was a very ordinary stone angel and could not hold a candle to my Aunt Mariam, the very special guardian angel of my childhood.

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