Sitting in the mountains, I remember the sea: tinsel on a vast field of water, and sunny white sheets billowing in the wind.
I 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.
My mother always said I was the most troublesome of all her children—an angel in front of strangers, and a stubborn little devil at home. Mothers often say that of their firstborn, who are inclined to look down on the competition, but mine did so with good reason.
Evidence of my stubborn nature must have emerged when I was three or four. Baby photos show me as something of a cherub, always smiling, chubby, charming, cheeky. Visitors wanted to fondle me (or so I was told); fond aunts longed to kiss me. All that fondling and kissing probably contributed to my sensual nature, improved upon by my beautiful chocolate-coloured ayah, who smothered me with kisses and treated me as though I had been born from her own womb. No wonder I became a spoilt brat—and spent half a lifetime compensating for the privilege.
I have a good visual memory, especially of my childhood. In fact, I’m continually surprising myself by what I can remember about my early childhood in Jamnagar: 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—smoking volcanoes and cockatoos with big showy crests.
“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—”
We had a beautiful gramophone, a black, square box-like wonder, which was probably the first love of my life apart from my ayah. 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.
I quite enjoyed the whole process, and would work my way through two boxes of records, ranging from my father’s opera favourites—arias from La Bohème, Madame Butterfly and Tosca— to the lighter ballads of the currently popular tenors and baritones, like Nelson Eddy. On silent nights, when the lights are out and the hills are asleep, I shut my eyes and imagine I am in the veranda of one of our Jamnagar homes, and I can hear the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso singing Recondita Armonia and Questa O Quella…I did not understand what he was singing, but I liked the sound of those words and tried to sing along, much to my father’s amusement and delight.
There was also a selection of nursery rhymes put to music, bought especially for me, and including one which began: “Oh, what have you got for dinner, Mrs Bond?” But this was not a question we asked our Mrs Bond, my mother. She did not have to worry about dinner because we had a khansama, a 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 storytellers—her imagination subtler than his.
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 the 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 we have just slaughtered, baba? He reminds me of the great lion of 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 ten elephants, twenty dogs and a shikar party of fifty–sixty 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. The lion dragged him out by his soft white feet and carried him away. We found his bones in the morning. I beat my chest and cried all day, till all my tears had dried up. And 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—”
“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.”
“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…”
The “Jam Sahib” was the ruler of Jamnagar State, his palace just a short walk from where we were staying. The state had a huge retinue of British and Irish advisers and professional people, from architects and accountants to pilots and mechanics. The Jam Sahib had a fleet of Rolls Royce cars—of all the princes of India, he had the largest number. There must have been about fifty, one of which, probably from the collection of his predecessor, was rumoured to have been painted a special pink to match the colour of a maharani’s slippers. Rolls Royce had provided the Jam Sahib with an automobile engineer-cum-mechanic from England to look after the cars and he lived in a posh house not far from the palace.
“On silent nights, when the lights are out and the hills are asleep, I shut my eyes and imagine I am in the veranda of one of our Jamnagar homes, and I can hear the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso singing Recondita Armonia and Questa O Quella…I did not understand what he was singing, but I liked the sound of those words and tried to sing along, much to my father’s amusement and delight.”
There was a banquet every week for these foreign professionals, and for visiting dignitaries, neighbouring princes, British officials, even famous cricketers—for Jamnagar was the home of Indian cricket. We were invited, and unless there was a good reason that kept us home, we would go—my father out of a sense of duty, my mother because she was bored at home, and I because the desserts were excellent.
But what were we doing in Jamnagar in the first place?
And here I will have to bore you with a little family history.
Excerpted with permission from Ruskin Bond, Lone Fox Dancing: An Autobiography by Ruskin Bond, published by Speaking Tiger