Literature

  • My Father and I

     
     

    THE TWO YEARS I spent with my father were probably  the happiest of my childhood - although, for him, they must have been a period of trial and tribulation. Frequent bouts of malaria had undermined his constitution; and at the age of eight I was self..willed and demanding.

    He did his best for me. He gave me his time, his companionship, his complete attention.

    This was in 1943, during World War II . . . Delhi was full of men in uniform. It was a glorious year, during which we changed our residence at least four times - from a tent on a flat, treeless plain outside Delhi, to a hutment near Humayun's tomb; to a couple of rooms on Atul Grove Road; to a small flat on Hailey Road and, finally, to an apartment in Scindia House, facing the Connaught Circus. We were not very long in the tent and hutment - but long enough for me to remember the scorching winds of June, and the bhisti's hourly visit to douse the khas matting with water. This turned a hot breeze into a refreshing, fragrant one - for about half an hour. And then the dust and the prickly heat took over again. A small table fan was the only luxury.

    Except for Sundays, I was alone during most of the day; my father's office in Air Headquarters was somewhere near India Gate. He'd return at about six, tired but happy to find me in good spirits. For although I had no friends during that period, I found plenty to keep me occupied ­my father's books, stamps, the old gramophone, hundreds of postcards which he'd collected during his years in England, a scrapbook, albums of photographs. . . And sometimes I'd explore the jungle behind the tents.

    I would have my lunch with a family living in a neighbouring tent, but at night my father and I would eat together. I forget who did the cooking. But Father made the breakfast himself, getting up early to whip up some fresh butter (he loved doing this) and then laying the table with cornflakes or grapenuts, and eggs, poached or fried.

    The gramophone was a great companion when my father was away. He had kept all the records he had collected in Jamnagar, and these were added to from time to time. There were classical works. . . And there were lighter, music-hall songs. . .

    After a few torrid months in the tent-house and then in a brick hutment, which was even hotter, my father was permitted to rent rooms of his own on Atul Grove Road, a tree-lined lane not far from Connaught Place, which was then the hub and business centre of New Delhi. Keeping me with him had been quite unofficial; his superiors were always wanting to know why my mother wasn't around to look after me. He was really hoping that the war would end soon, so that he could take me to England and put me in a good school there. He had been selling some of his more valuable stamps and had put quite a bit in the bank. One evening, an American officer dropped in to have dinner with us (having a guest for dinner was a very rare event). After dinner, they sat down to go through some of my father's stamp albums. The American collector bought several stamps, and we went to bed richer by a couple of thousand rupees. That it was possible to make money out of one's hobby was something I was to remember when writing became my passion. 

    Some Sundays, my father and I explored old tombs and monuments, but going to the pictures was what we did most Connaught Place was well served with cinemas - the Regal, Rivoli, Odeon and Plaza, all very new and shiny - and they exhibited the latest Hollywood and British productions. . .

    When my father broached the subject of sending me to a boarding school, I used every argument I could think of to dissuade him. . .

    "Why do you want to send me to school again?" I asked "I can learn more at home. I can read books, I can write letters, I can even do sums!"

    "Not bad for a boy of nine," said my father. "But I Can’t teach you algebra, physics and chemistry.”

    “I don’t want to be a chemist.”

    “Well, what would you like to be when you grew up?”

    “A tap- dancer.”

     "We've been seeing too many pictures. Everyone says I spoil you." I tried another argument. "You'll have to live on your own again. You'll feel lonely."

    "That can't be helped, son. But I'll come to see you as often as I can. You see, they're posting me to Karachi for some time, and then I'll be moved again - they won't allow me to keep you with me at some of these places. Would 'you like to stay with your mother?" I shook my head. "With Calcutta Granny?" "I don't know her." "When the war's over, I'll take you with me to England. But for the next year or two we must stay here. I've found a nice school for you. It's a prep school for boys in Simla.

    And I may be able to get posted there during the summer."

    "I want to see it first," I said.

    "We'll go up to Simla together. Not now-in April or

    May, before it gets too hot. It doesn't matter if you join school a bit later-I know you'll soon catch up with the others."

    There was a brief trip to Dehra Dun. . . I remember we stayed in a little hotel or boarding house just off the Eastern Canal Road.

    Dehra was a green and leafy place. The houses were separated by hedges, not walls, and the residential areas were criss-crossed by little lanes bordered by hibiscus or oleander shrubs.  We were soon back in Delhi. 1944, The war dragged on. No sooner was I back in prep school than my father was transferred to Calcutta. In some ways this was a good thing because my sister Ellen was there living with 'Calcutta Granny,' and my father could I   live in his own home for a change. Granny had been living I on Park Lane ever since Grandfather had died.

    It meant, of course, that my father couldn't come to see me in Shimla during my mid-term holidays. But he wrote regularly - once a week, on an average.The war was coming to an end, peace was in the air, but there was also talk of the British leaving India as soon as the war was over. In his letters my father spoke of the preparations he was making towards the end. Obviously, he saw no future for us in a free India. . .

    There would be a new school for me in England, he said, and meanwhile he was selling off large segments of his stamp collection so that we'd have some money to start life afresh when he left the RAF.

    My father's last letter to me was the only one that I was able to retain (apart from some of the postcards). It is a good example of the sort of letters he wrote to me, and you can see why I hung on to it.

     

                                                                                                           Calcutta 20/08/44

    My Dear Ruskin,

    Thank you very much for your letter received a few days ago. I was pleased to hear that you were quite well and learning hard. We are all quite okay here, but I am still not strong enough to go to work after the recent attack of malaria I had. I was in hospital for a long time and this is the reason why you did not get a letter from me for several weeks.

    I have now to wear glasses for reading, but I do not use them for ordinary wear - but only when I read or do book work. Ellen does not wear glasses at all now.

    Do you need any new warm clothes? Your warm suits must be getting too small. I am glad to hear the rains are practically over in the hills where you are. It will be nice to have sunny days in September when your holidays are on. Do the holidays begin from the 9th of Sept? What will you do? Is there to be a Scouts Camp at Taradevi? Or will you catch butterflies on sunny days on the school Cricket Ground? I am glad to hear you have lots of friends. Next year you will be in the top class of the Prep. School. You only have three and half months more for the Xmas holidays to come round, when you will be glad to come home, I am sure, to do more Stamp work and Library Study. The New Market is full of bookshops here. Ellen loves the market.

    I wanted to write before about your writing Ruskin, but forgot. Sometimes I get letters from you written in very small handwriting, as if you wanted to squeeze a lot of news into one sheet of letter paper. It is not good for you or for your eyes, to get into the habit of writing small: I know your handwriting is good and that you came 1st in class for handwriting, but try and form a larger style of writing and do not worry if you can't get all your news into one sheet of paper - but stick to big letters.

    We have had a very wet month. It is still cloudy, at night we have to use fans, but during the cold weather it is nice - not too cold like Delhi and not too warm either - but just moderate. Granny is quite well. She and Ellen send you their fond love. The last I heard a week ago, that William and all at. Dehra were well also.

    We have been without a cook for the past few days. I hope we find a good one before long. There are not many. I wish I could get our Delhi cook, the old man famous for his 'Black Puddings' which Ellen hasn't seen since we arrived in Calcutta four months ago.

    I have still got the Records and Gramophone and most of the best books, but as they are all getting old and some not suited to you which are only for children under 8 years old - I will give some to William, and Ellen and you can buy some new ones when you come home for Xmas. I am re-arranging all the stamps that became loose and topsy-­turvy after people came and went through the collection to buy stamps. A good many got sold, the rest got mixed up a bit and it is now taking up all my time putting the balance of the collection in order. But as I am at home all day, unable to go to work as yet, I have lots of time to finish the work of re-arranging the collection. Ellen loves drawing. I give her paper and a pencil and let her draw for herself without any help, to get her used to holding paper and pencil. She has got expert at using her pencil now and draws wonderful animals like camels, elephants, dragons with many heads­ cobras - rain clouds shedding buckets of water - tigers with long grass around them - horses with manes and wolves and foxes with bushy hair. Sometimes you can't see much of the animals because there is too much grass covering them or too much hair on the foxes and wolves and too much mane on the horses' necks - or too much rain from the clouds. All this decoration is made up by a sort of heavy scribbling of lines, but through it all one can see some very good shapes of animals, elephants and ostriches and other things. I will send you some.

    Well, Ruskin, I hope this finds you well. With fond love from us all. Write again soon, Ever your loving daddy. . .

    It was about two weeks after receiving this letter that I was given the news of my father's death. Those frequent bouts of malaria had undermined his health, and a severe attack of jaundice did the rest. A kind but inept teacher, Mr Murtough, was given the unenviable task of breaking the news to me. He mumbled something about God needing my father more than I did, and of course I knew what had happened and broke down and had to be taken to the infirmary, where I remained for a couple of days. It never made any sense to me why God should have needed my father more than I did, unless of course He envied my father's stamp collection. If God was Love, why did He have to break up the only loving relationship 1'd known so far? What would happen to me now, I wondered. . . would I live with Calcutta Granny or some other relative or be put away in an orphanage?