“That was the age of inkwells and penholders with nibs that could be replaced. The fountain pen had only recently been invented, and it made quite a mess; biros, or ballpoint pens, were still in the future. What an antiquated lot we were! But then, Dickens wrote all his novels with a quill pen, and so did other great authors, and I was already something of a bookworm, reading Dickens and Stevenson and even Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse.
There was no television in those days and, of course, no computers, but we could go to the cinema once a month. Everyone read comics—Batman and Superman and Green Lantern—but not many were reading books. We had to borrow one from the library every week, but these books usually went unread. I suppose it’s much the same today.”
It was 1947, and 13-year old Ruskin Bond was studying at a British public school—the Bishop Cotton School, Simla. In the wake of Independence, it’s the year when life was about to change quite dramatically for everyone.
“It had been a momentous year—a year full of incident, of friendships won and lost, of memorable hockey and football matches, of tunnels and canings, of the coming of Independence, Partition and of the school in turmoil.”
To mark his 85th birthday, Bond launched this third part of his bestselling memoir Coming Round the Mountain. The book chronicles episodes of Bond’s days at boarding school, complete with visits to the tuck shop, pillow fights in dormitories, compulsory early morning PT, sticky lumpy rice, masters in academic gowns, short haircuts, floggings and canings, and grace before meals.
Previous books in the series include Looking for the Rainbow‘ and Till the Clouds Roll By. The first describes the two years (1941-42) Bond spent with his father when he was nine years old. His father, Flt Lt A A Bond, served in the RAF during World War II. A happy time for Bond, it however ended abruptly with the loss of his father during the war. The incident left quite an impression on him as a young boy (“Do wars solve anything, or do they just lead to more wars?”). The second book elaborates further on the sudden change in Bond’s circumstances, and the effort he had to make to adjust to a new and very different life with his mother and stepfather. His closest friends at the time were a Muslim, a Parsi and a Christian. Each were completely uninterested in each other’s regional backgrounds, and friendship and loyalty were all that mattered to them—as was eating jalebis and figuring out how to beat their rival team, The Lawrence School, Sanawar, in a hockey match.
Against this innocent backdrop, the reader gets to perceive India’s independence from the children’s point of view. In pre-Independence days, writes Bond, there was a lot of uncertainty. Some of their foreign teachers were going back to their countries, and rumours were rife that all English-medium schools would be closing down. In a poignant scene, Bond talks to his friend Azhar who belongs to Peshawar, about the country being cut into two. “People are different, I suppose—unless they love each other. Friends must remain friends,” responds a naïve Bond.
On the 15th of August, 1947, the students are treated to laddoos, halwa and samosas, along with a flag-raising ceremony and the singing of the national anthem. The changes that followed were “fast and frightening”—comprising everything from maps to postage stamps and railway timetables. Bond further recalls some of the horrors of Partition, particularly in Simla:
“There was a riot in Lower Bazaar, and another in Chhota Simla, the area close to our school. One of the school bearers failed to turn up for work one morning; his mutilated body was found in a gully near the bazaar. Another fled to Kalka to see if his family was all right; he did not return.”
As parents of students from what is now Pakistan got increasingly worried about their children’s safety, it was decided that the Muslim children would be evacuated—roughly one-third of the school’s strength. A few army trucks were provided by the government and manned by Indian and British soldiers. The convoy left at midnight. Bond tearfully bids goodbye to his friend Azhar, hoping to see him again.
A collector’s edition, the book has lovely illustrations by Mihir Joglekar. An evocative trip down memory lane, it’s a must-have for every Bond fan!
‘Coming Round the Mountain’ by Ruskin Bond. Publisher: Puffin Books
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com