Excerpt: Lone Fox Dancing by Ruskin Bond
Entertaining and eminently readable, Ruskin Bond’s autobiography provides glimpses of a vanished world and a sharp portrait of the writer as a sensitive young man. His love for ‘Sushila’ is especially tender...books Updated: Jun 03, 2017 08:46 IST
Late in the summer in 1964, Sushila came up to Maplewood. I had last seen her, after a gap of over two years, on a recent visit to Delhi, and perhaps because I was thirty — a dangerous age for dreamers, when youth is beginning to say goodbye —and because I had lived a hermit’s existence for months, I lost my heart to her. She was sixteen; dark and slender, with large expressive eyes; and I became aware of her in a way I hadn’t been when I used to spend time with Kamal’s family. Perhaps subconsciously I had always been aware of her, but in a somewhat paternal way, because she was often in her school uniform then. She still had three years of school left, but only because she’d been failing her exams.
She lived with her parents and brothers in a dusty, flyblown locality somewhere on the fringes of Delhi, where many of the poorer refugees had settled after Partition. I had always been drawn to people from backgrounds very different from my own, and who seemed to be a little out of step with the world, as I was; and Sushila, in her hand-me-down clothes, dreaming of one day travelling the world and happy to spend time with the boys and get up to mischief, began to occupy my thoughts that fortnight in Delhi.
I was living with Kamal’s family (I was on reasonable terms with my own family, but this was only possible from a distance), and Sushila was staying there too — she was on a long visit with her mother, who frequently came to Rajouri Garden to recover from the toil and drudgery of her marital home. I looked for ways to be close to Sushila and talk to her alone, but this was impossible in a house overflowing with busy women, noisy children and men who sat around doing very little. So I would take her, with Kamal and her ten-year-old brother Sunder, to Connaught Place for coffee and snacks. Once, I took them to see a movie, where I had thought I would hold her hand, but Sunder sat between us. He had grown very fond of me, as small boys will of anyone who buys them sweets and takes them to the pictures.
When I left Delhi for the hills that time, Sushila cried. At first, I thought it was because I was going away. Then I realized it was because she couldn’t go anywhere herself. I think she both envied and resented me that freedom. But she gave me a garland of marigold flowers as a parting gift, which I wore, feeling like a groom, though nothing had been said.
So I was happy when she turned up at Maplewood sometime later with Kamal and her little brother. Sunder insisted on sleeping with me, and he wouldn’t let his sister leave his side at night, so the three of us slept in my bed, and Kamal shifted to the second room, which he had converted into his studio. I was tense with longing through the first night, like some wound-up machine. I stayed awake, looking at her dark, long-fingered hand on Sunder’s chest, till sleep finally came to me in the early hours.
The next day we went to the stream for our first picnic, where again we were surrounded by people — Kamal, Sunder, and a couple of our Maplewood neighbours. But that night, I put my hand on Sunder sleeping between us, and my fingers brushed hers, and she took my hand and held it against her soft warm cheek. I reached across and kissed her eyes and her neck. Sunder woke up and I pulled back. He put his arm and a leg around me and after a while Sushila turned her back to us and was soon fast asleep.
We began to take long walks after that, at all times of the day, when I would tell them love stories disguised as fairy tales — which confused Sunder and amused his sister. And they bored Kamal, because he began to absent himself from these walks, saying he wanted to focus on his painting. (Stories, in any case, didn’t interest him; in all the time I knew him, he never read any of mine, or indeed anyone else’s.)
He wasn’t with us on our next picnic at the stream, and there were no neighbours. Sunder and I bathed in the cool, refreshing water while Sushila sat on a rock, with her feet in the water. I splashed water on her and she threw a small stone at me. I begged forgiveness and she asked me to kiss her feet, which I did and we all laughed and went back to the cottage, where Kamal scolded me for neglecting my writing. I was hardly ever in the house, he said, something had happened to me. I laughed it off, saying I was entitled to a holiday, but some stories were brewing. I didn’t like lying to him, and to cover my guilt I asked if he had made any progress at all on the painting he’d been struggling with for days. He looked angry, but decided to let it be.
I couldn’t write; it was true that something had happened to me. I wanted to be with Sushila all the time; I imagined her standing naked in the stream, or lying naked in our bed, or walking naked in the garden with flowers in her hair. When she showed me a boy’s photograph and told me he was in love with her and wrote her letters, I was jealous. I tried not to show it, but became gloomier every minute, till she sensed my dismay and tried to make amends. She assured me the correspondence was one-sided and she was no longer interested in the boy. I was elated again. Euphoric one minute and in deep despair the next — I had never known such upheaval.
One morning, Kamal took Sunder to the skating rink on the Mall. It was a warm day.
‘Let’s go to the stream,’ Sushila said, snatching the book I was reading out of my hands. ‘I’ll bathe you.’
We went down the steep path, and I took her to the waterfall, and showed her the small cave behind it. We lay down on the damp rock and I kissed her. I kissed her eyes, lips and her long, slim neck, till her shy responsiveness turned to passion and she clung to me, and suddenly I became afraid of myself and broke free of her embrace. I told her it wasn’t safe outside.
That night, in whispers, I told her I had never loved anyone in my life as much as I loved her. I wanted to spend my life with her, and I would take care of her. I must have sounded like Majnu or Romeo, and I wanted to say much more, but there are no words bigger than these in love, and I think I was truly in love. No woman had responded to me as tenderly as she had.
‘Do you love me?’ I asked her, and there was silence. I asked again, telling her I wanted to marry her and I would wait for her all my life if I had to, and then I convinced myself that she had nodded yes and I hadn’t seen it in the dark.
We were lying on the bed one afternoon, Sushila’s head on my arm, and Sunder sleeping beside us, when Kamal walked in unexpectedly. We were too startled to react. He didn’t say anything, merely passed through the room to his studio. Sushila pulled away and looked afraid. ‘He knows,’ she said. I said he would understand; I would tell him I wanted to marry her and meant to talk to her mother.
I asked Kamal out for a walk, and when we were some distance from the house, we had a row. He said I had deceived and used him. He also accused me of seducing an innocent girl.
‘She’s hardly a child,’ I said in my defence. ‘And I’m not exactly old. I’m thirty.’
‘She’s still almost half your age,’ he said. ‘Does she love you?’
‘I think so.’
‘You think so? You are a fool. Look at her, look at yourself. This is India.’
‘I want to marry her,’ I said to stop him. ‘Will you help me?’
I didn’t know what I was doing; I hadn’t thought it through, but if it was marriage that would keep Sushila with me, I would marry her.
Kamal took her and Sunder back to Delhi two days later. And I was left with the brooding mountains and a house that seemed emptier than before. I kept finding things that she’d left behind — strands of hair on the pillow, a broken bangle, a little box of kajal. At night I drank brandy and wrote listlessly, while the rats scurried about on the rafters.
In the monsoon there was a constant drizzle and drumming on the corrugated tin roof. The mist rose at intervals through the day, thin vapour one minute and dense cloud the next. It covered the trees and made the forest ethereal, but I couldn’t respond to the beauty.
Then a letter came from Kamal, saying that he wanted to move out and live on his own. He couldn’t afford the rent and wanted me to share a flat with him in Delhi for a year. During that time he would help me to convince Sushila’s family and arrange the marriage. I packed a few things and took the bus to Delhi.
We found a flat, but I could hardly meet Sushila there. In fact, through the weeks I was in Delhi, I saw her just once, in Kamal’s family home, which was full of people for some celebration. We did not speak, but I spoke to one of her uncles. He seemed happy on his sister’s behalf. The girl had to be married soon, he said, and it might as well be me; I was almost a part of their extended family already. It would happen; I should be patient.
I had little reason to stay in Delhi after that. I could only wait now, and I would rather wait in my quiet corner in the hills. Kamal didn’t seem to enjoy being with me, either. He used to joke that it was unnatural for me not to have a girl in my life; now that I had found one, I had obviously done it all wrong. But neither of us wanted to be the first to express our unhappiness. It was the landlord who put us out of our misery. He asked us to vacate the place — Kamal’s nephews and cousins, who would stay with us all day and sometimes at night, made too much noise, he said, and used up all the water.
I returned to Mussoorie with half an assurance from Sushila’s uncle. But I didn’t hear from anyone for months after that. When I couldn’t wait any longer, I took the bus to Delhi again, and when I reached Kamal’s family home, I wasn’t welcome anymore. One of his brothers met me outside the door and told me I should go back to Mussoorie and stay away for some time. There had been a mistake; Sushila was engaged to be married.
She was married off some months later, to a man with better prospects, and from their community. She’s still married and lives somewhere in the great sprawl of North India (for which reason I have had to disguise her identity). Whether she wears bangles anymore, or strings marigolds into garlands, I do not know. She’s probably a grandmother now. It’s the grandchildren who keep us going!
Read more: Ruskin Bond: In love with solitude
Kamal didn’t continue his painting and went into more commercial work, something to do with textiles and garment design, after he too married. We rarely met after that year, but I would hear of him from time to time because one of his nephews, Anil, lived with me for a couple of years to complete his education. Anil’s family had come on hard times after his father abandoned them, and the boy was pulled out of the private school he was attending in Delhi. I got him admitted to Wynberg Allen, where he did well and later he joined a medical college in Dehradun. He became a doctor and settled in America some years later.