A child's passages in India

We had moved again. My stepfather was supporting my mother once more, so she had given up the managerial job at the small hotel that was about to close down anyway. They had rented a small, rather damp bungalow on Dehra's Canal Road, and I had a dark little room that leaked in several places when it rained.

"Lonely!" exclaimed Thoreau. "Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet on the Milky Way?"

The trouble was, we never saw the Milky Way for the three months that the monsoon season prevailed in Dehra, India. The rain thundered down, and when it wasn't raining, a fog descended on the town.

My room had a rather spooky feel. There was the drip of water, the scurrying of rats in the space between the ceiling and corrugated tin roof, and the nightly visitation of a small bat that got in through a gap in the wall and swooped around the room, snapping up moths. I would stay up into the early hours, reading "Wuthering Heights" (all in one sitting, during a particularly stormy night - just the right atmosphere for it!) or a work by Dickens, or "Shakespeare's Complete Works."

This lofty volume of Shakespeare's plays and poems was the only book in the house that I hadn't read till then. The print was very small, but I set myself the task of reading right through the entire tome, a feat which I achieved during the school holidays.

I realize now that my mother was a brave woman. She stuck it out with my stepfather, who was a complete disaster as a businessman. He had lost his car agencies, his motor workshop, and was up against large income-tax arrears. But this did not stop him and my mother from going off on hunting expeditions in the surrounding jungles, an expensive and time-consuming pastime.

Left largely to my own devices, I read whatever books came my way. In the 1940s, books were a scarce commodity in small-town India. There were hardly any libraries, and good bookshops were to be found only in the cities.

Poking around in the back verandah of my grandmother's house, at the other end of town, I found a cupboard full of books, untouched for years. I had never seen Granny read anything but religious tracts, which were always scattered about the house, so these must have been Grandfather's books. I borrowed them from time to time, and found much enjoyment in Pauline Smith's stories of South Africa ("The Little Karoo") and "The Virginian," by Owen Wister. (The latter, a novel, was a precursor of the modern "western.") There was also EHA's (Edward Hamilton Aitken's) "Naturalist on the Prowl," delightful sketches of Indian natural history. It was a great influence on me. It taught me to look twice at the natural world around me.

Back at my boarding school in Simla (Bishop Cotton's), I found a sympathetic person in Mr. Jones, an ex-Army Welshman who had been to school with my father and who taught us divinity in class. He did not have the qualifications to teach us anything else, but I think I learned more from him than from the teachers who had degrees.

Mr. Jones got on well with us, one reason being that he never punished us. Alone among the Philistines, he was the one teacher to stand against corporal punishment. He waged a lone campaign against the prevalent custom of caning boys for misdemeanors. In this respect, he was far ahead of his time. The other masters thought him a little eccentric, and he lost his seniority because of his refusal to administer physical punishment.

But there was nothing eccentric about Mr. Jones, unless it was the pet pigeon that followed him everywhere and sometimes perched on his bald head. He had a passion for the works of Dickens, and when he discovered that I had read "Oliver Twist" and "Sketches by Boz," he allowed me to borrow from his set of the Complete Works, with the illustrations by Phiz.

I launched into "David Copperfield," which I thoroughly enjoyed, identifying myself with young David, his tribulations and triumphs. After reading "Copperfield," I decided it would be a fine thing to become a writer. The seed had been sown, and although, in my imagination, I still saw myself as a football star or a Broadway tap-dancer, I think I knew in my heart that I was best suited to the written word.

I was topping the class in essay writing, and I was keeping a journal, something my father had taught me to do in the few happy years I'd had with him.

The school library was fairly well stocked, and I was put in charge of it. Here, I worked my way through the plays of J.M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw, and the novels and stories of J.B. Priestley, H.E. Bates, William Somerset Maugham, and William Saroyan.

After "Copperfield," the novel that most influenced me was Hugh Walpole's "Fortitude," an epic account of another young writer in the making. Its opening line still acts as a clarion call when I'm depressed or feel as if I am getting nowhere. "It isn't life that matters, but the courage you bring to it!" I returned to "Fortitude" last year and found it was still stirring stuff.

But school life wasn't all books. I excelled as a soccer goalkeeper, and since then, guarding my goal - my way of life - has always been my forte. I was in the school choir, but was told not to sing. Although I looked quite cherubic, I had a terrible singing voice. I was told by our choir-mistress to open my mouth along with the others, but on no account to allow any sound to issue forth.

Mr. Jones helped me to overcome my fear of water and taught me to swim a little. He taught me the breast stroke, saying it was more suited to my quiet, reflective temperament.

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