Frank and I (Shyam) were neighbours in a small Indian hill village of Mashobra. It is one of the country’s most important apple townships. Everybody who is somebody owns apple orchards that are spread over acres of fertile land. I was born here and love no place more than my birth town. Life was a big outdoor party for me and my friends in the summer. May and June were the happiest times. The weather was perfect, and delicious fruits grew around this time, starting from strawberries, cherries, nectarines, plums and peaches.
Two summers ago, there was a lot of commotion in my neighbourhood. There was a new family moving into the palatial bungalow that had just been vacated by the Sharmas. The Sharmas, one of the hamlet’s oldest residents, were extremely popular and respected. Their two suave and handsome boys, Rohit and Mohit, were born here. After the initial years of education in Shimla, they were sent to a fancy boarding school in Dehradun. Every young girl in the community was in love with them, and why not! They were a wonderful combination of power, fame, fortune and good looks. But the boys were in a different league altogether. They had different plans.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Sharmas’ house many times. Aunty would invite all the kids for a wonderful tea party every summer. The flowers would be in full bloom in their neatly manicured garden. There were hydrangeas as big as one’s heads in the most beautiful bright colours—pink, mauve, red, blue, violet, lavender, purple, green and white. Their fences were covered with white and pink roses. Their garden beds had pansies, petunias, zinnias, lupines and dianthuses planted height wise. The fragrant aroma emanating from the house was an indication of the goodies waiting for us to devour. It looked like fairyland to my childlike eyes. The images of these outings are imprinted in my mind—that’s the kind of impact they had on me. There was a tree house in the garden that was our favorite haunt. We loved climbing in and out of it. My burning desire at that time was to spend a night there.
Rohit and Mohit went to Cambridge to complete their education. Their appearance in Mashobra now was rare. Every summer, the Sharmas went to England to visit their boys and returned in August just before the apple harvesting. That’s when all the activity began—sorting the apples, packing them and loading them into trucks to send them to the rest of the country. The only canning centre in the district would get really busy with making various products out of the fruit, such as apple juice, apple sauce, apple cider and apple wine. Fortunately, the children were also very happy during this time as their mothers would get extremely busy managing the extreme outflow of apples. There was always some scrumptious pudding like apple crumble, apple strudel, apple pie, stew, spicy sauce or apple cake awaiting us after dinner every day. It was a win-win situation—mother not bothering you, and then a treat! How can it get better than that?
Coming back to the story, whenever Rohit and Mohit visited around April for their Easter break, they were accompanied by friends. Their friends were mostly foreigners who only spoke English. Some spoke strange languages, which we later got to know, were French or Italian. Incidentally, April-May is the time when the rhododendron trees are in full bloom. Flaming red flowers liven up the town’s entire topography. No wonder it is the state flower of Himachal Pradesh. Maybe the boys chose this magical time to bring their friends to their home to show off their region. They created a lot of excitement around, playing loud music and laughing loudly. Looking dashing, they would go for long treks and horseback riding. The foreign guests, in turn, evoked a lot of excitement from the locals too. The stores in the neighborhood would stock up the choicest of goodies during those days. There would be chocolates, sweets and all kinds of confectionary which were not available during any other time of the year.
Today again, there was a lot of activity in the Sharmas’ house. We were aware that the estate had been sold to some foreigners. However, it had been a year since anybody had visited it after Sharma aunty left. It was lying vacant and already looked unkempt and uncared for despite having a 24×7 caretaker. In our view, it would always be the Sharma house irrespective of the new owners.
Till then, the only foreigners in town (apart from Rohit and Mohit’s friends) I had encountered were the Stokes family who had come from the west many years back. Bona fide residents of the country, they were a very respected family as they had worked tirelessly to make our district an apple abode. They introduced new varieties of apples and newer ways of farming for a better yield and then advised orchard owners on ways to market and export their bounty. Thanks to the Stokes family the people were now wealthy and led comfortable lives.
Having said this, the Stokes were not really foreigners any more. They spoke the colloquial language, went to native schools and participated in all religious functions. They did look a bit different, but some of them had married locals and eventually that criteria too became negligible.
Mohit and Rohit later decided to remain in England. They got great jobs and married British girls. Their visits to their native land became fewer. The senior Sharma longed to have them over for longer periods but could do nothing about it. Their visits to England also started decreasing as they advanced in age. A few years ago, Mr Sharma passed away and Aunty Sharma began taking care of the large estate. However, her health was failing and there were rumours that she was going to sell her property and move in with her boys in England. Then, a day dawned when the two boys came to fetch their mother. They took some stuff from the mansion and left. The whole village came to bid them farewell. There were a lot of moist eyes that day. The residents of Mashobra were going to miss this family, as they were as dear as their nearest kin.
I was really interested to know who was going to move in, as my visits to my fairyland depended on that. It was an English family who had moved from London. They were a very smart young couple, the Smiths. From Sharma to Smith! They had a little son called Frank. He was about five years old, roughly my age. While the luggage was getting unloaded, I spotted him standing looking quite forlorn. Being immediate neighbours, I could see him clearly. I think he spotted me at the same instant. Our eyes met and a speechless message transpired. I liked his looks. I walked towards him and then we both broke into a run. Frank must have felt cramped after the journey, and the run made him feel strong and lively. Although the house technically belonged to him, I knew its geography better than him. I held his hand and pulled him towards the tree house. I could see his eyes light up. In that instant, we became friends.
Another fascinating asset in this household was a dog. It was a beautiful Lhasa Apso called Joey. She followed us everywhere we went. She was a friendly dog and seemed fond of us both.
We climbed up and admired the beauty of our surroundings. I could see the deteriorated garden and the hopeless fences which used to look so lovely with pink and white roses. The well-manicured lawn had weeds and bald patches. The house still stood majestic and proud. Above all, the tree house looked as charming as ever. I learnt that the family had travelled from Delhi. It was a long drive of about ten hours. While chatting, I don’t know at what point we dozed off. We were woken up by loud shouts of, “Frank, where you are?” We opened our eyes and looked down to see Frank’s parents frantically calling his name while going around the campus. Frank waved out to them and shouted in glee. They came rushing to us and embraced him.
It was only then that they noticed me. I told them my name. They seemed to be happy to see me. The next day, a well dressed person came to our house to invite me to the Sharmas’ house. My parents were happy to let me go. I was always in their way. Once in the Smith’s house, Frank met me and we were bundled up to our favourite place, the tree house. We were having the time of our life running up and down the tree house. After a while, I saw a house help coming towards us with a beautiful picnic basket. We went and sat in the balcony of the tree house and devoured the scrumptious cheese quiche, lemonade and plum cake. It was heavenly.
I forgot to go home and it seemed that mom and dad had forgotten my existence. Who cared? The next day, Frank’s mother came to our place. She met my mother and complimented me, saying that I was a very adorable kid. I felt on top of the world. She asked my mom about my school. She wanted to admit Frank in the same school.
Now, Frank and I started spending a considerable amount of time together. I introduced him to the other kids in the neighbourhood. Soon, he was like one of us. We picked up a lot of words in English and he learnt to speak our language.
We enjoyed each other’s company. It did not matter that he was a Brit and we were Indians. We celebrated Janamashtami in August. Frank accompanied us to the temple where we pulled the strings of the swing, celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna. He loved the visit and the lovely jalebis, samosas and kalakand that my mom fed us after the visit. After that, he visited us on Rakshabandhan. Frank loved the idea of getting a big rakhi tied onto his wrist by a sister who the brother would protect for life. Both of us asked our parents to get us a baby sister. They just laughed and shut us up. Then came Navratri and we had Ramleela staged every evening. The local lads enact the entire Ramayana for a period of nine days, culminating on the tenth day celebrated as Dussehra when wicked Raven is killed by the pious Lord Rama. It is celebrated as the victory of good over evil. Twenty days later, we celebrated Diwali. This was a big day, and everyone enjoyed bursting crackers, decorating our homes with diyas and all the delicious food that was prepared. All through these sprees, Frank was with us.
On Christmas, we were invited to Frank’s house. There was a big Christmas tree decorated delicately with various Christmas decorations. Right on top was a brilliant silver star. Under the tree, there were some gifts wrapped in glittery paper. After a scrumptious Christmas lunch consisting of roast turkey, ham and noodle casserole, baked lasagna and orange basil baked brie, we were asked to pick a gift from under the tree which had our name on it. I was very excited and wanted to open my gift immediately. I found a catapult, a T shirt and three dinky cars, all of which I really loved. We sang Christmas carols and danced around the tree. It was a wonderful celebration.
I remember one afternoon, Joey was barking a lot. It was unusual. Initially, she barked a little when she saw monkeys who were in plenty. She felt they were teasing her. She would bark at them and chase them but they outsmarted her as they would disappear jumping on trees. Joey tried her best to climb trees but gave up in frustration. It used to be funny seeing this chase. However, Joey had got used to the eternal nuisance of monkeys and had stopped bothering to bark, leave alone a chase. Therefore, we were quite baffled by her bizarre behaviour. Perched up on the tree house, Frank and I told her a number of times to shut up as the serenity of the surroundings was getting disrupted by her incessant barking—but no luck.
Frank’s mother must have also heard the annoying bark. She came out of the house shouting for Joey to stop. Suddenly, we were shocked to hear a piercing screech from her. We came scrambling down. What we saw was quite unnerving. There was a huge snake, which it seems was trying to enter the house. Joey was keeping it at bay by her persistent barking. It was fascinating to see the snake with its head up and moving rhythmically back and forth. As soon as Joey saw Frank’s mother, she stopped for a moment as if her mission was complete and she breathed a sigh of relief. Aunty immediately summoned a couple of guys, gathered us in her arms and ran into the house. The instructions she gave were to exterminate the venomous creature at once. We were pretty shaken up.
We were given a drink of hot chocolate to calm us. We realized that Joey was the knight in shining armour of the day. She managed to avert a major calamity, because looking at aunty she would have passed out—not by a snake bite, but out of the shock of encountering one. I don’t know what happened to the dreadful creature, but there was talk about the white lady’s ignorance regarding snakes. The natives never kill a snake, as it is considered sacred and bad luck follows the killer who eventually dies a heinous death caused by a snake bite of its companion. However, the snake never appeared again and our love and respect for Joey went up many times.
Joey was a friendly dog and made many friends in town. When we took her for a walk, she met many stray dogs. They were nice looking with bushy tails, some fur and strong bodies. They were mostly brown and black. They carried themselves majestically and one could easily mistake them for rare pedigree breeds. They seemed to be happy and ran with a spring in their feet over hilly ups and downs. Joey loved these quaint walks that took us to picturesque locations. Often, we would release her from her leash and let her run wild with gay abandon. She would be back at one shout from Frank, looking as pleased as a cat that had licked a bowl of cream.
We loved walking to Tarai, which was a kilometer away. Once there, we would roll down the lush green slopes with Joey following us closely. There was a little pond which had tiny fish floating about. We loved sitting around the pond watching the fish, opening their tiny mouths and sometimes jumping up a little out of the water and diving in. A little beyond was the Craignano, a lovely park where I used to come with my parents on weekends for a picnic. It was perched up on a hill. The view from there was spectacular. You could see mountain ranges all around. If you looked down, there was a forest of pines and deodar. In the daytime, you could see and hear rare birds like woodpeckers, Himalayan bulbuls, jungle fowls, barn swallows, rufous, doves, hoopoes and black headed jays. There was also a little café there where we would get to eat some tasty treat like short bread cookies, scones, finger sandwiches and egg salad.
In the meantime, Frank and I had a quarrel. Frank’s cousin, John, was visiting. One day, we were making sand castles. Each one of us was decorating our place with pebbles, twigs and flowers. John was not really interested in the activity and he suddenly jumped on my castle, reducing it to rubble. I was very angry, but Frank ignored the incident. I told him to stay away, and started building again. This time too, he demolished my creation with one swing of his spade. I was furious and jumped on him. In a moment, we were rolling on the sand boxing each other. Instead of getting angry with John, Frank started defending him and they soon ran way. I swore never to talk to Frank after that.
One morning, there was pandemonium at Frank’s home. The cook, the gardener and the watchman were going here and there, shouting for Joey. I jumped out of my bed, and ran to their gate in my night suit. On inquiring, I learnt that Joey was missing. She had not returned after a customary walk the previous evening. Frank looked tearful. He seemed to be blaming himself, as Joey had gone for a walk with him along with an attendant as usual, and had let her loose at Tarai to chase squirrels while he sat near the pond admiring the fish. There were other dogs there too as usual, and one that Joey particularly liked who we had named Brownie. They were playfully running around. Frank had been surprised when Joey didn’t respond to his command of walking back. He shouted a couple of times and then frantically, but to no avail. Dejectedly, he and the attendant walked back home without Joey. It was quite disturbing to hear this news.
However two days later, Joey came back on her on, looking scruffy and tired. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. A few days later, Joey looked very lethargic. She was taken to the vet and it was discovered that she was going to have pups. There was a lot of excitement. We were told that it could be a litter of four or five. Frank’s parents were looking for homes who would like to keep a pet. I begged my parents to let me have one. Initially, they were against the idea but my persistence worked and they finally gave in. The next day, they set across to meet the Smiths. I was with them, a bit nervous. What if they had already found homes for all the pups? What if they refused? What if Frank creates a problem? All these thoughts were mulling in my head. The Smiths were very cordial. They had no clue about our fallout. They told my parents that they would happily give a pup to us, as they were looking for warm and loving homes for Joey’s babies.
Around that time, the struggle for freedom was at its peak. It was the summer of 1947. Although we in our village were not really affected, the grownups would sometimes huddle together and speak in restrained tones. We would get snippets of what was brewing. The Britishers had invaded our country and done mean things to our people. They had made us their slaves, tortured and killed innocent people who raised their voices against them. People were quitting the use of imported goods that had come from the United Kingdom. I had a few T shirts and my most prized collection of dinky cars. I decided to give them up. It broke my heart, but I was part of the struggle. We also boycotted Frank.
In the meantime, Joey had her litter. She had four beautiful pups, two of which were white and two, brown and white. When I went to see them, they looked like little rats clinging onto Joey. Joey looked very proud of her achievement. I immediately fell in love with one of the brown and white ones. Its paws were white and it had a round patch on its otherwise golden brown body. It had the most appealing dark brown eyes that implored one to choose him. And I did pick him. I was promised that in time, it would be mine. He was golden brown, reminding me of a fresh muffin. That’s what I called him, “Muffin”. Now, I would dream of having Muffin in my house, walking him, running with him and spending my day with him.
In about two weeks’ time, the Smiths starting giving away the pups to whomsoever they had promised. I went to get Muffin. I was told that since we were neighbours, I could let Muffin be with her mother for a little longer. I could come and visit him whenever I wished. I came the next day. I extended my arm to pet Muffin, but my advances were met with a nasty snarl from Joey. Gosh, what was the matter with my friend Joey? She seemed to have changed her priorities. She was a foreigner just like the Smiths, whereas Muffin was mine—one of us. I needed to free him from the clutches of these outsiders. I was a little upset. Had they changed their mind?
A lot of foreigners were leaving the country. What if they also suddenly moved and took Muffin along with them? I started getting sleepless nights. One afternoon, I crept into their yard where Joey was with Muffin. Muffin was merrily flitting around, while Joey seemed to be asleep. This was my opportunity. I was going to pick up Muffin and run. I was carrying a stick in case Joey snapped. Very quietly, I approached Muffin. I wasn’t doing anything wrong as Muffin was rightfully mine. Just as I was about to reach for Muffin, Joey raised her head and Muffin jumped onto her. At the same time, my stick came crashing down. I ran, as I heard a yelp and the sound of feet running towards us.
I reached home. I was panting and my heart was beating hard. The next day, the Smiths came to our house. They had Muffin in a cute little basket with a ribbon tied on it. They handed the basket to me. Muffin was sitting, looking as adorable as ever. He tried to stand, but just dropped. In that instant, I saw a bandage on his leg. Mrs Smith said that there had been a mishap the previous day. Someone had come to harm the dogs and Muffin had got wounded. My ears burned and my head hung in shame. Oh my God, had I unintentionally hurt my cute little pup? How could I forgive myself?
The next day, the Smiths left quite suddenly. They fled, it seems, quietly at night leaving all their belongings behind. Their hats and umbrellas were still on the stand. Their clothes were in the cupboard and all their fancy cutlery and crockery was in the kitchen. Joey went with them.
At the stroke of midnight, India got freedom on 15th August, 1947. Life continued to be the same for us. I went to school and played with my friends as usual. Muffin and I were inseparable. Muffin’s wound healed but he still had a scar and a slight limp. He grew up to be an adorable combination of Joey and Brownie who we presume was his father. He had short legs, a biggish body and a furry tail. Every time I saw him hobble, I would be filled with guilt and shame. I would never be free from this culpability.
It was a lesson learnt for life: Actions taken in hatred and anger not only hurt others, but can cripple you or your loved ones for life.