Memories of Bishop Cotton School
At 75, popular author Ruskin Bond decides to take a stroll down memory lane and relive a day spent with his father 65 years back.
If you can get an entire year off from school when you are nine-years-old, and can have a memorable time with a great father, then that year has to be the best time of your life even if it is followed by sorrow and insecurity.
It was the result of my parents’ separation at a time when my father was on active service in the RAF during World War II. He managed to keep me with him for a summer and winter, at various locations in New Delhi – Hailey road, Atul Grove lane, Scindia house – in apartments he had rented, as he was not permitted to keep a child in the quarters assigned to service personnel. This arrangement suited me perfectly, and I had a wonderful year in Delhi, going to the cinema, quaffing milk-shakes, helping my father with the stamp collection; but this idyllic situation could not continue for ever, and when my father was transferred to Karachi he had no option but to put me in a boarding school.
This was the Bishop Cotton preparatory school in Simla – or rather, chota Simla – where boys studied up to class 4, after which they moved on to the senior school.
Although I was a shy boy, I had settled down quite well in the friendly atmosphere of this little school, but I did miss my father’s companionship, and I was overjoyed when he came up to see me during the midsummer break. He had only a couple of days’ leave, and he could only take me out for a day, bringing me back to school in the evening.
I was so proud of him when he turned up in his dark blue RAF uniform, a Flight Lieutenants’ stripes very much in evidence as he had just been promoted. He was already 40, engaged in codes and ciphers and not flying much. He was short and stocky, getting bald, but smart in his uniform. I gave him a salute – I loved giving salutes – and he returned the salutation and followed it up with a hug and a kiss on my forehead. “And what would you like to do today, son?”
“Let’s go to Davico’s” I said. Davico’s was the best restaurant in town, famous for its marzipans, curry-puffs, and pastries. So to Davico’s we went, where of course I gorged myself on confectionery as only a small schoolboy can do.
“Lunch is still a long way off, so let’s take a walk,” suggested my father. And promising ourselves with more pastries, we left the mall and trudged up to the monkey temple at the top of Jakko hill. Here we were relieved of the pastries by the monkeys, who simply snatched them away from my unwilling hand, and we came downhill in a hurry, before I could get hungry again. Small boys and monkeys have much in common.
My father suggested a rickshaw-ride around Elysium Hill, and this we did in style, swept along by two sturdy young rickshaw-pullers. My father took the opportunity of relating the story of Kipling’s Phantom Rickshaw (this was before I discovered it in print), and a couple of other ghost stories designed to build up my appetite for lunch.
We lunched at Wenger’s (or was it Mark’s) and then – “Enough of ghosts, Ruskin. Let’s go to the pictures.”
I loved going to the pictures. I knew the Delhi cinemas intimately, and it hadn’t taken me long to discover the Simla cinemas. There were three of them – the Regal, the Ritz, and the Rivoli.
We went to the Rivoli. It was down near the ice-skating rink and the old Blessington hotel. The film was about an ice-skater and starred Sonja Henie, a pretty young Norwegian Olympic champion who appeared in a number of Hollywood musicals. All she had to do was skate and look pretty, and this she did to perfection. I decided to fall in love with her. But by the time I’d grown up and finished school she’d stopped skating and making films! Whatever happened to Sonja Henie?
After the picture it was time to return to school. We walked all the way to Chota Simla, talking about what we’d do during the winter holidays, and where we would go when the war was over.
“I’ll be in Calcutta now,” said my father. “There are good bookshops there. And cinemas. And Chinese restaurants. And we’ll buy more gramophone records, and add to the stamp collection.”
It was dusk when we walked slowly down the path to the school gate and playing-field. Two of my friends were waiting for me – Bimal and Riaz. My father spoke to them, asked about their homes. A bell started ringing. We said goodbye.
“Remember this day, Ruskin,” said my father. He patted me gently on the head and walked away. I never saw him again. Three months later I heard that he had passed away in the military hospital in Calcutta. I dream of him sometimes, and in my dream he is always the same, caring for me and leading me by the hand along old familiar roads.
And of course I remember that day. Over 65 years have passed, but it’s as fresh as yesterday.
(On the occasion of Ruskin Bond’s 75th birthday on May 19, Penguin Books is celebrating his writing by bringing out his new book Notes From A Small Room which is to be released in July.)