I had written a novel “They don’t kiss in the movies“. It talks of my first two weeks at BCS in 1948. The book is self-published and is available only through me.
Here is chapter I. The book is a love story, set in India in the early 1950s. It was a time of innocence and the newly-independent country was young. Most of the action occurs in Solan – there is the romance and there is much discussion of God and the scriptures, both pro and con.
Some of the chapters are autobiographical, such as the 1947 riots and chapter I, and some are biographical, such as the war in Burma. The rest is fiction with a big dose
of wishful thinking. The book is a serious attempt at tackling God and atheism.
Gurdip S. Sidhu, MD
[Editor: Gurdip Sidhu (Sidhu II) was at BCS 1948-1951 in Lefroy House. A pathologist, he lives in Harrington Park USA]
Hoisting skis to shoulders, we walked back the five hundred odd yards to the inn. Yesterday’s storm and today’s warm sun had conjured up a skier’s dream – two tired bodies now reveled in the most desirable languor. Showered, dressed, they sat an hour later in a dimly lit, hospitable, warm dining room. Outside, the neon sign glowed in the lowering fog. “The Inn At whiteface Mountain,’ it said. Red, green, empty wine bottles shone dimly along the windows, logs crackled in the fireplace, and soft voices drifted across from other tables. Love and magic hung in the air. My gaze drifted past red liquid in wine glasses, losing itself in limpid, brown womanly eyes casting irresistible spells from across the table . . . she was an apsara, I was sure – one of those heavenly nymphs who entertain the gods – or a houri straight from Paradise. I had chased her all day down the snowy slopes and would follow her again soon to the room. But she had other plans . . . slowly, hypnotically, such are the ways of apsaras and houris and the cruel lure of the past, I was drawn ever back in time, back back back, tumbling through memories long forgotten, to a time when life was melancholy, and I was just a boy in India. Red wine, evening magic, limpid brown eyes, crackling firelogs, drifting voices, they all conspired and I yielded: memories arose from the depths, unfolding relentlessly. More wine, more eyes, more magic, and . . . I was revisiting history. A hot, dry afternoon, as had been all previous afternoons this month of May . . . the temperature steadily rising day by day, nature stricken with typhoid. If this state of affairs continued much longer, delirium would surely set in – my mother the doctor had said so. In deference to the heat, the chirping of the sparrows had long since ceased. The only sign of activity was the hot, desiccating, life-draining loo blowing across the land, driving man and insect, birds and flies, dogs and mosquitoes to shelter in the shade. Towards evening, an ominous orange glow blossomed in the western sky, a child of the desert, pressing eastwards. Premature darkness enveloped the streets, and an eerie silence gripped the city; even the raucous crows were mute.
And then it hit: dust swooping down – small grain, big grain, newspapers, rubbish pummeling the metropolis and the unlucky few caught outdoors. Nostrils filled, sneezed; grit blew into, rattled eyes; white clothes turned dull grayish-brown; people, dogs, ran for cover; and the heavens thundered, a fitting counterpoint to the urgent rattling of ten thousand doors and windows. But no rain fell, only dust; yet it was relief – the temperature fell a full fifteen degrees – and a blanket of dust, soothing dust, covered everything, hiding both the beautiful and the ugly. “Dust into dust, and under dust . . .” but no, not quite: men lived; brooms in hand, they fought back. Painfully, slowly, life returned to the streets of Karole Bagh, a lower middle class neighborhood of New Delhi and home to the street I lived on: the street of the date palms – Khajoor Road.
At the time of partition, 1947, when we were transposed – courtesy of religious zeal beyond our control, of ambitious plans to create a land of the pure, Pakistan – to Delhi from Lahore, the road had the Muslim name of Mohammed Hussain; but the prevailing animosity towards anything Muslim at the time – a reaction to the drive towards purity – was guaranteed to eliminate this commemorative, however illustrious Mohammed Hussain may have been. It hurt me to see wanton destruction of things and names historical, but it could not be denied that the substitute was both appropriate and atune with Nature.
At the time of the name change, I had been away in Shimla (written and pronounced Simla by those of Anglican persuasion, and by those who, willy-nilly – like me – were imbibing an ‘English’ education), a town seven thousand feet up in the Himalayas of the Punjab. This penchant of the British for mispronouncing everything Indian was surely a disease – of the ears, maybe . . . or the larynx, or both. Look at Delhi – the spelling is a travesty. Admittedly, it is not the cleanest, nicest-smelling city in the world, but why take it out on its name? It is ancient and historical; it has outlived thousands, maybe millions; it will surely outlive us. Then why this petty meanness? My fellow Punjabis and I pronounce it Dilli, the ‘d’ soft like in many European tongues. For the natives, which for us Punjabis implies the local city-waalahs who had slept their way through all the vicissitudes and turmoil of recent North Indian history, it was Dehli. But only the British called it Delhi . . . what was it with them anyway, that they had to, still continue to, make nonsense of all words Indian?
Was there a method to their madness, or wasn’t there? Was it a malignant disease? No one knew. Their spelling and pronunciation of all Indian names was a continuing comedy of errors, still aped and perpetuated by their Indian proteges. The well-known city of Kahnpur was pronounced and written Cawnpore. Ridiculous, you say. But wait; hold judgement. Even I was not immune: in deference to British ways, my aunt had registered me in the Sacred Heart School, Lahore, as Amrik Singh Randhawa. It is really Amreek – you could of course spell it Umreek – but such are the ways of the English language that, without a doubt, both would be mispronounced here in the New World – my beloved, adopted land, the United States. Greater men than I have shortened their names – cut, slashed, misspelled, simplified – so that what was once Greek, Polish, Russian, is now American. But there is more to a name than a sequence of letters: it is a sound that is familiar, soothing, belonging, loved, intimately a part of one’s emotions and being; it is the sound of your mother’s voice, and that of a lover beckoning . . . so I must attempt, at least once, to defend it. Now try this: if you pronounce Am- as ‘Um’ in umbrella, and rik as ‘reek’, you will be sure to earn my blessings. Randhawa is another matter. Ran-sounds like ‘run’, and -awa as ‘ah-wa’. Now try my name.
There, you have it; you ore now talking like a true, blue-blooded Punjabi. We Punjabis, as you know, or should if you don’t, pride ourselves on the blueness of our blood. It often runs hot, but what blue blood does not. Incidentally, Pun- is like the word ‘pun’, and -jabi is ‘jaa-bi’. Punj in Punjabi is, of course, not a misspelled pun, but the number five. Aab is water, river – Punjab is hence the land of the five aabs .. . waters . . . rivers. From northwest to southeast, they are the Jhelum, Chenab (pronounce Chinaab), Ravi (pronounce Raavi), Beas (say Bey-ahs) and Sutlej (Sut as in ‘Sutcliffe’ and lej as -ludge in ‘sludge’). Each is the size of the Hudson or bigger, and each bursts its banks every July or August – barring a drought – as monsoon rains swell the waters, spreading destruction, life-giving silt, woe and happiness . . . happiness and woe . . . to the surrounding countryside. The aab giveth and the aab taketh away.
Now for him with the misspelled name. I am in my seventeenth year, home from boarding school in Shimla, celebrating an extended leave from studies after successfully completing the Senior School Certificate examination – the high school exam given by Cambridge University, the English one – the prior December. Pre-medical does not begin till mid-July. My parents both work – my father’s a lawyer and my mother a physician – and seldom have much time for me except to remind me to study, particularly my father, even now when I have no pressing need, and no exams to take. My mother, an obstetrician, is much too busy – and disinclined by nature – to try to regulate my life; particularly as of late the Indian population transposed to Delhi, which included most of her Lahore patients, has been breeding fast, trying to make up for losses incurred in the birth-pangs of independence. Babies are being born everywhere; no one objects; all celebrate.
My father, being simply a lawyer who runs a practice of sorts, has time on his hands, and he insists on spending it plotting my education. So, during this vacation, 1 have learned – under duress – typing at the Pitman Academy, a small ramshackle little room with heavy, antiquated typewriters in the building opposite Madras hotel (that is Mud- with a soft ‘d’ and -raas, so Mudraas hotel … I am sorry, but there is just no way out of this spelling mess … for your sake, I wish there were) in Connaught Circus. Incidentally, but for that period of hammering the keys, I never would have written this book and you would not be reading it, since I have a complete aversion to writing longhand. In hindsight, this is the one time, I concede, that my father’s heavy-handed manner of dealing with his offspring demonstrated foresight, something often conspicuously lacking. Also in this period, I partook of a college-level course in Punjabi called the Gyani, the only thing I ever failed in my life. Why? You will soon see as I tell you about my school. Fortunately, I am free again, though only so long as 1 stay out of father’s sight.
The fact that I went to the all-boys Bishop Cotton School in Shimla instead of some local institution in Delhi would suggest to most people that my family was rich. My next-door neighbors certainly think so. But we are not rich, merely middle class. Most of the money mother earns is consumed supporting relatives, close and not-so-close, who insist on making our house an inn. They drop in from the Punjab invariably unannounced. The first sign that someone has arrived is the pile of baggage lying on the front steps of the verandah. Because of this hospitality function, my family has never seen fit for me to have a room to myself. My activities are carried out in the living room, which in the evenings doubles as a dining room; or in my parents’ bedroom, which not surprisingly is the only bedroom.
Sleeping arrangements vary with the season. In summer, all of us, including my parents, sleep on string beds laid out on the small lawn in front of the house. Lest you get the wrong idea, there is a high, plastered, brick wall separating the lawn from the street, so there is privacy from the general public. But there is no privacy within the family, or from the neighbors’ family who live in one-third of the house, and also sleep in the same lawn. Not that I mind. You see, India is a country crowded with people, but social contact, particularly that between the sexes, is strictly limited. Any forced togetherness can only help, not hinder . . . at least for us teenagers. But circumstances have not been on my side. For the past five years, the only times at home have been the annual winter vacations from December to March. In that season, the beds are placed in the verandah, and there is less opportunity to casually talk with others not of my family. This is my first summer at home. So far, though, my neighbors’ beautiful daughter has not seen fit to risk showing me affection. “Risk?” you ask. Yes, for the enterprise is fraught with danger. Her family is Hindu, quite opposed to affairs of the heart outside of marriage, and most certainly not with a Sikh, so she has to be careful. I keep hoping that is the explanation for her diffidence to my advances, because I’d rather not dwell on more depressing possibilities.
Life is indeed dull. All my school friends live far away in posher areas of New Delhi in bungalows, with membership in clubs where they swim and play tennis, or meet girls who are equivalently accomplished. I have no such luck, being mired in Karole Bagh with those who would not understand my kind; who go to schools where teachers enforce discipline by beating them in the classroom with the edge of a ruler on outstretched hands, not like BCS where the housemaster called you to his office after school hours to cane you on your behind, and then expected you to thank him for it like any good, ‘English-style public school’ lad.
Trying to live in two such totally unrelated worlds was enough to drive any self-respecting Sikh boy to schizophrenia, but all it did for me was to cause a listlessness and a feeling of despair born of the knowledge that everything was all wrong. For instance, what was a middleclass boy like me pretending to do in a rich boys’ school? . . . and then, how was I supposed to fit into a lower middle class neighborhood every winter vacation, where almost no one could speak English? Heaven knows how, each year, I made valiant efforts to return to my native tongue, but sadly with only woefully partial success: I cannot express anything even remotely sophisticated without liberally sprinkling every Punjabi sentence with English words. I probably murder the syntax and grammar too. The result is a language that is almost pidgin. Even the most kindly souls would have to label me an outcast, or at best a snob; but I try. Alas, attempting to romance a beautiful girl without the gift of language is not easy, not till you’ve grown close; but you need language to do that too. Once, in a cinema, I had held her hand, bypassing speech, but we have not been alone again, and I have begun to despair.
When I entered BCS in March 1948, the first two weeks were surely the worst of the eleven years of my life. Though I could read and write English well, I could hardly speak it. And 1o and behold, the very first thing I learned was that we were permitted to speak only English, even among ourselves. Speaking Indian, which included Punjabi, was strictly forbidden, on pain of pain by caning – on your behind, like I said before, because that was the only way a gentleman was supposed to be punished. The whole scheme was sadistic: first, forcible separation from home and parents; then, from your own mother tongue. The mind sputtered and frothed in darkness, unable to find words, ultimately falling silent. To my tender neurons, this was a most diabolical plot. I was not at the time well versed in the niceties of the Hindu – and incidentally also Sikh – theory of reincarnation and the function of karm (pronounced cur- as in curry, and -m) – which means acts in a previous lifetime that determine your fate in the present. Like my father says, what is written is written (in your Fate, of course) and there is nothing you can do about it. Being unaware, at the time, of this protective fatalism, I could not accept my sorrow with equanimity, and became acutely homesick. “Beeji, mother,” I cried in my sleep. I wanted soft comforts – maternal and womanly.
The plot thickens. The train on which we set off for Shimla was much too late arriving at its destination. Unbeknownest to us, there was white powder – later recognized as snow – on the tracks, forcing the engine wheels to slip and skid all the fifty-six miles of narrow gauge track from Kaalka in the foothills to Shimla. It was eight o’clock – pitch dark – by this time, so there was no question of going the remaining three-plus miles to the school. Bedrolls were taken out of the carriage where they were stored, and distributed to us, with the instructions to open and sleep in them. Later, next morning, we were told to re-roll them and tie them in the original manner. But how? Having always lived with servants in the house, and having never been taken on a vacation by my parents, I had never learned to do anything other than play and study. But BCS was a place where you learned, even when you were still three miles and a night away, so we did it – somehow.
Morning saw us loaded into cattle trucks (well, maybe not that, but they were at least trucks for carrying bricks – but let us suppose they were cattle trucks . . . for emotional reasons) – and driven off on the Cart Road to school in the subfreezing temperature. We stood because we were too packed to sit; besides, cattle don’t sit when being transported, and we were no exception. By the time we arrived at our destination, my hands were blue from hanging on to the bars overhead which were the only visible means of support, and my back was cold from the lump of snow that had fallen off a deodar (an Indian cedar) tree down my neck on the way.
School was hard, stony, frozen ground with a long, two-floored building – shaped like en E, the open arms looking south – with a sloping red roof. There were lists on bulletin boards, and I was informed by an older boy – a prefect – who had read them, that I was to go upstairs to Lefroy house. After settling in, we were instructed to go down, line up outside the dining hall, and await in the cold till the call came to march in house by house, Rivaz and Ibbetson on the west, Curzon and Lefroy on the east. We kept standing at our seats until ‘grace’ was said: suddenly, from the mouth of the pink-skinned schoolmaster on duty, who was standing at the northern end of the hall, came out a most solemn string of words: “for what we are about to receive, we thank thee, our Lord.” “Amen”, everybody responded . . . (pronounced Ah-men in the English fashion). Who was the Lord? What was Amen? I wondered, but my mind was not up to formulating the English necessary to find out. Anyway, now we could sit.
Sheepishly, I sat down. The House Captain at the head of the table and the House Prefect at the tail served everybody a toast and a fried egg, the plates being passed down to the center of the long wooden tables at which we sat, simultaneously from both ends. Knives, forks, spoons were set on each seat, but I had never seen the clawed weapons, and had no idea of their use. So I just sat there and watched, afraid to ask how because I would then have to speak that foreign English. Next came porridge, another novelty that I had never seen before. There were no paraunthas, no yogurt with salt and pepper, no makkhan (white butter), no malai (cream) . . . what kind of a breakfast was this? Somehow, without the slightest understanding of the food or the weapons, 1 blundered my way through the meal and even got to eat the egg and toast.
The first two weeks were a baptism by fire, but by the time they were over, I had learned to speak English and had made some friends. I was now familiar with essential BCS slang like “bogs’ for the lavatories, and ‘boff paper’ for toilet paper. This last was a real surprise: you see, Indians use water, not paper, to clean themselves. Then there was the fact that there were no doors to the johns, so that you sat there in full view of anyone who walked into the room. My parents would have been horrified to hear that, even though it was obvious to me that this legacy was left to us by the children of our former rulers; and if it was good enough for English sons, surely it must be good enough for us – unless they were really less civilized. Given the fact they used paper instead of water, there was good reason to believe them inferior. Anyway, I was not going to debate that with my parents.
When it came to general behavior, you were never supposed to ‘tit’, which meant complain – to anyone, not just a teacher or prefect – about being mistreated by some bully. There was to be no “putting-of-hands-in-pockets,” no matter how cold, because it was sissy-like behavior. My parents, having no idea there would be snow and bitter cold in the Himalayas, since they had never been there (my mother had actually been there several times, but only in summer, and my father never), had failed to provide me with gloves. Accordingly, by the end of the week, my hands and fingers were swollen, painful and cracked from not “being-put-into-pockets.” The condition, I was told, was only chilblains, something that I would get over eventually; but, reassurance or not, it still hurt.
On Sundays, we were all required to write letters home. I wrote to my mother, painfully, with chilblained hands. I was simply too scared to write to my father; besides, 1 had nothing in common with him, and did not remember ever initiating a conversation between us. Every time we talked, he originated the discussion and I listened, scared, knowing that it was some task he was proposing, and his tasks were never pleasant. He really did not believe in fun and happiness; he believed in contentment, which is not quite the same thing, but which is of the same genre as being resigned to one’s Fate. He never joked; in fact, he viewed humor as a kind of sadistic exercise, seeing as it was always at the expense of another. He made it abundantly clear that he could see nothing funny in such activity, admonishing us to be ‘good’ boys, my brother and I, and play when it was time to play, and study when it was time to study. However, if something had to be sacrificed for want of time – you guessed it – it was always play.
Out of fear of my father, I had become so skillful at my studies that I never was second in the exams. The conviction was strong that if I ever failed to come first, there would be hell to pay – like losing my playing privileges, and corporal punishment to boot. So, like the proverbial Jack, I had become a studious boy, though I had a natural ability for sports, acquired – you guessed it again – from my father himself: during his days in college, he had been a champion athlete.
The dutiful letter that I wrote made no mention of cold, chilblains, boff paper, door-less Johns, homesickness, or English instead of Punjabi. If I complained, my father might try to help and, knowing from past experience, I could well imagine that the help would be infinitely worse than any complaint I harbored; besides, I was getting used to my problems and even learning to solve them a little. There was another problem I could not mention, and that was about the arrangements for bathing. All they had here was a common hall-like bathroom with ten showers all in a row. The prefect on duty turned them on, and he decided how hot the water was to be – which was nearly always close to boiling, much too hot for my tender skin. After being in that water, we looked as pink as Englishmen, and just as boiled; but that was nothing. The worst was that you had to strip stark naked to have a bath, and that too in front of everyone. Now this was a major problem to all the uninitiated newcomers. Let me explain.
Since there is no privacy in Indian homes, you bathe with your underdrawers on – I was not aware of what happened in homes with daughters, because I had no sisters. Anyway, I had no idea what girls looked like except for the fact that grownup girls had breasts. Indeed, I had never seen a naked girl of any age. Be that as it may, hardiness is inculcated into Sikh boys from birth, so I hesitated a little the first time, then decided to plunge in stark naked like the rest of the boys. Other newcomers were not as fortunate: one of them forsook bathing for an entire two weeks, and that in a country where everyone is expected to bathe at least once a day, water shortage or no water shortage. Of course, I made no mention of the bathing problem in my letter, nor the fact that we bathed only twice a week, spring, summer or autumn, not every day as Indians should. The European climate of the Himalayas required European ways. The three-day intervals helped to keep us deliciously odorous, just like Englishmen, until the swimming season opened in June. In those days, deodorants did not exist . . . certainly not in India. But India is an odorous country, with open sewers, and public defecation by both man and animals, so the nose adjusts easily; but these are outdoor smells . . . and the pink people were willing to smell indoors too. At eleven, I mused, you have much to learn, so I simply shrugged my shoulders . . . after all, our parents sent us here to learn, and if this is what they teach, this is what we’ll learn.
Then there was something even worse, we all had to go to chapel every morning . . . Christians, non-Christians, everybody. There we learned psalms and hymns, and listened to the headmaster – who doubled as the reverend – preach sermons every Sunday evening. In many ways, he was a strange man. For instance, he used a tie in place of a belt – yes, around his waist – and he had a reputation for caning crooked, meaning that he was more likely to hit the back of your thighs when he aimed for your butt. Anyway, I looked with favor on psalms and hymns because I had always loved singing.
As for the sermons, I think they helped convert me to atheism. Even at that age – listening to those few I did not sleep through -I could see the senselessness and contradictions with which they were riddled. There was scarcely a pleasure in life that was not sinful . . . and staying away from such things was what earned you God’s love. I could not believe my ears, because even my father was more liberal. ‘How could anybody believe such nonsense?’ I wondered. I could not compare it to the Sikh religion because, since it was much less organized, it did not submit its hapless members to weekly brainwashing – though attempts are being made in the United States now to make amends – and I had been mercifully spared any sermonizing . . . though I daresay my father’s concept of how to raise a child more than made up for it. To this day, I cannot understand what the devout see in worship. There was no question of telling my parents that I went to church every morning. It would have been like saying I had become a Christian, something which all Punjabis, not just Sikhs, would be horrified to hear. I have also never told any of my relatives or friends in India, and I still am not sure whether my parents know or not; and I am not about to try finding out. Imagine what their reaction would have been if I revealed to them that this best of schools they were sending me to, this school that was modeled on the British public schools, this school that was draining all their hard-earned wealth, was trying to turn us all into little brown Englishmen.