Maharani, page 1
About the Author
Also by Ruskin Bond
Ruskin Bond is the acclaimed author of over five hundred novellas, stories, essays and poems, all of which has established him as one of India’s most beloved writers. His most recent works are Secrets and Susanna’s Seven Husbands which was turned into the film Saat Khoon Maaf. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993 and the Padma Shri in 1999.
Also by Ruskin Bond
The Room on the Roof & Vagrants in the Valley
The Night Train at Deoli and Other Stories
Time Stops at Shamli and Other Stories
Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra
A Season of Ghosts
When Darkness Falls and Other Stories
A Flight of Pigeons
Delhi Is Not Far
A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings
A Handful of Nuts
Rain in the Mountains
Scenes from a Writer’s Life
The Lamp Is Lit
The Little Book of Comfort
Notes from a Small Room
Classic Ruskin Bond: Complete and Unabridged
Classic Ruskin Bond Volume 2: The Memoirs
Dust on the Mountain: Collected Stories
The Best of Ruskin Bond
Friends in Small Places
Indian Ghost Stories (ed.)
Indian Railway Stories (ed.)
Classical Indian Love Stories and Lyrics (ed.)
Tales of the Open Road
Ruskin Bond’s Book of Nature
Ruskin Bond’s Book of Humour
A Town Called Dehra
Ruskin Bond’s Book of Verse
‘I think I’m dying, Ruskin,’ said H.H. as I took her hand and kissed it in the manner of some knight of old. She loved these little feudal courtesies.
‘You must have said that a hundred times during the last ten years,’ I said. ‘You’re dying for a drink, that’s all. Shall I ask Seema to make some coffee? Then we can talk about these mortal coils that bind us.’
‘You can’t discuss life and death over a cup of coffee. Ask Seema to make a salad, and you go to the cabinet and fetch the bottle of vodka that dear old Sardar sahib from Faridkot brought me last week.’
H.H. (my old friend, the Maharani Sahiba of Mastipur) seldom bought any liquor, but her cabinet was full of bottles of wine, whisky, gin, sherry and various other liquids designed to make life more agreeable and interesting. These had been given to her by admirers, old and new, as well as those seeking funds or favours from her less-than-generous nature.
H.H. took her vodka neat, and I poured her a three-finger Patiala peg. I preferred mine with orange juice, but as I couldn’t find any fruit juice in the cabinet, I took my Simla peg (two fingers) with soda and a slice of lemon. H.H. could drink me under the table, so I had to go carefully.
Soon we were in the throes of reminiscence.
H.H. (Neena to her close friends) always spoke in gloomy terms about the future, and spoke bitterly about her children and their deficiencies; but she grew quite animated when talking about the past, especially her own past and its more amorous episodes, of which there were many.
She had known me for years, ever since our school days, and as our relationship had never been a physical one, she found it easy to confide in me—knowing I would not make any overt demands—demands on her money (as from her many relations and dependants), or demands on her emotions (as from those who had been lovers). Sometimes she used me as a father confessor, but on this spring morning—April in the hills and the horse chestnut trees in blossom—she evinced one of those rare moments of concern for my own future and well-being.
‘What on earth made you come back from England?’ she asked. (It was a question she’d asked me many times.) ‘You were young, you had a job, you had written a book—the future was all yours, if you wanted fame and money.’
‘I followed my heart, not my head.’
‘You were always thickheaded. What was it about India that brought you back all those years ago?’
‘Romance,’ I said.
‘Romance!’ She burst out laughing. ‘There’s nothing in the least romantic about you. You can’t even kiss a girl properly.’
‘It was the romance of India that brought me back.’
‘Nothing romantic about this country. It’s all politics, my dear.’
‘Well, I’ve never bothered with the politics. Kept away from politicians and babudom as far as possible. But the romance that has been here for centuries, that’s still here. The great plains, the desert, the forests, the seas breaking on our coasts, the mountains, the rivers, the down-to-earth people who belong to the land, the land itself … Do you know, I’ve never owned a square foot of land—not even enough for a grave—but I feel as though I own every square inch of land in this country. It’s all mine, and no one can take it from me!’ I wasn’t usually so effusive, but Neena had got me going.
‘The last romantic!’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Well, you were romantic enough when you wrote to me after that school social in Simla—how many years ago?’
‘Yes, it’s better not to count. I was just fifteen then.’
‘And I was a year older.’
H.H. was now well into her second Patiala peg, and I was just about to start on my second chotta Simla. A flood of memories overcame both of us.
‘Do you remember that letter you wrote to me after the school social?’
‘Of course I remember,’ I said. ‘It got me into trouble.’
Neena was in her final year at a residential school for girls. I was at an all-boys’ boarding school—the ‘Eton of the East’ as someone once called it, although it had in fact been founded by a master from Rugby. We were the pride of Simla. All the ‘royals’ (the children of recently derecognized princely families) went to these schools. I was far from being ‘royal’—my mother had some difficulty in paying my school fees—but I had done almost all my schooling in this most traditional of public schools, and as a senior prefect I felt I was on an equal footing with any prince or princess.
The senior boys had been invited to see a performance of The Merchant of Venice put on by the senior girls. To watch Shakespeare performed by amateurs is always a painful experience. We yawned and fidgeted through most of the play, but I was quite taken by the spirited performance of a bouncy, bright-eyed, rather squeaky-voiced girl who played Portia.
A week later we were invited to a ‘social’, a sort of dance party, at the girls’ school, and the princess Neena very sportingly accepted my invitation to do the foxtrot. Sounds exciting, but the foxtrot was done at a crawl rather than a trot, and there was nothing foxy about it. Still, it gave you an opportunity to hold a girl in your arms while you shuffled slowly around the dance floo
I was clumsy enough but I made up for this with what I thought was intelligent conversation. The princess did not say much, but she laughed easily, and she made no attempt to keep me at a distance. Soon her small breasts were pressed against me, her lips and cheeks within kissing range. Some enterprising soul turned off the lights, and in the darkness and confusion I gave her a quick peck on the cheek. I expected a slap in return, but instead I felt her salty lips (she’d been eating potato chips) pressed to mine. It was a sensation that sent a shiver down my spine (and elsewhere) and I wanted it to last forever. At sixteen, we want everything to last forever.
Back in school, I dashed off a sweetly worded love letter (those were the days of handwritten love notes)—I was good at them, and functioned as a letter-writer for other love-struck youths—and gave it to a day-scholar who had a sister in the girls’ school. It was duly delivered, but no reply was forthcoming. I dashed off another, equally fervent, epistle; I even plagiarized a few lines from Jane Austen. No response. Perhaps I should have tried Shakespeare. Love’s Labour Lost would have been appropriate.
Finally I sent a verbal message through the same courier service. There was an immediate response.
‘What did she say?’ I asked the messenger. ‘What did she tell your sister?’
‘She said you had pimples.’
‘Just the sort of thing you would say,’ I remarked as we launched into another round of vodkas. Our conversation ran on like a river.
‘But your letters were very nice, very romantic,’ said H.H.
‘I hope you didn’t keep them.’
‘You’d find them a bit embarrassing now, wouldn’t you? I should have kept them, just for a laugh. And to pass around at parties.’
‘But you destroyed them, didn’t you?’ I asked anxiously.
‘Yes, unfortunately. All that gushing nonsense.’
‘A good thing love letters have gone out of fashion.’
‘You weren’t very good at kissing either. You slobbered all over me.’
‘Oh, but I like you when you’re romantic. It reminds me of all those lovely films I saw when I was a girl. Love Letters, Always in My Heart, Sweethearts, Bitter Sweet … And those beautiful songs. I still sing them sometimes.’
She got up and moved unsteadily to the Steinway piano that took up one corner of the room. She sat down on the piano stool and banged out a few notes. ‘Come on, sing with me, you romantic old fool!’ And she began warbling the words of a Noël Coward song from Bitter Sweet:
I’ll see you again,
Whenever spring breaks through again.
Time may lie heavy between,
But what has been
Is past forgetting …
Halfway through we broke down laughing. Seema appeared in the doorway, holding a tray on which lay a plate overflowing with sliced tomatoes.
H.H. shrieked with laughter.
‘Where were you all this time, you silly girl? What took you so long?’
‘There were no tomatoes, Rani-ma, so I went out to get some.’
‘Clever girl. Can’t have a salad without tomatoes.’
‘But there’s no lettuce. I couldn’t find any lettuce.’
‘Never mind, dear. Lettuce is really meant for rabbits. That’s why they reproduce so quickly.’
And she broke into peals of laughter again.
‘Come on, Ruskin, have some salad.’
‘No, it’s time for me to go. It’s nearly four o’clock. But your guests—what do they have for lunch?’
‘If they want lunch, they prepare it themselves. Take the salad away, dear. Give it to the monkeys. I’ll go to bed for an hour or two.’
But before she could do so, there was a commotion downstairs. Someone was standing at the gate and shouting up at the open window.
‘It’s Kartik,’ said Seema anxiously. Kartik was H.H.’s elder son.
Neena rose from her chair and went to the window, hands on her hips.
‘Send her down to me!’ shouted the man at the gate. He looked dishevelled, his long hair uncombed, his face obscured by a week-long growth of beard. ‘She’s my woman, I’m going to marry her—you can’t stop me!’
‘He’s drunk,’ said H.H.
‘That makes three of us,’ I said.
I looked at Seema. She was trembling, biting her lip. ‘Don’t let him in, Rani-ma,’ she pleaded.
‘He can’t come in, whether you’re here or not,’ snapped Neena. ‘I’ll get Hans to see him off!’ She marched out of the room in search of Hans, her handyman, a Swiss acolyte she’d picked up at an ashram in the hills. Hans was a six-footer, with the build of a lumberjack. Kartik did not appear to be much more than five feet six inches. But he had a stentorian voice which carried clearly up to the window.
‘Send that bitch down at once!’ he yelled. ‘She has all my money!’
I looked at Seema. She shook her head helplessly. ‘He lost all his money in a card game.’
The gate had a lock on it, but Kartik was doing his best to climb over. He was almost over when big Hans, striding across the lawn like an angry stork, arrived at the gate and gave Kartik a shove, which sent him tumbling backwards on to the stony path. He got up with some difficulty. Then, cursing Hans, H.H. and Seema, he staggered away, vowing vengeance.
‘You know him?’ I asked the girl.
‘We were engaged. But he beats me whenever he’s drunk. He locked me up in a bathroom for a day and a night. I ran away when I had the chance. Rani-ma said I could stay with her. I have nowhere else to go. My home is near Ranchi. My parents are very poor. He met me there and promised me a good life. And so I came with him to Mussoorie.’
Before I left, I put my head in at the door of H.H.’s bedroom, intending to say goodbye. She was on her bed, flat on her back, snoring peacefully.
Neena was, of course, the second Maharani, the first having died in mysterious circumstances. I had never met the first, being a small boy at the time, but I remember my mother and her friend Doreen talking about her; speculating, rather, on the possible reasons for the young Maharani’s early demise.
She was a pretty girl, the daughter of a raja from a small hill state. She had given her husband a male heir, so he could have had no complaints on that score. However, she was not the outgoing, socializing type—disliked parties, abhorred the shikar expeditions so dear to His Highness, preferring to stay at home when he went off on a tiger hunt with his cronies. He wasn’t much of a shot, and the mounted tiger heads on his palace walls were, in fact, his father’s trophies. His Highness’s gun had only accounted for the slow-footed sambar and a few wild boar caught unawares during their mid-afternoon siesta. Actually, His Highness’s ambition was to capture and bring home a tiger cub so that one day he could boast of having a grown tiger padding about on his front lawn. This ambition stemmed from the fact that the Nawab of Dhol had a pet lioness which enjoyed the freedom of Dhol’s palace grounds. If Dhol could keep a lion, why shouldn’t Mastipur have a tiger? India and its millions won independence from Britain, and the privileged princes had been obliged to give up their kingdoms; but they still hung on to their titles, and many enjoyed great wealth. The words of a popular American song were no exaggeration:
Take my rubies and take my pearls,
Take my camels and take my girls,
I’m the rich Maharaja of Magador!
In point of fact, their generosity did not extend to bestowing their rubies and pearls on anyone they fancied. The smart ones hung on to the family jewels, or took them out of the country.
But to return to the Maharaja of Mastipur and his forays into the forests of the Doon. The Terai jungles were far more extensive then than they are now. So keen was His Highness on having a young tiger for a pet that he actually engaged the services of Jim Corbett,
Corbett specialized in hunting man-eaters (or so he tells us in his books), but he was always ready to oblige royalty, and they would sometimes engage him to supervise VIP shikar parties—like the one for Lord Linlithgow, viceroy, in which a couple of tigers had to be rounded up and driven in the direction of the great man, who fired at them from the safety of his elephant’s howdah. If he missed (and it often happened) Corbett would be conveniently placed to fire the fatal shot, attributing it to the guest of honour. He had, poor man, to make a living.
It was while the sport-loving Maharaja was away on his many forays into the forests of north India that his Maharani, bored with palace life and the novels of Baroness Orczy, whose Scarlet Pimpernel regularly saved the lives of French royalty during the Revolution, took to taking long drives around the surrounding countryside in her Hillman Minx (or sometimes Sunbeam-Talbot), the latest in fast cars.
The State employed three drivers, and the Maharani’s favourite was Gafoor, a good-looking, good-natured Muslim youth who had been recommended by the Nawab of Dhol. Gafoor was the ideal employee—competent, courteous, willing to please, and exuding sex appeal.
From sitting in the back seat, the Maharani took to sitting in the front seat, beside the driver. It gave her a better view of the countryside, she said. (And a better view of Gafoor’s handsome profile.) She left the palace seated at the back, but once they were out of town she transferred to the front of the car.
If a sex-starved Maharani has to spend several hours a day in the company of a virile young driver, she is bound to become attached to him.
Those drives into the countryside became more intimate. There were stops at small towns where the Maharani was anonymous. They dined together at dhabas and small cafés where royalty would never think of dining. And one evening, when the car broke down, they were forced to spend a night at a small hotel outside Saharanpur. They took separate rooms. But when, on retiring for the night, the Maharani complained of a headache, Gafoor was there with a small container of Oriental Balm which he applied gently to his employer’s fevered brow.
Other author's books:
- PotpourriWhen the Tiger Was KingCollected Short StoriesWhispers in the DarkRoads to MussoorieHimalayaSchool DaysThe Night the Roof Blew Off
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