When my father, an army officer, was posted at the National Defence Academy (NDA) Khadakvasla, we lived in one of a row of bungalows collectively known as E–3. I was about eight years at the time.
One evening when I was wandering about listlessly in the front garden, one of my classmates, Caroline, who lived in a nearby bungalow, walked in through our front gate.
Caroline was a feisty, hazel eyed Anglo-Indian girl with masses of unruly chestnut hair. When she leaned forward, a cascade of curls covered her face. The other girls called her ‘Curly Carol’.
‘I’ve come to play,’ she announced. ‘Wot you doing?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Mummy’s baking a cake in the kitchen and she asked me to keep away. I said I could help by tasting it from time to time, but she said no thank you.’
‘Your mom’s right. There won’t be much cake left after you’ve finished “tasting” it!’
‘What do you want to play?’ I asked, quickly reverting to the original subject.
‘Let’s climb that,’ she said, pointing to the hill that rose sharply behind E–3.
I looked at her dubiously.
‘You can’t climb a hill wearing that … thing.’
‘It’s called a frock,’ she said with dignity.
‘Does it have pockets?’ I asked.
‘No, but it’s jolly useful. If I spread it out in front of me like this,’ she said, holding the hem in her hands and pulling it forward, ‘I can gather berries and things in it.’
‘We won’t be gathering berries and things.’
‘When I have breakfast, it catches crumbs,’ said Caroline, continuing to extol the virtues of the said garment. ‘Mom doesn’t like the floor to be littered.’
‘Come on, Curly, we’ll be moving through bushes and thorns. Your clothes may get torn. Go home and change into trousers and a jacket or something. And put on your gym shoes.’
I had climbed the hill several times with my brothers and the other boys; I knew it was tough going. We had been compelled to work our way through the abundant vegetation on the hillside. It had made a mess of our clothes. Besides, I didn’t want Caroline’s stern faced father to blame me for any injuries she might suffer.
‘I won’t change,’ she said, her temper rising. ‘And don’t call me Curly. I am not one of the three stooges, you know.’
She was alluding to a comic book series that was popular then.
‘But that’s Curly Joe,’ I objected.
‘I know, but it’s near enough.’
‘Go home, change and come back quickly, Carol,’ I said wearily, ‘otherwise it’ll be dark by the time we come down from the hill.’
‘I won’t,’ she said defiantly, stamping her foot. ‘You’re a horrid boy and I’m not going to play with you!’
She turned round and stormed off in high dudgeon.
But she wasn’t done with me. Before she reached the gate, she remembered something and came running back to me.
‘And I’ll never marry you again! Not even for a week! So there!’
Carol was referring to the play our class had produced for the school fête. We had appeared in the roles of the king and the queen of a fairy tale country, where our primary royal function seemed to have been to keep a motley crew of villainous courtiers in line. It had taken a week of rehearsals before our teachers felt confident enough to stage the play.
‘Thank God!’ I muttered, heaving a sigh of relief.
‘What did you say?’ she asked suspiciously.
‘Nothing. I was only breathing. I like to breathe sometimes.’
The sarcasm was lost on her. Without bothering to reply, she scampered away, her curls flying in all directions.
The next morning in school Caroline studiously avoided me. Back at home, I had lunch, then finished my homework. In the evening, for want of something better to do, my elder brother Caesar and I had a pillow fight, after which he went off to a classmate’s house. Finding myself at a loose end, I went to the garden to observe the activities of the myriad tiny creatures that inhabited it. As I knelt in the grass, I heard soft footsteps behind me. I turned round to see Caroline looking inquisitively at me.
‘What do you want?’ I asked curtly.
‘I don’t mind playing with you now,’ she said, quite unfazed. ‘Wot you doing?’
‘As you can see, I am catching grasshoppers,’ I said, holding up my hand to show her the two I had already caught.
‘Eek! Let them go at once.’
I released them reluctantly.
‘What do you want to play?’ I asked, unbending a little. ‘Hide and Seek? Cops and Robbers? ’
‘No. We’ll play a new game. You’ll be a knight in shining armour.’
‘Oh…alright,’ I said uncertainly.
‘Do you have a horse?’
‘Do you have shining armour?’
‘Ask your dad to get you both.’
At that age we used to believe that our parents could provide us with anything we wanted.
‘I’ll be a damsel in distress,’ she said.
‘What’s a damsel in distress?’
‘It’s a girl who hasn’t eaten any chocolate for the past ten days at least.’
I agreed that this kind of deprivation qualified as distress.
‘Can’t I be in distress, too?’
‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘It’s only for girls.’
It seemed rather unfair.
‘When you get your horse, learn to drive it,’ she said.
‘It’s not a car, Carol. I can’t drive a horse.’
‘I know you can’t. That’s why I am telling you to learn horse driving,’ she said, missing the point.
I decided to humour her.
‘Alright, I’ll become a good driver.’
‘Good. Then you must come and rescue me from the dragon in my house.’
‘Are you talking about your dad?’
‘Of course not, Gora! Don’t be rude. My dad’s jolly nice.’
‘So you have a real dragon in your house. Can I come and see it?
‘No, silly, you can’t! It’s only a pretend dragon.’
I was disappointed by the lack of dragons in Caroline’s house.
‘One day you’ll drive up on your horse and stop outside my gate. You will whistle the secret tune and…’
‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘I can’t whistle any tune.’
‘Never mind. The older boys in E-3 will teach you.’
‘OK. If you say so.’
‘When I hear you whistle our secret tune, I’ll come rushing out of the house, closely followed by the dragon. You will take out your sword and slay the dragon.’
‘Why can’t I just kill it?’
‘It means the same thing, silly! Once you have slayed…slew…slain…the dragon…’ she stuttered and stopped.
Killing was so much easier, I thought.
‘Anyway, after you’ve got rid of the wicked dragon,’ she continued, ‘you’ll scoop me up in your arms – I read that in a book – and make me sit behind you. I can’t sit in front of you.’
‘My dad says, “Never block the view of the driver.” ’
‘Oh, thanks,’ I said drily.
I began to wonder if I’d be much good at scooping up girls while remaining seated on a horse.
‘Once I am safely behind you, you will start the horse. I’ll hang on to you for dear life and we’ll drive off into the sunset. I read that in a book, too.’
‘Why can’t we drive off into the sunrise?’
‘We can’t, silly! We’ll be getting ready for school.’
I hadn’t thought of that.
Then I asked the all important question, the object of the exercise, as it were.
‘And where will we go?’
‘To the chocolate factory, silly!’