Strawberries

I am quite fond of my work as a lawyer. But it has one great drawback. You have no holidays to go places. A Magistrate can have a holiday. The Sessions Judge also. But a lawyer can get out only when all the Magistrates and the Sessions Judges are away. That cannot happen. How can all the courts be closed? Criminals do not work by the calendar. Murders, dacoities, abductions and assaults are committed day and night. The law requires an arrested person to be produced before a Magistrate within twenty four hours. A Magistrate is, therefore, on duty even on Sundays. A lawyer would also be needed.

For us holidays are rare. If there is no case on any day, one should still be around. Who knows when a new client may turn up? And once the word goes round in the villages that so and so is out of town, the story will persist even after he has come back.
Last summer, it occured to me that while I was tied up here, my wife need not be so. She could take the child and go to a hill station. When I put this to my wife, she said, ‘Dalhousie is the only hill station that I know well. I used to go there with my parents. There I and the child could live by ourselves. And once we get there, we are quite likely to run into families I know’. So I said it was all right for her to go to Dalhousie.
My wife wrote from Dalhousie how she was getting on there. She said she had rented a half-portion of a house. The other half was with a doctor and his wife. They were also on a holiday. The place was nice and the weather pleasant. The child was very happy, running around on the open roads and enjoying everything new. She wanted me to come for a week, if not more. In the hills she said, one enjoyed oneself as much in a week as one did in a year’s time in the plains.

I was feeling lonely. So I agreed. And I requested the Magistrates to adjust my work and give me a few days free. And one day I reached Dalhousie.

There I had a new experience. Earlier when we went out I had been the leader and my wife the follower. Here she led and I followed. She had been there for some time. She knew all the spots, the roads and the shops. I was new to the place. When I would be walking along without noticing anything in particular she would stop and pointing her finger say, ‘see that?’ I would look, and see a beautiful stream stretched in the valley, its attractiveness enhanced by the picturesque surroundings it had created for itself in its more furious days. I would stand enraptured. She would detain me again at another spot and the snow would be glistening atop a mountain in the distance.
Now I had begun to relish being led by her at every step. In four or five days we had done all the nearby spots and I asked her to take me to somewhere new. ‘There is an excellent view,’ she said, ‘at a place called Khajiar, eight or ten miles from here. One has to stay the night there. It is too tiring to return the same day after the numerous climb ups and climb downs. But the route lies through thick green forests and is very beautiful. Khajiar itself is a vast meadow, so vast that there may not be another like it in these mountains. In the middle is a little lake with a tiny island inside overgrown with tall grasses. This island floats in the water. It is here at night and there in the morning. Khajiar is a very charming place.’

I decided to go. But I had to have some company. My wife said, ‘I have been there only the other day. You can take the child with you. There are lots of strawberries to eat on the way’. On hearing of strawberries the child agreed readily.
We, father and son, set out early next morning. At a little distance we came to a stream with a bridge over it. Near the bridge was a pile of logs of firewood. Next to it was a stack of bags of coal. The child recognized the spot and said, ‘there are strawberries up there’. We clambered up the hillside. There the earth was covered with a crop of them. I plucked the ripe ones and gave them to him, tasting a few myself. It was beautiful weather and I liked this hospitality of the mountains.

We found more strawberries at two or there other places and ate them. Whenever there was a long stretch of wayside without strawberries, the child would begin to feel bored and tired and I had carry him in my arms.
By the time we got to Khajiar, I was myself somewhat tired. But the beauty of the place banished all fatigue. There was a large, green meadow spread before us. One felt like sprinting through it. Dotting the place were deodar pines so big and tall that I had never seen their like before. These must be singular trees because the girth and height of each had been painted on a sign affixed to it. The jumbo grass in the lake could be seen from a distance. On the other side was a temple with some houses around it, and a few shops at one end. The feeling of being in a different world which plain-dwellers experience in the hills was heightened here. There was a rest house for visitors. Outside it a white woman sat reading.

The sun was going down. So I had to make arrangements for our stay. We walked over to the rest house to ask for a place. I noticed that the ‘mem’ was young and beautiful. I passed by without appearing to look. An introduction with her was neither feasible nor worthwhile without a place in the rest house. A person looking for a room is on a lower level than the one actually staying there. Skirting the backside of the building, I sought out the chowkidar. The child was holding my finger. He would be very useful to me in getting closer to the girl, I told myself. Even if she felt shy of talking to me, she would not feel the same about him. It turned out that the rest house had two rooms and one of these was available.

The chowkidar brought me the register and I put down my name and address in it.
‘Who is in the other room?’ I asked innocently.
‘There is a mem-sahib’.
‘Mem-sahib alone?’
‘Yes, sir, alone.’
‘We can get a meal here, I hope?’ I said changing the subject.
‘Yes, sir, What would you like for dinner?’
‘Fish and chicken’. I had the ‘Mem’ in mind.
‘Yes, sir, that will be available.’
‘We have no bedding either’.
‘That, too, can be arranged’.
Another point struck me. ‘Can I get English whisky or beer around her?’ I asked.
‘Yes, Sahib, you can get it in one of those shops over there’, he said pointing with his hand.
I took the child with me. One half-pint bottle of whisky I slipped into my pocket. In my hands I took two bottles of beer and the child had one in his. ‘This will last her for the whole night’, I told myself. 
At the edge of the lake we put the bottles down and I stretched myself out on the grass. I was very pleased with myself for having lain hands on these. Nothing like a bird in hand. Had the shop been closed, my preparation would have been incomplete. But I have the knack of handling such situations.

The ‘mem’ was still sitting outside the verandah, reading. The child started playing around. He picked up a seed-cone fallen from a deodar pine and tossed it about, first catching it in his hands like a ball, then kicking it around like a football. The sun had not yet set. Some more time had to be spent here. Sunset would be the time to start a conversation. She would then close her book and be looking for something else to do. God alone knows which way the dice would fall, but it would be fun if things start going my way. What a lot we will have to say to each other? How close we would come to each other! The child would be fast asleep. It shouldn’t be difficult to get her going. I know I can walk in step with the western mind. After all, these are the same Englishmen that my ancestors fought wars against. I don’t find them very foreign.
The sun had now set. We picked up the bottles and started towards the rest house. As we approached, the ‘mem’ saw the bottle of beer in the little boy’s hand and smiled at him. As the boy’s father I smiled back at her. She smiled some more and went back to her book. We passed on to our rooms. A beginning had been made. In the growing darkness she would not be able to read for much longer.
There were two beds in the room. On a table were two glasses. The chowkidar must have understood when I asked about the shop. But why the second glass? The chowkidar was an intelligent man.

He saw us coming and approached. ‘What time would you like dinner, Sir?’ He asked.
‘I will tell you in about an hour,’ I replied. How could I tell right now? Who knew what turn things were going to take?
‘If you are going to be late, shall I get some milk for the child? He must be sleepy,” he suggested.
‘No, he won’t fall asleep so soon. Not before eating.’ I did not want the chowkidar around yet for some time yet.
‘But sahib, he falls asleep very early. I know him. Gets tired coming all the way here.’
‘Yes?’ I did not quite know how to get rid of the man.
‘Last time he was here, his mother asked me to fetch some milk for him. When I returned with the milk, he was asleep. She tried hard to get him to drink it. He even sat up, but drank no milk.’
‘But he won’t sleep tonight. You will see.’ I said with a twinkle, thinking of the company we were going to have in the room.
‘May be not’, said the chowkidar, ‘There is one difference today. That day he was with his parents. When a child is with its parents, it goes off to sleep sooner. Today he has come with you. They also stayed in this very room. Nice people, both of them. Of course, you know them very well.’
It did not take me long to grasp the meaning of the chowkidar’s words.
‘All right. Go and get the milk,’ I said with some difficulty.
Then I bolted the door between the rooms and collapsed on my bed.

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