Ruskin Bond and eccentricities walk in parallel. One should not get conned by such calm countenance like his because from inside he is anything but calm; his wild thoughts keep racing just the way a bull runs in open. His brain is known to be the master of raddling the most unexpected and unheard story-webs. Short stories when concocted by such engaged mind then Time Stops at Shamli, and everywhere else, just to relive those tales.
Reading this anthology is like surfing across a wild ocean where you keep carving the water surface being oblivious of upcoming closeouts. The story-collection starts with a theme as melancholy as a death and then quietly surfs across love, affection, and mollification. Moving ahead, you won’t even know when you get entrapped in the world of horror mysteries and uncanny characters. To bring back your senses, you will be given a mild dose of friendship and bonding but then within moments, you will find yourself into a zone of strangeness, feeling numb, action less, and lost that you want to revisit with your unbelieving senses what you just read.
Time Stops at Shamli comprises 21 startling short stories from all walks of genres. In this piece, however, I will be spacing only some of those impressive illustrations.
I cannot bypass without mentioning the very first story, a grievously heart-touching piece.
The story is about a boy who along with his fictile battling emotion is left alone by his father in the middle of strangers known as relatives and friends. The boy was now on his own pulling his own weight in the maelstrom of life. His indifference, not shedding even a drop of tear, baffled all his relatives and acquaintances who were then present at the house, surprisingly for the first time and supposedly for the last time. Once his father was taken for his final journey to the cemetery, he too escaped from behind the house and started reiterating the same lane which he had travelled innumerably with his father. Walking on the hillside and covered with the shawl of mist, he reached a point from where he could witness the cremation ceremony.
Watching the proceedings, he kept reasoning with questions popping in his inquisitive mind. He addled what use God would have made of the dead people when someone said “God has need of your father…”. He wondered whether there is another and better underground where coffin was housed. He puzzled why the dead people were buried under such heavy stones which prohibited them from coming out and viewing the magnificent Himalayas under the Sun. He then imagined how one would come out if they wanted to. For himself, he had already devised a contingency plan: “If ever I’m put like this…I’ll get into the root of a plant and then I’ll become a flower and then maybe a bird will come and carry my seed away…I’ll get out somehow!”
Walking back home, he felt lonely and scared. That feeling made him suspicious to his father’s preaching “the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone” because right then standing alone in the middle of the lane, he felt anything but “the-strongest-man”.
Several times, he felt his father walking beside clutching his hand. It was then when his tears found its source. He was crying standing on the same lane where his father had left his company. The mourners had started coming back from the cemetery but none could spot the boy. The mist had entirely embraced the boy under its wings and concealed his tears from onlookers. The boy knew that moment that his father would find his way out of those stout gravestones to be with him again.
If you are tad soppy now, then you should move forward to the next story wrapped up with compassion and unspoken love.
The story starts with the inquisitive chattering between a seven-year-old boy and his father. They were provided accommodation in a palace along with servants and 1938-model Hillman to drive in. But this story is not about the boy and his father. The plot of the story is weaved by some other characters.
One of the salient characters here is the gardener, ‘Dukhi’ was his name – a hindi word which means a sad person. The name for his keepsake entirely complements his personality as he was never found having a smile on his face. His monotonous days were spent working sitting on his haunches: “Time had no meaning in the large garden, and Dukhi never hurried. Life, for him, was not a matter of one year succeeding another, but of five seasons – winter, spring, hot weather, monsoon and autumn-arriving and departing.” Additionally, nobody was clear about Dukhi’s age “He may have been thirty-six or eighty-six. He was either very young for his years or very old for them.”
However, in contrast to his gloomy demeanor, his choice of flowers always belonged to the category of bright colors and strong-scented. He was extremely fond of making bouquets on special occasions.
One day, the boy, addressed as ‘chota sahib’ by Dukhi, found no special occasion for Dukhi making bouquet. Upon enquiry, he was told that it’s somebody’s birthday and that chota sahib should go to the place to deliver the bouquet. The dwelling place of the person with birthday seemed strange to chota sahib: “She lives right at the top of that far side of the palace. There are twenty-two steps to climb. Remember that, chota sahib you take twenty-three steps, you will go over the edge and into the lake!”
Chota sahib measured his steps carefully to reach the spot where he found a tiny, elderly lady having white-streak hair and wrinkle-less skin, accessorized with red sari, colorful bangles, and golden ear-rings. She proclaimed herself the queen and insisted the boy to call her ‘your highness’. She also kept her accumulated jewels at his display to prove her highness-ness. She further revealed that she was made to live in that secluded place because of her alleged psychosis. Your highness, ‘the Rani’ as the boy preferred to call her, then assigned a task to him – to fetch a red rose from the garden without asking Dukhi. Being obedient, the boy smuggled the red rose and handed over to the Rani the very next day.
Later when the boy probed his father to understand the meaning of ‘mad’, he was offered with the most lucid explanation: “I suppose madness is not seeing things as others see them…people whose minds are so different that they don’t think, step by step, as we do, whose thoughts jump all over the place – such people are very difficult to live with…”
With growing bonding with the Rani, the boy had developed a sound knowledge about the snakes, for example, green snakes were the princes who died bachelor and the brown snakes were the soldiers. He also understood the differences among the personalities having blue , green, or yellow eyes.
Amid all these, the boy received a news from his father that they would be moving to Delhi as he had taken up a job with the Royal Air Force. It was the outcome of the war happening that time which has got a very amusing mention in the story: “In my comic papers, there Germans were usually shown as blundering idiots; so I didn’t see how Britain could possibly lose the war, nor why it should concern India, nor why it should be necessary for my father to join up.”
Ultimately, the boy left the palace but with many unanswered questions seeded in his mind based on the his casual conversations with the palace residents– was Dukhi the commoner whose affair with the Rani had rendered her the present situation? Was Dukhi in love with the Rani? Did the Rani ever love Dukhi or had she been in love with a prince who allegedly turned into the green snake whom she kept looking for every morning?
Moving ahead with the mysterious colorful room and its resident, it is time to take a halt at a remote, rarely visited place, Shamli. Let us discover what did the author find at Shamli and why the time stopped for him there.
So, this gentleman decided to get down at Shamli when his train met with some technical obstruction. The town, situated at the foothill of Himalayas, had always managed to have some soft spot in his curiosity. But that day was special. He desperately wanted to know what existed behind the walls of the station, which was devoid of any lively activity and had no sign of incoming and outgoing passenger.
Outside the station, the gentleman finds the first and the only sign of humanity, the tonga-wala, who helped him to reach a hotel (or better to say a hotel-like establishment) owned by someone named Mr. Satish Dayal. From here, the rest of the story is framed in the premises of the hotel.
The second person he met in Shamli was Daya Ram, the hotel staff, who helped him to occupy the room. In the garden, he befriended a 10-year-old small girl, Kiran, who owned a serious face and conversed much elderly than her age. Her desire was to grow up quickly. She gave an account of other persons in the vicinity – the neighbors, the hotel customers, and the hotel manager and his family. Among all those, she expressed her fondness for Mrs. Dayal, wife of the hotel manager. There were two guests in the hotel – Mr. Lin who loved playing the somehow-working piano in the hall and Miss Deeds who was the reflection of a sullen heavy-makeup face and ingenuine gestures.
An attractive, though brief, twist in the story arrives when Mr. Lin announced that he knew Major Robert. Major Robert was the imaginary person whom the gentleman had invented. His very reason for being in Shamli was to find Major Robert, as told by the gentleman.
Another eye-popping twist appears when the gentleman had a chance encounter with someone special, ultra-special – Sushila – his lost love. He was immersed into nostalgia and they soon were indulged in golden memories of their past life. They caressed each other, kissed each other, and lied on the grass with arms wrapped around each other. Later he found that Sushila was none other than Mrs. Dayal, the wife of the hotel-manager. Despite knowing her marital status, the gentleman proposed her to elope with him which was rejected politely. Wondering, he asked her whether her marriage was a successful to which she had a curt reply: “of course it is, as a marriage. I am not happy and I do not love him, but neither am I so unhappy that I should hate him. Sometimes, for our own sakes, we have to think of the happiness of others….”
It took some time for the gentleman to grasp Sushila’s reasoning which he put them in beautiful words “Of course it is easier for a man to do this, a man can look after himself, he can do without neighbors and the approval of local society. A woman, I reasoned, would do anything for love provided it was not at the price of security; for a woman loves security as much as man loves independence.”
By evening that day, it had started raining. The gentleman’s restlessness had surpassed the eerie of the weather when Sushila secretly told him that he should expect her at the station. The gentleman did so. He waited.
The story ends with the departure from shamli. But did that departure consist a single-man departure or a couple’s? What happened when train crossed Shamli, was there any indication of coming back or it was gone for good? And will Major Roberts be ever found?
Upholding the title, this is indeed the most beautiful story sketching the purest form of emotional bonding between a retarded child and the gentleman.
“His legs were thick, short and bowed. He had a small chest but his arms were long, making him rather ape-like in his attitude. His forehead and cheeks were pitted with the scars of small-pox. He was ugly by normal standards and the gibberish he spoke did nothing to discourage his tormentors.” This is how Suresh looked like.
The gentleman’s first encounter with Suresh was when he found Suresh getting tormented by some hooligan boys in the marketplace. The gentleman lost his patience when Suresh was hit with a stone. He helped Suresh to reach home. He came to know from his mother that Suresh was hated because of his ugliness even by his father. She asked the gentleman whether he shared the same thought about Suresh, to which he opined: “Ugly is just a word. Like beauty. They mean different things to different people. What did the poet say? ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty’. But if beauty and truth are the same thing why have different words? There are no absolutes except birth and death.”
There was a father-son bonding emerging between Suresh and the gentleman. The gentleman taught Suresh how to swim which aided to his confidence level. They started going for a walk together which further strengthened their relationship, coated with caring and pinched with sympathy: “The more I saw Suresh, the less conscious was I for his deformities. For me, he was fast becoming the norm; while the children of the bazaar seemed abnormal in their very similarity to each other. That he was still conscious of his ugliness – and how could he ever cease to be – was made clear to me about two months after our first meeting.”
Once they were chased by a baby goat that was later adopted by Suresh. He took great care of the goat. But soon that possession became the source of demonized thoughts for Suresh. He when realized that the baby goat was admired for its appearance more than himself, he started turning resentful. When the resentment touched its height, he killed the baby goat. What was more astounding was that he was found guiltless and remorseless.
“why did you kill the goat?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“did you enjoy killing it?”
He looked at me and smiled and nodded his head vigorously.
‘how very cruel.’ But I didn’t mean it. I knew that his cruelty was no different from mine or anyone else’s; only his was an untrammeled cruelty, primitive, as yet undisguised by civilizing restraints.”
Then came a time when the gentleman had to say goodbye to the place. When he broke the news, Suresh’s mother was disappointed but Suresh showed no sign of sadness. This caused a great deal of sorrow to the gentleman as he wondered whether their shared times held any meaning to Suresh.
With those confused thoughts, the gentleman left the town, never to return and never to see Suresh again. Will Suresh ever express his feeling to the gentleman? Will there be any more encounter between them?
If your mind got clogged with Suresh’s indifference, then to change your mood, brace yourself for a capricious truck ride with Pritam Singh in his eligible-for-retirement truck.
This ride is about Pritam Singh, a fifty-year old sturdy Punjabi, a truck owner who had given permission to no-one but himself to drive his truck. The truck was in a cast-off condition which Pritam Singh was eager to sell within a year and take retirement: “…the door..It never closed properly unless it was slammed really hard. But it opened at a touch. Pritam always joked that his truck was held together with the selotape.”
To have a company and to take care of the truck, Pritam Singh had hired a bright teenaged boy, Nathu, who had descended to the town in search of a work owing to the unemployment caused by the failed crops of his village. Their trips were numbered – 2 trips every day – and confined between the limestone quarries and the depot. They were accustomed to the sight of blasting at the quarries. Despite this, each blast filled them with unusual feeling, a feeling of nature’s heartburing – the roaring sound of the blast, hurling of stones, and pluming of shrubs and trees. Each blast made Nathu’s nerves crooked out of fear in visualization of his own walnut trees meeting the same fate and imagining whole earth turning into a desert, a ball of white limestone dust minus the color green.
That day, for that trip, they got ready with the loaded truck to depart for the depot. Pritam Singh wanted to finish his second trip sooner that day as he was supposed to attend a wedding at night. The roads were curvy and unsafe, still Pritam Singh was delighted as usual as he knew how to tame those turns. So, confidently, he kept speeding without considering the steeps and turns despite Nathu’s warning. Then something happened which was feared but spammed; the truck tipped over. And after some strange tipping acts, the truck came to rest against an old oak tree.
Nathu was escaped and he helped to take Pritam Singh out of the truck, although that was a Pritam Singh with a broken collarbone, a dislocated shoulder, and several fractured ribs. Doctors assured that he would get well soon.
The story ends with a strong environmental message, and it was Nathu who picked up the gauntlet declaring his desire to go home: “I’ll work on the land. It’s better to grow things on the land than to blast things out of it.”
They all knew that it was the tree who saved everybody’s life that day. Had the tree not been there, the truck would have been found in the bottom of the hill with the bodies dismantled into pieces.
Now that you have understood the importance of nature and trees, would you like to taste some poison? Weird. Isn’t it? This story will let you do that.
The story starts with a question, an intriguing question: “Is there such a person as a born murdered – in the sense that there are born writers and musicians, born winners and losers?”
The ‘born-murderer’, a personality that the author wants to attribute to his uncle, William Jone aka uncle Bill, because of his flawless dexterity in murdering – the art of ‘using the right amount of poison, administered with skill and discretion’.
Uncle Bill had many such achievements to his credit, the Agra Double Murder case being the most noted one. Those days, when Uncle Bill was a nurse in Agra, he fell in love with the Meerut station master’s wife, Mrs. Browning. Troubled with the distances and helpless in love, the couple kept in touch with the letters. Their letters soon started including the packets of poison, sent by uncle Bill, having proper instructions. The volition was to get rid of the only prick of their relationship, Mr. Brown. Uncle’s precise instructions and his lover’s obedience worked on Mr. Brown. In no time, Mrs. Brown got rid of her husband and shifted to Agra to accompany her lover. Unfortunately, their relationship could not remain a hidden affair, so as their committed crime. The love letters, cleverly saved in a box under the bed by Mrs. Brown, translated the whole volume. Eventually, Mr. Jones and Mrs. Brown were convicted with murder. But since white people were seldom awarded with death penalties those days, he was just sentenced for 8 years of imprisonment.
Time passed. Fifteen years were passed when uncle Bill arrived at the gentleman’s door. Boggled with his arrival, the gentleman let him in his house distrustfully. It was only the third day when the gentleman’s doubt was substantiated when uncle Bill offered him a sherry. Being intuitive and giving due consideration to uncle’s history, the gentleman played his own tricks to make uncle Bill drink the portion which was intended otherwise.
Later, when asked why uncle Bill gulped the poisoned portion, he responded
“In the circumstances…it was the only decent thing to do.”
When you get escaped from uncle Bill’s arsenic treat, you must get indulged in the most humorous, the most incredible, and my favourite narration of this anthology – A Crow for All Seasons. The story is written from the point of view of a crow which exceeds all levels of storytelling. The protagonist crow tells the story of crows’ life and their interactions with human. The narration could never have been illustrated better than the tone of humor.
The beginning line of this chapter goes something like this “Early to bed and early to rise makes a crow healthy, wealthy and wise. They say it’s true for human too, I’m not so sure about that. But for crow it’s a must.”
To talk about its hobby, the crow mentions “My own preference is for toothbrushes. They’re just a hobby, really, like stamp-collecting with humans. …Don’t ask me how many I’ve got -crows don’t believe there’s any counting beyond two-but I know there’s more than one, that there’s a whole lot of them in fact…”
If I onboard with the idea of listing down all my favorite anecdotes of this story, I’ll end up reproducing the story. So, I would cease my temptation by calling the last sentence here “From prosecutor to protector, from beastliness to saintliness. And sometimes it can be the other way round: you never know with human!”
Well that’s how crows think about us. Missing this story from the book would be like missing the cream of the milk, I would say.
These tableaus depicted above are just to help you to embark on the journey of wonderment. There is much more hidden in the pages.
You will be amazed yet scared to dive into the horror thrillers – Listen to the Wind, The Haunted Bicycle, Dead Man’s Gift, and Whispering in the Dark. These stories come with a caveat for the soft-hearted people – read at your own risk.
If you want to have a taste of a story which has neither horror nor uncanniness, then go for The Most Potent Medicine of All. This would surely evoke strange reaction from you.
If you love to read about animals added with some mysterious plots, then do not avoid Hanging at the Mango-Tope, Eyes of the Cat, A Tiger in the House, and Tiger Tiger Burining Bright.
The pain of coy village young boys arriving in the cities in search of work could not be better illustrated than the stories Going Home and The Summer Season.
To get another dose of humor, do read Masterji and have fun with his teaching style.
Or else, if you just want to have a casual piece of fine reading beyond any genre, you have got The Tunnel and The Fight.
If you have never read a collection of short-stories before, then starting with Ruskin Bond would be the best decision you would ever take. Go for it and make your time stop.
Shweta Kumari Sharma
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