Exclusive: A new story of murder, intrigue and suspense by Ruskin Bond16 min read . Updated: 23 Nov 2019, 09:00 AM IST
‘Rhododendrons in the Mist’, the title story of the 85-year-old writer’s new collection, harks back to his love for the Himalayan region
Blood-red, the fallen blossoms lay on the snow, even more striking when laid bare. On the trees they blended with the foliage. On the ground, on those patches of recent snow, they seemed to be bleeding.
It had been a harsh winter in the hills, and it was still snowing at the end of March. But this was flowering time for the rhododendron trees, and they blossomed in sun, snow, or pelting rain. By mid-afternoon the hill station was shrouded in a heavy mist, and the trees stood out like ghostly sentinels.
The hill station wasn’t Simla, where I had gone to school, or Mussoorie, where I was to settle later on. It was Dalhousie, a neglected and almost forgotten hill station in the western Himalaya. But Dalhousie had the best rhododendron trees, and they grew all over the mountain, showing off before the colourless oaks and drooping pines.
But I wasn’t in Dalhousie for the rhododendrons. It was 1959, and the Dalai Lama had just fled from Tibet, seeking sanctuary in India. Thousands of his followers and fellow-Tibetans had fled with him, and these refugees had to be settled somewhere. Dalhousie, with its many empty houses, was ideal for this purpose, and a carpet-weaving centre had been set up on one of the estates. The Tibetans made beautiful rugs and carpets. I know nothing about carpet-weaving, but I was working for CARE, an American relief organization, and I had been sent to Dalhousie (with the approval of the Government of India) to assess the needs of the refugees.
This is not the story of my tryst with the Tibetans, although I did suffer greatly from drinking large quantities of butter tea, which travels very slowly down the gullet and feels like lead by the time it reaches your stomach. The carpet-weaving centre became a great success, and I went on to work for CARE for several years; but that’s another story. Out of one experience came another experience, as often happens during our peregrinations on planet earth, and it was during my stay in Dalhousie that I had a strange and rather unsettling experience.
I was staying at a small hotel which was quite empty as no one visited Dalhousie in those days and certainly not at the end of March. The hill station had been convenient for visitors from Lahore, but Partition had put an end to that.
The hotel had a small garden, bare at this time of the year. But on the second day of my stay, returning from the carpet-weaving centre, I noticed that there was a gardener working on the flower beds, digging around and transplanting some seedlings. He looked up as I passed, and for a moment I thought I knew him. There was something familiar about his features—the slit eyes, the broad, flattened nose, the harelip—yes, the cleft lip was very noticeable—but he wasn’t anyone I knew or had known, at least I didn’t think so…. He was just a likeness to someone I had seen somehow, somewhere else. It was a bit of a tease.
And it would have remained just that if he hadn’t looked up and met my gaze.
A flood of recognition crossed his face. But then he looked away, almost as though he did not want to recognize me; or be recognized.
I passed him. It was curious, but it didn’t bother me. We keep bumping into people who look slightly familiar. It is said that everyone has a double somewhere on this planet. I had yet to meet mine—God forbid!—but perhaps I was seeing someone else’s double.
I was relaxing in the veranda later that evening, browsing through an old magazine, when the gardener passed me on his way to the garden shed to put away his tools. There was something about his walk that brought back an image from the past. He had a slight limp. And when he looked at me again, his harelip registered itself on my memory. And now I recognized him. And of course he knew me.
I was the man who’d caught him rifling through my landlady’s cupboards and drawers in Dehradun, some three years previously. I had exposed him, reported him, suggested she dismiss him; but the old lady, a widow, had grown quite fond of the youth, and had kept him in her service. He was good at running about and making himself useful, and, in spite of his cleft lip, he was not unattractive.
When I left Dehradun to take up my job in Delhi, I had forgotten the matter, almost forgotten the young man and my landlady; it was another tenant who informed me that the youth—his name was Sohan—had stabbed the old lady and made off with the contents of her jewel case and other valuables. She had died in hospital a few days later.
Sohan hadn’t been caught. He had obviously left the town and taken to the hills or a large city. The police had made sporadic attempts to locate him, but as time passed the case lost its urgency. The victim was not a person of importance. The criminal was a stranger, a shadowy figure of no known background.
But here he was three years later, staring me in the face. What was I to do about him? Or what was he to do about me?
After Sohan had gone to his quarters, somewhere behind the hotel, I went in search of the manager. I would tell him what I knew and together we could decide on a course of action. But he had gone to a marriage and would be back late. The hotel was in charge of the cook who, a little drunk, served dinner in a hurry and retired to his quarters. ‘Don’t you have a night-watchman?’ I asked him before he took off. ‘Yes, of course,’ he replied, ‘Sohan, the gardener. He’s the chowkidar too!’
An early retirement seemed the best thing all round, especially as I had to leave the next day. So I went to my room and made sure all the doors and windows were locked. I pushed the inside bolts all the way. I made sure the antiquated window frames were locked. As I peered out of the window, I noticed that a heavy mist had descended on the hillside. The trees stood out like ghostly apparitions, here and there a rhododendron glowing like the embers of a small fire. Then darkness enveloped the hillside. I felt cold, and wondered how much of it was fear.
I went to the bathroom and bolted the back door. Now no one could get in. Even so, I felt uneasy. Sohan was still a fugitive from the law, I had recognized him, and I was a threat to his freedom. He had killed once—perhaps more than once—and he could kill again.
I read for some time, then put out the light and tried to sleep. From a distance came the strains of music from a wedding band. Someone knocked on the door. I switched on the light and looked at my watch. It was only 10 p.m. Perhaps the manager had returned.
There was another knock, and I went to the door and was about to open it when some childhood words of warning from my grandmother came to mind: ‘Never open the door unless you know who’s there!’
‘Who’s there?’ I called.
No answer. Just another knock.
‘Who’s there?’ I called again.
There was a cough, a double-rap on the door.
‘I’m sleeping,’ I said. ‘Come in the morning.’ And I returned to my bed. The knocking continued but I ignored it, and after some time the person went away.
I slept a little. A couple of hours must have passed when I was woken by further knocking. But it did not come from the door. It was above me, high up on the wall. I’d forgotten there was a skylight.
I switched on the light and looked up. A face was outlined against the glass of the skylight. I could make out the flat rounded face and the harelip. It appeared to be grinning at me—rather like the disembodied head of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.
The skylight was very small and I knew he couldn’t crawl through the opening. But he could show me a knife—and that was what he did. It was a small clasp knife and he held it between his teeth as he peered down at me. I felt very vulnerable on the bed. So I switched off the light and moved to an old sofa at the far end of the room, where I couldn’t be seen. There didn’t seem to be any point in shouting for help. So I just sat there, waiting…. And presumably, without a sound, he slipped away, and I remained on the sofa until the first glimmer of dawn penetrated the drawn window curtains.
The manager was apologetic. ‘You should have rung the bell,’ he said, ‘someone would have come.’
‘The bell doesn’t work. And someone did come…’
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. The fellow’s a villain, no doubt about it. And he’s missing this morning. Your presence here must have frightened him off. So he’s wanted for theft and murder. Well, we shall inform the police. Perhaps they can pick him up before he leaves the town.’
And we did inform the police. But Sohan had already taken off. The milkman had seen him boarding the early morning bus to Pathankot.
Pathankot was a busy little town on the plain below Dehradun. From there one road goes to Jammu, another to Dharamsala, a narrow-gauge railway to Kangra, and the main railway to Amritsar or Delhi. Sohan could have taken any of those routes. And no one was going to go looking for him. A police alert would be put out—a mere formality. He wasn’t on their list of current criminals.
That afternoon I took a taxi to Pathankot and whiled away the evening at the railway station. My train, an overnight express to Delhi, left at 8 p.m. There was no rush at that time of the year. I had a first-class compartment to myself.
In those days our trains were somewhat different from what they are today. A first, second or third class compartment was usually a single carriage, or bogey. We did not have corridor trains. Bogeys were connected by steel couplings, otherwise you were not connected in any way to the other compartments. But there was an emergency cord above the upper berths, and if you pulled it, the train might stop. There were always troublemakers on the trains, just as there are today, and sometimes the chain was pulled out of mischief. As a result it was often ignored.
As the train began moving out of the station I went to all the windows and made sure that they were fastened. Then I bolted the carriage door. I was becoming adept at bolting doors and windows. Sohan was probably hiding out in some distant town or village, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
The train gathered speed. The lights of Pathankot receded as we plunged into a dark and moonless night. I had a pillow and a blanket with me, and I stretched out on one of the bunks and tried to think about pleasant things such as scarlet geraniums, fragrant sweet peas, and the beautiful Nimmi, star of the silver screen; but instead I kept seeing the grinning face of a young man with a harelip. All the same, I drifted into sleep. The rocking movement of the carriage, the rhythm of the wheels on the rails, have always had a soothing effect on my nerves. I sleep well in trains and rocking chairs.
But not that night.
I woke to the sound of that familiar tapping; not at the door, but on the window glass not far from my head. The insistent tapping of someone who wanted to get in.
It was common enough for ticketless travellers to hang on to the carriage of a moving train, in the hope that someone would let them in. But they usually chose the crowded second or third-class compartments; a first-class traveller, often alone, was unlikely to let in a stranger who might well turn out to be a train robber.
I raised my head from my pillow, and there he was, clinging to the fast-moving train, his face pressed to the glass, his harelip revealing part of a broken tooth…. I pulled down the shutters, blotting out his face. But, agile as a cat, he moved to the next window, the sneer still on his face. I pulled down that shutter too.
I pulled down all the shutters on his side of the carriage. He couldn’t get in, bodily. But mentally, he was all over me.
Mind over matter. Well, I could apply my mind too. I shut my eyes and willed my tormentor to fall off the train!
No one fell off the train (at least no one was reported to have done so), but presently we slowed to a gradual stop and, when I pulled up the shutters of the window, I saw that we were at a station. Jalandhar, I think. The platform was brightly lit and there was no sign of Sohan. He must have jumped off the train as it slowed down. It was about one in the morning. A vendor brought me a welcome glass of hot tea, and life returned to normal.
I did not see Sohan in the years that followed. Or rather, I saw many Sohans. For two or three years I was pursued by my ‘familiar’. Wherever I went—and my work took me to different parts of the country—I found myself encountering young men with harelips and a menacing look. Pure imagination, of course. He had every reason to stay as far from me as possible.
Gradually, the ‘sightings’ died down. Young men with harelips became extremely rare. Perhaps they were all going in for corrective surgery.
The years passed, and I had forgotten my familiar. I had given up my job in Delhi and moved to the hills. I was a moderately successful writer, and a familiar figure on Mussoorie’s Mall Road. Sometimes other writers came to see me, in my cottage under the deodars. One of them invited me to have dinner with him at the old Regal hotel, where he was staying. Before dinner, he took me to the bar for a drink.
‘What will you have, whisky or vodka?’
No one seemed to drink anything else. I asked for some dark rum, and the barman went off in search of a bottle. When he returned and began pouring my drink, I noticed something slightly familiar about his features, his stance. He was almost bald, and he had a grey, drooping moustache which concealed most of his upper lip. He glanced at me and our eyes met. There was no sign of recognition. He smiled politely as he poured my drink. No, it definitely wasn’t Sohan. He was too refined, for one thing. And he went about his duties without another glance in my direction.
Dinner over, I thanked my writer friend for his hospitality, and took the long walk home to my cottage. It was a dark, moonless night. No one followed me, no one came tapping on my bedroom window.
Mussoorie had its charms. In my mind, every hill station is symbolized by a particular tree, even if it’s not the dominant one. Dalhousie has its rhododendrons, Simla its deodars, Kasauli its pines, and Mussoorie its horse chestnuts. The monkeys would do their best to destroy the chestnuts, but I would collect those that were whole and plant them in people’s gardens, whether they wanted them or not. The horse chestnut is a lovely tree to look at, even if you can’t do anything with it!
My walks took me to the Regal from time to time, and occasionally I would relax in the bar, chatting to an old resident or a casual visitor, while the barman poured me a rum and soda. He never looked twice at me. And I never saw him outside that barroom. He appeared to be as much of a fixture as the moth-eaten antler-head on the wall, only he wasn’t quite as moth-eaten.
‘Efficient chap,’ said Colonel Bhushan indicating the barman. ‘And a great favourite with his mistress.’
‘You mean the owner of this place?’ I had only a vague idea of who owned what in the town. And in some cases the ownership was rather vague. But in the case of the Regal—Mrs Kapoor, a wealthy widow in her fifties, was very much in charge, all too visible an owner; well fleshed-out, ample-bosomed, with arms like rolling pins. Her staff trembled at her approach; but not, it seemed, the bartender, who led a charmed life, incapable of doing any wrong.
The lights went out, as they frequently do in this technological age, and the barman brought over our next round of drinks by candlelight.
By the light of a candle I caught a glimpse of the barman’s features as he hovered over me. There was only the hint of a harelip, and the candle lit up his slanting eyes and prominent cheekbones. This was the only time I had a really close look at him.
A week later I met Colonel Bhushan on the Mall. This was where all the gossip took place.
‘Have you heard what happened last night at the Regal?’ He wasted no time in getting to the news of the day.
A twinge of fear, of anticipation, ran through me. ‘Nothing too terrible, I hope?’
‘That barman chap—always thought he was a bit too smooth—stabbed the old lady, stabbed her two or three times, then plundered her room and made off with jewellery worth lakhs—as well as all the cash he could find!’
‘How’s the lady?’
‘She’ll survive. Tough old buffalo. But the rascal got away. By now he must be in Sirmur, or even across the Nepal border. Probably belongs to some criminal tribe.’
Yes, I thought, possibly a descendant of one of those robber gangs who harassed pilgrims on their way to the sacred shrines, or plundered traders from Tibet, or caravans to Samarkand…. To rob and plunder still runs in the blood of the most harmless looking people.
So the barman at the Regal was the same man I’d known in Dehradun and then encountered in Dalhousie. The passing of time had altered his features but not his way of life. By now he would probably be far from Mussoorie. But I had a feeling I’d see him again—if not here, then somewhere else. Each one of us had a ‘familiar’—a presence we would rather do without—an unwelcome and menacing guest—and for me it is Sohan.
Where does he come from, where does he go? I doubt if I shall ever know.
But I have a feeling he’ll turn up again one of these days. And then?
Excerpted from Rhododenrons In The Mist: My Favourite Tales Of The Himalaya with permission from Aleph Book Company. The book will be available from 25 November.