fiction

Just Like Hutton
- Madhulika Liddle

Simla, newly-washed by the afternoon rain, sparkled in the sun. As they made their way through Lakkar Bazaar, Kishore and Bhaskar saw shopkeepers wiping down shop fronts and lugging out wares that had been pulled inside when the storm burst.

'Ma will be furious,' Bhaskar said as they passed an old Bhutia, hunched under a load of skins as smelly and weathered as him. 'We've never been this late before.'

'It's never rained so hard before. Chaachi knows we can't play cricket in the rain.'

'She'll tell me I should have come home straight after school, not gone to play cricket.'

They hurried on, down the Ridge, past Christ Church and Gaiety Theatre, past the rickshaw wallahs smoking beedis while they waited for passengers. Beyond, onto the Mall Road, as it wended its way through deodars that smelled sharp and clean, fresh as spring. Along the narrow lane that hugged the side of a hill. And up, till the rhododendron in which a pair of great barbets had nested in a hole in the trunk.

Seated on a rock beyond the tree was a blond boy. Freckled and stocky, but not fat.

He was thirteen perhaps. Or a year younger, Bhaskar and Kishore's age. He was whittling a bit of wood with what Bhaskar recognized, with a sharp pang of envy, as a penknife. He must have heard the approach of the two Indian boys, because he glanced up, his blue eyes curious. His hands stilled, but he said nothing.

Neither did they. They walked past swiftly, into the little copse of oak trees.

'Who's that?' Bhaskar whispered when they were out of earshot. 'I haven't seen him before. Have you?'

Kishore, uncharacteristically taciturn, nodded.

'Who is he?'

'I — I don't know.' Kishore hoisted his ink-stained jhola — sagging with textbooks and brown paper-covered copies — higher on his shoulder. 'I've seen him around.'

'You know who he is. I can tell. Who is he?'

Kishore cleared his throat. Shifted the jhola to his other shoulder, stopped and bent to tie a shoelace that was in no danger of coming loose. When he straightened, Bhaskar was still there — where would he go, after all? — looking accusing.

'I heard the woodcutter say that the additional district magistrate's wife and children had come here for a few weeks before they all left for England,' Kishore explained. 'I've seen this boy around the other side of the hill, near the ADM's bungalow. In the little garden between the bungalow and the church opposite.'

Bhaskar had turned away even before Kishore had finished the first sentence. He did not say anything. He did not even look back. He simply walked away, his shoulders drooping. Kishore watched him go slowly up the path, heading for the slate-roofed house beyond the oak trees.

Bhaskar's mother rose, putting aside the rice she was cleaning. She was only thirty, but her hair had begun to grey; neighbours whispered that the burden of looking after her old father-in-law and self-willed son all by herself had taken its toll on her. Widowed so young... ah, but in a good cause. What good cause? Did one put one's country before one's own family? Shocked silence. Unpatriotic silence.

But she was not thinking of her neighbours right then. She was beginning her harangue, a tirade Bhaskar had heard countless times before. Angry words, strung like beads on a thread of worry.

'I saw a boy, Ma,' he said quietly. 'The ADM's son.'

She stood there, blinking at him, the words she had been saying killed, half-born, in her throat. The barbets in the rhododendron began calling in tandem: keeoo-keeoo-keeoo. Their cries echoed, bouncing off the surrounding trees.

'Come inside,' said Bhaskar's mother. 'I'll warm some milk for you. Are you cold?'

It was a question that needed no answering. It was no question, just a diversion.

* * *

Bhaskar was quiet all next morning. When Kishore met him at their usual rendezvous — next to the chai wallah's at the corner of the lane —Bhaskar nodded gruffly. Kishore nodded back, not gruff, but cautious. They walked to school, and did not see the blond boy. Not that morning, not that afternoon. Not even the next day, by when Bhaskar, the storm clouds dispersed by an exhilarating match with his friends, had half-forgotten about the ADM's son.

He did remember the unsettling sight of that solid figure, in its stuffy grey tweed shorts and jacket, with that silly cap perched on a corn-gold head, when he passed the rhododendron tree; but that was it. The boy was gone. He may as well have been a ghost.

But ghosts, in all the stories Bhaskar had heard, were banished by the sunlight. This one did something particularly unpleasant: it turned up again, on Sunday. Bhaskar, going to the chai wallah's to buy rusks, came upon the little firang. He was sitting, as before, on the rock. This time, he was hunched over a book. A hesitant friendliness flickered in his eyes when his gaze met Bhaskar's. Bhaskar stared back, unseeing and cold, and walked on.

On Monday, returning from their after-school cricket match, Bhaskar and Kishore saw him down at the Mall. He was walking alone, his hands deep in the pockets of his shorts, his head bowed. 'He looks stupid,' Bhaskar said with derision. 'Why don't they go home, eh?' he burst out suddenly.

'India's independent now. They have no right to stay here! Why don't they go?'

The boy did not go. And Bhaskar, coming and going to school or on one of his numerous errands, saw him often enough. Once a day. Twice. Bhaskar could push the thought of that golden-haired figure to the back of his mind during the long, tedious hours of arithmetic and Urdu, history and geography. He could forget while he was with his friends, chatting during the school break, sharing their parathas and achaar. Or when, after school, they went to the little clearing in the woods beyond Lakkar Bazaar to play cricket.

Until the day the boy turned up there too.

The little troop of cricketers — Bhaskar, Kishore, four of their friends, and a friend's older brother, who did not think it below his dignity to play with them — had been talking as they followed the path below the deodars. They did not notice the interloper. It was only when they emerged from the faintly turpentine-scented shade of the woods that they saw him, sitting on a tree stump.

Bhaskar stopped.

'Come on,' Kishore said. 'He won't bite.'

'What's he doing here?' The other boys had gone on; Bhaskar could see Chaman's older brother, Chetan, approaching the English boy, beginning a conversation. The others, more shy and less confident of their English, clustered around, curious but silent.

'Come on, Bhaskar. They'll wonder what's up.'

'I'm not going there,' Bhaskar said obstinately. 'Not till he's gone.'

Kishore's eyes narrowed. 'Suit yourself,' he said. 'Sulk.' And he strode off into the clearing. Bhaskar watched, dismayed, and then — because he could think of nothing better to do, and because he did not want to be thought of as childish or craven — he followed. He did not join the little group, but stood by himself, ten feet away. He took out the cricket bat from the gunny bag. And the pads, battered and stained, made from two thin old pillows.

Bhaskar placed the pads on the ground. He rubbed at a stain on one, before replacing them in the bag. He took out the ball — a worn one, its red leather a patchwork of brown, black and scratched-dun. He juggled with it, pretending nonchalance.

'I've seen you walking up here,' the boy was saying. There was an indistinct murmur of conversation. Their voices should have been clear, this close in the mountain air. But all Bhaskar could hear was the blood pounding in his ears. He felt sick and angry and betrayed.

Someone said 'Oh! Look!' in a voice filled with awe. A chorus of chuckles and gasps of admiration broke out. Chetan bhaiya laughed. 'Yes, of course,' he said. 'A ball like that is enough.'

The crowd scattered, their faces wreathed in smiles, and their eyes shining. Bhaskar was still fiddling with the ball when Chetan bhaiya came towards him, the English boy trailing in his wake. The firang looked straight at Bhaskar, his blue eyes wearing an expression of uncertainty, even though he was smiling. A small, silly smile, thought Bhaskar. A small, silly boy.

Chetan bhaiya's smile was huge, slightly buck-toothed and bright on his dark, thin face. 'Put away that old ball, Bhaskar,' he said. 'We have something better here.' He glanced at the blond boy. 'Look what Andrew's got.'

Andrew obeyed, stretching out his arm, his hand cupped around a cricket ball. It was a beauty, crimson and shiny as an apple fresh from a tree. The leather gleamed. The seams were perfect, unsullied. For the briefest of moments, Bhaskar felt a surge of jealousy, and of sheer joy. The next instant, he had tamped it down.

'And because it's Andrew's ball, Andrew will bowl first,' Chetan bhaiya was saying. The others had already begun to mill around, eager arms lifting the gunny bag and tipping out its contents. Kishore retrieved the bat and headed for the wicket. Bhaskar heard him banging the flat face of the bat against the tops of the stumps.

'I'm not playing against him,' Bhaskar said, in Hindi.

There was a dull silence. The thudding of bat against stump stopped. The boys were looking at Bhaskar. Even, he could tell, the ones behind him, whose faces he could not see. Even the English boy, who probably didn't know any Hindi anyway. 'I won't play,' Bhaskar repeated. No-one said anything.

The boys probably expected Chetan bhaiya to break this embarrassing impasse. But it was Kishore who walked over and put an arm around Bhaskar, drawing him away from the rest. 'Nobody bats better than you,' he whispered. 'Will you let us down?'

'I won't play.'

'And have him go back to England saying that the Indian boys were too scared of his bowling to face him?'

'Let him say what he likes. I don't care. I won't play with the son of my father's murderer.'

Kishore drew away, far enough to not be touching him, but close enough for his voice to be audible only to Bhaskar. 'I'm sure your Baba would be very proud of you,' he said in a bitter, mocking voice. 'Such a devoted son!'

He turned away, leaving Bhaskar to stand alone, isolated. The other boys stared at Bhaskar with eyes that echoed Kishore's words.

Bhaskar muttered a word he had once overheard from a rickshaw wallah, and which his mother had forbidden him ever to use. 'All right,' he said. 'I'll play. But don't expect any more.'

That didn't bother them, not even Chetan bhaiya, who seemed to have warmed to the English boy very quickly. Chetan bhaiya chuckled with satisfaction and caught Bhaskar by the elbow, pulling him to where the ADM's son stood, cap in hand. 'Here we are,' Chetan bhaiya said. 'If you think you have a good bowling arm, we have the best batsman in the hills. Bhaskar is just like Hutton.'

Those blue eyes regarded Bhaskar with something Bhaskar couldn't recognize. Trepidation, he hoped.

It took them a few minutes to get everything ready. For Bhaskar to pad up, to heft the cricket bat and make sure the crease was well marked. For the others to arrange themselves around the field, and for Chetan bhaiya to explain to the English boy their rules of the game: what qualified as a four, what as a six. How — because all of them wanted to play, and nobody wanted to be the umpire — decisions were by consensus. The boy listened, nodding while he polished the ball on his tweed-clad leg.

His first delivery was a wide.

Bhaskar nearly burst out laughing, but contented himself with whispering, in a gloating voice, to Kishore — the wicket keeper — 'What a fine bowler, isn't he?'

The rest of the over was a mixed bag. The second ball allowed for a square cut that brought him a four; the third and fourth were too good to allow Bhaskar to take even a single. The fifth whistled past, narrowly missing the stumps and drawing a cry of combined admiration and dismay from the fielders. Bhaskar scowled and took guard.

The last ball of the over, from the moment it left the bowler's hand, was crying to be hit. Hard and strong and far. Bhaskar gathered his strength, tightened his grip, and swung. The bat connected with the ball with a mighty thwack, heaving it up. Up, into the clear blue sky, above the deep green of the deodars. It came down, somewhere in the depths of the forest. And because this was a mountain, it might even go bouncing down, and end up in Solan or somewhere...

Chetan bhaiya glowered; there was an unwritten rule that no delivery — no matter how hittable — would be hit that hard. They could not afford to lose balls.

Bhaskar shrugged. He was too pleased to care. In any case, it was the English boy's ball. And the boy himself was standing at the other end of the pitch, looking stricken. Bhaskar hoisted his bat on his shoulder and walked towards the bowling end. Except for Chetan bhaiya, the others had already set off, grumbling, to look for the ball.

'You see?' Bhaskar said, in English, when he stood face to face with the boy. 'That is how we treat murderers. Two years ago, your father sentenced my father to death. He killed him.' He swung the bat off his shoulder and leaned on it. 'Now you lot won't be able to kill us any more.'

The English boy looked straight into Bhaskar's eyes. His own were blank. 'My father has been dead seven years. He was killed in France in 1940,' he said softly, clearly.

Without another word, he turned and walked away.

Somewhere, high above, a circling bird of prey called, a raucous screech that echoed in the sky. In the woods, on the fringes of the clearing, Kishore was yelling to someone: 'Don't go there! I've already had a look.'

'Who did you think he was?'

Bhaskar whirled, so dazed that he almost lost his balance. Chetan bhaiya looked grim. Not angry, but upset. Bhaskar swallowed. 'He — he tried to tell me he wasn't—' He fell silent, unable to meet Chetan bhaiya's gaze.

'You thought he was the ADM's son,' Chetan bhaiya said. 'You should have asked me, Bhaskar. I'd have told you. Andrew is our padre sahib's nephew. His mother is our pastor's sister. She's been staying in Simla with Andrew until they return to England.' He stopped. 'He's a nice sort,' he added.

The match broke up. Chetan bhaiya only told the others that the English boy — Andrew Davenport, that was his name — had suddenly remembered he had to get home. Bhaskar, flushed and heartsick, whispered to Kishore, 'You go home. I'll stay here a while.'

'Stay here? Are you mad? What if chaachi asks me where you are?'

'I won't be that late. Tell her I'll return before sunset.'

He had already slipped away, towards the eastern edge of the forest, when the others left. He knew how much force he had put into that six he had hit. He knew where he had hit it. He had seen — had revelled in — the proud arc the ball had etched in the sky as it fell, somewhere amidst the trees beyond the boulder off to the left.

Even then, it took him two hours of searching to find it. It was slightly scuffed, but it was still shiny and bright. Bhaskar put it in his school bag, and headed home.

The two barbets, hopping through the branches of the rhododendron tree, glared suspiciously at him as he went past. There was no one at the rock beside it. Bhaskar stood there for a moment, looking at the path that led to the ADM's bungalow. Opposite the bungalow was the church, he remembered. Chaman and Chetan bhaiya and their parents, the only Christians in his life, attended the church.

He toyed with walking down there, to the vicarage. But his courage failed him, and he went home instead.

The next morning, he pleaded a headache so fierce that he would not be able to sit through school. 'All I want to do is go outside and get some fresh air,' Bhaskar told his mother. She did not protest; she knew her son too well. Bhaskar slipped the ball into his pocket and hurried downhill. And, before he should lose his nerve, to the vicarage, only to be informed by a servant that padre sahib had gone to the railway station to see off his sister and nephew.

Bhaskar ran part of the way, hitched a ride in a passing cart the rest. He arrived, sweating and breathless, just as the priest's sister — her hair as golden as her son's — climbed into the train. Beside her was a small, stocky figure in tweed.

'Wait!' Pushing coolies, stumbling over luggage, colliding with a coolie, Bhaskar sprinted to the train. He managed to push the ball into the boy's hand, and then the engine, already rumbling and spewing steam, pulled the train out of the platform.

'Who was that?' asked Mrs Davenport, slightly rattled. She looked down at her son. He was still looking back along the platform, at the thin, short figure that stood there. Andrew smiled — a small but genuine smile. He waved, and after a moment's hesitation, the figure waved back.

'He's a very good batsman,' replied Andrew. 'Just like Hutton.'

Madhulika Liddle is a Delhi-based author, known primarily as the creator of the fictional 17th century Mughal detective, Muzaffar Jang, who has appeared in The Englishman's Cameo, The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Stories, and Engraved in Stone. Madhulika is also a travel writer, a writer of short stories, and a fan of classic cinema, about which she blogs at www.dustedoff.wordpress.com.