My father was one of the leading lawyers in Gurdaspur, a district in the undivided Punjab, the land of the five rivers. I had passed with honours in English having taken my degree, Bachelor of Arts, from the Government College in Lahore, one of the most fashionable cities of India in those days. The students of the college were known to be the young ‘elite’ of the country, many of them going abroad to England for further studies. I too wanted to do my master’s in English from the same college, and then prepare to go to England, across the ‘seven seas’, and be known amongst the ranks of those selected sons of India—bright and brilliant and polished—who could boast the badge of a foreign education pinned on their lapels, and therefore prove deserving of a high post in any field of occupation.
But it was not to be. My father was going through a very lean period in life. He had no money to spend on the luxury of his third son going for higher studies, and suggested a clerical job for me in a bank, after I got rejected for a commission in the Royal Indian Navy of the British Armed Forces. I shed a silent tear. A blank wall rose in front of me. It seemed that the river Ravi, on the banks of which Lahore prospered, had suddenly stopped flowing, and I was besieged by the thought of an empty abyss that was waiting to suck up a non-entity, who, before he could blossom, was about to fade away into nothingness forever. My mind revolted. My dreams took charge of the reins of my decision-making. I looked around me and felt in my pockets. All that I could come up with was a meagre thirty rupees. With that sum of money and a small bag of my most precious personal belongings, I found myself in the hustle and bustle of a third-class compartment of the Frontier Mail that would take twenty-four hours to take me to the city of my dreams... Bombay.
The train moved and with it the panorama outside sped along as well. But my mind raced backwards in time even faster, clutching at the snippets of memories that I was leaving behind.
I saw her running onto the platform, trying to board the train along with me, struggling to get into the same compartment.
“Hold my hand! Hold my hand! I want to come with you!” she was calling. But Usha Chopra was left behind, as the train whistled away.
She was a beautiful girl... very beautiful. Born of an English mother and an Indian father, who was professor of history in the same college as I was, she was the only girl in a class of boys attending the English honours tutorial headed by Principal Dickinson. She always sat on a bench just ahead of me. Always the first to take her place before the boys entered the room, and always the last to leave—for she always had a question to ask the professor. She invariably wore a sari that shimmered on her frame of white marble, standing on high-heeled shoes that made her look even taller than she was. I was enamoured of her, totally in love with her in secret, but always too shy to confront her with my state of mind. I could never say anything to her beyond a softly murmured self-conscious “hello”.
My father always used to say I was more shy than a shy girl. He had put me in a girls’ school in Gurdaspur, and the girls ragged and bullied me, but many would fall for me as I would run away from them into the faraway seclusion of my shyness.
And then there was that awful, dark-skinned Florence, forever clad in a short frock and black stockings, always a part of the crowd that came out of the church behind our house after the Sunday prayers. Whenever I hear church bells ring, I imagine Florence chasing me. For she always chased me—in school, and in the evenings as I went for walks in the municipal gardens. One day she confronted me with a rose, simultaneously forcing a kiss on my lips! I blushed to the tips of my ears and ran straight to my mother’s kitchen for a hot meal in front of the fire, entrapped in her thoughts.
Sitar and steel guitar / And luscious lips / Red as wine / Broke somebody’s heart / And I’m afraid / It was mine.
She had recited the lines and then pushed this quaint romantic ditty on a slip of paper into my pocket, as I sat brooding one day outside the classroom. And then she ran away to look stealthily at me again from behind a pillar, with love and mischief in her eyes, waiting for my reaction. I, scared of her next attack, ran as fast as I could off the school compound, missing all the classes that day. But she was back at the company’s gardens the same evening, popping out of a bed of flowers as I was about to pluck one that looked so beautiful and fresh. I ran away scared, but she followed. I ran faster. She was faster than I was, overtook me and pulled me towards her.
“No, Florence, no!” I resisted blushingly.
“I plucked for you the flower that you wanted. Take it,” she said, and held the flower in front of me. As I looked at it, she smooched me all over the face. Her red lipstick smelt good. Rubbing its marks off my face I ran, but stumbled on a rubble of stones and fell.
She laughed and teased me, “I wanted to kiss you in the classroom this morning, but that stiff-neck Miss David had her eye on me!” She giggled naughtily.
I got up and ran as fast as I never had, in spite of the bruise on my knee, her giggles still ringing in my ears. I still remember, Florence always smelt of the perfume of sex.
My shyness always stood between me and Usha, with the result that it remained a one-sided romance that was the stuff of dreams. By the day, my eyes roved to look for her in the corridors, spotted her, admired her from a distance—and by night my heart ached for her. I wanted so much to be with her, to feel the warmth of her femininity next to me, to shower a thousand kisses all over her silken gorgeousness, each kiss opening a new vista of paradise that would engulf us both into its deepest ocean.
I had never seen the lusciousness of a naked female form, the mystery of which had intrigued and fascinated my imagination as I stepped out of my boyhood. I remember I had first felt the awakening of the man in me when Bhagoo and I were discussing the growing awareness of our coming of age. Bhagoo, short for Bhagwant, was my pal and next-door neighbour. We were each others’ confidantes, and would often sit in his father’s library in the hot sultry summer afternoons, and discuss all that was going on in our minds, chiefly a feeling of consciousness about what is known as sex, its possessive ache and its manifold unravelling revelations. During one such afternoon, we saw in the room across the narrow street, the face of a young girl in front of a big mirror hanging on the wall. She looked amused about something, looking at herself. Then she raised her blouse slowly to inspect and admire the young protruding pinkness of her nipples, running her fingers very delicately and languorously over them with the curiosity of an adolescent. Suddenly she seemed to sense some intrusion into her privacy, quickly lowered her blouse, and turned around to discover us watching her through the window. She strode to the window and shut it rather coyly.
A couple of seconds of still suspense! And then she half-opened the window again, to look at us, blushing and ashamed of having been caught at her self-indulgent act. Then she finally banged it shut for good.
That was the closest I came to seeing a female in her exciting nakedness. Usha was the only one with whom I might have hoped to achieve any sort of a female conquest—if only I had the bravado of a lover and could manage to tell her in one brave moment of confession how much I yearned to hold her in a quiet lonely corner, look into her eyes and into the whole universe in them, and then plant a kiss on her lips that would melt her whole being into mine. But my inhibitions always let that heavenly opportunity go waste. The last time I saw and actually talked to Usha was when I went to the college to collect my character certificate from Principal Dickinson, just before I left Lahore. She was standing in the corridor as usual, books and notebooks in her hand. As I came out of the principal’s room, with the certificate in my hand, my most craved for ‘Hello’ greeted me. I turned to see her smiling her most beautiful smile.
“He-l-l-o-o!” I said, trying to peer into her eyes.
“Are you coming back to college, for your master’s?” I found her asking me.
“Hello!” I said again. There was so much meaning in that little word this time—the beginning and the end of a declaration of love.
“Are you coming back to college?” she asked again.
“Are you?” I asked her back.
“Yes, I am,” she said.
“I . . . I . . . I don’t know,” I kept looking at her, loving the moment.
“Do come!” her eyes seemed to say something else as well, as she continued, “I have always liked you.”
“You have!” It was my most triumphant moment.
“But you never said you do,” she was ready to be conquered.
“What if I say it now!”
“So next time, when you see me in the corridor, say what you want to say!” she was her most charming self as she said smilingly. And then she vanished, for the principal suddenly passed behind her, giving her a look, his pipe dangling between his lips. She cast a quick glance at him and followed him hastily.
My eyes were glued to her, and to the principal, as they both disappeared behind the spires of the college.
“No—I will never say what I wanted to say to you, Usha,” I murmured, “for I am not going to be in college again. Destiny has decided that I won’t come back here.”
That evening, still thinking of her as I splashed water on my face, I looked into the mirror of my bathroom and laughed out loud saying, “Not bad, not bad at all!” Beads of water were trickling down my face, assuring me—“Isn’t this face pleasantly presentable? Didn’t Usha confess she likes me? Didn’t Florence kiss me hard? There is something about me—I am going to present myself to the world. I want the world to see me, to admire me. I am going to be an actor. Not just an actor—I am going to be a star! I am going to steer myself towards that goal. I am going to Bombay, the Mecca of films. The glamorous world of show business awaits me. I am going to grab the limelight.”
I was dancing with excitement. I took a quick joyful twirl and punched my fist hard into the mirror. Then laughed heartily at my own reflection and saw it laughing too.
I was still laughing in the train, as the Frontier Mail chugged along. It was July 1943.
Extracted with permission from Romancing with Life by Dev Anand, Penguin India