Saturday, February 25, 2006

The story of Robert Louis Stevenson

KHUSHWANT SINGHI was familiar with the name of Robert Louis Stevenson as any reader of English classics should be. But I was not sure whether I had actually read any of his novels or only seen their film versions and came to believe I had gone through them. I could name Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde without recalling anything about them. Jekyll and Hyde have become stock figures representing good and evil that is present in all of us. About R.L.S., as he is known, all I knew about him was that he was a Scotsman who travelled widely and was of liberal views. I had no idea where he lived, wrote or died.

Suddenly R.L.S. came alive. A young Muslim lady living in Toronto sent a copy of a novel Stevenson Under the Palm Trees by Alberto Manguel (Thomas Allen — Books of Merit series) to her father in India to be forwarded to me as gift. It is the novella which takes no more than a couple of hours to read. I discovered that R.L.S. had spent the last years of his life in Samoa, a tropical island in the Caribbean Sea. He died in Samoa and is presumably buried there.

Samoa is one of the dozen of islands blessed by nature. Fertile soil where coconut Jackfruit, banana, papaya and just about every fruit and vegetable known to mankind grow in profusion. They rot, ferment and can be easily turned into alcohol relished by natives. Plenty of rains, no droughts. The population is largely Black with a liberal mixture of half-castes and ubiquitous Chinese immigrant shopkeepers. They lead an easy life doing as little work, so that they can indulge themselves in singing, dancing and drinking. There are a few Whites who run the administration. Also, Christian missionaries, who come in turn to remind them that if they continue living sinful lives, fires of hell await them in their next lives. They listen to these sermons and continue living sinful lives.

Why did R.L.S. chose to come to Samoa? He was born in Edinburgh in 1850 to well-to-do Calvinist (followers of John Calvin, French protestant and reformer) parents. He was a sickly child, stricken with weak lungs and often spat out blood. He did not want to live in a cold country. He married an American widow with two children and with his aged mother decided to make his home in Samoa to continue writing novels. The locals gave him a Samoan nick name Tusi Tala — teller of tales.

Alberto Manguel is the son of an Argentinian diplomat who took up journalism and writing as a career. It is evident that the inspiration to write a fictional account of R.L.S. was his most celebrated novel Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde—representing good and evil in every human being. He creates another character: an Evangelist preacher Mister Baker who visits Samoa to bring the natives to the path of righteousness. The only way he knows is to keep warning them of the terrible fate that awaits them, if they persist in their evil ways. Mister Baker and R.L.S. meet many times, occasionally drink together and exchange views.

Then one day R.L.S. finds a young Samoan girl in the woods raped and murdered. Part of her blood smears RLS straw hat. The same happens to Mister Baker. Both are suspected of having committed the crime. The "Chief Justice", also a White, dismisses these rumours as RLS was with him at the time of the crime.

This is followed by a fire in the local tavern. A few natives are killed. Once again gossip mongers accuse either RLS, or Mister Baker for the fire. I could not make out which one of the two was responsible for the crimes. Suddenly one evening RLS while having his dinner collapses spitting blood all over the floor and dies. I was left guessing. It is who-done-it variety of crime fiction that carries a message and is beautifully narrated.

Cricket mania

Early in life I developed an aversion towards cricket. Played with a stone-hard ball I dreaded it battering my skull, nose, eyes, crushing my fingers, and worse, getting me in the crotch. So I play it with a rubber ball which is not the same thing. The only two rules to follow while batting were siddhi rok, dingee tthoke — stop the one coming straight, smash the one off the course.

I did not much enjoy watching cricket matches. They went on for days on end; there were long boring gaps when nothing seemed to be happening and I nodded off to sleep. I was often awakened from my nap by people shouting "Howzzat?" or "Good shot, Sir!" I gave up watching the game: it had very little action.

My interest in the game was revived after TV came into my home. And more so after Pakistan came into existence. India-Pakistan matches were not sporting encounters but mini-wars between two neighbours. They had emotional overtones totally missing in matches against England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe or the West Indies. When India played with Pakistan I refused to watch the opening and asked my servants who are avid cricket buffs to tell me the score.

If India was doing well, I joined them in watching the same. If it was doing badly, I went into another room to resume reading. At times I sat in my back garden. From the silence pervading in our block of flats, I could gather that everyone was glued to their TVs. If there was a burst of crackers and fireworks, I knew India had won. It is not the game that interests me but the outcome.

Life signs

On a railway platform at Patna: "Aana free, jaana free, pakde gaye to khana free."

On a famous beauty parlour in Mumbai: Don’t whistle at the girl going out from here. She may be your grandmother.

On a bulletin board: Success is relative. More the success, more the relatives.

On a barber’s saloon in Juhu, Mumbai: We need your heads to run our business.

(Contributed by Vipin Bucksey, New Delhi)