Talking Cub; Kindle edition Rs 157.50

Land Ahoy!

The first time I was on water was equally exciting.

One day, Daddy took me for a trip in an Arab dhow. These dhows, or sailing boats, dotted the sea around the Jamnagar port, their large sails billowing in the wind. Mostly slender, the boats came in many sizes, and were used to transport all kinds of goods up and down the west coast.

The boat on which Daddy took me was a big one. He had got talking to the captain, one day, while we were out walking on the sea side, and the man invited us for a short trip.

The morning of the boat ride I was so excited that I was ready to run out of the house as soon as I woke up, without changing or brushing or even thinking about breakfast — a most unusual thing for me as I rarely forget about food. But Ayah, who looked after me and was my best friend, would have none of it. She caught hold of me and made me get dressed in a smart pair of shorts and a loose cotton shirt. She then fondly combed down my unruly hair, made me wear my shoes and by the time I was ready to be presented to the world, our cook Osman had placed a breakfast of toast, marmalade and eggs on the table.

‘And where is baba off to today?’ Osman asked no one in particular, looking somewhere between Ayah and me.

Since my mouth was full of toast, Ayah replied, telling him about the boat ride. ‘Ah, baba needs to be careful. The sea is full of dangerous creatures. Big fish, small fish, fish that will eat up men before they allow the men to catch them…’

My eyes grew round as saucers even as my mouth continued to work on the toast, bits of crumbs flying out. Osman was always telling me hair-raising stories of lions and djinns and crocodiles. But man-eating fish?

Osman and the fish that eat men.
Illustration by Samrat Halder from Hop On by Ruskin Bond

‘Fish that eat men?’ I sputtered.

‘Yes, baba. Never take your eyes off the water and never turn your back to the sea. These fish sometimes also have human faces with mouth filled with sharp teeth. The teeth are like daggers. They will catch you by the waist of your pants and pull and pull. Baba, if you feel anyone pulling you, remember to jump away—even if your pants tear. You must never look at them in the eye, though. Some of them change their forms into beautiful maidens, and then you are completely done for. You will never return from the sea. If you survive, you will spend the rest of your days on a lonely island with these fish-men. We will never see you again.’

By now my breakfast was almost swallowed whole and I was on the verge of choking on my milk.

As I placed my glass down with a thump, Ayah had had enough.

‘Osman, go back to the kitchen and finish your work. Stop scaring baba like this!’ she shouted at him. ‘Fish-men indeed! Who has ever heard of such nonsense?’ She turned to me and wiped my milky mouth that was hanging open. ‘Don’t worry, baba. Don’t listen to this man. You go tell Daddy that you are ready to leave now.’ I quickly climbed down from the chair and went in search of Daddy, who was waiting for me. Holding his hand tightly, I looked back once at the house as we turned the corner. What if I was really caught by a big fish and carried away into the depths of the ocean? Would I ever see this house again? What about my mother and my little sister? And what about dear Ayah?

Would she cry for me? Would she run up and down the sea shore calling out to her darling Laddoo? And my father? Who would look after Daddy if I was away?

Ayah feeding the boy Ruskin breakfast.
Illustration by Samrat Halder from Hop On by Ruskin Bond

Without realizing it, I sniffed loudly and sadly. Daddy looked down at me in surprise.

‘Are you all right, Ruskin?’

‘Yes, Daddy. I will keep an eye out for the fish-men. Nothing will happen, don’t worry.’

‘Fish…men? Did you mean fishermen? They are not dangerous at all, you can watch some of them laying their nets if you want,’ Daddy was quite puzzled now. ‘No, Osman said…’ but by then we had reached the place where the dhow was docked.

The Arab dhow
Illustration by Samrat Halder from Hop On by Ruskin Bond

I forgot all about fish with fearsome glinting teeth as I looked up at the boat that was waiting for us. It was quite large, and the white sails were flapping in the wind. Many men were rushing around loading sacks, while others were checking the sails and shouting out to each other in some unknown tongue. The whole place was bursting with activity…