This story is from the book The Adventures of Rusty. Rusty is a 12-year-old boy and as you read on, you might think that he is very much a part of you! The book has two sections, and Tea at tha Dhaba is one of the stories of the second section called “Running Away”.
Running away from school! It is not to be recommended to everyone. Parents and teachers would disapprove. Or would they, deep down in their hearts? Everyone has wanted to run away, at some time in his life if not from a bad school or an unhappy home, then from something equally unpleasant. Running away seems to be in the best traditions. Huck Finn did it. So did Master Copperfield and Oliver Twist. So did Kim. Various enterprising young men have run away to sea. Most great men have run away from school at some stage in their lives; and if they haven’t, then perhaps it is something they should have done.
Anyway, Daljit and I ran away from school, and we won’t waste any more time with excuses. We did it quite successfully too, up to a point. But then, all this happened in India, and India, though it forms only two per cent of the world’s land mass, has fifteen per cent of its population, and so it is an easy place to hide in, or be lost in, or disappear in, and never be seen or heard of again!
Not that we intended disappearing. We were headed for a particular place — Jamnagar — and as soon as I took my first step into the unknown, that first step on the slippery pine needles below the school, I knew quite definitely that I wasn’t running away from anything, but that I was running towards something. Call it a dream, if you like. I was running towards a dream.
In bare feet and pyjamas, I slid down the steep slope of the hill, and was the first to reach the flat rock in the middle of the forest. There was a soft breeze sighing in the pine trees. The night was pleasant and cool. From the ravine below came the subdued murmur of the stream; it made a sound like a man humming rather tunelessly to himself. The full moon came out from behind massed monsoon clouds, and the trees, bushes and boulders emerged from the darkness.
Daljit arrived a few minutes later. Though still in his pyjamas, he was wearing his turban. Daljit’s turban was a source of great pride to him as turbans are to most Sikhs. He removed it only at night, or for games, and he would never have dreamt of running away bareheaded. When going to bed he had taken it off without unwinding it, and on leaving bed he put it on again like a hat, very neatly, without spoiling a single fold.
We had brought our gym clothes along in bundles and changed into them before going any further as our school clothes would be too conspicuous and our home clothes were packed away in the box room during the term. We had put on our gym shoes. Our haversacks were filled with our provisions; pyjamas, and a couple of books, went in with them. The bulk of our possessions — our clothes, bedding and boxes we had gaily left behind.
A narrow path ran downhill, and we followed it until it levelled out, running parallel with the small stream that rumbled down the mountainside. We followed the stream for a mile, walking swiftly and silently, until we met the bridle-path which was little more than a mule-track going steeply down the last hills to the valley.
The going was easy. We knew the road well. And by the time we reached the last foothills it was beginning to rain, not heavily, but as a light, thin, drizzle.
We took shelter in a small dhaba on the outskirts of a village. The dhabawallah was still sleeping, and his dog, a mangy pariah with only one ear, sniffed at us in a friendly way instead of chasing us off the premises. We sat down on an old bench and watched the sun rising over the distant mountains.
This was something I have always remembered not because it was a more beautiful sunrise than on any other day, but because the special importance of that morning made me look at everything in a new way, and the details stand out clearly in my memory.
As the sky grew lighter, the tall pines and deodars stood out clearly, and the birds came to life. A blackbird started it all with a low, mellow call, and then the thrushes began chattering in the bushes. A barbet shrieked monotonously at the top of a spruce tree, and, as the sky grew lighter still, a flock of bright green parrots flew low over the trees.
The rain was very light, almost a drizzle, and there was a bright crimson glow in the east. And then, quite suddenly, the sun shot through a gap in the clouds, and the lush green monsoon grass sprang into relief. Both Daljit and I were wonder struck. We had never been up so early before. Hundreds of spiders’ webs, spun in trees and bushes and on the grass, where they would not normally have been noticed, were now clearly visible, spangled with gold and silver raindrops. The strong silk held the light rain, and the sun took each drop of water and made of it a tiny jewel.
A great wild dahlia, its scarlet flowers drenched and heavy, sprawled over the hillside and an emerald-green grasshopper reclined on a petal, stretching its legs in the sunshine.
The dhabawallah was now up. His dog, emboldened by his master’s presence, began to bark at us. The man lit a charcoal fire in a choolah, and put a kettle of water on to boil.
“Will you eat anything?” he asked conversationally in Hindi.
“No, just tea for us,” I said.
He places two brass tumblers on a table.
“The milk hasn’t arrived,” he said. “You’re very early.”
“We’ll take the tea without milk,” said Daljit, “but give us lots of sugar.”
“Sugar is costly these days. But since you are school boys, and need more, you can help yourselves.”
“Oh, we are not school boys,” I said hurriedly.
“Not at all,” said Daljit.
“We are just tourists,” I added.
“We have to catch the early train at Dehra,” offered Daljit.
“There’s no train before ten o’clock,” said the puzzled dhabawallah.
“It is the ten o’clock train we are catching,” said Daljit smartly. “Do you think we will be down in time?”
“Oh yes, there’s plenty of time…”
The dhabawallah poured hot tea into the tumblers and placed the sugar bowl in front of us.
“At first I thought you were schoolboys,” he said with a laugh. “I thought you were running away.”
Daljit laughed a little nervously, I thought.
“What made you think that?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ve been here many years,” he said, gesturing towards the small clearing in which his little wooden stall stood, almost like a trading outpost in a wild country.
“Schoolboys always pass this way when they’re running away!”
“Do many run away?” I asked.
“Not many. Just two or three every year. They get as far as the railway station in Dehra and there they’re caught!”
“It is silly of them to get caught,” said Daljit.
“Are they always caught?” I asked.
“Always! I give them a glass of tea on their way down, and I give them a glass of tea on their way up, when they are returning with their teachers.”
“Well, you will not see us again,” said Daljit, ignoring the warning look that I gave him.
“Ah, but you aren’t schoolboys!” said the shopkeeper, beaming at us. “And you aren’t running away!”
We paid for our tea and hurried on down the path. The parrots flew over again, screeching loudly, and settled in a lichee tree. The sun was warmer now, and as the altitude decreased, the temperature and humidity rose, and we could almost smell the heat of the plains rising to meet us.
The hills levelled out into rolling country, patterned with fields. Rice had been planted out, and the sugarcane was waist-high.
The path had become quite slushy. Removing our shoes and wrapping them in newspaper, we walked barefoot in the soft mud.
“It’s about three miles into Dehra,” I said. “We must go round the town. By now, everyone in school will be up and they’ll have found out we’ve gone!”
“We must avoid the station,” said Daljit.
“We’ll walk to the next station, Raiwala,” I said. “Then we’ll hop into the first train that comes along.”
“How far must we walk?”
“About ten miles.”
“Ten miles!” Daljit looked dismayed. “It’ll take us all day!”
“Well, we can’t stop here, we can’t wander about in Dehra, and we can’t enter the station. We have to keep on walking.”
“All right, Rusty. We’ll keep on walking. I suppose the beginning of an adventure is always the most difficult part.”