Robert Custard was a gentleman to be sure. Though he was only three-and-a-half feet off the ground and sometimes he even sported a milk moustache, he was still, quite definitely, a gentleman at the age of nine.
Now, you must consider that we are talking about the India of the 1930s. The British were ruling the country. Little boys and girls were expected to behave in a certain way. They were never to be seen covered in dirt. They were never to be heard yelling at each other and even their games were expected to be civilised.
Yes, they could play cricket and cards and chess perhaps, but they had to always remember to say ‘please’ and ‘I beg your pardon’ even to their friends. There’s no denying that it’s wonderful to meet a well-mannered child. But Robert Custard, son of Brigadier Theodore Custard, stationed in Dehra Dun, India, was just TOO well mannered… until…Viju came into his life!
Who is Viju, you might ask? Viju was the ruffian little boy of Brigadier Custard’s new gardener. Viju’s family moved into the quarters at the back of Custard House after the old gardener took retirement and went away.
Viju was the youngest in his family and the only boy. Robert Custard was the youngest in his family and also the only boy. It was natural for these two to get together, one might imagine, and to have the time of their lives. But no, it didn’t happen so easily. First of all, Robert was the son of a Brigadier and Viju was the son of a gardener. It is very sad that this should have kept them apart. Next, Robert was English and Viju was Indian. It is sad that this too should have kept them apart. And last of all, Robert was always so shocked to see Viju’s dusty clothes and dusty hair that he himself stayed apart! All in all, it was very sad that so many silly, unnecessary reasons kept these boys from becoming friends for so long.
The year was 1932. The great Indian monsoon was expected. Mango trees were laden with fruit and the Koel’s song was continuous. Legend has it that when the Koel sings it must rain.
The first fat raindrops fell to the dry earth. From his room Robert looked out of an open window. The thunder grew louder and the wind grew stronger.
Soon the rain poured down heavily from the skies. Robert thought to himself: “Oh! What a drag! I can’t even go out for a walk now.” His yellow Labrador, Giant, also looked out the window and wagged his big, fat tail. Giant was named ‘Giant’ because he really was very large!
Labradors love the rain and Giant was wondering why his friend Robert was stuck indoors on such a super day. Just then, Robert saw a figure prancing about in the rain. It took him some time to realise that the capering form was none other than Viju.
Viju was splashing through pools of muddy water. He was barefoot and wore only a vest and knickers. Robert wrinkled up his nose every time Viju went stomping through a muddy pool. “Look at him, Giant! He must be filthy!” Robert whispered. But Giant was excited. He, too, had seen Viju and now he wasn’t prepared to lose another moment.
So off Giant went, like a bolt of lightning, and within seconds he had joined his other friend, Viju, in the rain-dance. Giant and Viju splashed and twirled and trotted in the rain, while Robert looked on, horrified.
It was too much for Robert to bear. Giant was all covered in mud and Mother would be so upset to have the dog trample through the house leaving his dirty paw marks on the carpets. He had to go out and bring Giant back in. So, he went out with an umbrella and walked all the way across the lawn to where Viju and Giant were still having a merry time.
“Come in at once!” Robert shouted over the roar of the thunder, “Giant! Do you hear me? Come!”
But Giant just barked back and Viju laughed. Robert was angry. He held on to Giant’s collar and tried to drag him away from Viju. Giant, in his joy, leapt upon Robert and knocked him down to the ground. The umbrella rolled out of Robert’s hand.
Robert was now very wet and quite dirty. Viju and Giant surrounded him, running about in circles. But to Robert’s surprise he discovered that this was actually a lot of fun! The rain felt wonderful as it washed over his head and trickled down his shirt. He removed his socks and shoes and ran around on the cool, wet grass. Oh, yes! This was fun! Viju did not know English and Robert did not know Hindi and Giant knew neither language. But they all understood the language of fun and so they enjoyed themselves, until the rain stopped.
When Robert and Giant returned home, Robert’s mother, Mrs. Custard, was waiting at the door. Her eyes were round with horror, “I saw you out there, Robert. You were playing with that little boy.” She looked him up and down, “Oh, dear, Robert. You look a complete mess. Please go at once and wash up. And clean up Giant as well.”
Mrs. Custard was upset. Not only about how filthy Robert and Giant were at the moment but also because Robert had been playing with Viju. Robert had broken a rule of the Custard household. Mrs. Custard excused herself for a moment and returned holding a wooden scale. “Now, you know Robert, that I do not enjoy punishing you, but you have done something very wrong.” Robert held out his right hand and closed his eyes. For playing with Viju he got five hard raps on his knuckles.
“I trust you will never do it again,” Mrs Custard said firmly, and left Robert and Giant feeling very sorry for themselves.
Early next morning, Viju knocked at Robert’s window. Robert got out of bed and noticed that Viju held a baby squirrel in his hand. Such a beauty! All fur and those bright, black eyes! Viju motioned for Robert to come out and hold the squirrel. Robert hesitated. He knew that if his mother spotted him again it would be another round of punishment, perhaps worse than just five raps this time. But he looked at that little, squirming squirrel and he couldn’t resist. He had never held a squirrel before. So he crept out of his room, with Giant tiptoeing behind him, and went out with Viju to the back of the house. They all sat on the boundary wall and took turns petting the squirrel.
Robert became restless. His mother would certainly be organising breakfast by now and he had to get back before he was discovered. He jumped down from the wall and was about to leave when Viju thrust the squirrel in his hand. “For me?” Robert enquired.
Viju nodded his head. Robert was thrilled. He said thank you to Viju and ran off with the baby squirrel bobbing in his pocket. But Robert was running out of luck. Mrs. Walsh, the neighbour, had seen Robert and Viju sitting on the boundary wall and had reported the matter to Mrs. Custard. As Robert was squeezing himself through the window of his room his mother appeared beside him!
“Robert, really! What has come over you? No breakfast for you, young man! And no lunch, either!”
The poor boy remained in his room the entire morning.Viju learnt somehow of Robert’s punishment and around noon he came again to Robert’s window and knocked at it. Robert tried to send him away but Viju was determined to stay on. He held a plate in his hand. Robert saw that it was full of food.
Now, Robert was very hungry and he would have been happy to get even a stale crust of bread. He gave in to his hunger and accepted the plate of food. The flavours were different but quite lovely and he lapped up the curry and the wheat bread and felt very satisfied. He shared the bread with Giant and the squirrel and as a gift he gave his treasured rabbit’s-foot to Viju.
For some days Robert avoided meeting Viju. Two punishments in a row were more than enough for him! But he saw Viju every day, from a distance, and wanted terribly to be out there playing with him. He wanted desperately to learn how to climb trees from Viju.
After four days of remaining away from Viju, Robert finally stole out of the house one evening when his parents had gone to visit friends.
Viju showed Robert how to climb a tree. They both sat on a branch and watched the sun go down. It was really nice just to be with a friend, Robert thought, even if they couldn’t talk much to each other. Just as the sun fell past the horizon, Robert heard a rustle behind him. He glimpsed the outstretched head of a snake! It looked like it was ready to strike Robert! Oh no! He didn’t know what to do!
But before he could bat an eyelid, Viju had snapped off a branch from the tree. He thrashed the branch that the snake was coiled around. The snake, now scared, dropped to the ground and slithered away.
Robert was so relieved that he reached across and hugged Viju. Later that evening he described to his parents how brave Viju had been to save his life. From that day on, Mrs. Custard was happy to have Viju as Robert’s best friend.
Viju and Robert climbed trees and danced in the rain and went out for long walks with Giant and the baby squirrel for the next four years. After which Robert went on to England. But he never forgot his friend, Viju. And he never forgot the most important thing Viju had taught him: the joy of being a child, and the joy of having a friend.