Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 1, Dated Jan 10, 2009
Ruskin Bond (born 1934) lives in Landour, near the hilltown of Mussoorie. His
first novel, The Room on the Roof, published when he was 17, won the John Llewellyn
Rhys Award. Bond has written several novellas (including Vagrants in the Valley, A
Flight of Pigeons and Delhi Is Not Far), essays, poems and children’s books, as well as
over 500 short stories and articles that have appeared in magazines and
anthologies. His autobiography, Scenes from a Writer’s Life, was published in 1997.
He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993 and the Padma Shri in 1999.
ELSIE ROBERTS had been quite a beauty in her
twenties and thirties; one of those fair Anglo-Indians
who passed for European until their accents gave them
away. Elsie, it was said, did her best to remain fair,
staying out of the sun as much as possible. In her later
years, she was seldom seen during the day, but by then
she had lost her looks and taken to drink; she slept by day and lived by night.
|ILLUSTRATIONS: UZMA MOHSIN
In her heyday, Elsie (nee MacGowan) was a dancing partner to
Roberts, a good-looking French Jew
who had made his way to India just before
World War II broke out. They
danced in Cabaret at the Imperial and
Swiss in Delhi, and at Hakman’s in Mussoorie,
and Filetto’s in Lahore. They
made an elegant pair; they danced beautifully.
Inevitably they were compared to
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the
dancing sensations of the silver screen.
They married, and continued to partner
each other until the War ended. Then,
Roberts made a trip to France to claim
and collect some compensation due to
him as a war refugee. As he stood at the
cashier’s counter, waiting for the first instalment
to be handed over to him, he
collapsed and died of a heart attack.
Chance gives, and takes away, and
sometimes gives again; but human life is
However, Elsie, as his widow, was
entitled to the proceeds. She gave up
her dancing career and took to breeding
dogs. I first saw her when she came
to see my mother in New Delhi, sometime
in 1958. My mother was breeding
Poms, and Elsie bought a small black
Pom. She was still very attractive (Elsie,
not the Pom) and was escorted by a
gentleman who owned a small restaurant
“He’s after the money,” said my
mother later, and she was right, as the
gentleman in question wheedled a large
sum of money out of her and then gave
her short shrift.
Elsie transferred her affections to
her dogs. She rented a house outside
Mussoorie and provided board and
lodging to a large variety of canines.
There was considerable in-breeding.
Poms wed Dachshunds, Samoyeds wed
Spaniels, and Labradors wed German
Shepherds. The resultant mixture was
undistinguished, to say the least. Elsie
didn’t care. She had become devoted to
her dogs and had no desire to sell them,
with or without pedigree. She fed them
well, and the local butcher proclaimed
that she was his best customer.
Of course, strays and village dogs also
found their way on to the
premises. When there are free lunches to
be had, dogs and humans are no different.
Word soon gets around and everyone
drops in for the wedding feast.
They were not a ferocious lot. Like
their owner, they were wary of humans,
quite paranoid about them. They’d bark
furiously but scatter at the approach of
anything on two legs.
WHEN I came to live in Mussoorie
in the mid-1960s, I
thought I’d pay a casual
visit to Mrs Roberts; my mother had
asked me to look her up. She was then
living near Barlowganj, where she had a
huge bungalow to herself, most of it occupied
by some twenty to thirty dogs.
At first she refused to see me, but
when I told her who I was, she let me
in. “So you’re Edie’s son,” she said.
“How is your mother?”
“Not too well, I’m afraid.”
“Does she still have her Poms?”
“Several of them.” I refrained from
adding that they were a bloody nuisance. Try sharing a Delhi flat with
half-a-dozen snapping, yapping, highly
strung, hysterical Poms — my least
Mrs Roberts showed me around.
The house was filthy. She was equally
unkempt; her dress soiled, hands and
feet unwashed, hair all over the place.
Only traces of her former beauty
remained. She was in her late forties,
and fading fast.
But she was to live another twenty
The next time I saw her, about five
years later, she was in considerable distress.
Two or three of her dogs were
suffering from mange and had to be put
down. But the vet’s injections hadn’t
worked properly (it was probably some
spurious stuff) and the dogs died slowly
and painfully. Mrs Roberts went further
into her shell, and moved with her
companions to the top of the mountain,
near Sisters’ Bazaar. Old-timers in
that area still remember her.
She would emerge from her house
once a month, to collect her money
from the local bank. The rest of the time
she would remain locked up with her
dogs, emerging only to receive the
butcher, or the milkman who also
brought her the local brew, a potent distillation
made from mysterious ingredients.
At the time we were going through
a period of Prohibition (it was Morarji’s
government), but Mrs Roberts and the
local villagers had beaten the system.
I, too, had come to rely on the local
milkman as a source of supply. ‘English
wines and spirits’ having been taken off
the market, Kachi-shirab, the special
from Kotti, Kanda and other gaons, was
the only alternative. My milkman used
my hot-water bottle to bring me the
stuff. Unfortunately the hot-water
bottle stank for weeks afterwards, and
could no longer be used for its legitimate
purpose. No matter. Those were
Mrs Roberts had been on the stuff
for years and was apparently none the
worse for it. Prohibition came and
went, and politicians came and went, and while frail creatures such as I
returned to mere whiskey and water,
tougher souls, such as Elsie Roberts,
continued with the local stuff, which
was certainly more potent.
TWO OR three years passed, and I
had forgotten Mrs Roberts and
her dogs, when one morning
the local missionary-doctor, Dr Olsen,
dropped in to tell me she had died in
the night (of double pneumonia) and
did I know if she had any relatives.
“None that I know of,” I had to say,
“Just those dogs.”
She was given a pauper’s burial in the
little burial ground below Woodstock,
where some of the school’s Christian
servants were laid to rest. No tombstones
there. As a beautiful young
dancer she’d been the toast of Mussoorie.
That had been over forty years
ago. Now, friendless, she had been
swept away like a dead leaf.
And what of the dogs?
Bereft of their benefactor and bewildered
by her absence, they ran wild.
Some fled into the forest and perished.
A few survived, along with the many
street dogs that proliferate around the
If you see a dog that looks especially
weird (bits of Terrier, Spaniel, Pom and
Dachshund), you’ll know it’s descended
from one of Mrs Roberts’ pets. She did
leave us a legacy of sorts.