Mrs Roberts

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Illustrations: Uzma Mohsin

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.

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 equally unpredictable.

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 in Mussoorie.

“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 favourite breed!

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 years.

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 desperate times.

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 hill-station.

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.

 

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.