When we first moved to New England, I was smitten by the scenery. We moved in summer and the trees were tall and green. Narrow roads wound their way surreptitiously through towns and the countryside. For long stretches, they were bordered by stonewalls. And the trees, tall and green, flanked the roads on either side, the sun peering through the canopy, left the roads dappled with splotches of sunlight amongst the shadows cast by the trees.
We rented a townhome that was close to the town forest. I initially walked for short distances on the main trail. Shortly thereafter, I started exploring the woods on my bicycle, sticking to the main trails but covering more distance. One morning, I followed a faint trail off the beaten path and as I negotiated the stones and tree roots, I found myself going deeper into the woods. The trail ended abruptly at a boardwalk and as I dismounted and wheeled my bicycle along, I came to a fairly large pool. It was surrounded by trees and for all practical purposes was hidden. The first thought that came to my mind was “the hidden pool”!
“The Hidden Pool” authored by Ruskin Bond was a birthday gift to me from my cousins on my 8th birthday. It was a story of an English boy called Laurie whose father is posted to a new town in North India. Laurie is lonely but makes a couple of friends, one in his school and the other who works during the day but attends evening school. I had been reading comics and books by Enid Blyton. The Enid Blyton books were individual stories and “The Hidden Pool” was thus my first novel. I remember being engrossed in the tale and I don’t really remember how long it took me to finish the book but I have a distinct memory of spending a fair amount of time reading the book.
The book intrigued me. For one, Laurie had a room all for himself and it was accessible by a separate staircase. We were in a one-bedroom house at that time and my brother and I slept in the living room by rolling a mattress on the floor. Having a room to myself with a private entrance was a fantasy. I assumed I could sneak off at night to play with my friends. The book was set in the foothills of the Himalayas and it introduced me to terms such as glaciers and valleys. Laurie and his friends in the course of their explorations discover a pool that they decide to keep a secret and it becomes their “hidden pool”. They swim in its cool waters during the summer and often congregate there to talk to each other.
So, when I beheld the pool, I had a flashback to all those years ago when I read the book as an eight-year-old. The pool that I had found was hidden but it wasn’t a secret. It is documented on trail maps and has an entry on Wikipedia. It is a kettle pond left behind by receding glaciers about ten thousand years ago. A well-known kettle pond in this area is Walden Pond made famous by Thoreau. His book “Walden” is an ode to minimalism and Walden Pond is now a favorite haunt of the locals.
Like Laurie, Ruskin Bond is of British descent. A prolific author, his career has spanned several decades. Many of his stories are set around Mussoorie, Shimla and Dehradun, areas where he went to school and continues to live. I’ve since read a few of his stories but “The Hidden Pool” is the one I remember. It introduced me to a lot of new things at that age. If you think back to the 1970s, regional cuisine had to be experienced first hand. There was no internet, no cooking shows or blogs. I was introduced to “fruit chaat” in the book. I inferred that it was a melange of sliced fruit seasoned with spices. I must have pestered my mother a fair bit as one day, she cut a few fruits and sprinkled them with salt and pepper for me to eat. We did not have chaat masala at home and I don’t think we were aware of it either.
Laurie and his friends decide to trek to a glacier and they stay at a “Dak bungalow”. These bungalows were set up by the British at regular intervals and were meant for government officials who travelled across the country. I would come across Dak Bungalows later in books by Rudyard Kipling and Jim Corbett. There were accounts of food cooked by the resident khansamah (cook) but also stories of ghosts and spirits that haunted some of these bungalows. Laurie and his friends share a simple meal of onion soup at the bungalow. They befriend the watchman who tells them that he has seen a Yeti. This was my first introduction to the abominable snowman and my fertile imagination conjured up a picture of a great ape. A couple of years later when I read “Tintin in Tibet”, I got to see my first visual rendition of the Yeti.
My childhood book collection has been lost and for a few years, I tried to get a copy of “The Hidden Pool” but sadly, it was out of print. On my last trip to Bangalore, I stopped by at a bookstore called Blossom on Church Street and was pleasantly surprised when the salesman told me that a copy was available. It was a Penguin reprint and the cover had changed. It was slimmer and smaller than what I remembered. I read it one night upon my return back home and I finished it in a single sitting. I was reacquainted with Laurie’s friends – Anil and Kamal and their life in small town India.
In the preface, Ruskin Bond mentions that this was his first novel for children and the story is loosely based on himself and his childhood friends. So are the locales mentioned in the book. I marveled at the simplicity of the plot. Even though I reread the book just a month ago, my memories are from the time I read the book for the first time. As an eight year old, I was able to immerse myself in the book and accompany Laurie, Anil and Kamal on their adventures. I was at the pool when they swam, I shrank in fright as they retold stories of spirits and ghosts, I enjoyed the onion soup after a long trek and I felt wistful when the novel ended with Laurie setting off on a train as his dad is transferred to another town.
Nowadays, it takes me several days to go through a book. I hurtle through the chapters towards the finale and barely remember the names of the characters a few days after I’m done. However, once in a while, I do come across a book that draws me in and when I bid goodnight to my wife at 8:30 pm to turn in for the night, she just smiles since she knows that I’m off on an adventure in some book. I’ve read a few books along the way, but the Hidden Pool still remains my sentimental favorite!