Peter Leith is 89 and describes himself as ‘half-deaf and half-blind’, but he has never been one to dwell on his challenges. Tales from a childhood in India continues his series of true short stories.
In the British India of my childhood, it was customary for European children from the age of about seven, to have their own chokra or chokri, depending on their gender. One’s chokra, often a child of one of your family’s house servants, was a few years older and acted as a sort of mentor, older sibling, bodyguard and personal servant.
Typically, your chokra walked you to school, carrying your books if your parents had not (like mine) decreed that ‘you carry your own damn books!’ At lunchtime, your chokra would be back with your tiffin (lunch) in a ‘tiffin-carrier’ – a multi-tiered aluminium utensil which, in its several layers, contained a main course, a dessert and a couple of chupattis. If you had an egalitarian attitude, you shared your tiffin with your chokra.
Whether your chokra hung around for the afternoon was up to him. Whatever he did after your lunch, he was back when school finished to escort you home. If you were interested, and smart, you could take a bit of time over this and learn a lot about India from your chokra.
Some parents allowed their children and the chokras and chokris to play together after school. If you were one of the lucky ones, you learnt a lot about building and flying kites, playing tops, marbles, ‘gilli-dandoo’ and ‘buk-buk-dola’.
Because we never lived in one place for long, neither my older brother nor I ever had time to establish a close bond with our chokras – more’s the pity.
It was not until we moved to Perth in 1938 that, as a nine-year-old, I was able to discover ‘mateship’.
My first-ever mate was a fellow pupil at Wesley College in Perth. Strangely enough, I am completely unable to remember his name. He was about my age, the youngest of several children, all boys and full of self-confidence without being at all arrogant. In fact, one of the first things he taught me was the absurdity and error of being ‘up yourself’. In retrospect, I think that as the youngest child, he might have been the only one to go to a ‘private school’ which in those days meant even more than it does now.
That might have meant something to his parents, but it meant nothing at all to him. In fact, he regarded the whole idea of school as something to be endured until he could get out into the world and join his brothers.
Come to think of it, it is to him that I owe my continuing interest and undying fascination with ‘strine’ and the Australian vernacular in general.
I remember an occasion when we were at the Perth zoo. He returned from a quick trip into the bush ‘for a leak’ to tell me that he had seen ‘a tart doing a piss’.
It took some minutes and several questions before I realised what he was saying. He must have been a good teacher because, ever since, I have known that a tart is not only a baked delicacy.
He also gave me my first inkling of the mysterious depths of the Australian ethos and, perhaps, the psychological complexity of the Anzac legend.
The 1939–1945 war had broken out, and his three older brothers had all ‘pitched in their jobs and joined up’. He told me, with pride and relish, that one of them was training as an anti-tank gunner and that the lowest battlefield life expectancy was for – you guessed it – anti-tank gunners! His other brothers were jealous that, statistically, he had a better chance of being killed than they did!
To this day, I do not really understand why danger is desirable – it might have something to do with the fact that if you have survived certain death, you have something to celebrate for the rest of your life. It also sets you apart from the crowd.
The behavioural scientists and shrinks of today might tell us, at great length and after lengthy surveys, all about ‘risk-taking behaviour’, post-traumatic stress disorder and the influence of pheromones …
I still subscribe to the cowards’ creed: he who fights and runs away lives to flee another day.
This is one of a series of short stories, written by Peter Leith. All stories are based on fact.
Do you have a story or an observation for Peter? Send it to email@example.com and put ‘Sunday’ in the subject line.