Six months after I got married I began to have scary dreams. Two men were hunting for me. I hid under the floor boards and heard them telling each other, ‘I know she’s under there.’ They were going to kill me. The wierd thing was that during the day I looked forward to my terrifying dreams. Until I got married, aged twenty three, I had hitchhiked round Europe living by my wits, getting any work I could where ever I landed up. I defended myself from potential rapists with a stiletto knife given to my by my pre-husband boy friend. When I became a wife in the tea estates of South India my life became safe – and in the isolated bungalow – a little dull. Till a neighbour offered me his horse. I stopped having the scary dreams after I got Cromwell. He was a sixteen two Australian whaler. He arrived with two men. They held a rope over his head while I mounted. This, they said, was to prevent him rearing up and falling on top of me. I was six months pregnant. Cromwell threw me off a week later. I landed a bit bruised and bloody on a rock. I did continue to ride him, though. I even entered him for a race. There was a little confusion at the start. The horses were recalled but Cromwell was off. He was too strong for me. He did the entire course before coming back to the start where the other riders wre smugly waiting. He didn’t stop then either, He went through the waiting riders on their fretting mounts, crashed through the rails, and with a shatter and splinter of white planks, we landed in the river below. I got back into line at last and came third.
Then syce arrived. He was tall, turbanned and looking for a job. He had tried selling vegatables in the market but had gone bust. I was advised not to employ hm because he was quarrelsome. I just liked him. He became my syce, my groom. I had other horses after Cromwell. There was Dinah, who had wobbly front legs. I used to sing ‘Dinah, is there anyone finer, in the State of Carolina’ as we cantered along the tracks through the tea. She moved her ears in time to my singing, so I knew she understood. Then came Tough Baby. She was the fastest horse in South India. Over two furlongs. The shortest race was three furlongs. Tuffy and me had to go very very fast at the beginning to win a race in Madras. She had to wear a hot water bottle filled with ice on her head in Madras, because she was intolerant to heat. Syce slept in front of her stall for the whole month of the races, to prevent her being ‘nobbled.’ Once she won two races in a day and I was reprimanded by the Muslim manager of the Hyderbad riding club. Tough Baby, he said, bore the thumb prints of the Prophet Mahommed and such a blessed horse must never be asked to run twice in one day.
I began to long to ride in longer races. I wanted a horse that could do a mile. And then I met Kartick.. He was huge and proud and clever. And a bargain. His trainer let us have him for unpaid fees.
The Muslim manager bought Tough Baby. A year later she came last. ‘It’s very bad for Baby’s nerves to win races, the Muslim manager said.
That evening, after buying Kartick, people kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Are you going to ride him? My goodness you must be brave!’
I couldn’t get him up to the start, He tried to throw himself, and me too, backwards over the rails.
We took him to our tea estate home in the hills. I planned to gently train him, and get him over his fear of racing. Syce wanted to run beside me. Absolutely not, I told him. I’ll be OK. Really I will. Every corner I turned, there syce would be, hiding behind some bush or tree, holdng a rope at the ready to rescue me. He oiled the stirrup leather clips so that they kept coming off when I was dring. It’s so annoying I tod him. He kept oiling them. Of course in the end he was right. Kartick hurled himself backwards over a precipice, me on top of him. I fell first, my feet in the stirrups, leathers still on. Kartick fell below me, blotting out the sky briefly. The oiled clips had saved my life.
When we moved to Bengal and started a dairy farm Syce became our cowman. He only talked Tamil, but he did it loud and slow so that in the end the Bengalis understood. We went to Assam after that and the Assamese, also, were treated to loud slow Tamil.
Violence came to Assam. Young men wearing dark glasses and tight white trousers, imitating the Tonton Macout, began attacking Bengalis,saying they had taken all the jobs. Bengali tea planters had been beaten up. One had been burnt to death in his tea factory. My husband was Bengali. One day a hundred of them came to our bungalow demanding to see my Bengali husband. I said he was on tour. They didn’t believe me. Syce appeared suddenly and plonked himself between me and the young men. ‘If they are being rude to you I’ll kill them,’ he told me in Tamil. One old man against a hundred young ones. ‘I promise you they are being terribly polite,’ I tried to assure him but he must have sensed how scared I was. Perhaps he saw how I was trembling. He persisted in standing aggressively facing them, his first clenched.
They went away in the end without hurting us. I think Syce saved my life again.
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