The morning of the boat ride I was so excited that I was ready to run out of the house as soon as I woke up, without changing or brushing or even thinking about breakfast—a most unusual thing for me as I rarely forget about food. But Ayah, who looked after me and was my best friend, would have none of it. She caught hold of me and made me get dressed in a smart pair of shorts and a loose cotton shirt. She then fondly combed down my unruly hair, made me wear my shoes and by the time I was ready to be presented to the world, our cook Osman had placed a breakfast of toast, marmalade and eggs on the table. ‘And where is baba off to today?’ Osman asked no one in particular, looking somewhere between Ayah and me. Since my mouth was full of toast, Ayah replied, telling him about the boat ride. Ah, baba needs to be careful. The sea is full of dangerous creatures. Big fish, small fish, fish that will eat up men before they allow the men to catch them…’
My eyes grew round as saucers even as my mouth continued to work on the toast, bits of crumbs flying out. Osman was always telling me hair-raising stories of lions and djinns and crocodiles. But man-eating fish?
‘Fish that eat men?’ I sputtered. ‘Yes, baba. Never take your eyes off the water and never turn your back to the sea. These fish sometimes also have human faces with mouth filled with sharp teeth. The teeth are like daggers. They will catch you by the waist of your pants and pull and pull. Baba, if you feel anyone pulling you, remember to jump away—even if your pants tear. You must never look at them in the eye, though. Some of them change their forms into beautiful maidens, and then you are completely done for. You will never return from the sea. If you survive, you will spend the rest of your days on a lonely island with these fish-men. We will never see you again.’By now my breakfast was almost swallowed whole and I was on the verge of choking on my milk.
As I placed my glass down with a thump, Ayah had had enough. ‘Osman, go back to the kitchen and finish your work. Stop scaring baba like this!’ she shouted at him. ‘Fish-men indeed! Who has ever heard of such nonsense?’ She turned to me and wiped my milky mouth that was hanging open. ‘Don’t worry, baba. Don’t listen to this man. You go tell Daddy that you are ready to leave now.’
Excerpted from Hop On: My Adventures on Boats, Trains and Planes by Ruskin Bond, with permission from Talking Cub, the children's imprint of Speaking Tiger. Illustrations by Samrat Halder.