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Two under the Indian Sun

By Jon Godden and Rumer Godden

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Long ago in Assam, when Rumer was four years old, Jon, who had gone for a few months with Mam to England, sent her a doll in a matchbox. It was kept in the matchbox, not only because it was small but because it would not lie down; it was weighted with lead so that every time you laid it down, it sprang up again. Jon was Rumer’s touchstone and that doll became the symbol of her writing. One thing at least she could claim: in writing she made her way herself.

When she was in her early teens, she read an advertisement from a publisher, Mr X, in which he asked for poems to be submitted to his fi rm. Rumer was too innocent to know that publishers do not ask for poems—in most cases they try rather to avoid them and, without a word to anyone, giving herself a pseudonym, she sent in her poems; not in the least to her sur prise, a courteous letter came back saying that Mr X was enormously impressed, the poems were truly gifted—‘Just what I thought,’ said Rumer. Mr X wrote that he was anxious to publish them but would need fifteen pounds against the cost.

Fifteen pounds! In those days that was a goodly sum of money and, in the modest way we lived in England, it should have seemed as far out of the reach of a schoolgirl as the moon. ‘You might as well ask for a hundred pounds,’ Jon would have said if Rumer had told her, but this was one time she did not tell Jon. It should have seemed utterly daunting but Rumer immediately set about finding a way to raise the money; being at school all day made it impossible to earn, the evenings were given to homework and Mam insisted on bed at nine o’clock every night. To save fifteen pounds from pocket money would have taken weeks and weeks—‘I can’t wait weeks and weeks.’ There was only one way to get the money, to borrow it, and she remembered how Mam had lent Fa money for several wild-cat schemes. This, she argued, was not wild-cat; once the poems were printed—we all had a touching faith in print—once they got into the newspapers, as undoubtedly they would, and burst on a delighted public, they would sell by the hundreds, by the thousands, thought Rumer dizzily, whereas Fa had bought a button machine to make pearl buttons from Narayangunj’s indigenous mussel shells which were lined with handsome mother-of-pearl, only the shell proved too hard to be separated. He had also bought an apple orchard in Tasmania, unseen, only to find that a wide belt of waste and rabbit land ran across it. What a waste of money! thought Rumer virtuously.

‘Mam, will you lend me fifteen pounds without asking what it’s for? It’s something I can’t tell you about, but something you will like. I’ll pay you back five shillings a week or, say, half-a-crown,’ and she thought, when the book is out you shall have the whole dollop and lots of presents as well. ‘Will you trust me, Mam?’

Mam, as we have said, was not a sensible parent, or was she? She asked no questions but lent the fifteen pounds which was duly sent to Mr X. He was afterwards exposed in the magazine Truth, but to give him his due he did print the poems, sixteen of them, in a sort of pamphlet, as cheaply as possible, fifty copies. They were printed, no one could deny that, but, apart from Mam’s surprise, or was she so surprised, Aunt Mary’s slightly amused congratulations and the deep impression made on Nancy—but Nancy was easily impressed—nothing happened at all, not the faintest pin scratch on the consciousness of anyone. Fa was half-tickled, half-appalled by Rumer’s initiative; females, according to Fa, should not have initiative, but no more was heard of Mr X except that he sent a bundle of copies, all the copies, all remaindered, to Fa, perhaps in answer to a rebuke, with a note in which he more or less said, ‘You sell them.’ Fa did show them to friends, but eventually they were lost or thrown away. ‘Mr X should have advertised,’ Rumer protested in agony, ‘He should have sent them to the bookshops,’ and it is pathetic to recall the letter she wrote him, childish but not tearful, in fact containing a threat: ‘You’ll be sorry one day. I’m going to be a famous author.’

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