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Authors: David Charles Manners

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In the Shadow of Crows

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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Title Page

IN THE SHADOW OF CROWS

David Charles Manners

Publisher Information

First published by

Signal Books Limited

36 Minster Road Oxford OX4 1LY

www.signalbooks.co
.uk

Digital edition converted and distributed in 2012 by

Andrews UK Limited

www.andrewsuk.com

© David Manners, 2009, 2011, 2012

The right of David Manners to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. The whole of this work, including all text and illustrations, is protected by copyright. No parts of this work may be loaded, stored, manipulated, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information, storage and retrieval system without prior written permission from the publisher, on behalf of the copyright owner.

Cover Design: Devdan Sen

Cover Image: © Arash James Iravan/istock

About the Author

David Charles Manners enjoyed an eclectic education in Epsom, Lichfield, Bath, Paris, Frankfurt, Stockholm and Kalimpong. He studied Music and Physical Medicine, and has long maintained an international reputation as a physical therapist with professional musicians, a teacher of
Shaiva Tantra Yoga
and an inspiring public speaker. He is the co-founder of
Sarvashubhamkara
, a charity that provides medical care, education and human contact for socially excluded individuals and communities on the Indian subcontinent. For the past eighteen years, David has spent his life between the Sussex Downs and the Bengal Himalaya.

Praise for ‘In The Shadow of Crows'

‘David Charles Manners is an inspirational, thoughtful, and compassionate writer, softly reminding us all of our common humanity.'

Toula Fosclos,
The Monitor
, Montreal

‘Beautifully written.'

Gus Christie,
Telegraph Magazine
, London

‘Manners' appetite for experience, as well as his humour and bigheartedness, are palpable on every page of
In the Shadow of Crows
. Having spent the better part of a quarter century interviewing people, mostly for CBC Radio, I have been on the fortunate receiving end of many, many personal and remarkable stories, and his is one I will always remember.'

Bill Richardson, broadcaster & author

‘A journey into another world that tells a story which is at once accomplished, intriguing and moving.'

Gilda O'Neill, author of
My East End

‘Highlights with compassion an Indo-British connection that has always been swept out of sight.'

Chandralekha Mehta, author of
Freedom's Child

‘I was so moved by this extraordinary story, and by the spiritual strength of the rejected people it describes. We have material wealth but are lost: they have nothing and are found.'

Dame Felicity Lott, CBE

‘Very moving and well written ...
In the Shadow of Crows
was a book that I found hard to put down. I learned.'

Brian Doyle, author of
Angel Square

‘A volume to provoke true soul-searching ... A must read.' Professor Dhirendra Sharma, Concerned Scientists & Philosophers, India

Dedication

In memory of Marie-Paule Mourik - inspirational tutor and extraordinary friend - who taught and loved me fearlessly.

At the moment of a man's death, all knowledge acquired, all wisdom learned through the living of life is liberated from the confines of his body. With the final, exhaled breath, it passes first to the gathered crows, who, for ten consecutive days, are respectfully fed by the family of the deceased. Only then do the grateful birds share his learning with earth and sky, stone and wind, fire and water.

It is thus that nothing and no one is lost. It is thus that the universe forever changes, learns and grows. Therefore choose well the knowledge you acquire in life. Seek out and nurture wisdom.

Kushal Magar
, jhankri
of the Eastern Himalaya

Chapter One

I was not a nervous child.

Only the prospect of plunging stockinged feet into red Wellingtons caused anxiety to rise. My mother would insist I wore them if the barometer even hinted at the possibility of Change.

My single demand was that we delay our daily excursions for the ritual banging-of-the-boots on the kitchen step. I would drop in stones and give them a shake. I would poke in a long stick and wiggle furiously. I would peer into the musty darkness and give a short, sharp blow.

One could never be too cautious when dealing with scorpions.

My mother would patiently watch and wait, straightening the finger seams of wrist-gloves, tending to the powder on her nose.

It was all quite unnecessary, she would impress.

We lived in Surrey.

The legacy of my father's upbringing in the Punjab and along the North-West Frontier during the struggling death-throes of the dinosaur Raj touched every aspect of my life. I could ask the time in Urdu, even before I was able to read a clock in English. I could have told the
chowkidhar
to tiptoe, the
mali
to hurry with his hoe, or the
khansamah
to bring me eggs “rumble-tumble”, had we had staff. I could have confidently talked about
mahouts
and
moonshees
,
bhisti mussaks
and
missy babas
,
ping-jams
and
burra sahibs
had anyone shown an interest.

I would roll my eyes and smack my youthful lips in longing for chapati doused in creamy ghee and palm-sugar jaggery, or for hot, crisp
jalabies
dripping with syrup, even though I had never tasted either. And had I come across a Salt March, I could have spotted Gandhi in the crowd and knew to avoid National Congress supporters in their tidy,
khadi
homespun caps, even though India had been a republic for over twenty years.

My mother understood.

When I lifted the cloth during dinner to check for cobras around the table legs, she would smile. When I interrupted our walks in the park to scan the poplar trees for full-bladdered langurs, she would forgive me.

My little white legs may have been stuffed into red Wellingtons as I waddled across Epsom Common to feed ducks with stale Hovis, but my head was filled with monkeys and tiffin-tins. My heart was in Simla, Peshwar and Rawlpindi.

***

It started with a birthmark.

Bindra first noticed it as she took her morning bucket bath. She thought the pale patch on her slim, dark leg was dust. Perhaps the last of the
atta
flour from the
roti
breads she had made for her family the night before.

She rubbed it with her thumb. It did not smear. She rubbed it with the ball of cooked rice she used in place of unaffordable soap. The new, pallid birthmark did not change.

Bindra pushed the bamboo door of the wash house with her foot to let in more light. The sun had not yet broken over the mountains and the children were still sleeping. Her cockerel was unusually slow to herald the new day. This was inauspicious. Instead, the crows were arguing in the dawn.

“Kali Ma,” she whispered, in honour of the Dark Goddess, “what news do your black-plumed messengers bring?”

There was a sudden explosion of life as every crow on the hillside simultaneously took flight. They filled the air with wing and claw, tearing apart the stillness, scratching out the sky.

“Kali Ma,” Bindra whispered again. “Dark Mother, protect my children.”

At that moment, the new day burst its brilliance across the eastern peaks that mark the border with Bhutan. Bindra looked back to the indelible mark on her left shin. She ran her palm across it. Smooth, though slightly raised.

There was another on her right leg. She pinched both marks. She pinched them hard, but they were numb.

A growing panic, of which she could make no sense, began to submerge her chest. Some distant memory, so deeply hidden that she had lost its name, was cleaving through her core.

Bindra threw her cotton
pharia
sari around her wet torso and stumbled out into the yard, suddenly, inexplicably unable to breathe. She turned her face towards the sun, seeking comfort in its emerging warmth.

Instead, her eyes were drawn to the crows. They were reeling in a vast mass above her hut. A whirling, ominous veil. Screeching squadrons were tearing away from the looming mass to plummet to the ground and rip into a ruptured pillow of bloodied feathers.

“Oh, Kali Ma!” Bindra cried aloud. “Not this!”

But even she could not say to what she referred. The dead and broken body of her cockerel, or the instinct of an unspeakable discovery of her own.

***

My maternal Grandmother was a witch.

Or so the villagers claimed. They said she cast spells to make them pregnant. She caused their hay bales to spontaneously ignite. She spoiled their butter.

Grandmother would have none of it. She did not cast spells, she would scoff in contempt of her ignorant neighbours. She cast “hoodoos”.

Grandmother only augmented her reputation by keeping a malformed runt of a cat, called Cesspit. “Familiar” or not, never once did Cesspit catch a mouse or bird. His deformed nose had afforded him an interminable snore.

Grandmother also kept a big black crow, called Bird, who slept balanced on a tea-towel rack in the kitchen. He spent his mornings perched in the lowest branches of the walnut tree, from which his tiny eyes would follow her every movement through the windows of the centuries-old cottage. Bird was always watching, always plotting.

Bird would accompany Grandmother on afternoon errands, riding through the village on her bicycle handlebars, head down, wings outstretched, chuckling at the pedal-born breeze between his quills. Only if he spied a queue of prim, prinked ladies at the bus stop would he free his grip to molest their shopping and tangle their hair.

Back at home, Bird would terrorise the cat, tossing Cesspit's fishy biscuits from their saucer until Grandmother was forced to chase him from the scullery. In retribution for such chiding, Bird would pluck the inkwell from its stand to stamp devil's pitchforks in Parker blue across bureaus and blotters. He would nibble through the button-thread of every dress and blouse on the airer, until none retained the decency of fastenings. He would steal her keys and safety pins, the Morello cherries, sultanas and milk chocolates. He would hoard Muscovado beneath the doormat, and gobble custard so hot that he habitually spewed bright yellow splatters across curtains and visitors. And when at breakfast Grandmother's back was turned for but a second, sausages would vanish from the pan, rashers from the grill. It would take days for the meaty morsels to reappear, found stuffed behind the cushions of the sofa, poked behind the settle in the hall.

The day the grumpy next-door neighbour saw fit to shoot Bird dead for removing the pegs from his wife's washing-line, dropping every Lux-brightened garment to the ground, his barn went up in flames. We never knew about his butter.

When my father's managerial posting with a major multinational took my parents to a new life in Munich, I stayed on at school and Grandmother was assigned to be my guardian. Her joy at this new role was such that I could never once admit the cruel regime of classroom violence and playground bullying that I daily endured.

For liberating frogs from the biology lab to a life of waterweed, spawn and heron, I was punished with the cane across bare buttocks and a slow month of solitary calculus in an unheated stockroom. For suggesting in Divinity to the Very Reverend Master that the plagues of Egypt may have been little more than Hebrew hype, I had homework and head flushed down the toilet by the committee of the Junior Christian Fellowship. And when I was found by a prefect with a Windy Miller toothbrush and a secret store of Oxo stock cubes in my bedside locker, I was held down behind the refectory and forced to swallow dandelions until I was sick.

School ever remained both mystifying and friendless, an inexplicable game in which I felt I played no part. It could not have helped that, due to my noisy nightmares, I had been ejected from the dorms to be placed in the annexe, where I was expected to sleep amongst a dysfunctional set of sleepwalkers and bed-wetters, all of whom dedicated their night-time reading to Günter Grass, Kerouac or Kafka. The label earned of “outcast” may have further explained the regular defacement of my textbooks and the stealing of my tuck, the daily kicking of shins and toe-crushing stamps, the pulling down of trousers and Chinese burns.

My annual reprieve from term-time brutality was the Blytonworthy summers spent with my grandmother in the depths of Sussex. There, she called me Johnny Sparrow, and taught me to treasure the poetry of a Bengali named Tagore. To find in the fields dropwort, trefoil and rampion. To squeeze sap from a bluebell for the mending of books. To nurture caterpillars gathered from lace-leafed cabbages, and tadpoles from the murk of Pigwood Pond.

We would climb abandoned windmills perched high upon the Downs. Lie amongst buttercup and cowpat to let yearlings lick our naked toes. String seagull skull necklaces on Clymping beach and pick bones from owl pellets to be glued into fantastical beasts. We would dance to scratchy Schubert on the gramophone, a tea towel in each hand “for self-expression”. Run like the clappers and vault farm gates to rehearse our flight from gore-minded bulls. Picnic by the Arun on wild garlic and cheddar cheese, bloater paste and granary crusts.


I will be the waves and you will be a strange shore
,” she would recite from a favourite volume printed in Calcutta before the War. “
I shall roll on and on and on, and break upon your lap with laughter
,” as I dozed amongst daisy and speedwell, “
and no one in the world will know where we both are.

The highlight of each summer, however, was the hours of breathless wonder spent together in Potter's Museum of Curiosities. Shared shudders of delight at two-faced pigs in pickling jars and four-legged bantams stuffed with sawdust. Rabbits with tusks and mummified cats. Kittens at a tea party and toads on a seesaw. A hanged man's finger and a shrunken head, which Grandmother insisted looked like her cousin Fresden in a fit.

Grandmother was tender, funny and deliciously irreverent. She would spontaneously compose rude rhymes about the vicar: “
Through the lych with his twitch and perpetual itch, he grins through his hymns till he gives himself stitch
. . .
”. She would teach me new card games, called Klabberjass and Hosen Runter, then change the rules with every hand to ensure she won the promised humbug. She would hide a lump of Sunlight soap or a dead cranefly from the windowsill in her scones, just to see how priggish parish callers would respond. She would find inventive ways to slip the word “pee” into polite conversation, then shake with barely contained laughter in her secret triumph.

I adored my Grandmother. She, in turn, made it clear that she adored me.

If further evidence of her affection were required, on my twelfth birthday she presented me with a bottle of biker's leather oil - and a stuffed crocodile on which to apply it.

***

Bindra's hands were full. She clasped a bag of sugar balls, an egg, three scarlet hibiscus flowers, a pack of red bangles, a clutch of incense sticks, a one-rupee coin and a small clay pot of vermilion
sidur
.

The walk towards the steep heights of Ringkingpong had moistened her brow and back. Since the pale patches on her legs had faded some months before, Bindra had noticed an inexplicable change in her gait. She laughed at herself, waddling like an old
hãs
gander.

Bindra paused to look out towards the Kanchenjunga. The mountain soared above her, its peaks of snow and ice so bright in the afternoon sun that she had to squint, she had to smile. There was comfort in the unchanging presence of that constant guardian, even when heavy monsoon cloud and wet winter mist veiled it from all view.

Bindra did not feel the cold, stone floor of the temple courtyard beneath her bare feet as she stood before the shrine of Ganesha at its entrance. She placed the sugar balls and dappled egg at the feet of the plump-bellied, elephant-headed boy.

“Shri Ganapati, I need new strength,” she whispered. “Change is coming. Release my fear and brighten my awareness.” She bowed her head in
pranam
. “
Shokavinashakarakam namami vighneshvara padpankajam
,” she quietly intoned. “Destroyer of Grief, I bow to the lotus feet of the supreme Remover of Obstacles.
Aung gang Ganapatye namah-aung
.”

As Bindra mounted the marble steps of the temple, she kept her eyes to the ground. She knew that she was now standing before the life-sized
murti
image of Kali Ma.

A young
panda
priest padded up behind her, yawning. Without a word, he plucked the hibiscus flowers from her outstretched palms and placed them in a metal bowl. He hung her bangles on the rusty spikes of an iron trident. He struck a match to light the incense sticks and marked her forehead with a little
sidur
from her proffered pot. She bowed in gratitude and slipped her precious coin, the
dachinaa
fee, into the prominently positioned donations box.

Bindra began her slow
parikrama
circumambulation of the central shrine. She had become aware of a weakening in her grip in the previous months, and now held the bundle of smouldering incense sticks in both hands as tightly as she could. She wafted the pungent smoke before her as she walked, softly muttering, “
Aung kring kalikaye namah-aung
,” to invoke in herself the force of transformation embodied in the image of the Dark Goddess.

Back before the
garbagraham
inner sanctum, she laid her
majetro
shawl on the ground and sat upon it. Only now did Bindra feel ready to look into Her face.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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