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Authors: David Charles Manners

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In the Shadow of Crows (10 page)

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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Kushal Magar laughed. “Then,
, you light the fire so your
ama can cook, and my brother and I shall prepare for puja!”

Jyothi did not say a word, but ran towards the trees to gather fresh kindling, his whole face alight with new smiles.


The air was still and stifling as I ventured out into the blinding daylight. I could feel the calenture coursing through my body with new cruelty, tearing at my mind with malicious intent.

As familiar rickshaw-
, touts and erotic-miniature sellers ran towards me, the heat and filth, the aggressive demands for money and attempts at pickpocketing were suddenly no longer tolerable.

I had to get out of Udaipur. Now.

For two and a half hours, I queued in the train station, dragging my rucksack across the concourse floor. I filled in forms and queued again. I was sent from window to window, only to be told that there were no seats.

There were no seats on any trains.

There were no seats on any trains for the next five days.

I was convinced of some conspiracy between the hotel owners and the booking-office staff, so went in search of the senior station master. The man looked strained, as though permanently sucking in his belly in order to fit into someone else's military-style uniform. Barrel-chested and brusque, he barely deigned to rest even a glance on my perspiring figure before curtly ordering me to write him a formal letter, “for politely requesting a seat”.

But where was I to find writing paper, pen and envelope? He ignored my impertinent question. Instead he made a loud, viscous snort, and spat a gelatinous projectile towards my toes.

Through the back door of a station office, I caught sight of a tubby little man dawdling beside an impossibly cluttered desk. He burst into life as I knocked on the doorframe, announcing with flamboyant pride that he was “Station-secretary-sixteen-years'serviceSir!” With unabashed coquetry, he flashed his close-set eyes and well-formed teeth, and declared me “a-most-handsome-youngwelcome-guest-in-my-country-Sir!” He was giggling and wiggling with such heightening ebullience that I had to look away with unease.

He did, however, agree to donate a piece of scrap paper and a pencil, on the condition that I promised to post him a generous selection of books from England.


In that moment, all residual patience evaporated. Incensed with the absurdity of the situation, made fragile by my fever, and desperate to escape this suffocating office with its sticky-sweet, diabetic odour, I dishonestly agreed. Brightly coloured and costly beyond imagination the tomes would most certainly be.

In gratitude, he offered to spend a night with me in my hotel, if a seat on the train was not forthcoming. I politely declined, but thanked him for his inordinate, giggly, wiggly hospitality.

I immediately delivered a hasty letter to the office of the senior station master, and was instructed to return in five hours. Only then might a decision as to whether or not I would be allowed on the train be decided.

Five hours. I had to wait five hours.

I lingered outside the crowded “Men Only” waiting room, until I caught sight of the secretary through the doorway. He was still wiggling in his chair, flashing his teeth, waving at me with a little too much enthusiasm.

I nodded politely, turned my back, then promptly plunged into the riot of the station forecourt.


Aung Baneshkandaya nama

Kushal Magar withdrew long chains of
bells from his cloth bag, which he draped around his neck and across his chest. He tied a length of white cloth around his waist to represent the consciousness of semen: Shiva. He tied a length of red cloth around his waist to represent the energy of menses: Shakti. He knotted the sashes tightly on his left side, a reminder that he, like all existence, embodied both these principal forces in the cosmos.

Kushal Magar bound his head in a white scarf, over which he donned a headdress stitched with feathers and small
shells. The short pipe made from a human arm-bone was sounded. Kushal Magar unwrapped the
dagger from its cloth binding and drew a circle on the forest floor. He marked the eight directions with the white, paper-thin
seeds sacred to the
ban jhankri

Aung satom bhi dhumba damdim vajradhumbha

He dipped the ceremonial dagger into the smoking ash of the dried
teaching plants he had ignited in the
night jasmine. He dropped an intuitively measured portion of psychotropic
resin onto the glowing embers of the new fire.

Finally, he offered two drops of his own blood to the flames, by the pricking of his navel with the consecrated
porcupine quill, as evidence of his self-surrender.

Kushal Magar sat cross-legged in the centre of the circle. He offered his
drum to the rising smoke, as his brother struck the brass discs of the
cymbals to sound the supreme union of the universe.

Kushal Magar placed on his tongue a small piece of cooked
gurboko jara cobra lily root and closed his eyes.

The spiral journey of the
had begun.


Outside Udaipur railway station, I bartered a price with a rickshawwallah. He agreed to cycle around the more pleasant and less crowded areas of the old city, whilst I sat huddled up and shivering beneath the rickshaw canopy.

Bounded by wooded hills and bathing
, we stopped at Lake Pichola, the “Sapphire Udaipur”, in which stood two gleaming island palaces. As my driver wandered off to urinate and spit scarlet
paan into the shallows, I sat in the sweet-scented, dappled shade of gaunt acacias to watch ducks dabble, swallows swoop and ioras flare emerald and amber like silk shot with gold.

A lithe young man rose from the lake before me, glistening in the sunlight. As he stood to wipe the water from his eyes and smoothed back his black hair, I smiled at the thought of my wan, von Aschenbach face blinking out from my motorised bathchair at this dark-skinned Tadzio. The boy looked up and cocked his head. He grinned with knowing, waved, then dived back into the blue.

Across the lake rose the towering walls, balconies, cupolas and hanging gardens of the largest palace complex in all of Rajasthan. Even in my fever, the temptation was too great.

It was thus to the carved-marble arches of its northern entrance, where Maharajas were once customarily weighed and their weight in gold or silver distributed to the populace, that I next instructed my driver to take me.


Kushal Magar slumped forwards.

The writhing and drumming had stopped.

The forest was quiet.

Jyothi looked to his mother. Her eyes were closed.

Kushal Magar stirred.

,” he murmured. “The waterfall. The
ban jhankri
will return him at the waterfall.”


I fought my way through the vociferous mobs of unofficial guides excited at the sight of an end-of-season visitor, and entered the relative cool of cloistered courtyards, mirrored hallways, piercedmarble corridors, and painted walls depicting extravagant courtly life and creative love.

I had vividly imagined Udaipur's City Palace as a child, for it had been from its royal menagerie that Kipling's
Jungle Book
Bagheera had escaped to forest freedom. Even as childhood had become adolescence, Kipling's panther had continued to stalk my dreams, and I now found myself astonished to be standing in a very real building that still maintained the appearance of my having stepped into a storybook.

I flopped faintly by an arid fountain, beneath the fragrant racemes of a graceful tree. I was shivering feverishly again. I had been unable to eat a thing since leaving Dalba, three days before, but now acknowledged that I needed to build my strength. I decided to search out plain rice and bland vegetables - “boiley-food”, as my father's mother used to call such convalescent fare - to find that I was struggling to stand.

I was the only customer at the rabble of plastic garden furniture beneath a sun-scorched marquee that passed as the palace restaurant. When my order arrived, I could distinctly smell urine. I concluded that I had become so accustomed to the all-pervading, frowzy stench that it was now permanently lodged in my nostrils.

I dabbed the perspiration cascading down my temples, neck and throat with a fist of pink paper napkins, before prodding at the limp vegetables. I had to try.

I thrust a single forkful of wet rice and unseasoned potato into my mouth, but could not swallow.

The taste of food on my tongue, taken from a bowl that I had been able to buy with such nonchalance, stirred visions of starvation, crippled limbs and reasty corpses. The vivid summary of images fused with a fearful guilt, revulsion and despair that now overwhelmed both heart and mind.

I slumped forwards in the chair to rest my burning head in moist, hot hands. I was on fire, giddy with resurgent fever, nauseous with shame and self-loathing for the naivety and indulgence of my life.

I did not want to remember why I had come to this place, to Udaipur, to India, to poverty, suffering and squalor. I did not want to admit that however far I travelled from a shattered tree in a quiet lane, the memories from which I ran would still be true. The broken ribs and bloodied lungs. The slow and lonely death.

I pushed the vegetables aside and spat the contents of my mouth into disintegrating napkins, as I struggled to contain compulsive retching.


The climb was hard and long, and took two days.

Kushal and Darpan Magar led the way, but Bindra panted hard and often had to stop. Little Jiwan's legs could never have carried him this far.

As the watery rumble of the fall finally grew near, Bindra paused at a Shakti Tree. She bowed her head in
, both to catch her breath and show her respect to the tiger-riding Mother, whom she too embodied. Jyothi ran to her side bearing scarlet petals from a
, which he placed in reverent offering at the weather-worn feet of the Goddess held firm in its roots. It was Durga who represented the strength within that had sustained them in their sojourn amongst the trees. It was Durga who represented the strength that would enable Bindra to bear the challenges that she knew were yet to come.

And then, “

Kushal Magar and his brother were standing by the edge of a forest pool, into which bright waters pounded.

Bindra could not contain the cry that tore from her throat. Seated on a rocky platform in the centre of the churning waters was a naked child. She stumbled forwards and fell to her knees, gasping. Jyothi danced around her in excitement, waving frantically to his brother.

, it's Jiwan-
!” he cried. “The
ban jhankri
has given him back to us!

! Thank you!” was all Bindra could mutter, as she watched Darpan Magar quickly strip down to bare skin and swim towards the motionless Jiwan.

Chapter Eight

My obsequious letter to the station master at Udaipur had worked. I had been approved for a berth on the night train.

A buck-toothed teenager followed me from the platform to my compartment, where he proudly introduced himself as “Injan Wailrayz buk sellah,
.” He had made his poor clothes so presentable and had oiled his hair into the finest colonial-schoolboy parting-and-fringe that I felt obliged to purchase one of his prudently plastic-bag-wrapped, paperback books. With only a cloth sack around his narrow neck in which to carry his wares, the literary selection on offer was both limited and uninspiring. Neither the
Krishna Calorie Counter
, nor the Jackie Collins best-seller, discreetly bound in a disguise of brown paper, appealed.

I chose instead Agatha Christie's
By The Pricking Of My Thumbs
. However, the story would turn out to be much more of a convoluted mystery than the novelist had ever intended. Whilst the spelling in my Indian-published copy was creatively eccentric, the cheap print had smudged whole passages into indecipherability. To further obscure the tale, pages were missing throughout, and those that remained attached to the budget binding had been inserted in a confusingly capricious order.

I had tipped my friendly rickshaw-
with the last of my coins, so I paid for my slim, but incomprehensible, volume with a note. However, in my dizzy fever I gave my “buk sellah” 500, instead of 100 rupees. By the time I realised my inattention, he was nowhere to be seen. I was livid with myself for being so careless, and furious with him for not acknowledging my mistake.

I petulantly kicked off my shoes and climbed up into my upper bunk, feeling very sorry for my situation. Sick, weak, taken advantage of. Poor thing.

I huddled up against my rucksack in an effort to contain incendiary emotions born not only from my own negligence that had enabled the young vendor to cheat me, but my whole upbringing. I was coming to believe that, in my youthful innocence, I had allowed myself to be seduced by an image of an India that did not exist. I had been duped by tales of elegant comforts and exotic luxuries that had merely been a mirage, an illusion fashioned by previous generations on nothing more than the enforcement of colonial privilege and the vile deception of an imagined racial superiority, in which I now felt I had unwittingly played a part.

Suddenly, the book-boy reappeared in the cabin.

“Your change,
,” he said, offering me 400 rupees in carefully flattened notes and a conscientiously written receipt in an elegant hand.

I stared at the paper in his outstretched palm, unable to articulate a suitable response in my shame and embarrassment. I had automatically expected the worst of him. I had assumed him to be a scoundrel, like the other scurrilous urbanites who filled the rickshaw ranks, hotels and tourist-centred streets, all trying to scratch a basic living in an over-populated country oppressed by social divisions and all-pervasive corruption.

“You sad,
?” he asked, eyebrows bonding in concern. I told him I was fine.

“Be happy,
,” he smiled.

And waited until I smiled back.


Jiwan was quiet, still and apparently unharmed.

“Where have you been?” Jyothi asked. “You've been gone for days!”

Bindra wrapped the little boy tightly in her shawl, whilst Kushal and Darpan Magar quietly prepared a fire and made him a tunic from a length of the woollen cloth they carried.

“Where are your clothes?” Jiwan shrugged.

“What did the
ban jhankri
feed you?” Jyothi persisted.

,” came the whispered reply. “Apples. He gave me cut apples on the backs of his hands.”

“Were you in his house?” Jyothi pressed.

Jiwan rocked his head from side to side. “In his cave.” “Was it dark?”

Jiwan rocked again. “Were you afraid?”

Jiwan looked up at his mother. “I cried for
.” Bindra pressed her face to his. “So he showed me
in the shadows. He said, ‘Here is your

Bindra was puzzled. “What else did he say?” she asked gently. “He asked if my tears were for
” he replied.

“Your father?” Bindra was surprised.

Kushal Magar drew close and sat with them as Jiwan continued. “So he showed me
in the shadows. He said, ‘Here is your

Tears welled in Bindra's eyes.

“What else did the
ban jhankri
do?” Jyothi eagerly enquired.

“He taught me,” came the solemn reply.

“Were there crows,
?” Kushal Magar asked, looking intensely at the little boy.

Jiwan nodded and rested his head against his mother's chest.

Kushal Magar remembered well the crows. Over thirty years before, a
ban jhankri
had taken him one morning as he had worked in the paddy with his parents, up near Turzum
. The little red man had appeared at the dark tree line and had beckoned for him to come. It had been the
ban jhankri
who had taught him the mantras with which he now healed, comforted and initiated change in the many who came calling at his open door.

Yes, Kushal Magar remembered well the crows, the emissaries of Shiva and Kali, the Bringers of Knowledge. The
ban jhankri
had repeatedly tested his memory of the mantras imparted to him through their recitation under extreme duress. The young Kushal Magar had suddenly found himself being torn and cut by the beaks and talons of a mob of screeching birds. He had fought this way and that, but still in their cruel, black hundreds they had ripped into his tender flesh. He had screamed for help from the quietly observing
ban jhankri

!” the little red man had repeatedly ordered. “Say the words!”

It had only been as he had fixed his memory on the newly imparted mantra that the crows had vanished. For, in truth, they had been but the shadow of crows.


I woke in the night, dripping with perspiration and shivering on my upper bunk. I had called out her name.

A baby was screaming below and a rank, biley smell filled the compartment. I laid the sandalwood soap from my bath-bag under my nose, then wrapped a vest around eyes and ears to dull the noise and the pulsating electric light, which the colicky child was switching on and off without restraint.

In the morning, I woke with a choking start, as though smelling salts had been discourteously rammed up my nostrils. The sun was only just breaking over the strangely pointed mountains and yet the air billowing through the windows was already scalding. I rolled over to discover the source of the sickening stench. The infant had been allowed to relieve itself all night directly onto the floor, which was now awash.

With bent knees lodged against the ceiling, I struggled to dress as quickly as I could. I swung myself from the top bunk, straight out of the compartment door and into the corridor, without once letting my feet touch the ground. It was an immense relief to realise that the shakiness of my fever had largely passed. I had regained command and clarity of thought. A positive indication, I believed, of an imminent recovery.

I braved the communal carriage toilet, to find it to be no more than a hole in the floor, through which I could see the dash of tracks below. Despite its gaping size, numerous previous occupants had managed to miss their target. The floor and walls crawled with busy insects, the air fluttered with a menagerie of winged beasts. I washed my face and torso as best I could with the hot trickle of brown water that oozed from the single tap, whereupon the flying insects stuck to my skin, sending me into a frenzy of futile flailing.

Twice I walked up and down the train corridor, passing my compartment. I no longer recognised it. In the twenty minutes I had spent peeling wings and legs off my chest, arms and face, the cramped cabin had filled with strangers. A family of six was sitting on my upper bunk, gleefully rifling through my rucksack. I stood at the door and gaped as they passed around my socks, sun-block and journal for the other passengers to examine.

With teeth tightly clenched, I dredged through the foul swillings on the floor to gather my belongings and repack my bag. The father of the newly arrived family unashamedly refused me space on my bunk. Instead, his wife offered me one of my own bruised bananas. I still could not face the thought of food. Nor did the idea appeal of an unattractive verbal battle in incompatible languages to win back my seat in such a reeking and confined space.

I spent the remainder of the journey crouched on my heels in the corridor. Hugging my ravished backpack. Muttering indecorously.


Bindra relished the warmth of the fire as she watched her boys sleeping. Kushal Magar offered from his bag more
, the beaten rice commonly eaten in the hills that swells in the stomach and quickly eases hunger. She smiled in gratitude and tendered a bandaged palm, onto which he carefully piled a portion of the dry, cream-coloured flakes.

“So what does it mean,
?” Bindra asked, as she began an arduous chew.

“Your Jiwan has been chosen as a
bhui putta jhankri
,” Kushal Magar explained. “One who has ‘broken through the ground'. One who is ‘self-born'. For he has had no mortal guru.”

Bindra continued chewing.

“None in the Himalaya can match their skill or knowledge of mantra, the Words of Power. None are more able to help others find the means by which to heal themselves,” the kindly
impressed. “It is a great and difficult gift. We can only wait and see what he chooses to become.”

Kushal Magar threw a little more
into his mouth. He knew well the challenge of such a call, although he never spoke of it. He knew he would never marry. He knew he would never have children. It was the price he paid, for the
bhui putta jhankri
had no selfish desires.

Kushal Magar was no longer a man.

He was Knowledge.


It was almost dusk as the train finally approached Delhi.

For forty minutes, in furnace heat, we crawled through an interminable landscape of wretched hovels, in which every tree had been sacrificed for fuel, every plant and every root consumed. Macilent figures swarmed like frenetic ants through a rotting carcass of rancid warrens and foetid dens. Scraggy cows and scrawny buffalo clogged the alleyways separating miserable shacks, amongst which they produced paltry quantities of germ-infected milk and runnels of liquid sewage.

The stagnant ocean of tin and plastic, rag and dung opened around a feculent pool that hummed in a haze of flies. Inhabitants squatted to relieve their bowels on the banks of these nefarious black waters, as others waded in to wash themselves with clay and ash, and raise cupped palms to parched lips.

I found myself unable to accept the loathsome scenes of abominable human misery, repeated mile after mile, along the railway tracks that pierced the nation's congested capital city. This was not the India of my father that I had come to find, surely. Not the India of bedtime elephant and Maharaja. Not the India of Grandmother's Uncle Oscar, Theo and Tagore.

Again, I found myself disorientated, angry, hurt.

At New Delhi Station, I climbed down from the train and pressed my back against a wall. I beckoned to an exquisite little girl who was bleating “
!” and placed a coin on her dirty palm, in return for a rotund mango. Her one dark eye looked at me and blinked. The other was scarred and shrivelled in its socket. I smiled at her. She blushed and scurried away.

As I watched the child vanish into the surging throng, an inexplicable alarm began to pierce my chest. An engulfing sense of vulnerability and isolation. A new and frightening fragility.

I no longer knew where I was trying to go, or for what purpose. Wherever I went, I would not find Priya.

I was suddenly overcome by a pressing need to remember the last words she had spoken to me. A pressing need to assure myself that our ultimate interaction had been meaningful. The declaration of a love that could not be dimmed by distance, unalterable even in eternal separation.

But what if those parting words had had no significance? The booking of a hair appointment? Her sister's choice of college? What if that last exchange had merely been a reference to the ordinary triviality from which a comfortable life is constructed?

I now struggled to excavate any memory of Priya from the compressed layers beneath which, in an instinctive effort of selfpreservation, I had buried her. I now fought to find the least echo of her words, the least shadow of her face. But the abrupt violence of her senseless deletion from my life had silenced all recollection.

I crumpled forwards, winded by a new and fierce guilt. A realisation that, just as she had been ripped out of the future we had determined to forge together, her hand wrenched forever from my own, I too had been complicit in her eradication by silencing her voice within me, erasing her image, attempting to extinguish her memory.

“Priya!” I heard myself gasping at the surge of faces that pushed past me.

“Priya!” as the world began to blur and slide.


Bindra woke just before dawn. She automatically put out her bound hand to find her two sons.

No Jiwan.

Bindra struggled to sit upright.

In the twilight, she could see him sitting around a new fire with Kushal Magar. He was now wearing oversized clothes the kindly brothers had been taking as gifts for nephews at their family home. They were talking in low voices. She tried to listen, but could not hear. It sounded as though they were chanting together.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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