Read In the Shadow of Crows Online

Authors: David Charles Manners

Tags: #General, #Mountains, #History, #Memoirs, #Nature, #Editors; Journalists; Publishers, #Medical, #India, #Asia, #Customs & Traditions, #Biography & Autobiography, #Sarvashubhamkara, #Leprosy, #Ecosystems & Habitats, #India & South Asia, #Travel writing, #Infectious Diseases, #Colonial aftermath, #Himalayas, #Social Science

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Kali stood tall and beautiful, as black as the darkness that enables man to perceive the Light.

Bindra looked to the
mala
of severed heads, the necklace that represents man's egotistical belief that he is separate from the universe. Separate from his fellow man and from the divine that is all life. Separate from the Knowledge, Wisdom, Truth for which he seeks.

Bindra looked to the blood-red tongue of Unspoken Knowledge, its tip so far extended that it touched Her perfect chin.

Bindra closed her eyes.

“Jihvarasajña,” she mouthed. “You who have the nectar of Wisdom on your Tongue, may I find in myself the Joy that underlies all life, through which I may weather the coming storm.”

Bindra paused.

She listened as the breeze sounded not only the little
ghanti mala
bell chains above her head, but also the strings of wings of numerous, giant, shiny beetles.


Didi
!” the young priest suddenly shouted, “Elder sister! Your hands!”

Bindra started and cried out in alarm.

The bundle of incense sticks had burned down to its base and was flaming. The tips of her fingers were blackened and blistering.

Bindra had not felt a thing.

***

Grandmother filled my head from childhood with our family's history.

When I reached the age of fourteen, she judged that I was of sufficiently sober mind to receive a more intimate introduction to my ancestors and withdrew from its hiding place the Victorian family album. The heavy, leather-bound volume had been so long locked away in her tall, dark dresser, I had not even known that such a book existed.

As she leafed through each delicately decorated page, I stared in wonder at the faces of my forebears, of whom she had so often spoken. Through her spirited recountings of their exploits and their tragedies, these ascendants, so long asleep, had become the fairytale characters of my childhood imagination. They were more real to me than any Wicked Stepmother or Prince Charming, for her home was filled with evidence of their fading, sepia-tinted lives. Every piece of furniture and flatware, each walking-stick and brolly in the hallstand, had once belonged to them. The miniature Goldilocks tea service, rocking horse, and musical box that played Strauss waltzes. The lace-trimmed petticoats, silk combinations and soft cotton camisoles in the chests of drawers. The Noah's Ark in the back bedroom, with its zoo of painted animals and grumpy Mrs Noah. The
Bruin Boys
annuals on my bedside table, with their tales of Wee Woolies, Dolliwogs and Tiger Tim.

And when we sat at breakfasts of ginger porridge, Marmite crumpet, shirred bantam egg and fresh mushroom from the meadow, she would protest our Dead-'n'-Gones had kept her wide awake with their rapping on the windows, twiddling of the doorknobs, winding of the chiming clocks and whispering in the dark.

Grandmother's troublesome ancestors had also lived in India. Unlike the sober administrators and moustachioed army majors of my father's family in the Punjab, hers had been hedonistic merchants, artists and planters in the “up-country” states of the distant NorthEast. So vivid was her unfolding of their lives that they would pervade the daydreams of my waking hours and nightly flood my sleep.

Grandmother raised me on the ransom paid by a kindly maharaja upon the kidnap of Uncle Hillebrand, a man so unpopular that at the news of his felonious removal the family had cheered. The impulsive suicide of Aunt Totty in a public pond at Tollygunge, after an unnecessary scene at breakfast when, at the bottom of the kedgeree, there was found a jammy spoon. The inadvertent flattening of cheery cousin Dill by a passing steamroller in the Simla Hills, and the scandal of his wicked wife, who had everyone convinced that she was both an archbishop's daughter and the Queen of Madagascar, until she died of plague contracted by the licking of a postage stamp.

Grandmother nurtured me with tales of cousin Inchiquin, who not only had a passion for pet porcupines, but lived on a train to ensure he passed his favourite Himalayan views twice a day. Aunt Chibi, who was hit on the head by a Bengali coconut and forever after made to wear around her neck a label with her name and address in a prominent script. Cousin Milas, who took to dressing in private as the Begum of Bhopal, then shot his wife dead over an unwanted Christmas present whilst on a pig-stick in Cooch Behar. Devout Buddhist Uncle Bertle, who had accompanied an expedition to Tibet, dared desecrate a hallowed mountain to attend a call of nature and caught cholera from its curse. And poor Captain Cundee, who fell from a balloon at the Durbar onto the gilded caparison of a state elephant, only to be denounced in the Club, during a protracted convalescence, for his ungentlemanly habit of not wearing cufflinks.

***

Bindra had tried to keep the sores on her fingers out of sight. She wanted to avoid all questions.

For many months she had applied poultices of ground turmeric root to reduce the swelling, crushed neem twigs to disinfect the blisters. And though some had now begun to ulcerate, had now begun to smell, she thought it miraculous that she had no pain. In fact, to her dismay, no pain at all.

When Bindra settled on the dusty ground at the edge of the
haat
market and laid out her produce on her shawl, she kept both hands out of sight, despite the fact that she had been careful to bind her fingers in strips of cloth. She sat in silence all morning, watching what seemed to her to be the entire world walk by.

Smiling Lepchas, with their kindly manners and playful faces. Broad-shouldered Bhutanese, swathed in cloth beneath which she always sensed some fearsome weapon lurked. Woolly-hatted Bengalis on a cheap holiday from the Plains, who seemed to shout

in anger at everyone with whom they spoke. Pot-bellied Marwaris, little liked for their buying up of the place and their pulling down of the old town in preference for concrete blocks at extortionate rents. Stocky-legged Tibetans, twirling
mani
prayer wheels and fingering
japamala
prayer beads, even as they bartered with characteristic ruthlessness. And then her own Nepalis, as cheeky and as chatty as children, talking over everyone else at the tops of their voices.

Few took any notice of Bindra. Few even knew she was there.

This was the season for wild avocados and oranges, and the stalls were filled with mounds of both the dark, bitter and the plump, sweet fruits. Compared to the abundance of the bazaar itself, the few offerings on her shawl were meagre. The dry, stony ground she called her vegetable patch struggled without a direct source of water. The little it managed to produce was stunted and deformed. Bindra and her children did not mind. There was usually enough. But still she needed money to buy rice, mustard oil and the freshly ground
atta
flour for
roti
breads.

Bindra waited until late afternoon, but nobody had stopped to even cast a curious eye across her wares. She conceded defeat and pulled herself onto her knees. She stretched her aching back before bending to gather up the few red carrots and withered radishes. The wilted cauliflower and mustard leaves for
gundruk
. The foraged moss and sticks she thought she might have sold for kindling. As she wrapped them back into their cloth, an unkempt boy left a group of skinny children scavenging in the rubbish piles to confidently approach her.


Didi
,” he whined, “big sister, anything to give me? Anything in there you don't want to take home?”

He smelled unwashed, his jumper little more than an erratic, green spider's web across his small, dark bones.

Bindra smiled. “I don't have much you'd like,
bhai
,” she apologised, slipping her hand into the bundle. “But you can take these, little brother.”

The boy stood still. His grubby face had fallen silent.

“They don't look much, but they're sweet and have a good crunch,” she promised, rubbing two thin, dark carrots on the sleeve of her tatty cardigan before thrusting them towards him.

The boy stepped backwards. He was staring, not at her offering, but at the loosely bandaged hands and swollen earlobes.

He looked hard into her eyes. “
Kori
!” he whispered. “Leper!”

Bindra suddenly could no longer stand. She slumped sideways and hit the ground. She could not breathe.

Her vegetables rolled out across the floor. But the children did not snatch them. They all just ran away.

Chapter Two

I had three heroes as a child.

Ricky from
Champion the Wonder Horse
, who lived with his cowboy uncle in a dusty land, got into endless scrapes with local rogues, yet always managed to be saved by an indefatigable team of feral stallion and wily dog.

Rabindranath Tagore from Calcutta, who never had his own television theme tune, but had written poems that showed me the world was brim full of beauty, if only I would take the time to notice.

And Uncle Oscar.

Uncle Oscar had been a pioneering tea planter in the storylandsounding Assam and Bengal, a fact for which we all felt inexplicably grateful. I was told he had never drunk tea on the few occasions that he had come back to visit, which had made everybody laugh. He had said English brews were made from floor sweepings, over which everybody had laughed still more.

I laughed too, every time this family anecdote was recounted, even though I did not understand the comparison. I had never tasted tea. My parents would not touch it. They only drank dandelion roots, roasted barley and ground acorns.

Of the lives of my many relations, as related by my Grandmother, it was undoubtedly Uncle Oscar who most captured my juvenile imagination. It was not just his reckless derring-do of first sailing to India with nothing but a frock-coat, a pair of homemade pyjamas, a copy of
The Pilgrim's Progress
, and a loaded rifle. It was not just his courage in navigating the full length of the Brahmaputra, from the great Ganges Delta into Upper Assam, when still a fresh-faced youth, to commence, as he put it, “the uncertainties of a jungle life.” It was not just the prestige of surviving the great Darjeeling earthquake of 1898, which he had barely allowed to disrupt his tennis match at the Amusement Club. Nor was it just his heroic status amongst the locals, earned by his introduction of hygienic milk to protect them against TB, cinchona trees to produce quinine for malaria, his hunting down man-eating tigers and rogue elephants, and for generally saving the day.

No.

It was because, Grandmother hinted, Uncle Oscar had taken a native princess to wife in those deep, dark jungles.

It was because, she whispered, I had secret cousins hidden in those distant hills.

***

“Silly boy!” Bindra scoffed as she walked home from the market that evening. “Such foolish words.”

Yet still she trembled.

Bindra lived some miles beyond the lights of the busy town and its jeep-filled lanes, below the step-cut paddy fields and farms. When the floods had swept her husband and some seventy other passengers in the crowded Kakariguri bus off the road and to their deaths in the surging Teesta River two monsoons before, she had been unable to meet the rent on their little house.

They had never found her husband's body. The fact that the
jhankri
mountain shaman had been unable to carry out the proper death rites still haunted her. Unfinished business. Not good for the dead or the living. Ill-boding.

The farmer had promptly thrown her out of their home with her four fatherless children. To prevent their return, he had immediately moved in a
phing
-maker. Employee of the Dalai Lama's wealthy brother, the new tenant could at least guarantee the monthly dues through the profitable production of glass noodles, despite the paucity of his wages.

Bindra had begged and sobbed, but her superstitious landlord had not wanted a young widow on his land. Inauspicious.

“Leave this place!” he had spat. “And take your miserable fate and your feathered demons with you, Dhumavati!”

Bindra had recoiled. He had called her by the name of the largenosed goddess, who rides a chariot drawn by crows. A widowed goddess whose name is normally only ever spoken as a curse.

***

Grandmother and I were sitting by the fire.

We had just finished one of our Naughty Teas of “noisy toast” topped with marmalade on chunky cheese. Beetroot soldiers with horseradish pickle so strong it made our noses run. Pilchards in a pepper sauce, with all the bones “to make our hair grow curly”. And then the seedy cake we had baked together in the afternoon, with such a dousing of condensed milk and lemon curd that the very thought of it made our hearts hurry.

Grandmother now sat sunk into a sagging, ancestral armchair, surrounded by a clutch of crocheted cushions. Cheek resting on the back of graceful fingers. Tiggy-Winkle legs draped with new knitting.

I was perched on some great-aunt's harlequin leather pouffe that had long leaked its horsehair innards onto the scorch-spotted hearth rug. I listened to the grandfather clock counting out another generation in the hall, as Grandmother hummed one of her nondescript tunes in time with the ticks and Cesspit added a wheeze of syncopated snores. I stared into flames guttering in the grate, and breathed in the ever-present reassurance of coal smoke, well-Vimmed sink, mint humbugs and lavender wool-wash that pervaded her cottage.

“Johnny Sparrow,” Grandmother murmured, reaching out to stroke the arc of my ear. I looked up, smiling in intuitive expectation. “Fetch me the key in your Grandfather's shaving mug,” she instructed with a twinkle, the soft white waves of hair around her face revealing in the embers' glow a memory of the rich auburn they had once been.

I had never met my Grandfather, and yet I knew and loved his face that smiled with tenderness from behind framed glass on piano and wall. I often gazed into his kind, unblinking eyes, his silent, ready smile, and thought he looked a lot like me. He may have died too soon, the year before my birth, yet I knew where to find his gloves and braces, his goat-head inkwell and farmyard gaiters, his unused cut-throat razorblades still in their printed paper wrappings, his penknives, collar studs, draughts board - and his china shaving mug.

“Now open the dresser drawer, darling,” she instructed. “And bring me the rosewood box.”

I rattled the poker in the grate with no real purpose as she rummaged through old letters written on lilac paper, funerary ribbon, ration cards and a pressed posy of desiccated violets.

“Ah, here he is!” she beamed, studying her find with unguarded affection.

She handed me an old photograph taken in Burma. The young man looking back had a sensual mouth and intelligent, gentle eyes.

“Handsome, isn't he?” I observed with interest.

“Oh, Theo was beautiful!” Grandmother agreed, her face and hands suddenly busy with memories. “So elegant. So witty. A voice like sweet, soft fudge before it sets. We girls all fell in love in a moment and would just sit looking at him, quite unembarrassed by our stares. You see, Theo was like a prince from a storybook, brought to life before us!” she enthused.

Gazing into the finely formed features, now faded by time and Sussex damp, I knew that I too would have been sufficiently captivated for some surreptitious staring of my own.

“Uncle Oscar only let him come to London between the wars, because he was . . . well, more European than the others,” she revealed. “Very important in those days, I'm sorry to say. My father did not approve, of course. All the same, we girls once secretly saved our pocket money just to buy our lovely Theo a box of chocolates. Very bold back then, when we were forbidden to skip in the street, or swing on a gate, just in case we showed the hem of our long knickers!”

I wanted to know what had become of this entrancing new relation.

“Dead,” she sighed, melting back into the faded chintz. “Long dead. Left rubber in Rangoon for confectionery in Putney - but didn't survive the
Luftwaffe
.”

I was intrigued. “Then who was he, Grandma?”

She leaned close to me and laid a papery palm on my shoulder. “Why, Johnny Sparrow, Theo was the eldest of Oscar's secret

sons!”

***

The stars were bright that night, bright enough for Bindra to pick her way down the hillside path. She struggled to cling to the low tree branches as she climbed from boulder to boulder, a bundle of unsold vegetables and kindling twigs tied across her back.

“No rice again,” she sighed to herself. “Just more carrots. More woody radishes. More chewy
gundruk
.” At least there were now only two mouths waiting to be fed.

The previous summer, she had given her eldest daughter as a maid. Only eleven years old, she was now working as a houseservant to a wealthy poultry farmer, down in Kakariguri. It gave Bindra peace of mind to know that her beloved Jayashri was no longer hungry and had hot milk tea to drink every day.

Her second, Jamini, had been taken away by a Christian “orphanage”. In exchange, the owners had paid Bindra enough to buy a
bakhri
goat and daal lentils to feed the remaining children for a full three months. The Christians had promised to teach Jamini to read and write, on the strict condition that she changed her name to Mary, wore a wooden cross around her neck, and slept with an American Bible beneath her pillow. It had seemed a small price for an education and the daily doling out of a millet gruel that had earned the school its local name of “St Porridge”.

And yet, Bindra knew that if she allowed herself to stop and think too long, she would unleash a weeping cry for the loss of her daughters that would never cease. Every day she doubted that she had made the right choice for her girls. So every night she reminded herself of their shared hunger, huddled together for sleep in the bamboo hut they had built for themselves on the abandoned burial ground, the only land for which nobody demanded payment.

There had been a time, and not so long ago, when there had been no hunger in their home, with food enough for all six members of the family. Food enough, until the day Kailash had not come home. He had been a good husband and father, a good friend. Now waiting for her tonight were just the two boys, Jyothi and Jiwan. Light and Life. So long as they kept hunting out wild
iskus
and tapioca roots in the forest, they could manage. So long as they still came home with a pocket of spilled grain collected from the roadside, she could keep them together a little longer.

It was as she approached the
shaktiko roukh
, the dedicated Shakti Tree, its broad trunk bound with offerings of coloured thread, that Bindra slipped and fell on the stones.

“Twice in an evening, you clumsy thing!” she groaned. “Come on now, you're better than this.”

Bindra sat to rub her shins and elbows with wrists and forearms. “No harm done,” she assured herself.

It was dark beneath the spreading branches. Bindra found her way to the painted image of Durga that lay embraced amongst the tangle of roots, daubed with dung paste. She sought the remains of any
sidur
at the feet of the tiger-riding goddess and marked her own forehead with a smear of the scarlet pigment, to remind herself that she was as much an expression of the universal forces represented by Durga as the bark of the distant dogs, the moon above, the breath in her lungs.

“Jaya Ma,” she voiced into the darkness. “Give me victory.” Bindra took a carrot from her bundle and winced at the deficiency of her gift as she placed it amongst the roots.


Aung hring dhung Durga devyai namah-aung
,” she repeated, even as her voice wavered and the hands clasped at her heart trembled. She had determined to invoke the strength and wisdom in herself to overcome what she knew to be her gathering enemies, Fear and Despair.

As she approached the shack, Bindra could see through the wide gaps between the bamboo slats that her two boys already had a low fire burning on the mud floor. With a single call, they came running to relieve her of her bundle.

“What did you sell,
Ama
? And what did you buy?” they both asked with excitement.

“Nothing and . . . nothing!” she smiled with disappointment. “But fetch the
tasala
and I shall make us a feast!”

The boys cheered just to brighten her and ran to lift the blackened pan from its hook on the wall.

As Jiwan turned, his face drew tight with horror.


E Ama
!” he gasped, his finger pointing to the little toe on her right foot. Whilst they had seen it gradually curling under during the past months, the toe was now twisted, torn and bleeding.

Bindra looked down and cried aloud at the sight of tattered flesh and splintered bone.

She had not even noticed.

***

I met Priya at a party.

My eyes were first drawn to the Siouxsie Sioux backcomb as it bobbed through a crowded, monochrome kitchen. I had heard her name for weeks as two acquaintances had independently confided that they intended her for themselves. I leant with calculated disinterest against the black Formica breakfast bar to watch Tom and Toby take their turns with practised chat and artful nonchalance. I sipped at something sickly in a plastic cup, looking on in envy at their boldness and in pity at the impotence of their stumbling seductions.

It was as her glazed gaze drifted from their competitive attentions that Priya discovered the intensity of my interest amidst the throng. I felt my face flush furiously, but could not look away. I had never seen such beauty without vanity. It quickened my heart. It silenced my self-consciousness. She glanced at the floor to veil her own blush, then back at me to reveal with her dark, kohl-stained eyes that we had shared a secret intimacy.

I made my way towards her through what had suddenly become an empty, silent room. I could hear nothing but a pounding in my ears. I could see nothing but a shy and tender smile I knew that I would kiss.

At midnight, we wandered away from the house to talk without interruption and to escape the fierce disdain of friends who would never find it possible to forgive me.

Priya was intelligent, but shy. Self-possessed, yet vulnerable. She made me laugh. She made me laugh a lot.

We walked back holding hands and sucking on humbugs from my pocket, indifferent to the threat of a chill, hair-flattening drizzle. “Can I phone you?” I asked, above the clamour of twenty-five at breakfast, above yet more Stranglers and The Jam. “I'll have to ask my father,” she replied.

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