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

In the Shadow of Crows (23 page)

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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Chapter Seventeen

It was dusk when the old Nepali priest caught sight of two figures slowly climbing the temple stairs. He watched with curiosity as the boy gently attended to the ailing woman with every arduous step. As they approached, the child looked up and smiled.


E Jyothi-bhai
!” the priest called, peering at him in the bat-spun gloom. “You've brought your mother this evening!”

Bindra bowed as she struggled to catch her breath. She made her way to the top of the river wall, where she sat to wipe the perspiration from her face with the corner of her shawl. As the priest sent Jyothi to fetch fresh
chiya
tea, Bindra turned to Ganga Ma, the
Mandaakinii
Milky Way personified, which spread before her like a silver sea. She breathed deeply, searching for relief from a promise of a breeze in the stifling heat.


Om namah Gangadhar
,” she whispered in respectful salutation to Shiva, He who holds the mighty Ganga in His hair, Lord of her lost mountains.


Bahini
!” The priest sat beside her and looked into her eyes. “Little sister, Jyothi-
bhai
tells me that the foreigners' medicine has made you well again.”

Bindra rocked her head in confirmation. “So I've come for
puja
,” she smiled, looking towards the temple doors. “I've been distracted for far too long. It's time to prepare.”

“Prepare for what,
Ama
?” Jyothi asked.

He was holding a rough, clay bowl of hot tea towards her. Bindra directed him to place it on the wall. Jyothi and the priest watched as she struggled to secure its rim between the heels of her palms and lift it towards her mouth. She refused their offers of assistance. She was determined to learn.

Not until they had undertaken
puja
before the temple
lingam
and were sitting together in the still darkness of the inner sanctum did Jyothi repeat his question.


Ama
,” he asked, “what are you preparing for?”

“My good, strong boy,” she began, “this
lingam
represents Lord Shiva in his form of Pashupateshvara. Do you understand that name? The Protector of Animals, the patron of all Nepali people.”

“Are we Nepalis
pashu
animals?” Jyothi asked with a laugh.

“Nepali, Indian or foreign. Cows, dogs or crows. We are all expressions of the same truth.” Bindra's face was serious. “But
pashu
is not just ‘animal',” she explained, looking to the milk-drenched
lingam
as it glistened in the lamplight. “If a man is
pashu
, it means he lacks true self-control. He lacks self-mastery. His body and mind are unstable and changeable, his actions inattentive and confused. His day-to-day life is a swollen, torrential river, which sweeps him along, like flotsam on the eternal currents of Ganga Ma.”

Jyothi was listening to his mother's every word. He relished her teaching, even when he knew he did not yet understand.

“I am a
pashu
,” she stated unequivocally.


Ama
!” Jyothi exclaimed in shocked disapproval.

“No, really, son,” she chuckled. “These past months I've found myself distracted, my mind troubled and unquiet. I've let myself feel separate from others and from the world. I've been unable to rise above my fears . . .”


Ama
!” Jyothi protested again. “You've been sick! People have been unkind to you! Unkind and hurtful!”

“And that's why I had to come here this evening, to do
puja
to Shiva in his form of Pashupateshvara,” she smiled. “This
puja
reminds us that we too must be protectors and friends, even of those who are blinded and controlled by their mindless habits, habits they use to feel separate from everyone and everything else. This we must remember before we judge others to be more or less of a
pashu
than we are. Before we see qualities of either balance or imbalance, wisdom or ignorance, in others, we would do well to first recognise them in ourselves.”

Jyothi sat quietly and considered her words.

“So,
Ama
,” he asked again, with greater emphasis, “what are you preparing for?”

Bindra beckoned him closer, to enfold him in her arms. She looked back to the flickering
lingam
, symbol of the underlying reality, the stability of an essential truth in a constantly changing universe.

“It's time to move on, my big, brave boy,” she announced softly. “It's time to go to the mountains.”

“To find Jiwan-
bhai
?” he asked with excitement.

Bindra nodded her head from side to side.

“Tomorrow, at dawn, we leave Kashi.”

***

I sat bewildered and breathless in the tidy bungalow, fingers clinging tightly to the chintz armchair.

The puzzle was tumbling together in my head, piece by piece. My father, Grandmother and Oscar. Loving, lovely Priya. Kitchen Urdu, Johnny Sparrow, scorpions and red Wellingtons.

It felt as though all the years, with all their learning, confusion, joys and griefs, had brought me to this moment. To this old wooden bungalow, nestled deep in the lush foliage of this bamboo-dense hillside. To these smiling, silk-enwrapped women and their smiling, wide-eyed children.

Uncle Harry had not revealed that he had sent me to Oscar's grandson. He had not even hinted that the bungalows and houses on the hillside, past which he knew I would have had to walk in search of Doctor Alex, had been built on the estate to which Oscar had retired from the tea-gardens at Darjeeling. Nor had he disclosed that they were filled with his descendants.

An explosion of activity, and into the room piled not only yet more excited relations, but shining trays of hurriedly fried
pakhoras
,
puris
and salted tapioca root, with fresh tomato and burnt garlic chutneys. Platters of sweet and spicy
chat
mixes and delicious potato
aloo dum
, served with small, round, tongue-blistering
dalle khursane
pickled chillies. And then a tasty boiled cardamom cake, topped with drizzles of condensed milk, and unstoppable pots of creamy,
masala chiya
spiced tea.

In our mutual excitement, we had not noticed the setting sun. It was dark when I finally, regretfully rose to leave, despite their protestations at my return to the hotel.

“There is so much to tell!” Cecilia promised. “Stories to recount and questions to answer! But it's best that we share it when we're all together, in Grandfather-Oscar's house, at the top of the hill path. Come back to us in the morning, just as soon as you have eaten your breakfast,” she insisted.

The women clustered beneath the dim flicker of the single light bulb that dangled on a frayed cord above the front door.

“Cousin, beware of
dakaits
!” Cecilia called, as they stood waving and nodding, clucking softly. “There are many bandits in these hills.”

I thanked them all for their kind concern and followed their grinning boys, my new “cousin-brothers”, who led me up to the road by the light of dangerously flaring rags on sticks.

Back at the hotel, I dressed for a late dinner out of habit, even though I had no appetite left to satisfy.

The proprietors asked if they might join me for dessert. I was as delighted with their company as they were intrigued to hear of my discoveries of the day. Indeed, they seemed to smile knowingly at its unfolding.

“So Uncle Harry was pure discretion until the very end!” Tom McKenzie chuckled.

“You know Mr Duppa?” I asked with unnecessary surprise.

“Everyone knows Uncle Harry!” Nerula McKenzie replied, spooning yet more Nepali
khir
rice pudding into my bowl.

“Uncle Harry was a planter,” Tom explained, “as was I until recently. We few remaining Anglo-Indian planters are an intimate community.”

“A law unto themselves!” Nerula interjected and they both laughed.

Tom glanced knowingly at his wife, who nodded. He then turned back to me. “You see the large oil painting?”

From a large canvas above the fireplace, a handsome Edwardian gentleman gazed down on us with benign confidence. He was dressed in an incongruous mix of tailored Harris tweed and a loose wrap of native cloth.

“My grandfather,” Tom explained. “He took a native princess, Apu Dolma Mutanchi, as a wife . . . like your Uncle Oscar.”

Again Tom and Nerula exchanged an expressive look.

“My Grandmother told me my great-aunt was a princess,” I replied, with excitement that she had been proven right once again and that perhaps all my childhood fairytales had indeed been true. “Rather a coincidence though, isn't it?” I asked. “Two planters and two princesses?”

Tom chuckled. “Well, you see, two planters who were best friends married two sisters . . .”

He paused to let the light begin to dawn.

“You mean . . .” I began cautiously.

“Yes!” he grinned. “We're family too! In fact, at the last count we reckon you have about thirty-four blood-relations here, with at least another forty or fifty by marriage!”

I could not swallow the rice pudding.

“So,” he chuckled, “we could say this first meal with us is, in fact, to welcome you home!”

***

At first light, Bindra and Jyothi undertook their final
puja
at the temple. The priest expressed regret that Jyothi would no longer be taking his lessons. He had been a cheerful and helpful student, if somewhat undisciplined in his studies.

The novices, fresh from their morning
puja
in the sacred shallows of Ganga Ma, handed Jyothi a bag of food, which they had carefully prepared in gratitude for his untiring assistance with their chores. The priest insisted Bindra take a little bundle of rupee notes wrapped in old newspaper.

“You cannot walk, sister,” he pressed, as she strongly protested. “You must travel by bus and train. But keep inconspicuous. Keep covered. Let Jyothi buy the tickets and you'll find no problem.”

As Bindra and Jyothi entered the
pucca mahal
of the city's hidden heart, a fearful doubt began to press hard against her chest. She was once again walking away from people whose tongue she shared, people who were kind and whose ways she knew.

Bindra stopped still.

A welling dread was causing her steps and breath to falter.

The sudden, unruly cawing of crows drew her eyes up to the narrow strip of sky above their heads.

“Yes, you are right to laugh at my self-pity,” she whispered.

Bindra closed her eyes and placed her bound right palm to her heart. “Kali Ma, I now choose to dispel my fear,” she announced with new vigour. “I choose to let go of the delusion of separation, that I may see all life as a reflection of myself . . .”


Ama
,” Jyothi interrupted, “are you certain you know where we're going?”

“We are going to the mountains,” Bindra assured him with conviction. “We are going to Jiwan.”

***

It was barely dawn as I huddled on the upper verandah of the hotel, engulfed in woollen blankets. The night had brought an extraordinarily vivid dream that had prevented me from falling back to sleep.

I had seemed to wake to find my bed softly illuminated and surrounded by Hill Indians. I had sat bolt upright, whereupon a smiling woman had stepped forwards to place both her hands on the crown of my head.

“We're grateful that you've come,” she had said in a strong, yet tender voice.

Over her shoulder, the smiles of her companions had broadened and I had felt myself enveloped in a remarkable, tangible warmth. She had gently lifted one hand and they had all seemed to shuffle backwards.

The light around them had quickly faded.

Their faces had dimmed.

And they had gone.

As I had sat staring into the new darkness, I was aware of a distant drumming. All the town dogs had begun to howl.

I had not been asleep at all, but fully, wide awake.

I repeatedly ran the apparition through my head as I sipped at my ginger tea on the verandah. I tried to make some sense, attempted to find some logic. Perhaps for the first time, I felt truly blinded by my Western eyes, shackled by my Western thinking. I had touched upon something that remained far beyond the finite perception permitted by my culture.

I concluded that to accept was better than to explain. I directed my attention instead to the promise of daybreak that had just illuminated a leafy ridge across the town, from which arose the pale, square tower and belfry windows of the incompatible silhouette of the MacFarlane church.

As the light began to rise, the clarity of the early morning air suddenly revealed a brilliant band of bright white, motionless clouds.

I gasped and rose to my feet.

These were no clouds, but the angular peaks and clefts of the snow-swathed Himalaya. This was the Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest peak!

Standing in motionless amazement, I understood why the Lepcha, the forest-dwelling, indigenous people of these hills, considered this mountain to be the masculine expression of their ever-loving Mother Goddess, Itbu-moo. I understood why they believed it to mark the Mayel Lyang, a utopian land of peace and perfection, in which all the knowledge and wisdom of their ancestors lay. I understood why, at the close of their lives, the Lepcha still chose to be buried sitting in a basket, facing its ineffable majesty. It seemed only right that, in respect to them, many of even the most featfocused foreigners still agreed not to desecrate its summit with their crampons.

The descent to breakfast quickly shattered my reveries. The hotel had been overrun by a tour group of Swiss Germans. They invaded my paradisiacal peace by storming about with co-ordinated travel bags and shouting strangulated vowels, like determined, thickankled Valkyrie.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
10.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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