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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Chapter Twenty

I had kept my word. For fourteen winters I had returned to India.

As the years had passed, my months spent in England had steadily decreased, until they had become little more than a simple preparation for the next departure, a chance to earn a salary that would enable me to extend my stay by an extra month or two. I had chosen a professional life of self-employment, despite its insecurities, for it enabled me to return whenever the need to be back amongst loving cousins, mountain peaks and
became too pressing.

My mother and father had been astonished at the discoveries I had made in those distant Hills. In my enthusiasm for Himalayan adventure, and my teaching in both Europe and India of the arcane yogic tradition of the North Bengal mountains, they had bestowed on me the mantle of “Hindoo Uncle” in the family. There could have been no greater compliment to be paid.

Indeed, my parents had been so struck by the changes my contact with India had wrought on me, and so delighted by the new intimacy that had flourished in our relationship, that it had awoken in them both the desire and confidence to retrace their own ancestral paths.

So it was that my father had accompanied me, after half a century away. He had wept at the sight of dahlia beds planted by his mother in the garden of Ketunky. At the fire-scorched floors in the ruins of his servants' go-downs. At the mimicry of mynahs on the school path to Sanawar. At the moistness of the mist on Monkey Point.

My mother had accompanied me, to meet her secret family. She had wept at the site of the grave of Uncle Oscar and Aunt Isi, swept into the Teesta by another monsoon landslide. At the embraces of her cousin-sisters and
of her cousin-brothers. At “
!” in the mouths of the children as they bowed to their “Beautiful Grandmother”.

My fifteenth winter, and once again I made my way northeastwards, but not alone. Beside me was tall, strong, blue-eyed Ben, my constant companion.

Ben had visited India in his early twenties, some years before we had met. Horrified by the filth and unwelcoming aggression offered by the country's overcrowded capital, he had spent four days locked in his hotel room staring out at the dust-dense smog and the gaunt wraiths that scavenged drifts of refuse beyond its gates. As soon as tickets had been changed and his prompt escape from Delhi secured, Ben had slunk back to the airport in an air-conditioned car with darkened windows, vowing never again to set foot on the Subcontinent.

And yet, when he had pressed to introduce me to his family on a sunny shore of New South Wales, I had agreed on the condition that he in turn meet mine in the jungled foothills of the Eastern Himalaya. He had consented to the adventure, and had discovered not only an entrancing, alien world, but a tribe of new relations eager to adopt him as their own. When it had come time for us to leave the loving arms of aunts and uncles, to commence our journey home, it had been Ben who had silently wept the length of our long descent back to the Plains, and had known that they had changed him.

Through the years of annual returns, our Kalimpong family had observed us with affectionate knowing. They had seen our friendship deepen to a devotion that surpassed the boundaries of gender, that disregarded the limitations of social expectation. It was they who had encouraged Ben and me to become ritually bound to one another in the old mountain tradition of
. We were of one heart, they had said, of one mind. We shared our breath.

It had been on an auspicious day in the month of
, under their attentive direction, that we had tied threads and shared food, knocked heads together and marked each other's brows with vermilion

When my days are done, my leave-taking hushed in a final silence
,” I had recited, “
my voice will linger in the autumn light and rain-laden clouds with the message that we had met

It had been
who had suggested that we include Tagore.

Ben and I had then embraced and exchanged gifts, made vows of lifelong loyalty and deference to each other's family. As is the custom, we had promised that all support, generosity, kindness and affection would be reciprocated, even if it required the defiance of cultural convention. And finally, we had pledged that when one died the other would oversee the Ritual of Severance and mourn as though he had lost his own brother.

“Look at our lovely boys!” Cecilia had cheered, as they had all gathered in excitement to place
silk scarves and
marigold-strings around our necks in celebration. “Forevermore, Ben is David's
and David is Ben's
!” she announced. “Brothers by affection! Already more loving and devoted than a married couple - and now as close as underpants!”

My own smiles on the day had been broadened yet further by the relief that the family held to the Nepali rather than the Lepcha
tradition, which would have required the public binding together of our upstanding manhoods.

For some years, even before our
mit launu
ceremony, Ben and I had kept a house in Kalimpong, newly built amongst the old family bungalows on the hillside of Uncle Oscar's Kalimpong estate. Weatherboard-clad and tin roof-topped, our very own “chummery” had been given as a gift by a loving aunt and uncle, in gratitude for supporting Samuel through university in Sussex, mere miles from where my Grandmother had once scolded Bird for his delinquency and cast her “hoodoos”. It had been the least I could have done. For fourteen years, I had been submerged in love and kindness.

As Ben and I now passed through Kakariguri, the dry heat of the Plains quickly gave way to the peculiarly soft, sweet coolness that promises mountains. As our jeep skirted potholes on the forest road, the verdant wall again loomed before us. As we crossed the Teesta River, monkey-ravaged teashops began to advertise
masala chiya
puri aloo dum

As faces and statures swiftly changed from Bengali and Bihari, to Nepali, Lepcha and Tibetan, so the hillsides of towering poinsettia and datura rose ever steeper. Itinerant
pastry-men appeared on the roadside with heavy metal trunks of tasty treats balanced on their heads.
toy-sellers wandered with vast bamboo lattices of gaudy playthings fanning out from narrow backs.

And so my bones seemed to sigh with relief, for more than anywhere in all the world, it was here that felt like home.

The welcome at Kalimpong was as warm and emotional as ever. They never seemed to tire of our annual arrival, nor we of the joyful embraces from cousin-brothers and cousin-sisters, the affectionate
from cousin-uncles and cousin-aunts. Even Jethi-Auntie and Shiva-Uncle had travelled to greet us from their distant home at Patan, in the Kathmandu Valley, and had survived an attack on their bus by Maoist guerrillas.

was no longer there.

The last time I had sat beside her bed, she had tenderly recited her beloved Tagore to me.

There is love in each speck of earth and joy in the spread of the sky
,” she had sighed. “
And now, I care not if I become dust
for whatever I am I am blessed and blessed is this earth of dear dust

I had never heard her speak again.

Once our gift-stuffed luggage had ascended the stairs, artfully balanced on sturdy heads, we were brought up to date on all the household gossip. The trauma of Premlal-Uncle's exploding boils, Cousin Othniel's snakebite and Barli-Auntie's dentures-in-the-daal dilemma. The shame of naughty servant Ashok, who had secreted the dainty separates of an unknown ladyfriend beneath his pillow. The tireless giggling of the Tibetan
's mistress in his meditation hut behind the chicken coop. The dismissal of gardener Tshering, who had been imprisoned in the lavatory by the cook when caught with muddy digits in the money drawer. And the four-legged
hen that had enjoyed a brief life of celebrity before being stolen by a mongoose.

Whilst their greetings were augmented with the usual cries of “How do our two sons remain so evergreen?”, Ben alone was deemed to look in perfect health. I, as usual, was judged “far too thinny”. Aunts tutted and shook their heads. A concerted programme of fattening-up immediately commenced.

Thereafter, our days began with breakfasts of steaming
masala kolay
spiced porridge and well-buttered, twice-cooked toast. Slabs of boiled cake and every aunt's own style of rice flour
sel roti
or crumbly
. Bowls of fragrant rice-pudding
, and chunks of gelatinous, chilli-hot
. Papayas from the garden, eaten with lemon juice and ground pepper.
Ghui kera
butter bananas, skins pierced and soft, creamy flesh sucked straight out of the hole. And finally their finest ginger brew, boiled with fresh pepper and cardamom, or hill-style Ovaltine made with cream-thick milk direct from a local udder.

All this, of course, was just a preparation for the morning tea, lunch, tiffin and dinner that followed, each a full-blown feast in its own right, for food, affection and respect were indivisible in these mountains. To decline, or not to leave a plate quite clean, remained the cause of great dismay, if not offence.

Thus every morning my waistline was scrutinised. And, as the days passed, the auntly tuts were gradually replaced by the cooing of increasingly satisfied approval.


Bindra had grown accustomed to the frequent cramps of hunger. They had become as ordinary as the biting insects that tumbled in callous clouds from the forest canopy with cruel mouth-parts primed. As common as the kicks and curses when she ventured beyond the charitable compound. As frequent as the sling-shot stones when she scavenged discarded vegetables in back alleys of the old bazaar.

The sparse monthly ration of flour, lentils, mustard oil, diluted milk and stale spices rarely lasted far beyond two weeks. But she was grateful. Still after all these years, it was a miracle to her that she should be given food without money or labour.

For her part, all she had to do was to keep the pot of vermilion
hidden beneath her blanket. The benevolent Christians would take it if they knew she defied their rules and practised
after dark.

And yet, to be here, in the charity-funded colony for those disfigured and segregated by leprosy, was better than the years that she had toiled in the tarring gangs, in searing sun, devoid of shade. Better than the endless, open roads that cut their linear incisions across the harsh invariability of the Plains.

To be here was better than the burning pitch on insensate hands and feet, for which her fellow “lepers” had been specifically employed. Better than the star-bright nights of stinking, savage men who had sealed her mouth and forced her open, in the indifferent darkness of their roadside camp.


Fourteen winters with the
at Lapu

Puja and sadhana, ritual and practice.

Fourteen winters of the
's teaching, exploring beyond the limitations of the mind. Beyond the limitations of the ego.

And then the last initiation.

Liberty to enter the
's consecrated space, to circumambulate the hidden
. The drawing of the secret
, to represent the Goddess whose name is never spoken. The concluding covering of the head and the whispering of truths.

And then: bestowal of the final mantra.

“My teaching is done,” Kushal Magar had smiled, to my dismay. “Listen with open ears. Approach the world with an unfettered mind. I have imparted all my learning,” he revealed. “So go now. Learn wisdom.”


Bindra's smoke-filled hut sparkled with the voices of children. She fed one more green twig to the struggling flame and breathed onto it in optimistic encouragement.

“Burn a little brighter,” she begged the listless fire. “Just enough to bring bubbles to the water.”

,” the eldest of the girls courteously addressed Bindra in Hindi, “Respected Mother, take Baby for your cooking. She'll burn nicely.”

Bindra chuckled. “Not today, my sweet Aarti. You can keep her until tomorrow,” she promised. “Now hold her carefully and don't let her pretty dress fall.”

Aarti hugged the stick doll back to her chest. Both Dipika and Poojita tried to help their elder sister wrap the rag a little tighter around its narrow, bark body.

“Now, will Baby want to share our
tonight?” Bindra asked, maintaining the game as she dropped a frugal fistful of lentils and rice into simmering scum.

“She can have mine,” offered Poojita without concern. She had often seen Bindra give up her share of food to ensure that she and her sisters were assured nourishment before they slept.

“You're a good, kind girl,” Bindra smiled, shuffling along the dirt floor to rest against the mud-sealed walls. “But I think there'll be enough for all of us today.”

She winced as she leant back to watch the three girls play Mother to their single, shared, treasured length of twig. She shuffled and winced again, struggling to find any relief from the persistent discomfort in her spine and hips. Often, it kept her from hobbling further than the stinking riverbank. Often, it prevented her from knowing any depth of sleep.

Bindra drew up her knees to rest her head forwards on her forearms. She closed her eyes for a moment and smiled for the sound of children in her home. She smiled for the memory of a bamboo hut on an abandoned burial ground. For a Shakti Tree, a sociable goat and an arid vegetable patch of sharp stones and dark bones. She smiled for a family whose names still stole her breath in their recollection.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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