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 (3 page)

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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It was not the response I had anticipated.

She put a hand to her mouth and giggled at my silence.

“It's just that he's never let me see a boy before,” she confessed. “And I don't know if he'll approve of a white one!”


Bindra had been walking since before dawn.

As she had pushed through the towering
she had repeated the name of Shiva, to whom these plants with their hanging, trumpet flowers were dedicated. She had walked so far that lush jungle had become scented pine and dark oak. Where there had been bamboo thickets, scarlet poinsettia and rhododendron, there was now maple, birch and knee-high cardamom, their soft leaves brushing against her legs and sweetening the air of the
bindra ban
deep forest, after which she had been named. And as she walked, Bindra sang softly to warn the
, the Good People who live in trees and plants, that she was passing through their world.

Bindra gradually climbed the steep path to the cave temples. She gave a handful of
wild strawberries to the docile
, who had watched her difficult, rolling approach. The wandering ascetic looked her in the eyes, then narrowed his own, as though with misgiving.

“Funny old man,” she giggled to herself. “He surely recognises me. I've met him in these hills for years!” She turned to sound the bell above the gateway, to wake the deity within. She did not see him toss the sweet, red fruit to the floor.

Bindra crouched down and eased herself into a crevice in the rock face. Before her stood the row of
. She touched her head, mouth, heart and pubis in
, reverently saluting the divinity in all life, of which she recognised herself as but one expression. From an old medicine bottle in her bundle, she poured a little goat's milk over each of the stone-cut symbols of universal union. She laid an offering of large, white
flowers and then
leaves from the woodapple tree that she had collected on her slow ascent. Both were favourites of Mahadeva, as the androgynous Paramshiva was better known in the Hills.

Aung namah Shivaya
,” she softly sang to the Lord of Yoga, Lord of the Mountains. “Shri Sakha, my Supreme Friend, your
reveals the stability of the cosmos. May I recognise that same stability within myself,” she began. “May I understand better that there is no separation, no difference between you, the universe, and clumsy little me.”

“E!” a gruff voice shouted from behind her.

She turned with a start. Silhouetted against the sky beyond the entrance of the temple crag stood a Bahun priest. She had heard that a Brahmin had been recently posted to the cave temples. His job, it was said, was to wean the villagers away from their ancient, unorthodox, mountain traditions.

“Come out here, where I can see you!”

She waddled on her haunches, until she reached the entrance and could stand again. Even in the sunlight, Bindra struggled to draw herself upright. The bindings on her feet, which protected her increasingly clawed toes, had caused her to limp the entire length of the morning's arduous trek. This, in turn, was causing a new and unrelenting pain in her lower back.

“Where have you come from?” he asked, with his heavy Hindi accent.

There was a mystifying aggression in his voice. She felt no inclination to converse with this hostile stranger, so waved vaguely towards the mountain road along which she had walked.

“What's wrong with your hands and feet?” he almost snarled. She looked down at herself. “It's nothing,” she joked. “Just silly accidents.”

She noticed the
standing to one side, watching.

The Brahmin stared at her dirty cloth bindings and made a loud clacking sound with his tongue.

“Leave here,” he said, his face suddenly expressionless. “What did you say?” she asked in disbelief.

“You heard me, leave here!”

He had raised his voice to her. The men in these hills did not raise their voices to women. Women were shown respect. Women were honoured for the divine qualities they embodied. Men bent to touch the feet of their
sisters and daughters. Men undertook day-long fasts if they raised their voices to women.

The Brahmin turned to pick up a long, metal
from a pile that lay against the rock face. To Bindra's utter dismay, he abruptly, forcefully jabbed her with the ritual trident.

“Leave here!” he bellowed, thrusting at her again, so hard that he caught her between her ribs.

She looked into his eyes with bewilderment.

All she could see was his fear.


For three years I loved Priya.

Together we cooked curries, made our own clothes, and hiked the Stiperstones and Clees. We spent rainy afternoons in matinees and galleries, our evenings outside theatres and concert halls in hope of cheap returns. We took Philosophy and Art at college, music lessons, language classes, and night trains to Bavaria. We sailed the Baltic with a Finn, then spent a spring in an Amsterdam squat, living on old Edam and peeing in a sink, until a pot-headed neighbour fell through our roof and brought in the weather.

Back home, we would seek out ruins to explore by starlight, twist our ankles and dent our shins. And when the weather warmed, we would cycle after country graveyards with picnics in a basket, to dream of our shared future and fall asleep in each other's arms on time-worn tombs.

For three years, Priya loved me.

I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times
,” she would recite from Tagore, as though to prove it, “
In life after life, in age after age forever

For three years, I did not live a day without Priya. I did not sleep a night without whispering her name.

And yet, my father's mother was not happy.

“Listen dear, she's a nice enough girl, but we don't want her sort in our family.”

Her sort?

“Are you referring to the colour of her skin?” I asked, struggling to remain respectful, “because, as Priya likes to point out, I go darker than she does in the sun!”

This was evidently no argument, but I persisted.

“In fact, she jokes that I must have more Indian blood in my veins than she has in hers!”

My humour was not shared.

“You have not been listening,” she replied, with calculated restraint. “So listen now and listen well: No. No. Never!”


Bindra had scurried down the hillside, back to the road. She was panting and perspiring.

When the Brahmin had said she did not deserve to step onto consecrated soil, that her
denied her the right, she had pulled herself tall and had felt the fire of Kali in her bones.

“Your talk of
is not our way in these hills,” she had protested. “
is your
, used to justify unkindness, dishonourable thoughts and acts towards others. And this because you judge them to have ‘sinned' in a previous life, according to your own, man-made laws!”

Aap apne aap ko kya sumujhtey ho
?” the Brahmin had hissed, suddenly reverting to his native Hindi. “Who do you think you are? Preaching to me your

He had reluctantly returned to Nepali and continued with tight teeth.

“I am a
! Whilst what are you? A woman! A mere phase of illusion! Don't you know that your sex is the root of all worldly attachments?” He had barely been able to catch his furious breath to repeat, “I am a
! Keeper of the
and the
! I am the
, the owner of this temple! And what are you? Nothing but an illiterate, black-faced female, whom God has seen fit to suffer the foulest of His curses! For your audacity to one of His chosen, twice-born sons, divine justice will return you to your next miserable life as a mange-ridden pye-bitch!”

Bindra had listened with astonishment.

, elder brother, your attachment to the divisions of caste is not ours,” she had asserted. “All such hierarchies only undermine the many to afford an imagined superiority to the few. They are a falsehood, leading humankind ever deeper into the delusion of division and separation, and yet further from the underlying truth.”

Her voice had stayed steady.

“And how can you claim ownership of something that cannot belong to anyone?” she had challenged. “This cave temple has been here, open to all, without restriction, since the beginning of time!”

His face had flushed florid.

“But you and I have no argument,” she had softened, with a conciliatory smile. “Our ways may be different, yet still you and I are one! All life is Mahadeva! All life is Kali Ma! You are Shiva! I am Shiva!”

had looked on, motionless and silent.

“And brother,” Bindra had continued, roused with new courage by the naming of the Dark Goddess, “do not be deceived that that
sacred thread across your shoulder makes you any more pure, any more worthy of respect than the penniless crone who span it. It is only a length of greasy old twine!” she had chuckled, playfully. “No more or less holy than the soil at our feet or the hair on my
jungli, uneducated, ‘black' head . . .”

It was then that the Brahmin had spat at her.


Grandmother was delighted.

“She's perfect! You're both perfect!” she exclaimed at the news. “And both your names mean ‘Beloved'! All I could have ever hoped for you, my darling boy!” she burst, with enough excitement for the both of us. When I revealed that the gold jewellery had already been entrusted to the post by Priya's family in Gujarat, she visibly trembled with tingles.

“Do let me buy the silk for the bridesmaids' saris!” Grandmother insisted. “Just imagine, the ultimate Anglo-Indian wedding! Let's have kedgeree with your favourite eggs ‘rumbletumble' at the breakfast!
Bel puri
and cucumber soup,
gajar halwa
and warm plum cake with cardamom custard at the lunch!”

I threw my arms around her. “Thank-you-so-much-Grand-ma,” I tapped out on her soft cheek in Morse Code kisses.

“You-are-wel-come-John-ny-Spar-row,” she pecked in reply.


Bindra broke into a lumbering trot, despite the bruising of her ribs, until she reached Lapu
, the village of Lapu. She made her way directly to the narrow path that would lead her to the

At the sight of the smiling man, sitting on the steps of his simple wooden temple, Bindra burst out with an explosive sob.

,” Kushal Magar beckoned. “Sit with me. Drink hot
masala chiya

She eased herself down beside him and sipped at the brew of tea leaves spiced with black cardamom, peppercorns, cloves and ginger root. It was sweet, milky and deeply comforting.

“I remember when you made this journey once before, sister,” the
smiled, “when the monsoon took your husband. So what brings you back today?”

“I need your help,
,” Bindra stated, with newly restored composure. “There is something wrong, elder brother. There is something very wrong with me.”

He looked her kindly in the eyes.

“Fear diminishes understanding,” he offered. “It reduces man's inclination towards compassion. Fear only gives rise to conflict, both within and without. So do not be afraid,
. You are Durga. You are Shiva. You are Kali Ma.”

Bindra laughed and wiped away more tears. “I used almost those very words this morning to someone else who was afraid. It is a lesson indeed to have them returned to me.”

left her sitting on the temple steps. She looked out to the relucent peaks of the Kanchenjunga, whilst he prepared himself. He donned his
jama pagri
white tunic, then the headdress stitched with feathers and precious
shells, symbols of the Goddess, the active force of the universe. He began to intone the mind-focusing syllables of
as he opened the red doors of the little shrine.

Kushal Magar took up his
, the sanctified drum that would take him into trance, enabling him to perceive beyond the boundaries of mere intellect, beyond the debilitating confines of petty ego.

He unwrapped the
from its cloth binding and raised the ceremonial dagger with both palms. He repeated resonating syllables and clasped the rock-crystal handle between firm fingers to draw a circle on the dry ground with its iron tip.

Aung satom bhi dhumba damdim

This was now the ritual space, the focus for all his will and power, for all the knowledge bequeathed to him by innumerable preceding generations.

Kushal Magar sat cross-legged, facing the
altar. He burned handfuls of mountain herbs in metal bowls. He lit cones of heady
incense in scorched clay cups. And all the while he muttered an endless stream of anciently configured “seeds” of sound,
with the vibratory power to effect a change in consciousness.

To Bindra, the air seemed to thin, the air seemed to shine, as the
jhankri closed his eyes and started to tremble.

His journey beyond all limitations had begun.


She was found by children on a muddy track we often cycled together.

She had been crushed against a tree.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
5.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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