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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-Eight

I stepped off the forest path.

I moved slowly in the morning incalescence on legs that, since the fever had lifted, were not yet my own. I sought respite from daylight blaze in the dapple of dense trees. I sought reprieve from dust in the sweet humus of hot-season-deciduous.

The forest was not quiet. It bustled with the beat of butterflies, the hum of hornets, the mischief of monkeys. The listless canopy flared with golden woodpecker and emerald parakeet. The deeply furrowed bark glistened with fierce jewels of iridescent beetle.

And then - a sudden, combustive caw of crows. An eruption of onyx feather, ebony claw.

I stopped.

No avian air. No simian chatter. No vespine bumble.

Between the tall, straight trunks of
saal
, I caught a flash of red. A flash of bright red running that prompted in me a sudden premonition.

“Nepali Uncle,
aaiye
!” a child's voice cried. It was Aarti, panting with effort. “Please come, Uncle!
Mataji
is calling your name. She says it's time!”

“Time for what,
choti behen
?” I asked my anxious “little sister”. Even as I said the words, my heart quickened with inexplicable anticipation.

“You must come now, Uncle,” she insisted, ignoring my question. “For
Mataji
!”

Such was her urgency that I tried to lift her into my arms, but found myself too weak. Instead, Aarti grasped my hand and together we hurried into the trees.

***

The hut was quiet.

Poojita and Dipika were standing still, stick-doll abandoned to the wood pile, their mother squatting beside the
charpai
on which Bindra lay.

“He's here,” Sushmita whispered, as though in secret.

I bowed low to let Bindra place slow, bandaged hands upon my head in
ahashis
. She raised her face to smell my hair.

“What is it,
Ama
?” I asked, breathing heavily.

“So many days without you,” she sighed, “without my good, brave boy.”

“You know, I had a dream,
Ama
,” I revealed with a chuckle. “A dream of you that made me well. And here I am! All better! Here to stay!”

She rocked her head and smiled, watery eyes held firm on me. She touched her heart and then my chest, and mouthed, “
Kalike kring hring hung svaha Aung
.”

My smile faltered.

“So many days without you,” she repeated. “So many days without my good, brave boy.”

Bindra stretched out a hand to stroke my face.

A sudden, threatening rasp and she was straining to draw in air. Her thin arms slumped to the
charpai
.

I looked to Sushmita, who shook her head.

“What has happened,
Ama
?” I asked. “Are you sick?”

“Not sick,” she replied. “Just tired.”

My heart began to pound, but before I could attempt a clumsy protestation, she simply stated:

“No medicine. No doctor. No tears.”

Bindra looked up to Sushmita and the three girls who had joined us at the
charpai
.

“No one but my loving daughters. And my good, kind boy,” she smiled far into my eyes.

“But what can I do?” I choked, struggling to contain a surge that threatened to break into the open.

“You know the
antyakarma
rites?” she asked. “The drawing of the
yantra
? The Mantra of Severance?”

“The
jhankri
taught me long ago,” I confided, “but I've never used them.”

Bindra sighed, as though in relief.

“Then trust his teaching,” she advised me. “My good, brave boy, it is now time to trust yourself.”

***

Bindra's eyes were closed.

Sushmita had lit the fire to boil
tulsi
tea for the washing and was already mixing the turmeric paste in careful preparation. Aarti had taken her sisters to search out hibiscus flowers. I had begun to cut the notches of
tintirilok
, the worlds of
Dharti
and
Patal
, into a length of wood that would symbolise
Akash
.

I looked up to linger on the serene smile of the woman who lay quietly beside me and recalled the
jhankri
teaching that as old age diminishes our senses, brings us frailty of body and mind, the quality of consciousness we have developed in our lives is ultimately exposed. “This is why some approach their end with peace,” he had explained, “whilst others are consumed by ‘demons' of their own making.”

Bindra stirred.

“You are with me?” she asked, her voice weak, but calm.

“I'm here,
Ama
,” I assured her, dropping the stick and knife to place my hands gently on her arm.

“You'll feed the crows?” she pressed.

“Of course,” I promised, “before every meal for ten days. But they'll have to stay hungry for a long while yet . . .”

She looked into my eyes.

“You mustn't fear,” she smiled. “This person, this Bindra, is but a fleeting knot that must unravel. The wisdom of my life's experience must now be shared with bird and tree, earth and sky ...”

Her breath was growing increasingly slow and shallow.

“No need to talk,” I tried to impress. But she was not yet ready.

“Everything in a constant state of ordered flux,” she continued, “yet nothing lost from the whole. No star, no leaf. No bird, no child. No thought, no action. All is Shiva. All is Durga. All is Kali Ma ...”

Her eyes flickered. Her voice faltered.

I lifted a clay bowl and moistened her lips with more warm water.

“Please, no grief for me,” she entreated in a momentary return of strength. “For death, like life, is extraordinary!”

“Yes,
Ama
,” I stuttered through struggling tears.

“This world of ours is not bleak, nor futile. It is not hopeless, my good, kind, loving boy,” she smiled in broad, bright recollection.

“For life - like love, like sky - is limitless.”

“Quiet now,
Ama
,” I wanted to say.

But Bindra was shining.

***

The hut was silent.

When the three girls returned, their hands were full of scarlet blooms. They laid them respectfully amongst the ready pots of
sidur
,
tulsi
tea and turmeric paste.

“Shall we sing you to sleep,
Mataji
?” asked Aarti brightly, as she joined me beside the
charpai
.

But Bindra was no longer able to reply. She had already gone too far away. To a snow-topped mountain and a friendly she-goat. To a Shakti Tree and an
iskus
vine. To a loving Kailash and laughing children.

Sushmita looked at me and nodded gently. It was time to offer a farewell that, many years before, I had been twice denied.

I bowed my head as Sushmita sprinkled me with
titepati
-steeped water.

She lit the hearth, over which I stepped before passing my hands through the flames. At a nod from her mother, Aarti lifted a spiny twig towards me and I pricked my fingers. As custom demanded, the line between the living and the dead had been defined with fire and thorn.

I turned to the
charpai
and placed my hands to my heart. I bowed and waited as though to receive one last
ahashis
.

I repeated quiet
bijas
of purification and dedication.

I laid along Bindra's breastbone the notched stick that marked the three worlds, as children's voices softly, slowly sang the song that always took her home.


Resam phiriri, resam phiriri udera jauki darama bhanjyang, resam phiriri . . .
” - “Little bee who likes to fly, little bee who likes to fly, go and rest at the top of the hill, little bee who likes to fly ...”

I walked around the bed three times, moving my hands into dedicated
mudras
. I took the clean cloth on which I had drawn the
yantra
and laid it tenderly across Bindra's face. I lifted a corner and whispered into her left ear. Again, I circled the bed three times, then lifted the opposite corner to repeat the Mantra of Severance into her right.

I paused to raise the cloth one last time, to look into her face.

Peaceful. Smiling. Willing.

As I instinctively pressed my mouth to hers in gratitude and love, Bindra passed to me her final breath.

As the children sang.

As the
saal
bugs swarmed.

As the gathered crows ascended.

Postscript

Sushmita and her daughters are still living in the forest colony, where they have finally been delivered from the abusive attentions of Doctor Dunduka.

The kindly State Governor fulfilled his promises, but no longer holds his influential position.

The slum colony, of which brothers Bhim and Ajit Vir remain elected spokesmen, continues to benefit from clean water and medical supplies, and the long-wished-for protective wall. The latter has allowed for the planting of vegetable gardens, providing its residents with a previously unknown level of self-sufficiency, which has in turn inspired a new self-confidence. To date, its ostracised community remain entirely free from harassment by the slum “mafia” and its dreaded Collectors, who have lost all power over those isolated by leprosy in their midst.

As for Ben and me, we could not return to the indulgence of our lives and forget the courageous and cheerful people with whom we had had the honour to live and call our friends. Bindra's life and death, and the intimate interaction with those affected by leprosy with whom she shared the last years of her life, compelled us to found a registered charity named
Sarvashubhamkara
, a Sanskrit name meaning “he who does good to all”.

It is thus in honour of Bindra's memory and of the family she lost that an ever-increasing number of girls and boys of leprosy parentage, who would have otherwise been excluded from normal interaction with their peers or the possibility of an independent future, are now benefiting from professional tuition, practical apprenticeships, and even nursing training in medical school. In the coming years, these children will include Aarti, Poojita and Dipika.

Donations

It is as a legacy of Bindra's life that
Sarvashubhamkara
(
Sarva
) undertakes small-scale projects with ‘forgotten people' on the Indian subcontinent to relieve poverty, sickness and distress. Central to its work is the development of a personal relationship with every recipient of the charity's support, that their needs might be fully understood and appropriately addressed. With no religious or political affiliations, its trustees are proud to be able to guarantee that not one penny donated is lost to administration, salaries or expenses.

In addition to the provision of medical attention and long-denied human contact, one of
Sarva'
s principle projects is the maintenance of an Education Fund, which provides scholarships for students excluded from state education, due to their leprosy parentage, social status or extreme poverty. This offers an opportunity to those debarred from normal social integration to vastly improve not only their own futures, but finally break the desperate cycle of destitution and disease for both their impoverished families and communities.

If you would like to know more about
Sarva'
s work, or would like to make a donation, please visit the official website at www.sarva.org.uk, or write to
Sarva
, P.O. Box 3034, Eastbourne, East Sussex, BN21 9ED. We would be delighted to hear from you.

Author's Note

This book is inspired by real people and actual events, therefore personal names, places, times and details connected to some of the characters described have been altered to protect their true identities.

The account of Bindra's life has been constructed from her memories, those with whom she lived, and from personal knowledge of the people and culture from which she came. May its telling do justice to her memory.

Acknowledgements

I would have never found the confidence to tell this story had it not been for the untiring encouragement of friends and family.

My thanks must go to Chris, Kev and Briony who together sparked my first moment of determination. To Bulani, whose ardent interest in stories shared over Calcutta's finest fare finally shook me into action.

My thanks to Sarah and Emma for their invaluable enthusiasm, honesty and astute criticism. To Param, Ghanshyam, Michael, Ellie, Lynne, Flott, Gilly, Jo and Mario for their tireless indulgence.

My thanks to my parents, whose belief in me has never faltered, in spite of the choices I made that should have undermined it. To Shiva, Ananda and Shishir Uncles; Jethi and Kanchi Aunties; cousins Melita, Josiah, Yashashwi and Balkrishna, who over the years have informed, enlightened, directed and delighted me.

My thanks to Lizzie for a remarkable introduction. To my agent, Sheila Ableman, who dared to take the risk and in doing so became a friend. To Rosie Whitehouse, Laura Keeling and Jennifer Sandford at Reportage Press, for a superb first edition. To James Ferguson and Devdan Sen at Signal Books, for their confident vision and expertise.

My thanks to teachers who have asked for nothing in return, but that I seek out wisdom.

And to Bernard, whose breath I share.

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