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 (4 page)

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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The driver was never discovered. The accident never explained. Beautiful, bright, funny, loving Priya - she who had become the reason for my every waking hour, my every breath - had died alone. None of us had had the least idea. I thought I might have felt it.

It was my mother who had to tell me. Ringing from a distant telephone. Line crackling. Voice strained.

Two days later, Grandmother slipped away into her lawless reaches for one last time.

She never again awoke from sleep.


Kushal Magar's drum lay silent. He blinked vaguely towards the mountains.

,” he whispered. “I have passed through
, the world of the gods. Through
, the worlds of man, of water and crystal upon which all else sits. But, there is nothing I can do. You are bearing the one affliction I have no power to heal. Forgive me.”

Bindra dared not take another breath.

moved decisively. He threw a length of scarlet cotton over her head and gave the instruction that she was to listen with her heart.

He drew her close, lifted one corner of the cloth and whispered an urgent but precise stream of sounds directly into her right ear. “
Aung tato purushaya bitnay madevarcha
. . .” he began.

Three times he repeated the same torrent of syllables, blew smoke from newly ignited plants into her face, anointed her forehead with dark oil.

Kushal Magar turned to her other side. He lifted the opposite corner of the cloth and repeated the long mantra three times into her left ear.

Aung tato purushaya bitnay madevarcha

Again, three times the aromatic smoke. Three times the benevolent anointing.

Bindra remained slumped and silent.

“Younger sister, take these,” he said, thrusting into her bound hands a small cloth bag. “In here are balls of cremation ash mixed with buffalo
. When you believe you have no more choices, repeat the mantra and throw one ball for every
, every seed of sound, into fire,” he instructed her with urgency. “Forgive me. I have nothing more . . .”

Bindra rocked her head from side to side in resignation and understanding. She listlessly handed him a small bunch of carrots, held together with a cord that had been tied to her waist. But Kushal Magar shook his head.

“You have far greater need. Now hurry, sister. Hurry home. The storm has come.”

Chapter Three

It was still night when I was shaken awake.

“Time to get moving, mate,” a voice was saying. “This is no place to kip, believe me.”

I was shaken again.

“You've got to have somewhere better to sleep than this, surely?” the voice insisted.

I stared up at a policeman.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, wiping sticky lips.

“You know you stink, don't you?” he added. “Sorry,” I repeated. My mouth tasted poisonous. “Do you know you're on a roundabout?” “Sorry,” was again all I could manage.

“Well, how about moving your ‘oh-so-sorry' backside and getting yourself off home?” he suggested.

“Thank you,” I muttered apologetically.

I did not look back after I crossed the road. I knew he was still watching. I pretended to know where I was going, yet had no idea in which town I was that night.

The dying bulb of a public lavatory flickered up ahead. I glanced behind to be sure he had not followed.

I took a newspaper from a rubbish bin, then locked myself in a cubicle. I laid the paper on the floor, curled up around the pan and struggled back into a difficult sleep.


The sky was darkening as Bindra reached the top of the path that led to the abandoned burial ground. Her mouth was parched. Her knees, hips and back painful.

As she broke through the tree line and the dimly lit valley opened up before her, she stopped. She looked beyond the Shakti Tree to where her home stood. She had lost her bearings.

Again she looked at the tree, and then beyond.

There was smoke in her nostrils. There were embers in the gloom.

Bindra's heart violently twisted in bloodless dread. Her knees suddenly buckled beneath her. And as she fell, she vomited.

“Jyothi, Jiwan!
Mero choraharu
!” she screamed, as she began to scramble down the stony hillside. “My boys! My boys!”

Bindra rolled and slipped, lacerating her clothes, her skin, until she fell against the tree's solidity.

!” a hoarse voice gasped. “Mother!”

Bindra's sons burst towards her from the darkness of the hollow. “They're still here!” both boys cried, as she gathered them into her arms. “
, they're still here! They're waiting!”


I looked without recognition at the reflection in the window of the off-licence.

Gaunt features blinked back.

I had no sense at all of who it might be.

I was knocking at the door, when the “Open” sign was slipped into place and the bolt unlocked.

“Alright, alright!” the plump-calfed woman barked.

I had the bottle in my hand and the two pound notes on the counter, even before she was back behind the till.

“Have a nice day!” she sneered, as I skulked out and made towards the park.

I pushed deep into the bushes, away from any paths, any dog walkers, any police. I unscrewed the cap and gulped down foul, burning bitterness until all was gone.

I laid my head on soft, damp ground.

I breathed the sweetness of dark soil deep into my lungs. And then, again, the blissful, empty darkness.


Bindra peered down the smoke-swept hillside for a moment.

“Who has done this?” she asked the frightened faces pressed against her legs.

, they're still here. Stay safe by Durga's tree,” Jyothi pleaded.

“But this is wrong. This is nobody's land. We owe nothing. No one comes here.”

Kali Ma surged back into her bones and Bindra stood tall again.

“Stay here,” she whispered. “Pray to Mahishasura-mardini, She who is the Slayer of the Buffalo Demon. Pray for victory, my strong sons!”

Bindra touched the two dark heads as she left the sanctuary of the Shakti Tree, placing on them a blessing before she stepped towards the dying bonfire that had once been their home.


I was naked beneath the blanket. Naked and cold.

“What're you on then, eh?” some man was saying to me, clenching tight his grey face as he examined my eyes.

I stared back, frightened.

“Know where you are?”

I shook my head.

“You're in a police station, mate. In a lock-up.”

Again I shook my head.

“Oh yes you are!” he replied with a bored laugh, pushing my chest with such force that I fell back onto cold concrete. “What do you expect, walking around in the altogether? Not nice is it, for the rest of us? However pretty your mother thinks you are.”

“My mother?” I asked in confusion. “You know my mother?”

“Night night, pretty boy,” he chuckled.

And the lights went out.

I lay still and silent.

I lay still and silent for a long time.

And then:

“Enough. No more. It ends here.”


Bindra approached the smouldering pile of bamboo.

She stopped and stared in disbelief at the complete destruction of all she had struggled to provide for her children. Forcing back a pressing wail, her bewildered gaze rested on the scorched-scalp dome of her
. The sight of her old cooking pan emerging from the embers, like the dark skullcaps she unearthed amongst her vegetables, gave her momentary comfort. Her boys would still have hot
before sleep.

A spectre of bright sparks suddenly scattered into darkness, drawing Bindra's eyes to narrow on a twisted chair. She owned no furniture. She looked again.

Mero bakhri
!” she choked in rage and confusion. “My goat! Why kill my goat?” She put her hands to her face and began to cry. That sweet-natured she-goat was a friend to the children. She gave good milk. She even slept with them when the cold was too hard to bear.

“Who did this?” Bindra screamed into the enclosing shadows. “Show yourselves,
! You cowards! Who would do this to my children? And me, a widow! With nothing! Who has hurt none of you!”

A murmur made her turn.

A group of men and women were standing some yards from her, their faces flickering in the dying fire.

For a moment, she thought they were
, spirits of the dead bones beneath her feet that she found caught amongst her carrots.

But she knew these people. They farmed the land around her. They were her neighbours. She had laboured hard in their fields during harvests of buckwheat and kodo, pearl millet and mustard. She had planted their paddy until her feet had swollen and split in exchange for a measure of daal. She had fried them gifts of sweet, rice-flour
, during
Durga Puja
. She had brought them tasty, baked
when the forest vines hung heavy with yellow squash gourds.

“You?” she faltered. “Why would you do this?”

There was no shame in their eyes. Only a look she had seen earlier today, in the cave temple.

“You are afraid!” she gasped in realisation. “Why? What have I done? What have any of us done to you?” They blinked back in motionless silence. A man cautiously stepped forward.

“Woman, you are cursed. And now you curse us. My children are sick because of you.”

A young woman joined in. “My belly is full of worms,
!” “It is you, Witch, who has fouled our water and soured our milk!”

“Our cows are dry!” cried another.

“I am no
!” Bindra laughed in astonishment. “What are you saying? You know me! You are my neighbours!”

“We do not know you, Leper Witch!” an elderly man shouted. Bindra looked back, up to the Shakti Tree. She did not want her sons to hear such wicked words. Such cruel names. Such lies.

A sharp stone struck her shoulder, causing Bindra to stagger backwards in shock and pain.

“Leper!” shrieked a woman. “What sins are yours that you'd punish even us for your crimes?”

Bindra looked up to the tree, to her boys. She turned to stumble back into the darkness, to hold her sons again. Her Light and Life.

A sudden, rushing movement and Bindra's clothes were clinging wet against her skin.

The brutal reek of kerosene.

She turned her face towards the flickering group of spectral
bhutharu, standing silent, staring with their hollow eyes.

And then a gleaming flame, spinning, spinning in the dark.

The thud of a burning stick against her back.

Bindra was on fire.

Chapter Four

As the plane began its descent onto the myriad Diwalian lights of the city in the early hours of the morning, I quietly wept. I had finally arrived in a land and amongst a people so loved by my rosily reminiscing father and enigmatic Uncle Oscar that I felt as though my entire life had prepared me for this moment. I had, at last, come home.

The Indian crew was busy securing tray tables and luggage lockers, even though the passengers were few and scattered through the cabin. I put out my hand to touch the empty seat beside me. Priya and I had imagined making this journey together.

“Such adventures to be had!” Grandmother had cheered, when I had first intimated our intentions. “Be sure to sit with a
, eat a warm mango straight from the tree, hug an ‘untouchable' - and bring me a stone from Uncle Oscar's grave!”

It still made no sense to me that I was travelling alone. It made no sense that I was about to step onto Indian soil, breathe Indian air, without Priya's slim, dark hand to gently trace the contours of my own.

I shall become a delicate draught of air and caress you
,” she had once written in a letter, purposely quoting Tagore for me, “
and I shall be rippling in the water when you bathe, and kiss you and kiss you again

I returned my face to the window. The lights below me blurred as the transparent reflection that returned its stare began to distort and shake. I was vaguely aware of a man sobbing.

A soft, dark hand alighted on my shoulder. I turned, to look into the eyes of a sari-draped stewardess.

“Are you alright, sir?” her lipstick smiled with concern. “May I offer you a boiled sweetie?”

Outside the main entrance of Bombay airport, a man flashed me a tatty grin of broken enamel and inflamed gums.

“Where are you intending to be going, sir?” he asked.

I replied that I was bound for the city's Central Station.

His thick, black eyebrows rose and fell with acrobatic pretensions. His dry lips puckered into a well-practised sphincter of concern and sympathy.

“No good, sir. Central Station blown up yesterday! All rubble and not one train!” he cried out, his arms flailing wildly in all directions to illustrate the calamity. “One hundred and forty-two dear foreigners coldly-bloodly murdered! Not safe for not one young man. You, sir, must be coming with me!” he ordered and began tugging on my rucksack.

I was disinclined to follow him into the pre-dawn darkness. For all his apparent interest in my well-being and safety, I did not trust the man. I thanked him for his advice and politely explained that I now wished to return to the taxi queue from which he had somehow managed to lead me.

His pleas to follow him became vociferous. The tugging intensified. It was all becoming rather unpleasant.

How he managed to shuffle me backwards, around the corner of the building, out of sight of the airport officials who were ferrying newly arrived passengers into the comparative safety of yellow Ambassadors, I could not say. But in a moment, he laid hard into my chest with one great shove of his unctuous head. I staggered backwards helplessly, at the mercy of my backpack, when my impending topple was providentially interrupted by an object unseen behind me. It crunched audibly, and let out a Marathi expletive, much muffled by the tight packing of my travel wardrobe.

I swung around, inadvertently knocking to the ground my touristguide-cum-assailant, and was astonished to discover that he had prepared an open car door, towards which he had been stealthily directing me. He also had a henchman, who was now winded and sliding down the vehicle to the floor, gasping for breath.

I swiftly kicked away a slender knife that had apparently fallen from the crushed hand of the newly incapacitated felon, whereupon, for some absurd, British-bred reason, I calmly apologised to them both, before strolling back to the official taxi rank to hail a cab.


Bindra had lain amongst the discarded wadding and cockroaches in the hospital corridor all night.

The medical staff were little interested in the motionless bundle watched over by two silent children. With neither money nor relations to settle the “unofficial debts” she would inevitably incur, Bindra owned nothing that might convince any nurse to dirty their hands on her damaged body. There were too many other wouldbepatients blocking the doorways, crowding the corridors, offering bribes for a bed, to bother with a quiet one. Besides, they knew that if they waited long enough, the penniless widow was likely to die of infection or shock.

The hospital had been founded by the British a century before, in the days when all natives had been forbidden within the boundary gates. Only those who had removed the waste, or emptied the bedpans and lavatory boxes had been permitted entry. Now, the hospital was a government institution and open to all. Now, the waste was simply tossed straight down the hillside. The sewage simply ran into the river.

Bindra had no memory of climbing the steep hill to the hospital grounds. She only recalled a confused and terrible night of searing light, deep darkness and extraordinary pain.

Jyothi touched his mother's brow.

“I have water,” he whispered in her ear. “Jiwan-
has bananas. I'm sorry,
, he had to take them from someone's garden.”

Bindra blinked slowly.

Again, he softly touched her brow.

“Shall I sing for you,
?” he whispered.

She made no reply.

Jyothi rested his cheek against hers and softly began, “
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 . . .”

A nurse in a second-hand uniform stopped and turned. “
bhai,” she called, “a little louder, so I can hear too!”

Jyothi stopped singing. He drew Jiwan to him and the two boys sat close together, as though in defence of their mother.

The young woman approached. “You have a sweet voice,
, and your song reminds me of my village.” She peered over their dusty mops of hair, at the bundle of rags they seemed determined to keep hidden. “Who's this?” she asked gently. “Your

Jyothi barely tipped his head to one side in nervous affirmation.

“May I see her?”

The nurse squatted to lift the thin blanket that covered Bindra. “What's happened here,
?” she asked, her mouth a taut grimace, tongue held between her teeth. She turned to the frightened boys. “Stay here with your mother. I'll come straight back,” and she hurried away.

Jyothi and Jiwan did not move. They watched the woman trot up the corridor, enthralled that they could still hear her shoes, long after she had disappeared from sight.


The taxi journey to Bombay's Central Station was not an obvious place for schoolboy Dante to come flooding back. Still I muttered, “
Lo! Dis; and lo!
” beneath my breath.

My dreams of noble natives draped in embroidered silk, my visions of mongoose and tiger, raja and palanquin, had not prepared me for such scenes of pitiful deprivation. Mile upon mile of tightly packed hovels constructed from bamboo and grass. Extensive villages of intertwined bark and cardboard bound into wigwams. Vast camps of rag tents, stitched together and stretched across spindly frames, swart and sticky, as though pitched. Shadowed and silhouetted in the low morning sun, the squalid shacks of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, took on the appearance of famine-withered cattle. A diseased herd grovelling amongst hills of pestilential excreta, heavy bovine heads bent, bony shoulder blades hunched and jutting.

My taxi spluttered to a wheezy halt.

“Is this it?” I asked the head of dark, oiled hair in front of me. I turned from side to side, in search of any building that might suggest a railway terminus. In every direction lay the same postapocalyptic landscape. Nothing but goats, dogs, cows, rats and crows picking their way through infernal filth with hoof and claw.

“No, sir!” the driver laughed. “Breakfast

He left the door open and wandered towards a stall piled high with red clay cups.

I squirmed uncomfortably in my gummy seat. Beyond the dusty windows, as early morning sun and heat and stench continued to rise from amongst the stifled dens around me, innumerable generations of sons, fathers and grandfathers stretched their chickeninstep limbs. They pulled away tatty loin cloths to expose heavy, dark appendages, then crouched naked on the roadside to release new stygian brooks from straining, emaciated bodies.

The air was physically thick, soup-like to my nose and throat. I fought to hold my breath and swallowed hard to quell the forceful contractions of my stomach. I battled to contain my need for reaction, to repulse the inconceivable vision now coursing, unchecked, into my incredulous eyes and nostrils.

Suddenly, he was back.

, sir!” my driver said with a broad grin. He was bearing a cup of murky, ash-strewn brew, which he pushed towards my lips. I declined. “No, please sir. My gift. Welcome to India!”

I performed my very best sipping act, without once letting my neurotic mouth approach the greasy liquid. My pretence evidently pleased him. Not until he turned away was I able to toss it out of the side window.

Where slum ended and cosmopolitan city started was not easy to determine. My Virgil at the wheel sped us well away from the main roads, in preference for wretched, labyrinthine lanes. It did not help my fragile belly that, whilst he was careful to avoid the longeared cows, which wandered untethered at their pleasure, he made no attempt to swerve for dogs or children in our path.

We stopped again. Time to relieve his tea against a boundary wall. The efficiency of his kidneys was certainly impressive.

I looked out across the road to another desolate inner-city wasteland that seemed to be home to many thousands. As the sun's blast drove billowing storms of flies from evaporating cesspools and into shade, I observed its inhabitants step from sordid hovels dressed in laundered shirts and pristine saris, their hair immaculately groomed. I watched entranced as they began to mend and stitch, mould and saw, to massage, play, laugh and sing.

And in that moment, sitting alone and bewildered in a filthy Bombay back street, I recognised in these vibrant smiles something of the magic of India in which, since childhood, I had believed. In this exuberant humanity in the most inhumane of realms, I had already discovered the enchantment beyond fairy tales in search of which I had come.


“You can't be here!” the matron spat. “Who let her in?” she glared accusingly at the Nepali nurse. “Get her out immediately!”

An orderly was summoned, but as he bent to lift Bindra he caught sight of one bare foot. He stood bolt upright.

“No, madam!” he stated defiantly. “Do not ask me to touch her!”

The young nurse gave him a harsh stare. He had used a linguistic form of “her” that is normally applied only to animals. The man glanced once in apprehension at the matron, then bounded straight up the stairs.

Enraged, the matron turned to the nurse, dropping her voice to a vicious hiss. “I don't care how, you hear me, but just get rid of her before word spreads!”

The nurse bent down. “
,” she asked softly, “can you walk?”

Bindra did not know.

, we cannot treat you here. You should not have come. You must apply to the medical officer for your district. There will be trouble. You must go with your sons. Please, sister, can you try?”

Bindra turned her eyes to Jyothi and Jiwan.

The sight of a woman on her hands and knees, draped in a blanket, crawling from the hospital, provoked stares and laughter. The nurse stayed close until they reached the gate. She crouched down and pressed a few crumpled rupee notes into Jyothi's hand.

, take your
straight to the Tibetans, near
Mangal Dham mandir
, you know, Guru Shri's Krishna temple,” she hurriedly instructed. “Do you understand? Take your
to Doctor Lobsang Dhondup.”


Five long hours on a slow train, stuck to grime-coated bench seats.

Five long hours of eyes and mouth gritty with the thick dust and black flies that squalled through the windows. My illusions of the glamour of Indian train travel had been fast shattered.

It was all so unlike the descriptions of passage across the Subcontinent by rail as promised in my guidebook. I flicked again through its finger-stained pages.

I was tempted to read aloud the paragraph which stated with conviction that “
the Indian railway coach is arranged to give all the comfort possible to the hot-weather traveller

Where, then, was the “
dressing room at the end of the compartment providing a cool comforting wash whenever desired
”? What had happened to the “
stained glass in all the windows to modify the glare
”? And what of the “
disk-shaped curtain of scented grass that can be revolved by means of a small handle and which at each revolution dips into a concealed basin of water, whereupon the air delightfully refreshes the interior of the coach

I glanced resentfully at my fellow passengers at the printed assurance that “
one is almost sure to have the coach to himself, so he may lounge as lazily as he pleases on the long, leather-cushioned seats, which, with the addition of pillow and rug, make excellent
beds at night.”
As for the guarantee that one

can obtain delicious tea and toast, or, by telegraphing ahead, a very good and substantial meal,”
I openly scoffed.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
9.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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