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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

In the Shadow of Crows (5 page)

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
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But then my Grandfather's guidebook had been printed in London. In 1916.

I squirmed on the hard seat and wandered in and out of an awkward half-sleep - until I inhaled a plump currant of a blowfly. I woke in convulsions to find the compartment for six persons now snugly accommodating a perspiring and attentive audience of seventeen.

The train had strained and ground its heavy way northwards, through the fertile plains of Gujarat, to the little market town of Valsad. I had in my pocket the name of Priya's grandfather, the name of his village and the nearest railway station, at which I had now alighted.

I squinted in the scorching noonday brilliance and stared at the sea of faces that swelled before me. Westerners were rarely, if ever, seen in these parts. They blinked in hushed amazement at the sight of a doughy-faced stranger, cheeks scarlet after hours of near asphyxiation amongst the scrum of bodies piled into the train. They blinked as I stood wilting, dwarfed by the excessively-pocketed luggage rising high above my shoulders, bottle of warm water in one hand, address on a greasy scrap of paper clutched optimistically in the other.

I, in turn, blinked back at them. Tired and dazed. Nervously expectant.

With a simultaneous roar, the crowd burst into raucous laughter, clutching each other as they squealed and hooted. I had clearly under-estimated the comedic potential of my travel wardrobe. All dubiety was dispelled and in one great surge, they ran at me.

“Halloo!” they cried through their communal hysteria. “How a'you fine?” and “Wilcum kind chup!” they hooted with unrestrained enthusiasm.

Now at close quarters, they scrutinised my clothes and studied the address scrawled on my paper. A highly animated discussion ensued, whereupon they triumphantly led me to one of the awaiting rickshaws, where innumerable friendly hands helped me with the rucksack, guided me onto the seat, secured my luggage and vigorously patted me on the back.

The chuckling mob crowded around, whilst some amongst them lifted their arms and bent their elbows, indicating to me that they wanted to see my biceps. I obliged, whereupon delighted cheers shook the banyan trees. Thin hands extended to stroke my skin and squeeze my thews, whilst wide eyes peered down my shirt front and up my shorts. Never had I thought myself physically broad or particularly tall, but amongst these slender Gujaratis, I was veritably strapping.

The only exchange of words between myself and the locals, which did not involve an awful lot of clumsy hand-waving and uninformed guesses as to an approximate interpretation, was with a young lad who pushed up beside me and asked, “A British sir?”

I affirmed that I most certainly was.

“Lovely marvellous!” he grinned, brown eyes sparkling. “My uncle, he living in Leicester! My next-year wife in Parsons Green!”

Before further familial details could be gleaned, the motorised rickshaw spluttered into action and, like a wild boar unleashed, immediately plunged at full speed towards the profusion of potholes that passed as a road. With hearty reiterations of “How a'you fine?” and “Wilcum kind chup!” now adopted as a farewell by the waving crowd, I quickly left the bustle of Valsad far behind, with its jolly population which had found me such a wag.

We sped through a flat, lush landscape of crops ripening and steaming in the sun, passing ox-drawn, hay-high carts rumbling along on timber discs, as I clung tightly to the hood-struts to prevent myself from being flung out into the road. We caused alarm amongst young men strolling hand-in-hand. We frightened women compressed beneath water-filled urns and crop-packed baskets. I tried throwing myself from side to side in the futile belief that it might in some way assist the driver to avoid the craters and dustbowls in our path. The broken branches and the herds of goats. The nonchalant water buffalo and the whoops-was-that-a-chicken?

“Dalba?” my driver asked herdsmen drinking from a wooden bowl at a well. They shrugged and shook their cloth-bound heads.

“Dalba?” he asked a line of
Tribals who had evidently come from the remote
regions of the interior to work the harvest. They rimpled sun-scorched brows and stared at me, transfixed.

I had begun to believe that I had taken down the name incorrectly, when a near-naked holy man repeated, “Dalba,” and rocked his head from side to side in recognition. He bowed to me and pointed with a heavily knuckled finger across the fields.

If he did indeed know Dalba, then it was somewhere amongst the dark mango groves. A tiny village hidden deep within the leafy haunts of serpents and wild monkeys.

Chapter Five

Bindra could not determine how long she had slept. Hours, days or weeks? The air of the little room in which she lay was heavy with the scent of plant oils.

Kasto cha
?” a broad-faced Tibetan woman smiled, asking how she was in perfect Nepali.

“Better,” Bindra replied, surprising herself.

Timilai pira cha, bahini
?” the woman gently asked. “Do you have pain, younger sister?”

“Little,” Bindra replied, again in surprise at the change she felt in her body. “My boys!” she suddenly gasped.

“Listen,” the woman grinned, emphatically cocking her head towards the open door.

Bindra could hear Jyothi and Jiwan's voices flooding into the room on the bright sunshine, with the pungency of fermented lentil
noodles drying outside on bamboo poles. The boys were playing a boisterous game of cricket.

“We said they could stay in the house and keep my Dawa and Pemba company,” the woman explained, rolling a string of coconut and carnelian
prayer-beads between thick, stained fingers. “But every night, they sleep here on the floor, to be near you. You have good sons,
.” She opened a large bottle, from which she removed two pungent balls. “Now's time for more medicine,” she smiled, and popped them into Bindra's mouth. They were chewy, gritty and slightly sweet.

Mithai cha
?” she chuckled. “Taste good?” The Tibetan woman raised a broad hand to her dark-skinned face to conceal her amusement. “Last week,
, you were still spitting them out!”

Bindra moistened her mouth and rasped, “I thought you were feeding me
goat dung!”

As Detchen Dhondup's broad shoulders began to rock with boomy chortles, Bindra's smile returned.


I wiped my face with a sodden handkerchief and squinted through the brilliance. Five kohl-eyed girls at Dalba's single stone well released the bucket-rope. They left their water-pots and scurried on flat feet for the darkness of doorways.

I stepped out of the rickshaw into the midst of a handful of cowdung houses, bleaching, splitting and crumbling in the summer's blaze. Not until my eyes adjusted to the glare could I discern silent figures clustered together in the shade, scrutinising me with a contradiction of delight and alarm.

,” I offered towards my umbral Hindu audience in uncertain and starkly inappropriate Muslim greeting. “
Mehta ka ghar kaha hai
?” I attempted, asking in self-conscious, “kitchen” Urdu where I might find the Mehtas' house.

There was no response.

“Mehta?” I persisted, convinced that the clipped, Anglicised pronunciation I had inevitably inherited from my Raj-born forebears had rendered my limited vocabulary unintelligible. “
Mehta ka ghar

A sudden clamour of Gujarati made me start.

Two grinning boys were escorting an elderly, near-toothless woman draped in mazarine silk. All three were talking at once, waving their arms at each other and at me as they approached. I put my hands together to greet them, at which the boys hid behind the woman, giggling.

,” I bowed. “Mrs Mehta-

Priya's grandmother nodded her head from side to side and began to chatter at me in excited Gujarati.

Kiy aap angrezi boltay hain
?” I fumbled, in the hope she might speak at least some words in English. She shook her head. She scolded the boys who were staring at me with wide eyes from amongst the drapes of her sari, and shooed them off to fetch a bilingual relative.

I rapidly dredged through the vague remains of courteous childhood phrases and found, “
Aap se milkar khushi huye
.” Accordingly, I declared that I was pleased to meet her.

Mrs Mehta rocked her head in incomprehension and sucked her remaining teeth through an unconvincing smile.

I decided it prudent to remain silent, leaving Mrs Mehta and me to stand blinking. Politely. At one another.

To my great relief, the boys soon returned, escorting a cheerful young man who introduced himself as Mukund. His English was admirable. My arrival, he explained with embarrassment, was entirely unexpected. The letter sent had not arrived. The embarrassment, I insisted, was all mine.

Back in England, where affluence abounds, an unexpected stranger could be most unwelcome. The arrival of an unplanned guest could inflict havoc upon schedules and diaries. Hands might be thrown up and excuses voiced of unprepared larders and lowstocked fridges, imperative Scout activities and Church meetings, insufficient bed linen and no clean towels.

But here - where the people lived from hand to mouth, fighting against the seasons to feed their families when one bad crop could bring starvation - they offered me their all.

I was led away from the low mud houses, across a rough dirt yard, to a building that stood beneath the welcome shade of tamarind and neem trees. Fronted by a finely carved, wooden verandah, this was by far the grandest house in the village. I was invited into the central hall and directed to an old, wicker-seated chair. The room was dark, lit only by shafts of spiralling dust that broke through the fine filigree of closed shutters. The house was ancient and, although much decayed, retained an exquisite beauty in its intricately carved doors and cupboards, its chequer-board floors of green slate and pale cream alabaster.

Brusque orders were given.

In moments, the tepid water from the bottle I had been carrying was offered to me in a metal beaker, on a tray engraved with dancing deities. The clatter of pans, the hiss of oil and the ambrosia of cooking spices drifted from an unseen kitchen. Through open double doors I could see a broad wooden bed being stripped and hurriedly remade.

Sad eyes lingered on me for a moment. Whispers were exchanged.

I wondered whether they were saying that if I had arrived with Priya, they would have been scattering the sheets with flowers.

I pressed hard against the sudden, waxing weight in my chest, as a steady stream of women, young men and children, some thirty in all, were presented to me. They bowed shyly, smiled and departed as quickly as they came. I gave up trying to remember their names, and hoped they did not notice the quaver in my pleasantries. In every pair of dark, bright eyes I had seen only hers.

Mukund stayed by my side. He politely clarified that
was the appropriate greeting in Hindu company and laughed out loud at my earlier blunder.

“Please no need for apologising, Mr David,” he assured me. “No offences being felt. We are rather most tickled to be hearing our Muslim brothers' salutation in our village for the first time in history,” he grinned, squeezing my shoulder as though to indicate a new affection.

Mukund explained that he was visiting from Bombay, on study leave from college. He told me that the men of the house, Priya's Uncle Piyush and her grandfather, were out giving offerings at the temple of Hanuman, the Monkey God, far across the fields, but that they would return before dark. He enquired after the health of English cricket and the Queen, Winston Churchill and Mrs Thatcher. He asked if his three cousins, who were standing against the wall and whispering, could feel my arms.

“What do you eat, Mister David, to make you grow?” he translated for them.

The second time in one day that I felt big and butch.


“How am I?” Bindra asked.

“Doing well,
,” Detchen smiled reassuringly. “Doctor Dhondup's very pleased. You are healing. Your thick woollens stopped the burns from going too deep. The shawl you were wearing protected much of your head and face. Gu-Lang, our Protectress of Mothers and Children, was with you that night.”

“Thank you,” Bindra tried to say, but her voice broke. “I have nothing,” she choked, “nothing to pay for all you've done here.”

The Tibetan placed a hand on Bindra's arm. “
,” she gently said, “those who can, pay for those who can't. You owe us not one
, younger sister. We can treat your burns and ease your pain, but you need still more.”

Bindra seemed to know the words she was about to hear and held her breath.

“You have a great sickness,” the woman began softly, “that even the wisdom and knowledge of our
cannot cure. For this, my husband-doctor says you need
paraiharuko dabai
,” she explained. “Foreigners' medicine. You must leave the Hills and go down to Kakariguri. Ask for the Gad Sap Hat Ashram, where free medicine is given. They will want you to pray to their dead god that hangs on the wall and bleeds. But do it,
. Do it for the
paraiharuko dabai

Gad Sap Hat Ashram. The Tune-Snake-Hand Ashram.

Bindra repeated the peculiar name to herself and weakly rocked her head from side to side on the hard, flat pillow to show she had understood.

The woman drew closer.

,” she almost whispered, “you know you cannot come back to this place, even when your sickness is cured. They will never let you return. Your children will not be allowed in the school. Your money will not be accepted at the
bazaar. You must find a new life. Away from here. Where nobody knows.”

Bindra turned her head towards the doorway. She knew these words were true. She closed her eyes tightly and held her breath again, as the streams of tears across her face sparkled brightly in the sunshine.


“Hot or cold, Mister David?”

Nothing in the world had I wished for more than Mukund's kind offer of a bath. He and the muscle-squeezers had led me to a small stone room leading off the busy kitchen.

I blinked at the single tap protruding from the wall. “Oh, cold, please!” I said, wondering how I could possibly have a choice with only one oxidised pipe. I looked around, unsure what I was expected to do. The boys pressed into the doorway, grinning in anticipation.

“Do you wish a seat, Mister David?”

I declined the offer. The potential addition of furniture in such a confined space only seemed to further confuse the situation.

I wondered whether an audience when visitors bathed was customary, as I tentatively began to undo my shirt. It was the sign for which they would seem to have been waiting and all joined in my undressing with unreserved delight. One of the boys promptly whisked off my dust-impregnated clothes to the
washerman, whom I had noticed beating brightly coloured bundles against broad, smooth stones at the back of the house. Farewell buttons, I thought.

Now naked, I declined their repeated requests for limb-feels or an exploratory finger in the navel, however politely translated by Mukund. Instead, I gently ushered them out, enabling me to shut the door and squat in private. With a deeply instilled fear of contracting amoebic dysentery, I kept my lips tightly closed as I poured the cool water from the tap over my head with a wooden bowl.

Even above the splash of water, I could hear the boys whispering and giggling outside. Even with sandal soap in my eyes, I could see them peeking through the gaps around the door.


Bindra held her sons close as they pressed themselves into the crowd that forced itself onto the Kakariguri bus. She was wrapped in a full shawl, given to her by the Tibetan doctor's kindly wife. Detchen Dhondup had also ensured that the telltale signs on her feet were covered with woollen socks and protected by loose flip-flops.

Around her middle, wrapped in a long cloth, Bindra carried a bundle of food and medicine. Amongst the crisp rice-flour
, the crunchy sesame
til mithai
, the soft yak's cheese
and the spicy potato
aloo dum
, she had tucked the little bag of ash balls given to her all those weeks ago by the
at Lapu
. Jyothi had two small blankets tied across both shoulders and carried the heavy canister of water. Jiwan had a strap bound around his forehead, from which a string bag of
oranges hung down his back.

Bindra found movement painful. Her back and shoulders remained unforgivingly tight. Still, she pushed her way to a seat on the bus, perched on its edge and drew the boys close. All were silent and kept their eyes away from their fellow passengers. She had not told the full truth to her boys. And yet they sensed they all bore an unspoken secret, for which others would willingly punish them without warning.

As crowded town and busy shops quickly became lush forest and plunging valleys, Bindra looked up the hillside towards the white pinnacle of the Kali temple.

“Kali Ma,” she whispered, “protect my sons and daughters. Remove my fear. And brighten my understanding.”


Refreshed from my bucket bath and satisfyingly fragrant once more, I stepped back into the kitchen.

To my irrepressible surprise, the aunts, cousins and looselyrelateds had returned. They were standing, quietly awaiting the completion of my ablutions and, though I was skimpily towel-clad and struggling to retain my modesty, they led me directly to the table.

Spread before me was a great feast of
, papad
, fresh
, crispy
and curd. I assumed we were all to eat together, but they impressed that this gastronomic prodigality was for me alone. The gathered kin were merely onlookers, a position which, by their delighted smiles and enthusiastic nods at my every mouthful, they seemed to find most satisfying.

I ate heartily. The merest suggestion of an empty space on my plate, and a host of female hands lifted spoons and bowls to pile high new, spicy servings, despite my protestations. When I could eat no more, they presented me with a harvest festival of village-grown bananas, chicoos, guavas and mangoes.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Crows
13.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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